Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

People who are not familiar with Chinese history and parables may have the impression that the above image is a genre painting of fisherman’s daily life. But in fact, there is more meaning to it. Dr Yibin Ni will explain the story in detail and how this story scene has been presented in various forms of artworks.

Xiahou Dun, a heroic soldier in ancient China, was famous for his one-eyed appearance. Let’s appreciate how Dr Yibin Ni analyses the artistic presentation of this character on Chinese antique porcelain, woodblock print and other art forms, in association with comparable figures in Western culture.

The story scene refers to an old Chinese saying: in the fight between the sandpiper and the clam, the fisherman has the best of it. This parable came from an ancient Chinese text entitled ‘Strategies of the Warring States (战国策 Zhanguo Ce)’. The book contains anecdotes of diplomacy and warfare during the Warring States period (5th to 3rd centuries BC).

The State of Zhao (赵国) was planning to attack the State of Yan (燕国). Su Dai (苏代) was sent by the State of Yan to the State of Zhao to try to prevent the imminent calamity. During the audience that Su Dai had with King Huiwen of Zhao (趙惠文王, 310-266 BCE, r. 298-266 BCE), he found a clever way to persuade the king to change his mind. Here is Su Dai’s speech:

When I was leaving my country crossing the Yi River (in the present-day Yi County, Hebei province), I saw a clam lying open, enjoying the sunshine on the bank. Out of the blue, a sandpiper flew down and tried to snatch a morsel to eat between its shells. The clam promptly slammed its shells shut, locking the sandpiper’s beak in between. The sandpiper tried to wriggle out of the situation, saying, ‘If it doesn’t rain today and it doesn’t rain tomorrow, there will be a dead clam on the river bank.’ The clam retorted, ‘If I don’t let you go today and nor do I tomorrow, there will be a dead sandpiper on the river bank.’ While they grappled in a dead lock, a fisherman passed by and picked both up with very little effort. Now, if your majesty launched an attack on Yan, Yan would certainly try to resist your invasion. And the fight between the two countries would make both weak and then the State of Qin would be acting as that ‘fisherman’. I urge your majesty to reconsider your plan.

The king of Zhao got the message from Su’s story and called off the military campaign.

As a cautionary tale, this parable has been favoured by Chinese people for two millennia and has often been made into 2D or 3D images to educate the young.

Read Dr Yibin Ni‘s research blog here regarding how this important pictorial motif was rediscovered from previous research papers and museum catalogues that only took it as genre painting.

Lv Bu (吕布 Lü Bu, died 199 CE) is known as an almost unchallenged fighter in the period of the Three Kingdoms (三国, 220-280 CE) in Chinese history. The scene on the vase depicts a crucial moment when Lv Bu’s exceptional archery stunt astounded all the generals and soldiers present and then successfully quelled an imminent collision between two opposing camps.

This vignette is found in the Records of the Three Kingdoms, the most authoritative source text for that period, composed by Chen Shou (陈寿) in the third century. General Ji Ling (纪灵) led thirty thousand soldiers to launch an attack on Liu Bei (刘备), one of the heads of the Three Kingdoms, and Liu asked Lv Bu for help. Lv Bu decided to lend Liu a hand in spite of the objection from his lieutenants. Lv Bu explained to them that, if Liu Bei’s army collapsed, then his army would be Ji Ling’s next target. Lv Bu went to see Ji Ling with one thousand soldiers and held a drinking party inviting Liu Bei’s men as guests. After a round of clinking of glasses, Lv Bu said to Ji Ling, ‘Liu Bei is to me like a brother. I’ve come to rescue him. I don’t like conflicts but love to resolve disputes between people.’ Then, Lv Bu asked to have a ji (戟) halberd erect at the entrance of the camp enclosure and, raising his favourite bow up in the air, he inspected the crowd around him and announced, ‘Watch me shoot the short blade on the halberd. If my arrow hits it in one shot, both parties must call it a truce and leave. If it doesn’t, you may stay and fight.’ Sure enough, Lv Bu’s arrow hit where it was meant to hit and, flabbergasted, the crowd burst into a roar ‘General, you possess Heaven’s might!’ The next day saw revels participated by all three forces and a happy departure.

image identification and story scene description by Dr Yibin Ni 

Xiahou Dun (夏侯惇, died 13 June 220) was one of Cao Cao’s (曹操, 155-220) most valued generals in the late Eastern Han dynasty (东汉, 25-220) of China. Xiahou showed his strong temperament even when he was in his early teens. Once his mentor was insulted, and he went straight to the insulter and killed him. During the 190s in a military campaign against the famous fighter Lv Bu (Lü Bu 吕布, died 199), an arrow hit one of Xiahou’s eyeballs. He showed his valour by yanking the arrow out of his eye socket and ate his own eyeball as an act of filial piety because of the cherished belief that any part of the body was a gift from parents and should not be thrown away. From then on, Xiahou was known as ‘One-eyed Xiahou’.

Read Dr Yibin Ni’s blog for more analysis of the artistic presentations of Xiahou Dun on Chinese antique porcelain, woodblock print and other art forms, in association with comparable figures in Western culture.