Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

Chinese people deeply respect the elderly and traditionally consider a long existence to be one of the most important blessings in a person’s life. Here are many examples of how artists have combined a variety of longevity symbols to reinforce the potency of this concept.

Correctly identifying figures is crucial to deciphering an obscure story scene. Looking at this featured image, for example, some may think that the two figures in non-specific attires on a dragon and a phoenix are anonymous Daoist immortals. But Dr Yibin Ni would tell you the story otherwise…

More often than not, traditional Chinese motifs or symbols are not receiving their deserved attention, being given simplistic or inadequate labels and inaccurate explanations in our museums, catalogues, or even scholarly writing. The treatment of many pictorial representations of the thousand-year-old literary anecdote ‘A bamboo counter is being added to the house in the sea (海屋添筹 hai wu tian chou)’ is a case in point.

Have you ever been puzzled by the description of ‘figural paintings’ for Chinese porcelains listed by various museums and auction catalogues? In fact, many Chinese paintings with figures refer to ancient stories and have meanings behind the scenes. Here is an unusual story about an official and his pet crane.

Yang Shen (杨慎, 1488-1559), alias Sheng’an (升庵), is a literatus and poet in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). He recorded in Volume Ninety-Four of Sheng’an Additional Works a folklore anecdote: ‘In the northern dialect, there is no difference in sound between the he 合 for “coming together” and the he 鹤 for “crane”. There are people who painted six cranes and a Chinese cedar tree to form a pun rebus design meaning “liu he tong chun (六合同春), i.e. May the whole universe prosper in eternal spring”.’ (杨慎《升庵外集》卷九十四:“北之语合鹤迥然不分,故有绘六鹤及椿树为图者,取六合同春之义”. ) The Chinese phrase ‘liu he 六鹤’ for ‘six cranes’ puns on the phrase ‘liu he 六合’ for ‘six directions’, i.e., heaven, earth, north, south, east, and west, namely, ‘the universe’. The Chinese cedar or mahogany tree, i.e., toona sinensis, is called ‘chun 椿’ tree in Chinese and is used as a pun on ‘chun 春’ for ‘the spring season’.

Unfortunately, there are no examples of this ingenious ancient design passed down. However, there is a related pun rebus design extant on ancient porcelain and other handcrafted art works. This design consists of three key elements: deer, crane, and the wu tong 梧桐 tree, or Chinese parasol tree. In some Chinese dialects, the combination of the Chinese characters ‘lu 鹿’ and ‘he 鹤’ for ‘deer and crane’ makes a pun on ‘liu he 六合’ for ‘six directions’ or ‘the universe’. The image of the wu tong 梧桐 tree, or Chinese parasol tree in the design cues the concept of ‘tong chun 同春’, meaning ‘sharing the spring season’. The pun rebus design appears as early as in the Ming dynasty on a Longquan celadon garden seat. As a culturally cherished picture, it also appears on a porcelain bottle vase and a table screen both crafted in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

The diligent Japanese scholar Nozaki Nobuchika 野崎诚近 collected this design in his pioneering volume on Chinese pun rebus pictures 吉祥図案解題: 支那風俗の一研究. His illustration clearly shows the three key elements that form the pun rebus. However, in the title of this picture, he literally put down Chinese characters ‘lu 鹿’ for ‘deer’ and ‘he 鹤’ for ‘crane’, instead of the concept ‘liu he 六合’ for ‘six directions’ or ‘the universe’, to which the two creatures were meant to refer.

Luckily enough, a related Qing-dynasty New Year print with both a deer and a crane on it is still in existence. On top of the picture, the Chinese phrase “liu he tong chun (六合同春), i.e. May the whole universe prosper in eternal spring” is printed verbatim. Although the careless print maker failed to include the wu tong 梧桐 tree, or Chinese parasol tree, in the design, it is evident that this was a popular auspicious theme in traditional China.

literature research: by Dr Yibin Ni

Duke Mu of the Qin State (秦穆公, died 621 BCE) was one of the so-called Five Hegemons (五霸 wuba) in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 476 BCE) (春秋 chunqiu). He had a daughter named ‘Nongyu (弄玉, meaning Playing Jade)’, who was a talented musician excelling at playing the sheng (笙 mouthorgan). Nongyu only wanted to marry her musical match so a recluse genius xiao (箫 flute) player, Xiao Shi (萧史), was discovered and brought to the duke.

The duke was not keen on Xiao Shi at first when he learned that the young man’s musical instrument was different from his daughter’s. However, Nongyu, who was sitting behind the screen listening to the audience, asked Xiao Shi to play a piece on his flute. Xiao did.

As soon as the first piece ended, a gust of fresh air blew in. When the tune resumed, gold-laced rosy clouds gathered from the four directions in the sky. During the third performance, a couple of white cranes danced in front of the duke’s terrace and peacocks flew in! Experiencing the magic spectacle, the duke was pleasantly amazed and his daughter cried with joy, ‘This is my man!’ It happened to be the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the traditional calendar and was supposed to be the lucky day of their marriage. They had their wedding on that very night.

The couple lived happily together for years while Xiao Shi taught his wife to imitate the singing of phoenixes on her musical instrument. Whenever they played together on the high pavilion terrace named ‘Phoenix Terrace’ specially built for them, phoenixes would flock around them. One day, the couple rode on the divine birds ascending to heaven.

The story scene depicted on the Kangxi plate in the collection of the British Museum and on the Kangxi vase in the collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY was first deciphered by Dr Yibin Ni. More detailed discussion as well as parody of this scene is available here.

In this scene, there are several Chinese longevity symbols such as the crane, the generic immortal, the pine tree, and the deer, etc. However, the proper meaning of this particular scene is not a simple assemblage of individual symbols. It is a snapshot of a coherent narrative that has been well-loved and widely consumed in the visual oeuvre that represents the Chinese longevity ideal.

The literary origin of the scene can be traced back to an anecdote collected in Notes by Dongpo (东坡志林), compiled by a prominent man of letters of the Song dynasty, Su Shi (苏轼, 1037-1101). During one chance meeting of three geriatric men, the topic of age was broached. Each one of them tried their best to exaggerate his own great age. The second speaker famously boasted, ‘After every cycle of the sea drying up and becoming mulberry fields, I put a strip of bamboo in my house as a counter and now the strips have already filled ten of the rooms.’ Later, this dramatic detail evolved into a classic allusion to longevity, a popular dream cherished by all people in China. Pictorial representations of this dramatic moment were invented and elaborated into different versions to adorn birthday presents of all kinds.

Initially, the title of the scene is, literally: ‘A bamboo counter is being added to the house in the sea (海屋添筹 hai wu tian chou)’. The first two characters of the phrase resulted from compressing the paragraph spoken by the second speaker in the story into an abbreviation consisting of the first and the last characters 海屋 hai wu (‘海水变桑田时, 吾辄下一筹, 尔来吾筹已满十间屋’). The coined two-character phrase ‘海屋 hai wu’ now means a ‘pavilion at sea’, serving as the first two characters in the set phrase. The rest two characters of the phrase ‘添筹 tianchou’ denotes the action (of a crane) adding a bamboo strip as a counter’. Thus, the four-character phrase alludes to the second speaker’s words in the original story.

During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), pun rebus designs became more and more popular in folk decorative arts. The last character of the phrase ‘筹 chou’ for ‘bamboo strip counter’, acquired a pun on ‘寿 shou’, the Chinese character for ‘longevity’. Then, the phrase virtually conveys the meaning of a birthday wish: ‘May the length of your life be eternally prolonged (海屋添寿 hai wu tian shou)’. One of the earliest mentions of this pun phrase in literature can be found in Section 22 in the second part of the book Tao Ya (匋雅), or ‘Notes of Chinese Best Pottery and Porcelain’, compiled by Chen Liu (陈浏) and published in 1910.

This research article is written by Dr Yibin Ni.


  1. Jeffrey P. Stamen and Cynthia Volk with Yibin Ni, A Culture Revealed: Kangxi-Era Chinese Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection: Jieruitang Publishing, Bruges, 2017, p. 84-85.
  2. 倪亦斌:《仙鹤寿桃祝寿碗 暗藏海屋添筹图》,《读者欣赏》,兰州:读者出版传媒股份有限公司,2018-01,110-117 页

According to the oldest dictionary in China, Shuowen jiezi 说文解字 (Explanations of Simple Graphs and Analyses of Composite Graphs), the earliest version of the character for ‘crane’ is a composite graph consisting of a pictograph for a bird, the present-day character niao 鸟, at the right, with feet and a feathered tail, along with a sound element at the left indicating how the character should be pronounced at that time.

With the exception of the magical bird fenghuang (凤凰, phoenix), roughly translated into English as ‘phoenix’, the red-crowned white crane is the most auspicious of all birds in China and a widely revered creature in popular religion, mythology and among literati.

In the chapter entitled ‘Discourse on Forests’ 说林训 of The Huainanzi 淮南子 (The Discourses of the Huainan Masters), a book containing some debates held in the court of Prince of Huainan (179 – 122BCE) before 139 BCE, the crane’s life is said to be ‘up to 1,000 years, during which it can fly freely to its heart’s content.’ As one of the most common symbols of longevity in China, the bird is often depicted in the company of other symbols of great age, such as the shou 寿 character, the peach 桃, the pine tree 松, the tortoise 龟, the lingzhi fungus 灵芝, garden rock 寿石, the emblem of the Eight Daoist Immortals 暗八仙, or the Longevity God of the South Pole 南极仙翁, to enhance their potency. The high-soaring crane often serves as the mount of immortals and fairies and is also supposed to lift those mortals who have just attained immortality up to heaven. Naturally, formal Daoists’ gowns bear flying cranes as a decorative motif and the combination of cranes and the Eight Trigrams known in Chinese as bagua 八卦 often adorn Daoist ceremonial utensils.

The crane’s qualities of sacredness and gentlemanliness acquired their ultimate recognition when, during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 – 1911), the most senior grade of imperial civil servants – the highest-flying, oldest, wisest, and most dutiful ‘sons’ of their imperial ‘father’, the emperor – wore a white crane rank badge or mandarin square in front of their chest.

Artists often confine the crane within a circle since the roundness indicates ‘perfection’, resulting in a frequently encountered ‘crane medallion’ design, known in Chinese as ‘tuanhe wen 团鹤纹’.

Lack of knowledge in a specific culture would lead to a slip of putting the boot on the wrong leg, as is the case of identifying the longevity icon crane, in the context of symbols of the similar kind such as peaches and the lingzhi fungi, as a ‘stylized pelican’, which very rarely features in Chinese pictorial tradition.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

Zhao Bian (赵抃, 1008-84) was held in high esteem all his life and posthumously because of his incorruptibility and sound statesmanship during his entire career. His prize possessions were legendarily well-known: a qin zither and two pets, a crane and a tortoise. They were inseparable from him wherever he was posted.

Some time during the years between 1064 and 1068, Zhao Bian was nominated as governor of Chengdu, which was a prosperous town contaminated by extravagant upper echelons. Zhao went there alone with his musical instrument and two pets without an entourage. In time, his good leadership made a name for himself and people of neighbouring areas moved to central Sichuan to seek better opportunities.

Once he had an audience with the emperor in court, the emperor asked Zhao, ‘Did you really go to Sichuan alone with only a qin zither and a crane as they say?’ Zhao modestly kowtowed to thank the emperor for his recognition.

Up till today, the saying ‘one qin zither and one crane (一琴一鹤)’ has been used to praise a virtuous official.

Read Dr Yibin Ni’s research article here for more interesting discussion.