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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

‘福 fu’, a Chinese character bearing an auspicious meaning of ‘good fortune’, has been used often in Chinese decorative arts. Dr Yibin Ni will tell you some interesting stories related to this character and how the intended meaning is represented in various art forms.

More often than not, traditional Chinese motifs or symbols are not receiving their deserved attention, being given simplistic or inadequate labels and inaccurate explanations in our museums, catalogues, or even scholarly writing. The treatment of many pictorial representations of the thousand-year-old literary anecdote ‘A bamboo counter is being added to the house in the sea (海屋添筹 hai wu tian chou)’ is a case in point.

Are you afraid of small insects such as spiders? Why do we see this tidy dangling creature a popular motif used in traditional Chinese art? There is a secret here…

In the oracle bone script, the earliest form of the Chinese characters, the pictograph ‘福 (fu)’ consists of a pair of hands holding a wine jar in front of a sacred ancestral symbol. It means that, if the ancestors were pleased properly with right offerings, good fortune would come to bless the descendants.

Read here for an account of how the ‘福 fu’ character became a poster on people’s front door on the first day of the Chinese New Year.

More than two millennia ago, the Chinese had their ideals in life summarised as ‘五福 wu fu’, the Five Blessings, and recorded them in the Book of Documents (书经 Shujing) in the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046 – 256 BCE). They are ‘longevity 寿 shou’, ‘wealth 富 fu’, ‘wellbeing and peace 康宁 kang ning’, ‘love of virtue 攸好德 you hao de’, and ‘natural death 考终命 kao zhong ming’.

The old and auspicious ideal embodied in the ‘福 fu’ character is often represented artistically with images of bats in Chinese decorative arts. It is not because the Chinese appreciate the appearance of bats, but because ‘蝠 fu’, the Chinese name for bats, happens to pun on ‘福 fu’ for ‘good fortune’.

In Late Imperial China, the ‘福 fu’ character was personified by the Star God of Good Fortune (福星 fu xing), a figurine of a male deity, who was one of the trio of the ‘Three Star Gods (三星 san xing)’. The other two companions were the Star God of Emoluments (禄星 lu xing) and the Star God of Longevity (寿星 shou xing).

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni

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

The flying mammal bat is called bian fu (蝙蝠) in Chinese. Image of the bat including its various stylised forms are often used in Chinese art to express an auspicious meaning, as ‘蝠 (fu)’ in ‘蝙蝠’ puns on ‘福 (fu)’ which means ‘good luck’, ‘good fortune’, and/or ‘happiness’ in Chinese. Therefore, one or more bats flying in the sky towards people is an auspicious pun rebus design popular in traditional China.

Related Pun Pictures:

May unexpected good luck descend on you! 喜从天降

In this scene, there are several Chinese longevity symbols such as the crane, the generic immortal, the pine tree, and the deer, etc. However, the proper meaning of this particular scene is not a simple assemblage of individual symbols. It is a snapshot of a coherent narrative that has been well-loved and widely consumed in the visual oeuvre that represents the Chinese longevity ideal.

The literary origin of the scene can be traced back to an anecdote collected in Notes by Dongpo (东坡志林), compiled by a prominent man of letters of the Song dynasty, Su Shi (苏轼, 1037-1101). During one chance meeting of three geriatric men, the topic of age was broached. Each one of them tried their best to exaggerate his own great age. The second speaker famously boasted, ‘After every cycle of the sea drying up and becoming mulberry fields, I put a strip of bamboo in my house as a counter and now the strips have already filled ten of the rooms.’ Later, this dramatic detail evolved into a classic allusion to longevity, a popular dream cherished by all people in China. Pictorial representations of this dramatic moment were invented and elaborated into different versions to adorn birthday presents of all kinds.

Initially, the title of the scene is, literally: ‘A bamboo counter is being added to the house in the sea (海屋添筹 hai wu tian chou)’. The first two characters of the phrase resulted from compressing the paragraph spoken by the second speaker in the story into an abbreviation consisting of the first and the last characters 海屋 hai wu (‘海水变桑田时, 吾辄下一筹, 尔来吾筹已满十间屋’). The coined two-character phrase ‘海屋 hai wu’ now means a ‘pavilion at sea’, serving as the first two characters in the set phrase. The rest two characters of the phrase ‘添筹 tianchou’ denotes the action (of a crane) adding a bamboo strip as a counter’. Thus, the four-character phrase alludes to the second speaker’s words in the original story.

During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), pun rebus designs became more and more popular in folk decorative arts. The last character of the phrase ‘筹 chou’ for ‘bamboo strip counter’, acquired a pun on ‘寿 shou’, the Chinese character for ‘longevity’. Then, the phrase virtually conveys the meaning of a birthday wish: ‘May the length of your life be eternally prolonged (海屋添寿 hai wu tian shou)’. One of the earliest mentions of this pun phrase in literature can be found in Section 22 in the second part of the book Tao Ya (匋雅), or ‘Notes of Chinese Best Pottery and Porcelain’, compiled by Chen Liu (陈浏) and published in 1910.

This research article is written by Dr Yibin Ni.

Literature:

  1. Jeffrey P. Stamen and Cynthia Volk with Yibin Ni, A Culture Revealed: Kangxi-Era Chinese Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection: Jieruitang Publishing, Bruges, 2017, p. 84-85.
  2. 倪亦斌:《仙鹤寿桃祝寿碗 暗藏海屋添筹图》,《读者欣赏》,兰州:读者出版传媒股份有限公司,2018-01,110-117 页

Either the clockwise swastika 卐 or the counterclockwise sauwastika 卍 is used interchangeably in Chinese decorative arts as well as in some religious contexts. Sometimes, the two opposite versions can co-occur on the same occasion without making a difference in meaning. Swastika is a very old symbol in the cultures scattered over the Eurasian continent. In China, it can be traced back to the painted pottery created in the Neolithic Majiayao 马家窑 culture existing from 3300 to 2000 BCE in the upper Yellow River region encompassing present-day eastern Gansu 甘肃, eastern Qinghai 青海, and northern Sichuan 四川 provinces. In the Eastern Han (25CE – 220CE) period, the swastika was introduced to China with Buddhist iconography and became prominent. However, it was not until the Tang Empress Wu Zetian 武则天 (684–704) made her decree that its pronunciation be ‘wan 万’ that it was accepted as a fully-fledged Chinese character, sounding the same as the number 10,000 in Chinese. Roughly speaking, it means ‘the myriad auspicious things in the universe’.

In decorative arts, swastika is often used together with various versions of the character shou 寿, the auspicious Chinese symbol bat, and the longevity symbol peach fruit. In late imperial China, swastika is widely found as the ground pattern on fabrics and on architectural or furniture elements such as paved passage ways and lattice pattern on railings, window frames, and cabinet doors.

Related Pun Picture:

May you have inexhaustible good fortune and longevity 万福万寿

When swastika is combined with the Chinese character shou 寿 (meaning long life) and the image of the bat, whose pronunciation puns on the Chinese word fu 福 for ‘luck’ or ‘good fortune’, the composition is used to express good wishes of the highest order on the receiver’s life span and good fortune, such as ‘May you have inexhaustible good fortune and longevity (万福万寿)’ or, more commonly, May you enjoy long life and always be blessed by good fortune (福寿万年)’. Art works adorned with this design are apt birthday presents for revered personages up to kings and emperors.

Either the clockwise swastika 卐 (sounding ‘wan’ 万) or the counterclockwise sauwastika 卍 is used interchangeably in Chinese decorative arts as well as in some religious contexts, as can be seen co-occurring on the same vessel displayed here. Roughly speaking, the swastika means ‘the myriad auspicious things in the universe’.

When swastika is combined with the Chinese character shou 寿 (meaning long life) and the image of the bat, whose pronunciation puns on the Chinese word fu 福 for ‘luck’ or ‘good fortune’, the composition is used to express good wishes of the highest order on the receiver’s life span and good fortune, such as ‘May you enjoy long life and always be blessed by good fortune (福寿万年)’ or ‘May you have inexhaustible good fortune and longevity (万福万寿)’. Art works adorned with this design are apt birthday presents for revered personages up to kings and emperors.

The characteristic Chinese longevity symbol, the peach fruit, is often used in this pun rebus design as an alternative or reinforcement of the character shou, with a more naturalistic touch.

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

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

Gourd (葫芦, hu lu) in Chinese is pronounced similar to ‘fu (福, fortune)’ and ‘lu (禄, wealth)’, therefore its image is often used as a pun picture referring fortune and wealth. In order to emphasise the good wish expressed by the image, traditionally the gourd is often presented in combination with bat 蝠, whose pronunciation in Chinese is also fu.

Bats in Chinese is called bian fu (蝙蝠) or fu (蝠). The image of bats is often used to represent ‘good luck’ or ‘good fortune’ in Chinese decorative arts. It is not because the Chinese appreciate the appearance of bats, but because ‘蝠 fu’, the Chinese name for bats, happens to pun on ‘福 fu’ for ‘good fortune’, thus bearing an auspicious symbol.

Related Pun Pictures:

Gourd 葫芦 

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

Also called ‘ba bao’ (八宝), ‘ba rui xiang’ (八瑞相), or ‘ji xiang ba bao’(吉祥八宝).

There are eight emblems in traditional Tibetan Buddhism symbolising happiness and spiritual well-being: Dharma wheel, conch shell, parasol, lotus, treasure vase, golden fish, victory banner, and endless knot.

Pun design:

Spider + descending from the sky

Punning mechanism:

‘Zhi zhu (蜘蛛, spider)’ has a nickname ‘xi zi (蟢子)’ or ‘xi zhu (喜蛛)’ meaning the ‘lucky one’ or ‘lucky spider’.

Its first character ‘xi 喜(蟢)’ for ‘happiness (good luck)’ is then combined with the phrase ‘cong tian jiang (从天降)’, meaning ‘descending from the sky’.

The whole phrase (喜从天降) describing the spider’s action in the picture is to convey the meaning ‘pleasant surprise descending on you’.

 

画面要素:蜘蛛 + 从天降

谐音机制 : 取蜘蛛的别名‘喜蛛’谐音‘喜’; 某物自天而降,取‘从天降’

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May good fortune descend from heaven 喜从天降

Related blog:

Why do Chinese artists often paint spider in their works?

Ji 鸡’ is a generic name for cockerel, hen, and chick, and sounds the same as ‘ji 吉’ for ‘good fortune’. Thus, a picture of many chickens is used to represent ‘abundant good fortune’.

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May you enjoy imminent good fortune 大吉

May everything fare fabulously in your family 室上大吉 

Related motif: Rooster 公鸡

A large Longquan pottery rooster sculpted on a rock sends good fortune to the receiver’s or owner’s family because da ji 大 鸡 for ‘large rooster’ sounds the same as da ji 大 吉 for ‘great good fortune’ and shi shang 石上 for ‘on the rock’ puns on shi shang 室上 for ‘in your family’. Hence the rooster announces to the proud owner “May everything fare fabulously in your family!”

 

Related Pun Picture: May you enjoy imminent good fortune 大吉

Related motif: Rooster 公鸡

The Chinese name for rooster or chicken is ji 鸡, which is a pun on ji 吉 ‘good fortune’. ‘Da’ is the Chinese adjective for ‘big’ and ‘da ji‘ literally means ‘large rooster’ but puns on ‘great luck’.

Thus, these paintings convey the message ‘May you enjoy imminent good fortune’. It can be used on many social occasions where people wish the receiver to enjoy good fortune.

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May everything fare fabulously in your family 室上大吉

May you be blessed by good luck in all you do 百吉

Related motif: Rooster 公鸡