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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

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.

Appreciation of a top-tier porcelain garlic-head bottle vase painted with a pair of red-whiskered bulbuls in polychrome enamels over transparent glaze in the falangcai style and gilding displayed in the Petite Galerie of the Louvre in Paris.

A literati theme with the image of a scholar riding in a snowscape with branches of plum blossoms in the vicinity has been very popular in traditional Chinese visual culture and literature. But who is the scholar in the scene? Art historian Dr Yibin Ni hereby unveils the mystery for us.

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.

Many people take it for granted that the antique pieces with the motif of two-horned peony blossom were from Kangxi period, but is that true? Let Dr Yibin Ni use examples to prove otherwise to you.

Is choosing a gift for your mother a difficult task? Not so much if your mother is a big fan of Chinese art. In traditional Chinese decorative arts, there are various images symbolising or referring motherhood. Lily flower is a typical example…

Images of Tao Yuanming Appreciating Chrysanthemum, like many other traditional historical themes, are often mistaken as a mere ‘flowering-picking’ scene, or, worse, simply a ‘figure painting’.

The flower of the annual herbaceous species Papaver rhoeas has many different names in the West, such as common poppy, corn poppy, corn rose, field poppy, Flanders poppy, and red poppy. One of its names in China is yumeiren (虞美人), literally meaning ‘Yu the Beauty’. It was named after Yu Ji (虞姬), Consort Yu of Xiang Yu (项羽, 232 BCE – 202 BCE), the ‘Hegemon-King of Western Chu (西楚霸王)’, during the Chu–Han Contention period (206 BCE – 202 BCE) of China. According to folklore, Yu Ji committed suicide in order to prevent her husband from being distracted by his love for her after the couple were trapped by Liu Bang’s (刘邦, 256 BCE – 195 BCE) army in the Battle of Gaixia (垓下). She danced her last dance passionately with Xiang Yu’s sword and killed herself with it. Red poppies grew where her blood splashed. Later, various cultivars of the species, regardless of their colours, were referred to as ‘Yu the Beauty’. Papaver rhoeas has a cousin called Papaver somniferum, i.e., the opium poppy, which also come in variations but usually have larger fruits.

article written by Dr Yibin Ni

Blog articles discussing the symbolic meanings of flowers:

Cultural differences in the symbolic meaning of lily

Heavenly immortals and fairies are celebrating your birthday

Who is the scholar riding a donkey looking for plum blossom?

Meng Haoran (孟浩然, c. 690-740) is one of the most renowned poets in Tang dynasty (618-906). He started off pursuing a civil service career and then abandoned it to concentrate on poetry. He was a major influence on other Tang and later poets because of his innovative focus on nature. There is a play attributed to the noted Yuan dynasty playwright and poet, Ma Zhiyuan (马致远, c.1250 – c.1324), entitled ‘(Meng Haoran) Looking for Plum Blossom on a Snowy Day’. In the play, Meng Haoran was characterised as a scholar with incredible integrity, symbolised by his love of plum blossom looking its best during the depths of winter. For hundreds of years, Chinese literati have lauded his life-long self-exile from material pursuits in officialdom and held up his deeds as good examples for scholars.

Read this blog for more interesting discussion on the identity of the scholar figure in similar scenes.

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. 34-35.

A variation of 平升三级 ping sheng san ji (May you have three successive promotions unexpectedly) is 连升三级 lian sheng san ji. The design has kept the old element of three ji halberds but added a new motif, the lotus flower. The character for the halberd is 戟 ji, which puns on 级 ji for ‘official grade or rank’ and three halberds stand for ‘three official ranks’. The character for the lotus is 莲 lian, which sounds the same as the word 连 lian for ‘continuously’. Thus, this combination of objects is used to express the good wish ‘May you have three promotions continuously!’

Related Pun Picture:

May you have an imminent promotion 封侯

May you have repeated promotions 官上加官

May your chance of promotion be just round the corner 指日高升

How the daylily, whose Chinese name is ‘xuan 萱’, came to become a symbol for motherhood in Chinese culture is explained in the blog ‘Cultural Differences in the Symbolic Meaning of Lily’. The daylily can be combined with butterflies to create the pun rebus design ‘Xuān Dié Tú 萱耋图’, meaning ‘May Mother live up to a ripe old age’.  This potent feminine symbol can also be paired with longevity symbols in Chinese culture such as the so-called ‘longevity rock’, shoushi 寿石 in Chinese, and pine trees to form a variation on the same theme: Xuan Shou Tu 萱寿图, which conveys the most elegant birthday wishes to Mother.

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 Chinese character ‘tian 天’ from the phrase ‘tianzhu 天竹’ for ‘nandina’ is both a homophone and homograph of the character ‘tian 天’ for ‘heaven’. The character ‘xian 仙’ in the phrase ‘shuixian 水仙’ for ‘narcissus’, is both a homophone and homograph of the character ‘xian 仙’ for ‘immortal’ or ‘fairy’. The combination of the images of nandina and narcissus can be used to represent the concept of ‘tianxian 天仙’, i.e. ‘heavenly immortals or/and fairies’.

Garden Rocks, sometimes with characteristic holes in them, have a nickname ‘shoushi 寿石’, which means ‘longevity rock’ for being resistant to wear and tear and lasting in nature and thus are often used to convey the meaning of ‘shou 寿’ for ‘longevity’.

A composition comprising of these pictorial elements has traditionally been used by the Chinese to send good wishes to a birthday boy or a birthday girl.

Simply regarding these purposefully and beautifully arranged floral compositions as a botanical feast, as they are treated in some museum catalogues, would fall short of their creators’ thoughtful design.

Article written by Dr Yibin Ni

Related blogs:

How to Choose a Gift for a Mother Who Loves Chinese Art

The birthday party of the Queen Mother of the West

The character ‘yu 玉’ in ‘yulan hua 玉兰花’ for ‘magnolia’ is the same ‘yu 玉’ for ‘jade’. The word ‘tang 棠’ from ‘haitang hua 海棠花’ for ‘crab apple’ is homophonic with the word ‘tang 堂’ for ‘house’. The combination of the two characters ‘yutang 玉堂’ means ‘jade house’ with connotations of being grand and palatial.

The peony flower, known in Chinese as ‘mudan hua 牡丹花’, has a nickname of ‘fugui hua 富贵花’, literally, the ‘flower of wealth and prestige’.

Therefore, a composition of blooms of magnolia, crab apple, and peony can be used to convey the auspicious wish of ‘May your jade palatial home be honoured and full of riches!’

Related Pun Picture:

May your household be piled high with gold and jade 金玉满堂

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

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

Pines, bamboos, and plum blossoms (prunus) form the ‘Three Friends in Winter’ (岁寒三友) motif. The early blossoming plum is the harbinger of spring; the bamboo bends in wind but does not break; and the pine needles remain green throughout the harsh winter. They all symbolise moral integrity and friendship in difficult times and have been cherished by generations of Chinese literati (scholar-officials).

Related story regarding plum blossom:

Meng Haoran Looking for Plum Blossom on a Snowy Day 孟浩然踏雪寻梅  

Also called ‘yi shu lian’ (一束莲). The motif is presented as ‘a ribbon-tied bouquet of lotus in bud, full bloom, and seed pods accompanied by leaves, with or without some other water plants such as arrowheads’. The earliest example of this design can be traced back to those found on Yaozhou ware potted in the Song dynasty (960 – 1279).

Related motif:

Lotus (Lian Hua) 莲花

Lian Hua (lotus) is also called ‘he hua (荷花)’. It is different from ‘shui lian (睡莲, water lily)’ which is another kind of water plant.

The first character of lotus in Chinese, ‘lian (莲)’, has been used to pun for ‘lian (廉)’ which means being fair and uncorrupted in one’s official position.

Twin-headed lotus flower (‘bing di lian 并蒂莲’) refers ‘a loving relationship’. See ‘并蒂双贵’ (May you couple live a harmonious life and enjoy prestige).

 

Related Symbol:

Lotus bouquet (一把莲)

Related Pun Picture:

You are an honest and uncorrupted official in your entire career 一路清廉

 

Also named leechee, lichee, lichi, or litchi (nut).

Lychee is a tall tropical evergreen tree of the soapberry family (Sapindaceae) native to southeastern China. It was recorded in the Xijing zaji (西京杂记, Miscellaneous Records of the Western Capital), a collection of short semi-historiographical stories from the Western Han dynasty (西汉, 206 BCE – 8 CE) court, that the governor of the South Sea used to send lychees to Emperor Liu Bang’s (刘邦, 256 BCE – 195 BCE) court as an imperial delicacy. The small fruit of lychee consists of a pink-red, roughly-textured skin, a translucent white fleshy aril, and a big or a shrivelled seed (known as the ‘chicken’s tongue’). The aromatic flesh of the fruit is juicy and sweet but its floral flavour would be easily lost and the rind would turn dark soon after harvesting. No wonder Emperor Xuanzong (玄宗, reigned 713-756 CE) of the Tang dynasty (唐朝) would deploy his Pony Express-like imperial couriers to deliver lychees to the capital in order to please his favourite concubine Lady Yang (杨贵妃, 719-756 CE). The Tang poet Du Mu (杜牧, 803-852 CE) wrote, ‘The dust cloud behind a galloping horse in the distance brings a smile to Lady Yang’s face; because only she knows that means the arrival of her favourite lychees (一骑红尘妃子笑,无人知是荔枝來).’ In late imperial China, when pun rebus pictures became in vogue, the image of lychee appeared in designs where the sound ‘li’ is needed to indicate ‘li 利’ for ‘profit’ because the first character in the Chinese name for lychee, ‘lizhi 荔枝’, is also ‘li’.

The Europeans first saw lychee’s image in Michal Boym’s Flora Sinensis (1657), which contains an illustration of ‘Lici Fruit Tree’. Michal Boym is a Jesuit missionary from Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni

Related Pun:

May you be trouble-free and roll in wealth 平安多利

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

Chrysanthemum in traditional Chinese culture has a symbolic meaning for long life. When it is presented with stone which then has an auspicious name of ‘long-life stone (寿石)’, the whole picture symbolises good wishes for longevity in life.

When the motif of chrysanthemum is used together with quail, the pronunciation of chrysanthemum in Chinese ‘ju (菊)’ serves as a pun for ‘ju (居, meaning living or residing). See more explanation in An Ju (安居).

Related blog:

Tao Yuanming’s Love for Chrysanthemum

Pun Design: Quails + Chrysanthemum

Punning Details:

The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The word ‘ju 菊’ in ‘ju hua 菊花’ for ‘chrysanthemum’ puns on the word ‘ju 居’ for ‘to live’. Thus, the composition forms a pictorial pun that conveys the auspicious message of ‘May you live in peace and leisure’.

 

画面要素:鹌鹑 + 菊花

谐音详情:‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 与 ‘安’ 谐音, ‘菊花’ 中 ‘菊’ 与 ‘居’ 谐音

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May you enjoy peace and happiness 安喜

May the country be in peace and order forever 久安长治

Osmanthus blossoms in autumn and is conventionally regarded as the flower of the eighth month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar. Its sweet scent is discreet, distinctive and unforgettable, and has a legendary position in Chinese poetry and art. It is associated with the moon because ancient Chinese wanted to explain the temporal change of the shadow on its surface and it was recorded in the ninth century during the Tang dynasty that a Daoist disciple named Wu Gang (吴刚) did not obey his master’s order and, as a punishment, was sent to the moon to chop the huge osmanthus tree grown there. As the tree had self-healing ability, Wu Gang’s was a Sisyphean task. Also, via a third-century literary allusion of the Jin dynasty, ‘plucking a branch of osmanthus blossom (折桂)’ became a metaphor for ‘being a top contestant in examinations’.

The pattern of ‘bao xiang (宝相)’ is also called ‘bao lian (宝莲)’, ‘bao xian (宝仙)’, or ‘xi fan lian (西番莲)’, which literally means ‘western passion flower’.

 

Related Motif:

Lotus 莲花

Common sources such as Baidu refer to the motif of a peony flower head with two distinctive ‘horns’ as a characteristic feature unique to Chinese porcelain of the Kangxi period (1662-1722). As a matter of fact, the tradition can be traced back as early as a fan painting by the legendary Ming romantic artist Tang Yin 唐寅 (1470-1524).

 

Read more about Dr Yibin Ni’s research on this motif in this blog.

Lily flowers and butterflies form a pun rebus picture known as ‘Xuān Dié Tú 萱耋图’, meaning ‘May mother live up to a ripe old age’. ‘Xuan 萱’ in the picture title comes from ‘xuan cao 萱草’, the Chinese name for lily’, and ‘dié 耋’, the Chinese character for ‘octogenarian’, is a pun on ‘dié 蝶’ for butterfly’, the image rendered together with lily flowers in the picture. It is obviously an apt theme for birthday present to mothers with a heartfelt wish.

Related blogs:

 

 

 

 

 

Cultural Differences in the Symbolic Meaning of Lily  萱草百合中西辨

 

 

 

 

 

The Birthday Party of the Queen Mother of the West  西王母祝寿

Xuan 萱’ comes from ‘xuan cao 萱草’,the Chinese name for ‘lily’. In traditional Chinese decorative arts, lily flowers symbolise motherhood and maternal bonds with children, and they figure prominently on articles created for mothers, expecting or being a birthday girl.

 

Related Pun Picture:

May mother live up to a ripe old age 萱耋

Related Motif & Symbol:

Happy birthday, Mother! 萱寿

Hollyhock (shu kui 蜀葵) implies that people’s hearts will follow their statesman or emperor.

 

Related motif:

Butterfly 蝴蝶

Book is a symbol of education or examinations.

Peony is a symbol of wealth and prestige.

The motif combination of book and peony sends a message to the receiver ‘You may become rich by receiving good education!’

 

Related Pun Picture:                                 

May you couple live a harmonious life and enjoy prestige 并蒂双贵

 

Related motif:

Peony 牡丹花

The peony flower, known in Chinese as ‘mudan hua 牡丹花’, has a nickname of ‘fu gui hua 富贵花’, literally meaning the flower of wealth and prestige.

 

Related motif:

Two-horned peony blossom 双犄牡丹

Related Pun Pictures:

May your wealth and privilege expectable 富贵有期

You may become super rich by receiving good education 读书大富贵

Guan 冠’ in the Chinese name ‘ji guan hua 鸡冠花’ for ‘cockscomb’ is a pun on ‘guan 官’, which means ‘high-ranking official’. The crest on the head of a rooster is also called ‘guan 冠’ in Chinese. Thus, the appearance of both the cockscomb and rooster in a picture represents the auspicious saying ‘guan shang jia guan 官上加官’, which is literally “an official plus an official” and is used to wish an official to get promotion after promotion.

As a variation, the popular auspicious good wish in the bureaucratic world can be expressed with a substitution of a grasshopper (guo guo’er 蝈蝈儿 in Beijing dialect) for the cockscomb plant. In Beijing dialect, the name of the grasshopper sounds similar to the word for ‘high official (guan’er 官儿)’. A further variation of the visual pun replaces the rooster with a jar. The jar, which is guan’er 罐儿 in Beijing dialect, puns on the word for ‘high official (guan’er 官儿)’.

This saying can be abbreviated as jia guan 加官’.

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May you do well in exams and enjoy wealth and prestige 功名富

May you enjoy imminent good fortune 大吉

Related motif:

Rooster 公鸡

The Chinese phrase ‘Gong ming 功名’ for ‘scholarly honour or official rank’ is a pun on two Chinese characters ‘gong 公’ and ‘ming 鸣’.

Gong 公’ from ‘gong ji 公鸡’, the Chinese name for ‘rooster’, makes pun on the Chinese word ‘gong 功’; and ‘ming 鸣’, which is the Chinese word for ‘cock’s crowing’, is a pun on ‘ming 名’.

Peony has a nickname in Chinese as ‘fu gui hua 富贵花’, literally, the ‘flower of wealth and prestige’.

Thus, the combination of roosters and peony flowers in one picture in Chinese people’s eyes sends the message of wishing someone do well in civil-service examinations, and go on to enjoy a rich and prestigious life.

The design may also be referred to as fu gui you qi 富贵有期’.

 

Related motifs:

Rooster 公鸡

Peony 富贵花

An egret and lotus flowers (莲花) are pictured in combination to infer ‘Yi Lu Qing Lian’, which means ‘You are an honest and uncorrupted official in your entire career’.

Yi lu 一鹭’ for ‘one egret’ puns on ‘yi lu 一路’ for ‘all the way’; ‘qing lian 青莲 for ‘green lotus’ makes pun on ‘qing lian 清廉 for ‘honest and fair in government matters’. Hence the whole image is intended to describe somebody who has the integrity and has never been corrupted during the official career.

The same picture may be referred to as ‘Yi Lu Lian Ke 一路连科.

 

Related Pun Picture: 

May you couple live a harmonious life and enjoy prestige 并蒂双贵

Recommended reading:

More than a naturalistic motif of fish pond: recognition of Chinese pun rebus pictures

One of the most commonly drawn motifs in Chinese traditional artworks, particularly favoured by scholars.

Lotus in Chinese can be translated into He Hua (荷花) or Lian Hua (莲花). The use of their images, however, are interchangeable.

Lotus flower, leave, stem and pod may all have different meanings. See examples below:

Lotus bouquet 一把莲

May you pass examinations all the way 一路连科

You are an honest and uncorrupted official in your entire career 一路清廉