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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

The following article is a discussion of the substitution of a mythical beast for a horse as Grand Duke Jiang’s mount on three classic porcelain vases adorned with the same story scene of ‘Bo Yi and Shu Qi Trying to Stop the Mighty Zhou Army’. It focuses on the origin and evolution of the two disparate but homophonic expressions ‘Sibuxiang’ in late imperial China and clarifies the terminological confusion in the contemporary world.

Through analysing a famous theme that depicts Bo Yi and Shu Qi Stopping the Zhou Army, Dr Yibin Ni has compared a number of porcelain vessels from Ming and Qing dynasties, and demonstrated his unique insight which can facilitate the correct dating of Chinese antiques.

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.

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.

The Chinese character for ‘monkey’ is 猴 hou and it puns on the word for ‘marquis’ in Chinese 侯 hou. The expression ‘mashang 马上’ in Chinese is ambiguous in that it can mean, literally, ‘on a/the horse’, or it can mean, idiomatically, ‘right away’. Therefore, an image of a monkey on the back of a horse can be used, auspiciously, to convey the message ‘May you be bestowed the title of a marquis presently’.

Related Pun Pictures:

May you be created a peer and earn a handsome official income 爵禄封侯

May you have an imminent promotion 封侯

Bo Yi (or Boyi, 伯夷) and Shu Qi (or Shuqi, 叔齐) were sons of the ruler of Guzhu (孤竹), a vassal state of the Shang dynasty (商朝, 16th-11th cent. BCE). As the king was getting old, he wanted Shu Qi, his youngest son, to inherit his throne. However, when the father died, Shu Qi asked Bo Yi to take over the throne because he thought Bo Yi was the eldest brother and rightly deserved the position. Bo Yi declined the offer, saying that their father’s wishes should not be altered and then he left the country. Shu Qi followed and left the country, too. With their absence, another brother of theirs was enthroned.

While wandering along the coast of the North Sea, the two brothers heard that another vassal of Shang, the Zhou state, was an ideal place for a peaceful and quiet retired life and they set off to go there. When they arrived, the old ruler, Count of the Zhou had just passed away and his son enthroned himself as King Wu (武王) and posthumously gave his father the title of King Wen (文王). King Wu believed that he was the next person to have the mandate from Heaven to rule the Shang territories, instead of just being the Count of Zhou under the Shang.

With the veteran strategist the Grand Duke Jiang Ziya (姜子牙, or Jiang Taigong 姜太公), King Wu was launching a military campaign to overthrow the Shang house, when the two brothers appeared in the middle of the road. They tried to stop King Wu’s army and admonished him, ‘Can it be called observing filial piety when one launches a military campaign before one has properly buried one’s diseased father? Can it be called a gentleman’s proper behaviour when a subject is to assassinate his lord?’ King Wu’s entourage then tried to kill the two but Grand Duke Jiang stopped them, saying, ‘They are righteous people.’ Then Mr Jiang helped the two move out of the way and the army marched on.

The story scene depicted on the famille verte Kangxi vase in the previous Jie Rui Tang Collection was first unveiled by Dr Yibin Ni. He has since published two more articles discussing the figural composition in such theme and Jiang Ziya’s riding painted on the antique porcelain vases.

References:

  1. 倪亦斌:《武王子牙举旗伐商 伯夷叔齐叩马阻兵》,《读者欣赏》,兰州:读者出版传媒股份有限公司,2016-07,60-65 页
  2. 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. 22-25.

Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty (隋炀帝, r. 606-18) is known for many achievements, such as linking the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers with the man-made Grand Canal, leading successful military campaigns expanding the Sui territory, and being accomplished in the arts. Despite those, Emperor Yang is also considered to have brought disaster to the country and misery to the people late in his life with his unwise rule and decadent and debauched lifestyle with his concubines. In the West Park, outside Luoyang, his consorts (wives who ranked lower than his primary wife, the empress) often organised his concubines to do equestrian performances and variety shows to entertain the emperor and please his inflated ego.

One of the best known of these vignettes was the procession of Lady Wang Zhaojun (王昭君, c.52 – c.15 BCE) in a moonlit night. (Lady Wang Zhaojun was one of the legendary Four Beauties of Ancient China. She had been in the harem of Emperor Yuan of the Western Han dynasty [汉元帝, 206 BCE – 8 CE]. He eventually sent her off by horseback in a procession to marry a Central Asian tribal chieftain.) The elderly Emperor Yang is often depicted enthusiastically observing his elegant court ladies showing off their riding skills in the spirit of Lady Wang, while anticipating further antics to follow.

This scene has often been mistaken as ‘female generals of the Yang family’(杨门女将) by many art historians. However, Dr Yibin Ni has found that historical woodblock illustrations such as that of the novel Romance of Sui and Tang (隋唐演义), and New-Year prints such as Wang Zhaojun’s Galloping Horses (新彩昭君跑马) bear similar scenes with clear written titles which reveal that the scene is actually meant to be a cautionary tale for rulers. Chu Renhuo (褚人获)’s Romance of Sui and Tang fictionalises the historical events leading to the fall of the Sui dynasty and the subsequent rise of the Tang.

Literature:

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. 30-33.