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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.

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.

The following article is a discussion of the substitution of a mythical beast for a horse as Grand Duke Jiang’s mount on three classic porcelain vases adorned with the same story scene of ‘Bo Yi and Shu Qi Trying to Stop the Mighty Zhou Army’. It focuses on the origin and evolution of the two disparate but homophonic expressions ‘Sibuxiang’ in late imperial China and clarifies the terminological confusion in the contemporary world.

Through analysing a famous theme that depicts Bo Yi and Shu Qi Stopping the Zhou Army, Dr Yibin Ni has compared a number of porcelain vessels from Ming and Qing dynasties, and demonstrated his unique insight which can facilitate the correct dating of Chinese antiques.

Dr Yibin Ni has discussed the differences of symbolic meanings of lily between Western and Chinese cultures in his unique research, bringing new insight into pictorial art.

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…

Have you ever seen such an image and wondered why a young man is holding a shoe and kneeling down in front of an old man? Is there any historical event relating to the shoe and such scene? Read on to see how Dr Yibin Ni deciphers the figures and stories for you.

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.

Literature:

  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

Bo Yi (or Boyi, 伯夷) and Shu Qi (or Shuqi, 叔齐) were sons of the ruler of Guzhu (孤竹), a vassal state of the Shang dynasty (商朝, 16th-11th cent. BCE). As the king was getting old, he wanted Shu Qi, his youngest son, to inherit his throne. However, when the father died, Shu Qi asked Bo Yi to take over the throne because he thought Bo Yi was the eldest brother and rightly deserved the position. Bo Yi declined the offer, saying that their father’s wishes should not be altered and then he left the country. Shu Qi followed and left the country, too. With their absence, another brother of theirs was enthroned.

While wandering along the coast of the North Sea, the two brothers heard that another vassal of Shang, the Zhou state, was an ideal place for a peaceful and quiet retired life and they set off to go there. When they arrived, the old ruler, Count of the Zhou had just passed away and his son enthroned himself as King Wu (武王) and posthumously gave his father the title of King Wen (文王). King Wu believed that he was the next person to have the mandate from Heaven to rule the Shang territories, instead of just being the Count of Zhou under the Shang.

With the veteran strategist the Grand Duke Jiang Ziya (姜子牙, or Jiang Taigong 姜太公), King Wu was launching a military campaign to overthrow the Shang house, when the two brothers appeared in the middle of the road. They tried to stop King Wu’s army and admonished him, ‘Can it be called observing filial piety when one launches a military campaign before one has properly buried one’s diseased father? Can it be called a gentleman’s proper behaviour when a subject is to assassinate his lord?’ King Wu’s entourage then tried to kill the two but Grand Duke Jiang stopped them, saying, ‘They are righteous people.’ Then Mr Jiang helped the two move out of the way and the army marched on.

The story scene depicted on the famille verte Kangxi vase in the previous Jie Rui Tang Collection was first unveiled by Dr Yibin Ni. He has since published two more articles discussing the figural composition in such theme and Jiang Ziya’s riding painted on the antique porcelain vases.

References:

  1. 倪亦斌:《武王子牙举旗伐商 伯夷叔齐叩马阻兵》,《读者欣赏》,兰州:读者出版传媒股份有限公司,2016-07,60-65 页
  2. Jeffrey P. Stamen and Cynthia Volk with Yibin Ni (2017), A Culture Revealed: Kangxi-Era Chinese Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection 文采卓然:潔蕊堂藏康熙盛世瓷, Jieruitang Publishing, Bruges, pp. 22-25.

When swastika is combined with the Chinese character shou 寿 (meaning long life) and the image of the bat, whose pronunciation puns on the Chinese word fu 福 for ‘luck’ or ‘good fortune’, the composition is used to express good wishes of the highest order on the receiver’s life span and good fortune, such as ‘May you have inexhaustible good fortune and longevity (万福万寿)’ or, more commonly, May you enjoy long life and always be blessed by good fortune (福寿万年)’. Art works adorned with this design are apt birthday presents for revered personages up to kings and emperors.

The Chinese deeply respect the elderly and consider a long existence – ideally accompanied by health and happiness – to be one of the five most important blessings (wufu 五福) in a person’s life, which were believed by the ancients and recorded in the Book of Documents 书经 in the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046 – 256 BCE) more than two millennia ago. The other four are fu 富 (wealth), kangning 康寧 (wellbeing and peace), yuhaode 攸好德 (love of virtue), and kaozhongming 考終命 (natural death). The character shou 寿 for ‘longevity’, therefore, often appears on gifts and domestic decoration as an artistic design.

The earliest form of the character shou 寿 for ‘longevity’ is found on bronze vessels, which combines two main elements: a meaning radical and a phonetic radical. On the top and right-hand side is a form that resembles an old man with long hair leaning on a walking stick. Beneath that is a phonetic element sounding somewhat like ‘chou (畴)’, which is a character by itself that means ‘ploughed fields with ridge’.

As one of the five blessings, the ideal of ‘longevity’ permeates the whole realm of Chinese artistic creation. One format favoured by artists is to present numerous versions of the shou character on one piece of artwork, usually up to one hundred. People believe the repetition of the presentation of the concept would greatly increase its efficacy. The readers are welcome to explore the related fascinating symbols and designs with the help of our comprehensive search functions.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

Related motifs:

Recommended blog:

Why does peach symbolise longevity and immortality in traditional Chinese culture?

The peach fruit usually symbolises longevity or immortality in Chinese pictorial art. The origin of this idea started from legends dating back to the third century. Read Dr Yibin Ni‘s research article for related literatures and legendary stories from ancient China.

As a symbol of longevity, the peach fruit is often paired with the other potent symbols with similar meaning, such as the crane, the lingzhi (灵芝 fungus), and the shou 寿 character for longevity’, and is also associated with legendary immortals such as the monkey or the Monkey King (Sun Wukong 孙悟空), the Old Man of the South Pole (南极仙翁), also known as the Star God of Longevity (寿星), and Dongfang Shuo (东方朔), whose prominent deeds include stealing divine peaches from the Queen Mother’s peach garden.

Related topics:

The Birthday Party of the Queen Mother of the West 西王母寿宴

Eight Daoist Immortals 八仙

May you enjoy long life and always be blessed by good fortune 福寿万年

When the Baron of the Zhou vassal state (周西伯) did a divination with oracle bones for his imminent hunting trip, the message came: ‘You will not catch a small bear or a large bear, but a teacher will be presented to you by the divine power.’ After bathing and fasting for three days, the baron arrived at the River Wei, he saw an elderly man sitting on a grassy mat with a fishing rod beside him at the bank. The baron respectfully bowed to him and politely asked him to be his mentor. He invited the man to sit in his vehicle on the way back to the capital. This elderly man was Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), the famous sage strategist in ancient China. Later, when the baron passed away, his son, who posthumously bestowed his father the title of King Wen (文王), called himself King Wu (武王). With the able assistance of Jiang, who was then respectfully called Jiang Taigong (姜太公), King Wu launched a military campaign to overthrow the ruling Shang house (商, ca. 1600 BCE-1046 BCE) and established the new Zhou dynasty (1046 BCE-256 BCE), which lasted about eight hundred years.

Here is another story about Jiang Ziya on his assistance to King Wu in launching a military campaign to overthrow the Shang house. Dr Yibin Ni also wrote an article on the identification of Jiang’s famous yet mysterious ride.

References:

  1. 倪亦斌:《子牙垂钓遇文王 明君得辅破殷商》,《读者欣赏》,兰州:读者出版传媒股份有限公司,2016-05,58-63 页
  2. Jeffrey P. Stamen and Cynthia Volk with Yibin Ni (2017), A Culture Revealed: Kangxi-Era Chinese Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection 文采卓然:潔蕊堂藏康熙盛世瓷, Jieruitang Publishing, Bruges, pp. 92-93.

After Zhang Liang (张良, d. 189 BCE) failed to assassinate the first emperor of China, he changed his name and went into hiding. One day, he ran into Lord Yellowstone (黄石公), a guru strategist by the Yi Bridge (圯桥). The old man could see Zhang’s great potential but he wanted to put him through a series of tests before taking him as his pupil.

Lord Yellowstone deliberately dropped his shoe down the embankment and asked Zhang to fetch it and put it back onto his foot. Stomaching his resentment, Zhang meekly did what he was told to do. And then, Lord Yellowstone twice made early-morning appointments with him but cancelled them because Zhang arrived later than he did. The third time Zhang arrived at midnight way ahead of the designated time and his humility and perseverance impressed the old man, who then passed on to him the ancient wisdoms and art of war. Later, Zhang helped the founder of the Han dynasty, Liu Bang (刘邦, d. 195 BCE), with the invincible strategies and became one of Liu’s three top lieutenants.

images on porcelain: first deciphered by Yibin Ni

More stories about Zhang Liang:

Why is the scene of a man holding a shoe popular in Chinese antique artworks?