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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

‘福 fu’, a Chinese character bearing an auspicious meaning of ‘good fortune’, has been used often in Chinese decorative arts. Dr Yibin Ni will tell you some interesting stories related to this character and how the intended meaning is represented in various art forms.

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.

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

The earliest pictograph of the character 鹿 lu for ‘deer’ is found on a tortoise plastron burnt to crack for divination. Though it is by no means anatomically accurate, the pictograph exhibits the most clearly recognisable characteristics of the animal. It vividly imitates the four legs, slender head, lean body, and prominent antlers. Different scripts of the same word show how the antlers and legs have been evolving to the modern-day character.

The Piya (埤雅), a Chinese dictionary compiled by the Song-Dynasty scholar Lu Dian (陆佃, 1042-1102) with a preface dated 1125 contains a quotation which says ‘The ancients regarded deer as divine animals’. They were reputed to be able to live for a very long time and, hence, like cranes and tortoises, they are symbols of longevity. Deer usually appears as a companion of the Star God of Longevity (寿星, shouxing), who is an old man with a long white beard and a bulging forehead. For this reason, their velvet antlers are a highly valued ingredient in many preparations of traditional Chinese medicine, and are reported to have the power to prolong life, aid virility and alleviate various ailments.

Deer came to represent wealth because the Chinese word 鹿 lu for ‘deer’ is a homophone of 禄 lu for ‘official income’ or ‘emolument’. A blue and white dish painted with a deer bears a four-character inscription which says ‘禄在其中 (Here is your official emoluments)’, explicitly link the deer to emoluments. A gift of an image showing a servant presenting a deer on a tray is a way of wishing the recipient advancement in officialdom and a rise in his pay.

Related Puns and Symbols:

May you have an ample official income 百禄

May you be created a peer and earn a handsome official income 爵禄封侯

Gourd 葫芦