Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

In Chinese culture, the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival is related to the legendary fairy Chang E, the Moon Goddess. We often see a hare, her loyal companion, and an osmanthus tree in the picture with her against a background of the Moon Palace. However, why does Chang E often hold an osmanthus sprig, and what does she have to do with scholars attending civil-service examinations? Let’s invite Dr Yibin Ni to explain to you with his interesting literary research findings.

Have you ever wondered why images of an old scholarly man riding a buffalo are often depicted on Chinese antiques? What is so special about this man who looks highly respected and followed by yet still sitting on a buffalo’s back? We hereby invite art historian Dr Yibin Ni to solve the mystery…

This blog is modified from Dr Yibin Ni’s research work first published on Antiques and Fine Art Magazine. The purpose is to appreciate how Chinese porcelain painters from ancient times passed on classical stories and illustrated traditional morals through their craftworks.

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.

Young scholar Zhang Junrui (张君瑞, also called Zhang Sheng 张生) is the male protagonist in the famous ancient Chinese play, Romance of the Western Chamber (西厢记 Xixiang ji, alternative translation is The Story of the Western Wing). He was commonly referred to as Scholar Zhang. The son of a cabinet minister of the court, he suffered the tragedy of losing both parents. This left him with only his sword and his books for solace and entertainment. Thus, he decided to sit for civil-service examinations. In Episode 2 of the play, he set off on horseback to the capital with his pageboy. The scene (in fig. 9 & 11) depicts the moment when they approached the district of Pudong on the west bank of the Yellow River, in the territory of the Hezhong Prefecture (张生至蒲东).

image identification and literature research: by Dr Yibin Ni 

Other episodes in the Romance of the Western Chamber:

Consummation of love from Western Chamber 月下佳期

Yingying Listening to the Qin Zither Playing 莺莺听琴

Yingying receiving good news delivered by the pageboy 泥金报捷

The Ming-dynasty play The Story of the Blue Robe (青袍记 Qingpao ji, also called《梁氏父子传胪记》) tells the story of how Lv Dongbin (吕洞宾 Lü Dongbin or 吕纯阳), one of the Eight Daoist Immortals (八仙 baxian), survived a catastrophe with the help of Liang Hao 梁灏 and repaid him by ensuring him to be able to enjoy the highest academic title, longevity, and a flourishing extended family.

A scholar named Liang Hao in Song dynasty was the human form taken by the God of Literacy when he was disgraced to be sent to the human world. Once the Thunder God and Lightning Goddess were ordered to cleanse the earth with seven days of thunderstorm. This was the ordeal which Lv Dongbin, Liu Hai 刘海, Iron-Crutch Li 铁拐李, Han Shan 寒山, and Shi De 拾得 were all predestined to go through. Liang Hao helped Lv Dongbin by letting him hide in his fingernail as a grain. After Lv Dongbin survived the disaster, he decided to repay Liang Hao by leaving him with his good wishes for a successful career, longevity, and many successful descendants.

The next day, Liang Hao invited his three friends over and dined and wined them on a boat. Towards the evening, two of the friends said that they heard that there was a spirit in the Pavilion of Looking at Immortals (望仙楼) and whoever spent a night there would come under its spell. They dared Liang Hao to spend the night there for a reward of a tael of silver. Liang Hao took up the challenge and stayed in the pavilion reading by a lamp. Lv Dongbin thought that this was an opportunity and mobilised a willow-tree spirit (柳树精 liushu jing) to carry a girl to Liang to be his future wife. Since the girl was taken from her bed and arrived naked, Liang Hao had to wrap her in his blue robe, hence the title of the play. Liang Hao sent the girl to spend the night with his mother and the following day the girl’s parents were informed of the event and happily married their daughter to Liang Hao.

image identification and literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

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.

Ancient literature shows that Laozi (Lao Tzu, 老子) served as the Keeper of the Imperial Archives of the Eastern Zhou court (东周, 770 – 258BCE). He must have greatly benefited from the perk of the job – the easy access to the best stock of classics written on bamboo slips at the time and became so learned that even Confucius (孔子, 551 – 479BCE), the paragon of the Chinese sages, consulted him several times on matters concerning rituals of mourning and funeral and spoke very highly of him.

The legendary meeting between Laozi and Confucius was first pictorially presented during the Eastern Han period (东汉, 25 – 220CE), in which the two sages were usually bowing to each other with the precocious boy prodigy Xiang Tuo (项橐) standing between them. However, this early simple characterisation of the famous meeting was taken over by a new composition of the two literary giants surrounded by their own pupils and servants in late imperial China. One surviving early example attributed to the Yuan painter Shi Gang (史杠, active around 1352) staged the conference among huge jumbles of rocks in an austere landscape.

See images of Laozi on the signature buffalo here and more discussion about pictorial parody of Laozi riding an ox in this blog.

Laozi (Lao Tzu 老子) is a great ancient Chinese thinker, to whom a five-thousand-character book ‘Dao de jing 道德经’, or The Scripture of the Way and Virtue, has been attributed. He is regarded as the founder of philosophical Daoism (Taoism), daojia 道家, because of his profound insights to life and the world, and a supreme deity in religious Daoism (Taoism), daojiao 道教, and popular Chinese religious cults.

Legend goes that Laozi grew unhappy about the moral decay and decline of the society and decided to leave for the unsettled frontier in the west. A noble lie says that Yinxi (尹喜), the official in charge of Han’gu Pass (函谷关) on the border saw some purple clouds flying towards his direction, and then euphorically expected and welcomed the renowned master’s arrival. Yinxi managed to persuade the master to write down his wisdom before he began his new life as a hermit. The brief pamphlet, also named after its author as ‘Laozi’, enjoyed a long-lasting appeal, resulting in more than seven hundred commentaries devoted to it by men of letters throughout the long history of China.

See more images of Laozi on the signature buffalo here and discussion about pictorial parody of Laozi riding an ox in this blog.

Laozi (Lao Tzu 老子), literally ‘old teacher or master’, is the well-known name for a great ancient Chinese thinker, to whom a five-thousand-character book ‘Dao de jing 道德经’, or The Scripture of the Way and Virtue, has been attributed. He is regarded as the founder of philosophical Daoism (Taoism), daojia 道家, because of his profound insights to life and the world, and a supreme deity in religious Daoism (Taoism), daojiao 道教, and popular Chinese religious cults.

The earliest images of the legendary figure can be traced back to the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) when he was typically portrayed as a geriatric riding on the signature buffalo, as are found on two hanging scrolls, one by the Zhe-school painter Zhang Lu 张路 (ca. 1464 – 1538) and the other spuriously attributed to Chao Buzhi 晁补之 (1053 – 1110), a Song-dynasty literary man. In the former, Laozi is holding a scroll in his right hand, presumably representing his seminal work. In the latter, Laozi is depicted as a stout character, which later became Laozi’s more formal persona.

Read more about Laozi’s famous events here.

‘Sima Xiangru Inscribing on the Bridge Gateway (相如题桥)’ was a popular theme in theatre from at least the Song (960-1279) through to the Qing (1644-1911) dynasty. Sima Xiangru (司马相如) was a Western Han (202 BCE – 8 CE) scholar unsuccessful in making a career in civil services. However, Wang Ji, the magistrate of Linqiong county, was impressed by his dazzling talents and invited him to live in his house as a guest.

One day, a rich local businessman, Zhuo Wangsun (卓王孙), held a house party for Wang and Sima, at which Sima played the qin zither. Zhuo’s recently-widowed daughter, Wenjun (文君), heard the music and was fascinated by Sima’s performance as well as his genteel manner and bearing. The two fell in love and she eloped with him. Mortified, Zhuo Wangsun refused to support the couple and the poverty-stricken lovers had to earn their living by running a wine-shop by the roadside.

One autumn day, encouraged by his wife, Sima made up his mind to leave home to seek his fortune in the capital, Chang’an. Wenjun went to see him off at the Bridge of ‘Ascending to the Realm of Immortals’ (昇仙桥) on the outskirts. When he made farewell to his wife, Sima vowed that he would not cross the bridge again unless he did so riding in a grand carriage drawn by four horses.

Sure enough, his ambition was realised in a few years’ time and he enjoyed a triumphant home-coming ceremony given by the local officials. The anecdote has encouraged generations of young men leaving hometown to seek fortunes in the big world!

Read more about the story in Dr Yibin Ni‘s blog here.

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 osmanthus tree prominent in the Moon Palace came to be a symbol for elite talents in the Jin dynasty 晋朝 (265-420). In around Tang dynasty (618-907), ‘plucking a sprig of osmanthus blossom’ became a metaphor for ‘becoming a top contestant who passes the civil-service examinations with flying colours’. Since there was a famous osmanthus tree in the Moon Palace and Chang’e the Moon Goddess (嫦娥) was the perfectly presentable permanent resident there, she gradually evolved into the role of the osmanthus sprig giver. Just like the Greek goddess Nike who rewarded winning warriors with a wreath of laurel leaves, Chang’e with a small branch of osmanthus flowers symbolised academic success in imperial China. Thus, art works bearing images of Chang’e bestowing a sprig of osmanthus blossom to scholars have become suitable presents for those who sit for exams ever since.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni

Related research article:

The legend of Chang’e the Moon Goddess and her bestowing osmanthus blossom to scholars

Osmanthus blossoms in autumn and is conventionally regarded as the flower of the eighth month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar. Its sweet scent is discreet, distinctive and unforgettable, and has a legendary position in Chinese poetry and art. It is associated with the moon because ancient Chinese wanted to explain the temporal change of the shadow on its surface and it was recorded in the ninth century during the Tang dynasty that a Daoist disciple named Wu Gang (吴刚) did not obey his master’s order and, as a punishment, was sent to the moon to chop the huge osmanthus tree grown there. As the tree had self-healing ability, Wu Gang’s was a Sisyphean task. Also, via a third-century literary allusion of the Jin dynasty, ‘plucking a branch of osmanthus blossom (折桂)’ became a metaphor for ‘being a top contestant in examinations’.

Book is a symbol of education or examinations.

Peony is a symbol of wealth and prestige.

The motif combination of book and peony sends a message to the receiver ‘You may become rich by receiving good education!’


Related Pun Picture:                                 

May you couple live a harmonious life and enjoy prestige 并蒂双贵


Related motif:

Peony 牡丹花

The Chinese phrase ‘Gong ming 功名’ for ‘scholarly honour or official rank’ is a pun on two Chinese characters ‘gong 公’ and ‘ming 鸣’.

Gong 公’ from ‘gong ji 公鸡’, the Chinese name for ‘rooster’, makes pun on the Chinese word ‘gong 功’; and ‘ming 鸣’, which is the Chinese word for ‘cock’s crowing’, is a pun on ‘ming 名’.

Peony has a nickname in Chinese as ‘fu gui hua 富贵花’, literally, the ‘flower of wealth and prestige’.

Thus, the combination of roosters and peony flowers in one picture in Chinese people’s eyes sends the message of wishing someone do well in civil-service examinations, and go on to enjoy a rich and prestigious life.

The design may also be referred to as fu gui you qi 富贵有期’.


Related motifs:

Rooster 公鸡

Peony 富贵花

One egret (鹭鸶, similar shape as heron), which can be referred to in Chinese as ‘一鹭 yi lu’, makes a pun (i.e. a homophone) on the phrase ‘一路 yi lu’, for ‘all the way’. The lotus pod ‘莲窠 lian ke’, is a pun on ‘连科 lian ke’, which means ‘to pass examinations successively’. Thus, the combination of an egret and lotus pods can be created to represent the auspicious saying ‘May you come out first in the three-level civil-service examinations’!

The same picture may be referred to as yi lu qing lian 一路清廉.


Related Pun Picture: 

You may become rich by receiving good education 读书出富贵

Related Motif: 

Lotus (Lian Hua) 莲花