Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images
Many museums and auction houses are often unaware of the pun rebuses hidden in traditional Chinese pictures and have treated them as mere naturalistic ones. Thus, the cultural and social significance contained in the motifs are unfortunately overlooked. Here is an example of a pun rebus design with four different fishes. What do they actually mean? Please read on…
Have you wondered why you often see an image of a man lying or ‘dancing’ beside a large fish on Chinese antiques? Is it referring to some figure and story in ancient China? Here is Dr Yibin Ni explaining to us the meaning of this touching story that reveals the traditional Chinese virtue of filial piety.
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.
Fish (鱼 yu) puns with the word yu 余 meaning ‘abundance’, therefore it symbolises wealth and prosperity. Lotus (莲 lian) puns with the word lian 连 meaning ‘to continue’ or ‘to connect’, and it is associated with the Chinese phrase lian nian 连年 meaning ‘year in, year out’. Hence, a fish and a lotus together signify ‘wealth for all the future’ by a double wordplay.
Relater Pun Pictures:
Wang Xiang (王祥 185-269) served as the Grand Protector (taibao 太保) in the Western Jin court (西晋 265-316 CE) and, as a significant politician, has his biography in the Book of Jin (jinshu 晋书), an official historical text covering the dynasty’s history. When Wang Xiang was a boy, his mother passed away. His stepmother was not kind to him, often speaking ill of him before his father. One bitterly cold wintry day, his stepmother had a craving for the carp. Wang Xiang went to the frozen lake, took his clothes off, and lay on the icy surface trying to melt the ice in order to catch some fish. Suddenly, the ice cracked and out jumped two carp, which Wang Xiang could take back to please his parents. It was Wang’s devout filial piety that moved the dragon king residing in the lake, who sent him the carp as a reward.
Research on this story scene:
Related Pun Rebus:
A gathering of four distinctively different fishes can be read as a pun rebus design expressing an admonishing message ‘qing bai lian jie 清白廉洁’, which literally means ‘pure, unblemished, incorruptible, and clean’.
The name of ‘qingyu 青鱼’, literally ‘blue fish’, puns on the Chinese character ‘qing 清’ for ‘pure’. ‘Baiyu 白鱼’ literally means ‘white fish’, having a white body and head. Its name is a homograph of ‘bai 白’ meaning ‘unblemished’. ‘Lianyu 鲢鱼’ means ‘chub’, whose name makes a pun on ‘lian 廉’ for ‘incorruptible’. The unmistakable ‘guiyu 鳜鱼 (mandarin fish)’ has a characteristic mottled appearance and undivided tail. The phonetic radical of the name of this fish is ‘jue 厥’, which puns on the character ‘jie 洁’ for ‘clean’.
The design may be served as a good wish for a promising official friend or a self-admonishing reminder as part of the interior decoration scheme in a conscientious official’s office or study. The actual design and the arrangement of the fishes may well vary since the design was a conventional one spread among manual labourers and folk artisans and everybody contributed their inspiration to the end product. However, a corpus of various versions of this theme reveals a clear pattern, prominently with the unmistakable mandarin fish and the white fish in it.
Jeffrey P. Stamen and Cynthia Volk with Yibin Ni, A Culture Revealed: Kangxi-Era Chinese Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection: Jieruitang Publishing. 2017, p. 200-201.
A fish is an ancient symbol of material prosperity and fertility in China, both because it puns with another word yu 余 meaning ‘abundance’, and because of the huge quantities of fish in Chinese lakes and rivers. In some parts of China, people would eat the flesh of fish, and then offer the heads as a sacrifice to Zhao Gongming, the god of wealth.
The invention of fishing is often attributed to Fuxi (believed to have reigned 2852–2737 BCE), the first of the Three Sovereigns – China’s mythical earliest rulers – and fish has certainly been a staple of the Chinese diet for millennia. Fisherman was one of the respected Four Occupations for common people, the other three being peasant farmer, woodman and scholar.
Fish is a common dish at festivals, especially Chinese New Year, when the fish is served with its head and tail intact, indicating a wish for prosperity from the beginning of the year to the end.
Fish swimming in water are thought to be joyful and so represent a happy marriage, as well as sexual intercourse.
Carp sometimes swim upriver, against the current, and are, therefore, emblems of perseverance associated with those commoners who struggle to pass civil-service examinations in order to enter a different social arena. See ‘fish turning into dragon’ (鱼化龙)
Related Pun Rebuses:
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 Pun Picture:
Goldfish is often found as a decorative motif in Chinese art. According to Chinese tradition, keeping goldfish in the house is considered auspicious, since the name for ‘goldfish’ (jin yu 金鱼) puns on the Chinese words for ‘gold 金 jin’ and ‘jade 玉 yu’ as well as the phrase ‘abundance of gold’, therefore referring to family wealth.
Related Pun Pictures:
The accumulation of family wealth in traditional China was lauded as jin yu man tang 金玉满堂 – a household is piled high with gold and jade. This saying was visually expressed with a design of goldfish in a pond; jin yu 金鱼 (goldfish) makes a pun on jin 金 (gold) and yu 玉 (jade), while the state of a pond (tang 塘) being filled with fish (man tang 满塘) sounds the same as mang tang 满堂 ‘a hall being filled with something.’
Other auspicious wishes: