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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

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.

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.

Dragon is an imaginary creature from ancient China which was believed to be agile, powerful and authoritative, and thus is a symbol of imperial status in Chinese culture.

 

Related motif: Phoenix

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:

Goldfish 

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

Phoenix, as an imaginary creature in Chinese culture, has been esteemed as the queen of all kinds of birds. When coupled with the image of dragon in Chinese artworks, it symbolises royal power. Later on, the use of dragon and phoenix has been extended to refer husband-and-wife, or boy-and-girl.