Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

Dragon and phoenix are commonly seen motifs in Chinese visual culture. Tiger, qilin and tortoise, at the same time, are favoured creatures symbolic for auspice. But when the motifs of the above five beasts are combined together, they have more meanings than they do individually. Here is what Dr Yibin Ni has to say about this motif combination.

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…

Congratulations to Dr Yibin Ni for his new findings on the Ming Potter Wu Wei and his beautiful porcelain artworks that have been collected around the world yet not properly identified. Dr Ni’s findings have contributed greatly in identifying the age and authenticity of the Chinese ceramics.

What is the value of deciphering pictorial scenes on traditional Chinese artworks? What is the importance in identifying correct figures and story scenes on antiques? Here is the editor’s conversation with Dr Yibin Ni, an internationally renowned researcher on Chinese iconography.

The ‘five supernatural beasts’ include the dragon, the phoenix, the tiger, the qilin and the tortoise. This notion was found to be first mentioned by Du Yu 杜预 (222–285), a third-century Confucian scholar. He annotated the ancient Chinese chronicle Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋 Chunqiu) with The Commentary of Zuo (左传 Zuo zhuan), a collection of historical events ranging from 722 to 468 BCE. In his preface to his new book (杜预《春秋左氏传》序), Du Yu noted, ‘The “Five Supernatural Beasts (五灵 wu ling)” including the qilin unicorn and the feng phoenix are good omens for the king and the powerful (麒凤五灵,王者之嘉瑞也)’.

Kong Yingda (孔颖达 574–648), a later commentator of Du Yu’s book, matched each member of this group to Wuxing (五行), or a fivefold conceptual scheme in Chinese philosophy, and five directions (including the starting point: the middle), following the Han-dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) tradition: long-dragon for the east and wood, feng-phoenix for the south and fire, qilin for the middle and earth, white tiger for the west and metal, and divine tortoise for the north and water.

Kong Yingda’s book, Correct Meaning of The Commentary of Zuo (左传正义 Zuo zhuan zhengyi) was adopted as the standard textbook for the civil-service examinations in China for nearly a millennium and remained to be the basis for all following scholarly commentaries of the classic Spring and Autumn Annals and The Commentary of Zuo. The conventional notion of the ‘Five Supernatural Beasts’ mentioned in his book thus remained to be influential because of the authority of Du Yu’s book among the Chinese literati.

image identification and literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

Read Dr Ni’s blog here to see how this theme was misinterpreted in contemporary books.

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.

Father’s Day was set up to honour fatherhood and secure paternal bonds. One very potent motif in the repertoire of traditional Chinese pictorial culture in this regard is the image of a magnificent brawny dragon facing a smaller young dragon in the background of cloud and waves. It symbolises the passing of knowledge and experience from one generation to another, which shows how the society and dominant ideology treasure the paternal advice.

The fifth creature of the Chinese zodiac, the long dragon is one of the most complex and multilayered of all Chinese symbols. Its ferocious energy binds together all the phenomena of nature: bringing benevolent rain, but also typhoons; shaping the landscape, and causing earthquakes. One of the guardian creatures of the cardinal directions, the long dragon stands in the east, the source of the sun, spring rain and fertility.

Long dragons appear in several different forms in Chinese mythology – those with scales are called jiao long 蛟龙, those with wings ying long 应龙, those with horns are qiu long 虬龙, and small-sized ones are chi long 螭龙. Despite their ferocity, these mighty beasts are also fundamentally beneficent, the most auspicious of all creatures and embodiments of masculine vigour and the concept of yang 阳. Because of these associations, the dragon, particularly one with five claws, was the symbol par excellence of the Chinese emperor, the Son of Heaven, and is often found embroidered on imperial robes. It is also the embodiment of the land – quite literally at times, for the features of the landscape were seen by some to be the features of an enormous dragon. This dragon would sleep under the earth during the winter, then ascend to the skies on the second day of the second month, bringing the first spring thunder and rain. For masters of feng shui, underground currents are the veins of this great dragon, and therefore ought not to be disturbed by human builders.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

Related motifs: 



Ordinary fish in the pond was hoped by ancient Chinese people to turn into a vigorous and powerful dragon flying in the sky. It can be traced back to as early as Song dynasty in Chinese literature for children or young people who studied hard and had high expectations from their elder generations. In old days, passing examinations with flying marks is one of the very few ways to achieve high official positions thus receive high income.

Related Motif:


Related Pun Picture:

May you remain pure, clean, and incorruptible 清白廉洁

Related blog:

The Importance of Deciphering Pictorial Scenes on Chinese Antiques

The feng phoenix, or feng huang 凤凰, which is often portrayed to resemble a peacock or golden pheasant, is the second of China’s Four Sacred Creatures (the others being the long dragon 龙, the qilin 麒麟 and the tortoise). Except in its mythic status, this creature is not related to the fabulous fire-born bird of Mediterranean and Near Eastern mythology. However, the feng phoenix is linked with heat, since it is the guardian of the south, and therefore a symbol of the sun, summer warmth and harvest.

The Chinese phoenix is sometimes interpreted as a male (yang) animal, but when accompanying the (male) dragon it represents a wife, and pictures of a dragon and phoenix together symbolise marital bliss. As the imperial dragon was a symbol for the emperor, the phoenix was the particular emblem of the empress, and a woman on her wedding day might wear a dress adorned with the phoenix to show that she was ‘empress for the day’.

In Chinese literature, the body of the phoenix is sometimes said to represent the Five Good Qualities: virtue (the bird’s head); humanity (the breast); reliability (the stomach); duty (the wings); and proper ritual conduct (the back). Like the dragon, the phoenix has important imperial associations. It was said to appear only during the reign of good, just emperors; and, unsurprisingly, artists and poets commonly flattered their imperial masters by declaring that a phoenix had been spotted on their land. Confucius, on the other hand, in his day bemoaned the absence of the phoenix and other auspicious celestial signs.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni