Blogs

Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

The story scene comes from a marvel play Legend of the Jade Hairpin, which is not to be confused with the scene in Romance of the Western Chamber. Read the following article to find out details of the story and how this figural scene is depicted.

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.

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.

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…

On the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar Chinese year, young men and women will celebrate their traditional ‘Valentine’s Day’, Qixi Festival (七夕节). The custom can be traced back to an ancient story.

Congratulations on art historian Dr Yibin Ni’s new research into a rare story scene in Chinese pictorial art, which may have puzzled contemporary museum curators and porcelain collectors. Dr Ni has traced the art historical context in which this rare pictorial scene of The Wife of the Bow Maker in the State of Jin was created and provided us with historical evidence to identify and illuminate its unique composition. His work on this previously mysterious story scene has undoubtedly contributed to the treasure trove of Chinese iconography.

Pictorial artworks with figural scenes in traditional China often have historical and cultural significance and are not to be mistaken for daily life genre painting. Here is an example and Dr Yibin Ni will explain to you the hidden meaning in the scene of Seasoning the Stew with Sour Prunes.

The Peony Pavilion is a famous play written by Tang Xianzu in Ming Dynasty. There are very few figural paintings depicting this play on Kangxi famille verte porcelain. Dr Yibin Ni first identified the figures and the scene on a porcelain dish in the V&A Museum at the turn of the millennium, and now is discussing a couple of incorrect details in the description of the scene in their online catalogue.

On Duanwu Festival, Chinese people have a variety of practices, such as drinking rice wine sprayed with realgar powder and hanging images of the Heavenly Master on the lintel. Where did this tradition come from and how were these practices depicted on various artefacts? Here are Dr Yibin Ni’s explanations.

This is a republication of Dr Yibin Ni’s article written in Chinese “明末清初瓷器上张生的‘凝视’和莺莺的挑战”(Gaze from Scholar Zhang and the response from Lady Cui Yingying: a discussion of figural depiction on porcelains from Late Ming to Early Qing dynasty).

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.

European descriptions of porcelain paintings that have story scenes tend to describe ‘figures and surroundings’, rather than identifying them. Thus, a large part of those beautiful stories intended by pot painters was lost in the description. Here are some examples…

Have you wondered why the same story scenes were painted differently on Chinese artworks? How was it painted to present women falling in love on Chinese antique porcelains? Read on to see what Dr Yibin Ni has to say with his analysis.

Mr Henk B. Nieuwenhuys from the Netherlands is the first foreigner who has kindly donated his art collection to China. Here are short video clips from a documentary made for this special event, in which Dr Yibin Ni was invited to introduce Nieuwenhuys’ antique collection and the story depicted on the porcelain bottle.

Do you wonder why there is a goat drawing a carriage, rather than a horse, on traditional Chinese art pictures? Why are there so many people watching someone in a chariot? What is the story behind it? Here is what Dr Yibin Ni has to tell you.

This is an overview by Dr Yibin Ni on how the topic of ‘The Birthday Party of the Queen Mother of the West’ was depicted on Chinese artworks, from woodblock print during Ming dynasty to scroll painting and porcelains in Qing dynasty.

Legend of the Jade Hairpin (Yu Zan Ji 玉簪记) is a Ming-dynasty ‘marvel play’ which was the major drama genre of the time. The play, consisting of thirty-three scenes, was written by Gao Lian (高濂 fl. 1573-1581) around 1580 and remained to be a popular classic for the following three hundred years. It is a Shakespearean love story of a young couple who were betrothed at birth, torn apart by war, and unwittingly fell in love with each other at a nunnery.

The scene is a snapshot of Act 19, Consummation of Love after the Revelation of the Girl’s Love Poem. The lovesick young scholar Pan Bizheng 潘必正 accidentally discovered the love verse from Chen Miaochang 陈妙常, the female protagonist in the play, and she could no longer repress her love for him anymore.

In a coarsely produced version, the horsetail fly whisk, a traditional trademark of a Daoist nun, is missing from Miaochang’s hand. In more sophisticated versions of the same scene, there is an additional figure playing the role of ‘Peeping Tom’, hiding behind a tree or the curtain of the ‘Moon window’. He is Scholar Pan’s page boy, Ange 安哥, and an opportunist. He took the advantage of the situation and threatened the young couple that he would report their tryst if they didn’t address him as ‘Sir Ange’.

Acknowledgement: The story scene depicted on the porcelain ware displayed in this listing was first deciphered by Dr Yibin Ni. His article is published here for your reference.

This is Scene Five of Book Two of the Chinese classic popular drama Romance of the Western Chamber (西厢记 Xixiang ji).

At a family dinner party, Zhang Junrui’s (张君瑞, also called Scholar Zhang 张生) dream of marrying Yingying (莺莺) the love of his life was shattered by Yingying’s mother because he was a nobody with no respectable official’s position.

This drove him to thoughts of suicide. He tried to drown his sorrows in alcohol, and had to be supported by the maid Hongniang (红娘) to return to his own quarters. His desperation moved Hongniang. She suggested that he express his passion through a performance of the qin (琴) zither and she would arrange for Yingying to hear it on their way to their incense-burning ceremony in the evening.

When Yingying was led to pass Scholar Zhang’s quarters, Hongniang coughed to send Zhang a signal, in line with their secret prior arrangement. Zhang started to pour his heart out through the enchanting music that his deft fingers were playing. It did the trick: Yingying’s heart was melting!

image identification and story scene description by Dr Yibin Ni 

Other episodes in the Romance of the Western Chamber:

Scholar Zhang Embarking on His Journey to Sit for Civil-Service Examinations 张生赶考

Consummation of love from Western Chamber 月下佳期

Yingying receiving good news delivered by the pageboy 泥金报捷

This is a scene from a popular traditional play ‘A Set of Interlocking Stratagems (连环计)’.

The war lord Dong Zhuo (董卓, ? – 192 CE) became a senior minister in the Han court. His tendency to dominate the young sovereign, Emperor Xian of Han (汉宣帝, 181 – 234 CE), gave other ministers cause for concern. They asked Wang Yun (王允), a high-ranking official, to devise a stratagem to get rid of Dong Zhuo in the interests of the state. Wang Yun was burdened with the task, with no appetite to eat and no desire to sleep. One evening, when Wang Yun was cudgeling his brains for a perfect plan on his way to the back garden, he suddenly saw his adopted daughter, Diao Chan (貂蝉), burning joss sticks (焚香) to pray for her lost fiancé Lv Bu (吕布 Lü Bu), who had been separated from her during the war and had become one of Dong Zhuo’s right-hand men. Wang Yun’s face lit up and came up with a perfect plan. The following plot is represented on a series of late Ming to Qing dynasty porcelain wares.

He first invited Lv Bu to his house and reunited him with Diao Chan. On the next day, Wang Yun invited Dong Zhuo for a dinner at home with Diao Chan serving the food, knowing that Dong would drool over her and fall into his trap. Sure enough, Dong Zhuo immediately fell for Diao Chan and took her home on the spot. Then Wang Yun told Lv Bu that Dong Zhuo had married Diao Chan by force. Being Dong Zhuo’s subordinate, Lv Bu had to repress his jealousy and anger. Lv Bu had been tormented emotionally for days before he finally managed to meet with Diao Chan in the back garden of Dong’s residence. Dong Zhuo discovered Lv Bu’s absence and grew suspicious. He rushed back and saw the couple together. A wedge thus was lodged between Dong Zhuo and his first lieutenant Lv Bu, which eventually caused Dong’s downfall.

References:

  • Ni, Yibin (倪亦斌)《王允貂蝉合谋连环计,董卓吕布翻脸成仇敌》, Reader’s Taste《读者欣赏》(October 2017): 114-119
  • 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, p. 28

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.

The seventh day of the seventh month of the traditional Chinese year is the Chinese ‘Valentine’s Day’, Qixi Festival (七夕节). The custom can be traced back to an ancient story about a weaver girl and a cowherd:

Once upon a time, one of the daughters of the Lord of the Heaven lived on the east side of the Milky Way and she worked by the loom day in and day out, weaving fabrics as light as cloud for fairies, thus known as the ‘Weaving Maiden (织女 zhi nv)’. Later, her father allowed her to be married to the ‘Herd Boy (牛郎 niu lang)’ living across the Milky Way. But her father got angry with her because he thought she neglected her weaving duty after the marriage and summoned her back to the east side of the Milky Way, allowing her to reunite with her husband only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month of the traditional Chinese year. In order to help the maiden to reach the other side of the Milky Way, flocks of magpies would have an annual gathering on that day to form a bridge.

In the heart of the Chinese people, the story of the Weaving Maiden and Herd Boy has epitomised as a symbol for lovers separated by various kinds of obstacles and their longing of reunion.

More discussion on this topic is available in Dr Yibin Ni’s blog here.

Diao Mei He Geng 调梅和羹’ is a metaphor that likens the art of governing a country to the adequate seasoning of a stew with salt and sour prunes. The scene is often made up of a group of women or men surrounding a stove, on which a cauldron of food is being cooked, with an assistant holding a container with sour prunes.

In the Commentary of Zuo (左传 Zuo Zhuan), one of the oldest Chinese history books, written during the 4th century BCE, there is a famous passage in which the right method of preparing a perfectly seasoned stew is linked to the proper way of maintaining a harmonious relationship between the lord and his vassal. The statesman Yan Ying (晏婴 578-500 BCE) says to the Duke Jing of Qi (齐景公 Qi Jinggong, r. 547-490 BCE): ‘The cook blends the ingredients and balances them according to the right taste, adding whatever is lacking and negating whatever is excessive (宰夫和之,齐之以味;济其不及,以泄其过).’

From then on, the phrase 和羹 hegeng, ‘seasoning the stew’, or 调梅 diaomei, ‘seasoning the stew with sour prunes’, or 调鼎 tiaoding, ‘seasoning the food in the cauldron’, has been widely used to refer to the business of ‘governing the country’, or, specifically, ‘serving as the prime minister to the emperor’.

This classic pictorial allusion depicted in the centre of the Kangxi plates in the collections of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art was first unveiled by Dr Yibin Ni. His research article on this topic is available here.

Examples of governors with good reputation:

Chen Ping Dividing Meat 陈平分肉

Bing Ji Inquiring about a Panting Buffalo 丙吉问牛喘

The Boot-Swapping Ceremony for the Departing Governor 民赞清官留旧靴

‘True love conquers all’ is the theme of the Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭 Mudan Ting), a musical play of fifty-five scenes written by Tang Xianzu (汤显祖, 1550-1616) in Ming dynasty. Also known as The Romance of Return of Soul (还魂记 Huanhun Ji), the play contains a supernatural love story between Du Liniang (杜丽娘), the only daughter of the Nan’an prefect (南安太守) Mr. Du, and Liu Mengmei (柳梦梅), a civil-service examination candidate. At the beginning of the play, there was a passionate rendezvous of the two in the form of Liniang’s dream in the back garden with vigorously budding bushes during a warm spring afternoon. The encounter was so indelible to the adolescent girl that she eventually died of longing for her ‘dream’ lover. The play narrates how the couple overcome all the obstacles along the way to their union. Their experiences transcend not only time and space but also life and death.

The story scene depicted in the centre of the Shunzhi bowl in the Butler collection and the Kangxi dish in the collection of the V&A Museum was first unveiled by Dr Yibin Ni. His research article with pictorial and literary evidence is available for view here.

References:

  1. 倪亦斌:《明末时尚女子的情色告白》,《艺术世界》, 上海: 上海文艺出版社, 2004-03, pp.72-73.
  2. 倪亦斌:《明末时尚女子的情色告白》,《看图说瓷》, 北京: 中华书局, 2008, pp.1-10.

This scene is an episode from the Ming drama ‘The Story of the Girl Holding a Red Fly Whisk (红拂记 Hongfu ji)’.

The story is an account of how a talented scholar Li Jing (李靖) meets Lord Yang Su 杨素’s favourite singsong girl Red Fly Whisk (红拂女). Later, they meet the formidable knight errant Zhang Zhongjian (张仲坚) whose nickname is Curly-bearded Fellow (虬髯客), and they form the well-known ‘Three Chivalrous Heroes of the Wind and Dust 风尘三侠’.

Through twists and turns, the Curly Beard realised that Li Shimin 李世民 (598 – 649) was the true ‘dragon’s son’ and, therefore, destined to be the future ruler of the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) and decided not to compete with him. After Curly-bearded Fellow handed over to Li Jing and Red Fly Whisk all his possessions, he left for overseas to start his cause of taking over a small kingdom of Fuyu in the south-east sea. Before his departure, he told the couple that in ten years’ time they would hear his success and should celebrate this occasion by pouring him a libation of wine toward south-east.

In the present scene, the sensible knight Zhang with his signature baby-dragon-like (虬髯) beard is riding a horse, accompanied by his wife sitting in a wheeled sedan chair on their way abroad.

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.

In traditional Chinese customs, the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunisolar calendar is regarded as one of the most dangerous days of the year when evil spirits and hazardous creatures lurked around. Notably, five noxious creatures were identified, known as ‘Five Poisons (五毒 wǔ dú)’. Initially, they are the centipede, the lizard, the scorpion, the snake, and the toad.

In order to deal with the hazards and quell the evil spirits more effectively, the exorcising power was personified as a ‘heavenly master’, often riding a tiger. A Dream of Sorghum (梦梁录 Mengliang Lu), an account of the daily-life in the capital Lin’an (臨安, modern-day Hangzhou 杭州) during the Southern Song dynasty (南宋, 1127-1279) is one of the earliest sources to mention the ‘Heavenly Master Zhang (张天师)’ as a Duanwu festival (端午节) decoration. An effigy of him made from calamus or the rice-paper plant would be hung on the lintel, sometimes together with heads of the tiger and other auspicious beasts, to protect the household.

History of the Ming Court (明宫史 Ming Gongshi), a Ming-dynasty book mentions that pictures of the Heavenly Master, or a young deity, or a fairy subduing the Five Poisons with a sword would be framed and hung on the lintel for a whole month, just like the door gods during the Chinese New Year (‘门上悬挂吊屏,上画天师或仙子、仙女执剑降毒故事’). Such images are now still available on porcelain, metal ornaments, and embroidered fabric.

For further interesting discussions regarding the personified image of the Heavenly Master, please read Dr Yibin Ni‘s blog here.

Li Yuan 李渊 (566-635 CE) excelled at horse-riding, archery, and calligraphy as a young man. He was to be the future founder (reigned 618-626 CE) of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Miss Dou was exceptionally smart and her father Dou Yi 窦毅, the governor of Dingzhou, was very particular about the quality of his future son-in-law. The family decided to erect a screen with two peacocks painted on it and announced whoever could shoot two arrows on each of the peacock’s eye would be qualified to win Miss Dou’s hand. Dozens of young men entered for the competition but left with disappointment because of failure in achieving the full score. Li Yuan as a later comer managed to hit the eye of each peacock with the two arrows and thus captured Miss Dou’s hand.

The eight Daoist Immortals confirmed by Wu Yuantai (吴元泰, active around 1566) in his novel ‘A Journey to the East by the Eight Daoist Immortals’ 《八仙出处东游记》 are Li Tieguai 李铁拐 (Iron-Crutch Li 铁拐李), Lan Caihe 蓝采和, Zhang Guolao 张果老, Han Xiangzi 韩湘子, Cao Guojiu 曹国舅, Lv Dongbin 吕洞宾(or Lü Dongbin), He Xian’gu 何仙姑, and Zhong Liquan 钟离权 (汉钟离). They usually appear in Chinese artworks with their featured treasures or vessels, such as gourd or crutch with Li Tieguai, flower basket with Lan Caihe, fish drum or sitting on a donkey backwards by Zhang Guolao, bamboo flute with Han Xiangzi, jade clappers with Cao Guojiu, sword with Lv Dongbin, lotus with He Xian’gu, and fan with Zhong Liquan.

Related Motif & Symbol:

Peach fruit

Romance of the Western Chamber (西厢记 Xixiang ji) is the most popular love comedy in late imperial China. In the story, Scholar Zhang (张生) falls in love with a beautiful lady named Cui Yingying (崔莺莺), who happens to be stranded in a monastery with her widowed mother and, after plenty of twists and turns, the young couple consummate their love under the nose of Yingying’s mother without her approval.

There is a popular motif on early Qing porcelain which vividly depicts a scene in the Act ‘Consummation of Love’ of the play Romance of the Western Chamber. Eventually, Scholar Zhang has persuaded the lady he has been courting to come to his quarters. Zhang is holding a candle in one hand to light the way with his left arm around Lady Yingying’s shoulders. He is almost dragging the shy lady towards the doorway with the candle noticeably tilting forward. Ahead of them, Yingying’s maid Hongniang (红娘) leads the way. She is carrying a folded duvet under her arms in case Scholar Zhang’s quilts were too shabby for the occasion, while she cannot help turning her head back, stealing glances at this thrilling human drama rare in her mundane life.

Motifs evolve during their use and spread. When the same image is adopted on an enamelled dish made in late Kangxi period, the maid Hongniang is abbreviated and the couple look much more relaxed, seemingly enjoying each other’s company. Zhang’s arm remains around Yingying’s shoulders and his hand that holds the candle stick is much surer and steadier. The couple are not moving towards a concrete door of Zhang’s bedroom, as they do in the two earlier examples. Instead, a dubious curved bridge or a planked passageway appeared behind them. It no longer serves a narrative function to indicate the locale of the event but only satisfies decorative needs in the graphic composition.

image identification and literature research: by Dr Yibin Ni 

Other stories from Romance of the Western Chamber:

Yingying Receiving Good News Delivered by the Pageboy 泥金报捷

Scholar Zhang Embarking on His Journey to Sit for Civil-Service Examinations 张生赶考

Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty (隋炀帝, r. 606-18) is known for many achievements, such as linking the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers with the man-made Grand Canal, leading successful military campaigns expanding the Sui territory, and being accomplished in the arts. Despite those, Emperor Yang is also considered to have brought disaster to the country and misery to the people late in his life with his unwise rule and decadent and debauched lifestyle with his concubines. In the West Park, outside Luoyang, his consorts (wives who ranked lower than his primary wife, the empress) often organised his concubines to do equestrian performances and variety shows to entertain the emperor and please his inflated ego.

One of the best known of these vignettes was the procession of Lady Wang Zhaojun (王昭君, c.52- c.15 BCE) in a moonlit night. (Lady Wang Zhaojun was one of the legendary Four Beauties of Ancient China. She had been in the harem of Emperor Yuan of the Western Han dynasty [汉元帝, 206 BCE-8 CE]. He eventually sent her off by horseback in a procession to marry a Central Asian tribal chieftain.) The elderly Emperor Yang is often depicted enthusiastically observing his elegant court ladies showing off their riding skills in the spirit of Lady Wang, while anticipating further antics to follow.

This scene has often been mistaken as ‘female generals of the Yang family’(杨门女将) by many art historians. However, Dr Yibin Ni has found that historical woodblock illustrations such as that of the novel Romance of Sui and Tang (隋唐演义), and New-Year prints such as Wang Zhaojun’s Galloping Horses (新彩昭君跑马) bear similar scenes with clear written titles which reveal that the scene is actually meant to be a cautionary tale for rulers. Chu Renhuo (褚人获)’s Romance of Sui and Tang fictionalises the historical events leading to the fall of the Sui dynasty and the subsequent rise of the Tang.

Literature:

  • 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. 30-33.

Wang Zhaojun (王昭君, c.52 – c.15 BCE) was one of the court ladies in the harem of Emperor Yuan of the Western Han dynasty (汉元帝, 206 BCE – 8 CE). It was not possible for the emperor to meet every one of the three-thousand concubines, so he had a court painter paint their pictures to facilitate his selection process. Every lady tried very hard to win the painter’s favour so that the painter can represent them in a more flattering image. But Lady Wang Zhaojun was confident in her own beauty. She didn’t want to bribe the painter. As a result, the painter didn’t show her beauty in the portrait and the emperor never noticed her.

During that time, some nomadic groups from the western region invaded China quite often, so the emperor wanted to make peace with them by marrying some of his ladies to the chieftains. On one occasion, Lady Wang was chosen. When Lady Wang was unveiled at the court, her beauty stunned everybody present and the emperor was deeply regretted for not knowing her earlier. However, it was too late for the emperor to keep her and he had to let her go.

The journey to the new home was long and arduous so Lady Wang was given a pipa (琵琶), a Chinese musical instrument, to pass time and the pipa became her signature attribute. Because of her marriage with the Xiongnu (匈奴) chieftain, the region remained peaceful for decades. Lady Wang Zhaojun was credited as one of the four most beautiful women in the whole Chinese history.

More interesting reading:

Dr Yibin Ni explains in his blog the provenance of the porcelain bottle in Fig 1.

In Zhuangzi (庄子), an ancient Chinese text from the late Warring States period (476–221 BCE)  and one of the two foundational texts of Daoism, the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母) was mentioned as a deity who ‘obtained the Dao (the Way)’. According to the Scripture of Great Peace (Taiping jing 太平经), a valuable resource for researching early Daoist beliefs and the society at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty (AD25 – AD220), the Queen Mother of the West was an immortal (xian 仙). In the Six Dynasties period (420 – 589), she was adopted into the pantheon of religious Daoism (Daojiao 道教) as the principal female deity in the Supreme Secret Essentials (Wushang miyao 无上秘要), a Daoist encyclopaedia completed in 577.

The scene of the celebration of the Queen Mother’s birthday typically consists of three components: first, a female dignitary seated before a screen, flanked by a couple of court ladies and entourage; a dancer gesticulating with her arms, often on a rug; an all-female orchestra playing various kinds of musical instruments.

Read more of Dr Yibin Ni’s research work on this topic.

The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival falls on the night of full moon in the eighth lunar month. Chang’e, the Moon Goddess, is usually associated with this family-union occasion, together with the festival food – the moon cake (月饼). A legend recorded in an ancient Chinese book, The Huainanzi (淮南子 The Discourses of the Huainan Masters), compiled around 139 BCE, says that a beautiful girl called Chang’e (嫦娥) has been living on the moon for thousands of years. Chang’e’s husband was the legendary archer, Hou Yi (or Houyi 后羿), and he was given the elixir of immortality by the Queen Mother of the West (西王母 Xiwangmu) for his merits. Out of boredom and curiosity, Chang’e tasted the elixir. As a result, she turned into an immortal. Her body became so light that she ascended to heaven, ending up in the nearest planet, the moon. On the moon, there was a huge osmanthus tree, a toad, and a hare grinding the tree bark with a pestle in a mortar to prepare some magic cure. The adorable hare became Chang’e’s loyal companion. Chang’e also gradually evolved into the role of the osmanthus sprig giver from the Moon Palace.

In one of the earliest story scenes of Chang’e’s extraordinary feat, she has a human body and a dragon’s rear end. The moon is marked by the toad in the middle. Both Chang’e and the moon are floating among vapour clouds and ball-like stars and planets. This stone carving was excavated from a Han-dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) tomb in the outskirts of Nanyang city, Henan province in 1964.

On a Tang-dynasty (618-907) bronze mirror in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Chang’e, her entourage, and specific environment attributes are fully displayed. Chang’e appears as a beautiful fairy in a silk gown with sashes flying around her body. The hare has his set of a pestle and a mortar beside him. On the right, there is the huge osmanthus tree, under which is the toad, symbolising the moon, the embodiment of the essence of the yin energy (阴精). The tortoise is a longevity symbol in traditional China because they were believed to be able to live for a thousand years by the ancients. It was added to the scene as the knob of the mirror, since scenes involving immortals are often used as longevity symbols and thus birthday presents for elders.

During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Chang’e was still used to adorn daily utensils and display ornaments to imbue the environment with auspicious aura. The cute hare adds femininity to the design and therefore was popular in women’s inner chambers.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni

Related symbolic motif:

Plucking a Sprig of Osmanthus Blossom from the Moon Palace 蟾宫折桂

This is a story of a righteous woman. As the army of the state of Qi (齐国) launched an invasion against the state of Lu (鲁国), soldiers approaching a Lu suburb saw a woman struggling along the road with two children. When the army got closer, she abandoned one of the children and grabbed the other, moving toward the mountains. When the general caught up with her and asked her why she had abandoned one child and run away with the other, the woman explained, ‘I was too weak to protect two children in this calamity. I parted with my own son in order to save my brother’s son; in line with the moral ideal of keeping others’ interests before one’s own.’ On hearing this, the general halted the advance and sent a messenger back to persuade his king not to continue fighting against the Lu, feeling that one could never beat a country in which even an illiterate woman had such high moral values.

The story scene depicted on the porcelain ware displayed in this listing was first deciphered by Dr Yibin Ni.

More story scenes on Morality:

Qiuhu Trying to Seduce His Own Wife 秋胡戏妻 (鲁洁妇)

Lu Ji Hiding Tangerines for His Mother 陆绩怀橘遗亲

Qiuhu (秋胡), a native of the state of Lu during the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BCE), was ordered to take up an official post in the state of Chen a scant five days after his marriage to Jiefu (洁妇), the ‘Loyal Wife’. Five years later, on his way back home, he encountered a woman by the roadside picking mulberry leaves, used as food for silkworms.

Qiuhu approached the woman and told her that toiling among mulberry leaves was certainly not as fun as yielding to a high-ranking minister’s offer who took a fancy to her. Qiuhu baited the woman with some gold ingots. The woman retorted, ‘I work hard to support my parents-in-law and the son left behind by my husband. I wish that you did not take fancy of women outside your family. I have no intention of fooling around. Take your gold back.’

On arriving home, Qiuhu sent for his wife and, to his great embarrassment, discovered that she was none other than the woman he had solicited.

There are two endings to this story. One version relates that after condemning Qiuhu for being lecherous and for not exercising virtues of filial piety to his parents, as was customary, the wife felt so disheartened that she threw herself into the river. The other ending, suggested by the Yuan dynasty literatus Zhao Mengfu (赵孟頫, 1254–1322), is a happy one. In his version, Qiuhu was merely testing his wife. Since she proved to be chaste and not materialistic, he reunited with her and they lived happily ever after.

Reference:

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. 28-29.

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 – 8CE) 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 on the story in this blog.

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

This is a story from the Romance of the Western Chamber, a famous Chinese play written by Wang Shifu (王实甫, 1260-1336) in Yuan dynasty (1271-1368):

On his way to the capital to take civil-service exams, Scholar Zhang (张生) fell in love with the beautiful Cui Yingying (崔莺莺), who was stranded in a monastery. They had to be separated because Yingying’s mother only allowed Zhang to marry Yingying after he succeeded in his exams. Half a year passed and, when Zhang won the official honours, he sent the page boy to tell Yingying the good news. Yingying was thrilled to receive the glad tidings.

image identification and literature research: by Dr Yibin Ni 

Related blog:

The gifts standing for love: an appreciation of Chinese porcelain painting

Other episodes in the Romance of the Western Chamber:

Scholar Zhang Embarking on His Journey to Sit for Civil-Service Examinations 张生赶考

Consummation of love from Western Chamber 月下佳期

With strategic plans to restore the war-torn country back to order, the talented scholar Li Jing (李靖) was paying a visit to the powerful Lord Yang Su (杨素), who enjoyed luxurious ways of living and female company around him. To Li Jing’s disappointment, Lord Yang did not take his plans seriously. However, Red Fly Whisk (红拂女 hongfu nv as nickname, real name 张凌华), an exceptionally beautiful maid who was present at the meeting, immediately fell head over heels for Li Jing, while Li was passionately airing his ambitious views to Lord Yang.

Read more story of Li Jing and Red Fly Whisk with the other hero Zhang Zhongjian (张仲坚, nicknamed the Curly-Bearded Fellow 虬髯客), who left all his possessions to the couple and went overseas to start his new life.

Read Dr Yibin Ni‘s interesting analysis on How to depict the scene of falling-in-love on Chinese porcelain.

Wei Jie (卫玠, 286-312) was admired as a handsome “jade man’ when he appeared in his signature goat-drawn carriage in town. Wei Jie shone like a piece of gleaming diamond whichever company he was in.

On 17th century porcelain, the goat-drawn carriage and the fruit-throwing antics to Pan An (潘安, 247-300), another famous and adorable man, from respective historical sources were often combined to form one spectacular story scene. Read related blog here.

References:

  1. 倪亦斌:《掷果盈车数潘安, 陈年旧事女看男》,《艺术世界》, 上海: 上海文艺出版社,2006-10, pp.102-103.
  2. 倪亦斌:《掷果盈车数潘安, 陈年旧事女看男》,《看图说瓷》, 北京: 中华书局, 2008, pp. 173-176.

The second half of the third century and the beginning of the fourth century saw a couple of most handsome men in the history of China. For example, Pan An 潘安 (247-300) was exceptionally cute and adorable when he was an adolescent. Women who spotted him in the street would circle around him and throw fruits into his chariot as a fanatic gesture of affection and admiration. He usually returned home with a harvest.

Further interesting discussion: How Chinese People Reacted to Handsome Men in Ancient Times

Another famous handsome figure in ancient China:

Wei Jie 卫玠

References:

  1. 倪亦斌:《掷果盈车数潘安, 陈年旧事女看男》,《艺术世界》, 上海: 上海文艺出版社,2006-10, pp.102-103.
  2. 倪亦斌: 《掷果盈车数潘安,陈年旧事女看男》,《看图说瓷》, 北京: 中华书局, 2008, pp. 173-176.

A scholar official in Song dynasty Sima You (司马槱) dreamed of a beautiful girl presenting him the first half of a song, which he later developed into a full version called Huangjinlv (黄金缕). The girl was none other than a famous courtesan Su Xiaoxiao (苏小小) who lived by the Qiantang River and was in the local high society centuries earlier, an embodiment of the Southern sophisticated culture that the Northern young man absolutely adored. Since he had chanced on her relics in his backyard and gave her a proper burial the previous afternoon, the girl appeared in his dream to show gratitude to him.

The story scene on the Butler dish and the Cizhou pillow was first deciphered by Dr Yibin Ni.

References:

  1. Yibin Ni (2002) The Shunzhi Emperor and the Popularity of Scenes from the Romance of the Western Wing on Porcelain, Treasures from an Unknown Reign: Shunzhi Porcelain, Art Services Intl, p.78.
  2. 倪亦斌:《被遗忘的<钱塘梦>》,《艺术世界》, 上海: 上海文艺出版社, 2004-04, pp.74-75.
  3. 倪亦斌:《被遗忘的<钱塘梦>》,《看图说瓷》, 北京: 中华书局, 2008, pp.11-18.

Other dream scene on antique artworks:

A Startled Romantic Dream in the Back Garden 杜丽娘游园惊梦

Zhang Chang (张敞, ?- 48 BCE) and his wife grew up in the same village. When they were both children, Zhang Chang once threw a pebble at his future wife and, unfortunately, the scratch left a scar on one of her eyebrows. Later, Zhang became a civil servant and learned that the girl he once hit with a pebble was unmarried because of her marred face. He went to propose to her. After they got married, Zhang made a practice of painting his wife’s eyebrows every morning to cover up the scar. When Zhang Chang served as the Mayor of the capital, Emperor Xuan of Han dynasty (汉宣帝, reigned 74-48 BCE) rallied him on the point. He replied, ‘There were more intimate things that a husband would do to his wife in the bedchamber. (闺房之乐, 有甚于画眉者)’ The story remained a famous example of harmonious marriage in imperial China.

literary summary: by Yibin Ni

In the Buddhist legend, at the beginning there was nothing but water in the world. Vajrapani ordered his disciples to scoop the ocean to see what was hidden there. The sun appeared in the first scoop and Vajrapani fixed the sun in the sky to light the day. In the second scoop, there appeared the moon and Vajrapani placed it in the sky so that it can brighten the night. There might be a connection between this legend and a women’s leisure activity in ancient China, recorded on the surface of various forms of artworks. A well-dressed lady standing in front of a water basin trying to scoop the reflection of the moon in a garden setting during the full moon days, waited on by some maids nearby.