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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

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.

In Chinese culture and pictorial art, the peach fruit is often used to wish for long life on birthday parties. How does this fruit become associated with the idea of longevity? Here is Dr Yibin Ni explaining to us the origin of legendary stories related to the peach through his research work over literatures and treasurable artworks.

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.

The Chinese character ‘橘 ju’ for ‘tangerine’ puns on the Chinese word ‘吉 ji’ for ‘good luck’. A green tangerine can be described in Chinese as ‘青橘 qing ju’, which makes a pun on the phrase ‘青吉 qing ji’, meaning ‘good luck’. Combining an apple, whose Chinese name puns on ‘peace’, with a green tangerine would be able to represent pictorially an auspicious wish ‘May We enjoy Universal Peace and Good Fortune’.

 

Related Pun Picture:

May we enjoy peace, good fortune, and prosperity 太平吉利

 

Narrative Story about Tangerine: 

Lu Ji hiding tangerines for his mother 陆绩怀橘遗亲

 

The image of apples, in addition to cue a pun on the ideal of ‘universal peace’, may be combined with lychee or tangerine to form pictorial puns with added meaning.

The Chinese characters ‘荔 li’ in ‘荔枝 li zhi’ for ‘lychee’ puns on the word ‘利 li’ for ‘benefit’ or ‘profit’, while the character ‘橘 ju’ for ‘tangerine’ puns on ‘吉 ji’ for ‘good luck’. Therefore, a composition with apples, lychees, and tangerines in it may be used to convey an auspicious wish ‘May We Enjoy Peace, Good Fortune, and Prosperity’.

Related Pun Picture:

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

In Chinese pictorial art, the image of the fruit ‘apple’ can be used to denote the pun on ‘peace and order’. The Chinese word ‘ping 苹’ in ‘ping guo 苹果 for ‘apple’ is a pun on ‘ping 平’ for ‘peace’. ‘Da 大’ in ‘da ping guo 大苹果’ for ‘big apple’ is tantamount to ‘tai 太’ for ‘utmost’. Thus, the image of big apples may serve to cue a pun on the Chinese phrase ‘tai ping 太平’ for ‘peace and order’ and a large basket of big healthy apples may be used to represent a eulogy for an ideal society.

Related Pun Pictures:

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

May we enjoy universal peace and good fortune 太平青吉

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

The phrase ‘gua die mian mian 瓜瓞绵绵’ is a variation of a line from the poem Mian 绵 collected in the section of the Greater Odes of the Kingdom (Daya 大雅) in the Classic of Poetry (Shijing 诗经). It is used as a metaphor for the continuation and flourishing of the family or clan along the male line. The Chinese character ‘gua 瓜’ refers to mature ‘melon’, ‘squash’, ‘gourd’, ‘pumpkin’, ‘cantaloupe’ and the like and the character ‘die 瓞’ to their young ones. The Shijing anthology was the oldest collection of songs and ballads existing in China, compiled during the period between the 11th to 7th centuries BCE. Metaphors, set phrases, and allusions from the anthology are rich sources for Chinese literary and pictorial culture over the millennia. Derived from the classic text, pictorial depictions of melons with spreading vines became a popular subject to wish the family prosperity of the patron.

Note:

The group of pictures displayed here have the same good wish as in pun pictures ‘May the male line in your family clan continue and flourish’, and yet they are academically different. The pictures here are ‘pictorial allusion’, rather than pun rebus pictures because they use pure pictorial descriptions to allude to a classic literary saying. There is no butterfly 蝶 in the images and therefore there is no pun for dié 瓞.

The phrase ‘gua die mian mian 瓜瓞绵绵’ is a variation of a line from a poem in the Classic of Poetry, Shijing 诗经, compiled in China during the period between the 11th to 7th centuries BCE, used as a metaphor for the continuation and flourishing of the family or clan along the male line. The Chinese character ‘gua 瓜’ refers to mature ‘melon’, ‘squash’, ‘gourd’, ‘pumpkin’, ‘cantaloupe’ and the like and the character ‘dié 瓞’ to their young ones. Derived from the classic text, pictorial depictions of melons with spreading vines became a popular subject to wish the family prosperity of the patron. Later, in order to liven the composition, butterflies were added because the character ‘dié 蝶’ for ‘butterfly’ or possibly ‘moth’ makes a pun on ‘dié 瓞’ for ‘small melons’ in the original phrase.

Related motif on the same topic:

Grape

 

Note: this pun picture is to be differentiated from a pictorial allusion May the male line in your family clan continue and flourish in Motifs & Symbols section.

According to the Account of Wu (吴志) in The Records of the Three Kingdoms (三国志), Lu Ji (陆绩), was a native of Wu. At the age of six, he had an opportunity to meet Yuan Shu (袁术), who at the time controlled the region of Jiujiang. Yuan Shu put out some tangerines for him to eat. Lu Ji surreptitiously stuffed three of them into the breast of his robe, but when he was making his parting bows, they rolled out to the ground. ‘Master Lu,’ said Yuan Shu, ‘is it proper for a guest to be hiding tangerines in the breast of his robe?’ Lu Ji knelt down and said, ‘I only wanted to take them home to give to my mother!’ Yuan Shu was much struck by his action. This anecdote was later included in The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety (二十四孝), compiled during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) by Guo Jujing (郭居敬).

image identification and literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

The peach fruit usually symbolises longevity or immortality in Chinese pictorial art. The origin of this idea started from legends dating back to the third century. Read Dr Yibin Ni‘s research article for related literatures and legendary stories from ancient China.

As a symbol of longevity, the peach fruit is often paired with the other potent symbols with similar meaning, such as the crane, the lingzhi (灵芝 fungus), and the shou 寿 character for longevity’, and is also associated with legendary immortals such as the monkey or the Monkey King (Sun Wukong 孙悟空), the Old Man of the South Pole (南极仙翁), also known as the Star God of Longevity (寿星), and Dongfang Shuo (东方朔), whose prominent deeds include stealing divine peaches from the Queen Mother’s peach garden.

Related topics:

The Birthday Party of the Queen Mother of the West 西王母寿宴

Eight Daoist Immortals 八仙

May you enjoy long life and always be blessed by good fortune 福寿万年

Pun Design: Persimmons + Apples + Quails

Punning Details

The Chinese character ‘shi 柿’ in ‘shi zi 柿子’ for ‘persimmon’ can pun on ‘shi 事’ for ‘things’. The repetition of ‘shi’ as ‘shi shi 事事’ means ‘everything’. The word ‘ping 苹’ in ‘ping guo 苹果’ for ‘apple’ can make a pun on ‘ping 平’ for ‘peace’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ puns on ‘an 安’, another Chinese word for ‘peace’.

 

画面要素: 柿子 + 苹果 + 鹌鹑

谐音详情: ‘柿子’ 中 ‘柿’ 与 ‘事’ 谐音, 叠字则为 ‘事事’, ‘苹果’ 中 ‘苹’ 谐音 ‘平’, ‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 与 ‘安’ 谐音。

 

Related Pun Rebus:

May you enjoy peace and harmony 安和

Pun Design: Persimmons + Quails

Punning Details:

The word ‘shi 柿’ in ‘shi zi 柿子’ for ‘persimmon’ can pun on ‘shi 事’ for ‘things’. The repetition of ‘shi’ as ‘shi shi 事事’ means ‘everything’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ puns on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’ and in this case cues the phrase ‘an shun 安顺’ for ‘peaceful and smooth’.

画面要素: 柿子 + 鹌鹑

谐音详情: ‘柿子’中 ‘柿’与 ‘事’ 谐音, 叠字则为 ‘事事’, ‘鹌鹑’ 谐音 ‘安顺’。

Pun Design: Apples + Quails + Lychee

Punning Details:

The Chinese character ‘ping 苹’ in ‘ping guo 苹果’ for ‘apple’ can make a pun on ‘ping 平’ for ‘peace’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ puns on ‘an 安’, another Chinese word for ‘peace’. The word ‘li 荔’ in ‘li zhi 荔枝’ for ‘lychee’ sounds the same as ‘li 利’ for ‘profit’. Thus, this seemingly random juxtaposition of lychee, quails, and apples was used by the prominent 20th-century Chinese painter Qi Baishi (齐白石, 1864-1957) to convey a good wish for the recipient of the painting to enjoy both wealth and peace.

 

画面要素: 苹果 + 鹌鹑 + 荔枝

谐音详情: ‘苹果’ 中 ‘苹’ 的谐音 ‘平’, ‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 与 ‘安’ 谐音, ‘荔枝’ 中 ‘荔’ 与 ‘利’ 谐音。

 

Related Pun Rebus:

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

Grapes grow in clusters of up to 300 berries each and thus produce an enormous number of seeds. This property was regarded by the ancient Chinese as an apt allusion to their wish for a large number of offspring. That is why grapes are seen adorning various kinds of Chinese antiques, handcrafts, and bric-a-brac, often, together with squirrels, which are known for their amazing ability to multiply, and the two together form a make-belief scene of animal eating habit.

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

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.