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.
More than a simple assemblage of individual symbols of longevity: Discussion on a Chinese pictorial narrative scene of ‘Hai Wu Tian Chou’
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.
Congratulations on art historian Dr Yibin Ni’s new research into a rare story scene in Chinese pictorial art, which may have puzzled contemporary museum curators and porcelain collectors. Dr Ni has traced the art historical context in which this rare pictorial scene of The Wife of the Bow Maker in the State of Jin was created and provided us with historical evidence to identify and illuminate its unique composition. His work on this previously mysterious story scene has undoubtedly contributed to the treasure trove of Chinese iconography.
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.
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.
The Peony Pavilion is a famous play written by Tang Xianzu in Ming Dynasty. There are very few figural paintings depicting this play on Kangxi famille verte porcelain. Dr Yibin Ni first identified the figures and the scene on a porcelain dish in the V&A Museum at the turn of the millennium, and now is discussing a couple of incorrect details in the description of the scene in their online catalogue.
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.
Bo Yi and Shu Qi Stopping the Zhou Army: analysis of traditional Chinese figures and story scenes in assisting dating of antiques
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.
This is a republication of Dr Yibin Ni’s article written in Chinese “明末清初瓷器上张生的‘凝视’和莺莺的挑战”(Gaze from Scholar Zhang and the response from Lady Cui Yingying: a discussion of figural depiction on porcelains from Late Ming to Early Qing dynasty).
Appreciation of Chinese visual art: depiction of Laozi, the personification of Dao (Tao) on a buffalo’s back
Have you ever wondered why images of an old scholarly man riding a buffalo are often depicted on Chinese antiques? What is so special about this man who looks highly respected and followed by yet still sitting on a buffalo’s back? We hereby invite art historian Dr Yibin Ni to solve the mystery…
Do you wonder why two warriors are waving swords over a rock that looks like a cross bun? Let Dr Yibin Ni demystify this enigmatic scene for you, which illustrates the old Chinese saying ‘bedfellows dream different dreams’!
Story scenes painted on Chinese porcelains are sometimes mysterious and challenging to understand. Dr Yibin Ni, whose specialised research is to demystify figures and story scenes, and decode motifs, symbols and pun rebuses in Chinese art, is here to tell the modern world about a story that happened two and a half thousand years ago in ancient China.
Have you wondered why the same story scenes were painted differently on Chinese artworks? How was it painted to present women falling in love on Chinese antique porcelains? Read on to see what Dr Yibin Ni has to say with his analysis.
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.
There are thirty-six well-known stratagems (三十六计) that the Chinese politicians, strategists, and businessmen have been using for millennia. One of them is the ‘ruse of inflicting pain on oneself or one’s comrades to gain the enemy’s trust’. The scene depicted here is its most famous illustration.
Zhou Yu (周瑜) was a brilliant strategist and a fine military figure in Chinese history and a major protagonist in the 14th-century Chinese historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义). During the Battle of Red Cliff (赤壁之战), he successfully implemented this stratagem with the collaboration of his junior general Huang Gai (黄盖) by flogging him severely in public. As a result, his enemy, Warlord Cao Cao (曹操), fell into Zhou’s trap. Cao Cao’s gigantic ‘Armada’ fleet was burnt completely, ignited by Huang Gai’s fuel-filled boat pretending to surrender to Cao.
image identification on porcelain and literature research by Dr Yibin Ni
Young scholar Zhang Junrui (张君瑞, also called Zhang Sheng 张生) is the male protagonist in the famous ancient Chinese play, Romance of the Western Chamber (西厢记 Xixiang ji, alternative translation is The Story of the Western Wing). He was commonly referred to as Scholar Zhang. The son of a cabinet minister of the court, he suffered the tragedy of losing both parents. This left him with only his sword and his books for solace and entertainment. Thus, he decided to sit for civil-service examinations. In Episode 2 of the play, he set off on horseback to the capital with his pageboy. The scene (in fig. 9 & 11) depicts the moment when they approached the district of Pudong on the west bank of the Yellow River, in the territory of the Hezhong Prefecture (张生至蒲东).
image identification and literature research: by Dr Yibin Ni
Other episodes in the Romance of the Western Chamber:
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.
- 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.
- 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
This is a story of a brave woman who boldly exercised her rhetorical competence, managed to correct the erring ruler and saved her husband from execution. The story of The Wife of the Bow Maker in the State of Jin (晋弓工妻) is recorded in Chapter 6 Convincing and Perceptive (辩通传), Biographies of Exemplary Women (列女传 Lienv zhuan), the earliest extant book for moral education of women in China.
Duke Ping of Jin (晋平公, r. 557-532 BCE) was the sovereign of the State of Jin. Once he ordered a bow to be made for his personal use and the job took three years to finish. The duke happily received the new bow and tried it out with great expectation. Wooden strips for writing at that time were used as the testing target. The duke was sorely dismayed when the arrow did not pierce even one layer of the wooden strips. The duke wanted to have the bow maker executed for his utter incompetence. As soon as the bow maker’s wife heard about the news, she rushed to the palace. In front of the duke, the bow maker’s wife demonstrated her brilliant mastery of reasoning skills. First, she quoted famous benevolent anecdotes practised by past admirable rulers. Second, she enumerated all the best materials her husband had managed to select over a very long time in order to make this finest bow. Third, she pointed out that it is absolutely absurd to blame the bow for the previous ineffective shooting since it was none other than the result of the duke’s misuse of the bow. She then went on teaching the duke the right way of holding the bow and drawing the string and the right moment to release the arrow. The duke followed her advice. This time, the arrow hit the target and went right through seven layers of wooden strips! The reputation of the bow maker was instantly restored and the duke rewarded him 60 taels of gold.
The story scene depicted in the middle of the Kangxi plate currently collected by V&A Museum was first unveiled by Dr Yibin Ni. His article with historical evidence is published here.
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.
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.
‘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:
‘True love conquers all’ is the theme of the Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭 Mudan Ting), a musical play of fifty-five scenes written by Tang Xianzu (汤显祖, 1550-1616) in Ming dynasty. Also known as The Romance of Return of Soul (还魂记 Huanhun Ji), the play contains a supernatural love story between Du Liniang (杜丽娘), the only daughter of the Nan’an prefect (南安太守) Mr. Du, and Liu Mengmei (柳梦梅), a civil-service examination candidate. At the beginning of the play, there was a passionate rendezvous of the two in the form of Liniang’s dream in the back garden with vigorously budding bushes during a warm spring afternoon. The encounter was so indelible to the adolescent girl that she eventually died of longing for her ‘dream’ lover. The play narrates how the couple overcome all the obstacles along the way to their union. Their experiences transcend not only time and space but also life and death.
The story scene depicted in the centre of the Shunzhi bowl in the Butler collection and the Kangxi dish in the collection of the V&A Museum was first unveiled by Dr Yibin Ni. His research article with pictorial and literary evidence is available for view here.
- 倪亦斌:《明末时尚女子的情色告白》,《艺术世界》, 上海: 上海文艺出版社, 2004-03, pp.72-73.
- 倪亦斌:《明末时尚女子的情色告白》,《看图说瓷》, 北京: 中华书局, 2008, pp.1-10.
Evidently, Zhao Kuangyin (赵匡胤 927-976), Emperor Taizu of the Song dynasty (宋太祖), often paid unofficial surprise visits to his courtiers. As a result, his ministers did not dare to change their official attire into casual wear even when they returned home from court. They had to be ready for imperial visits any time and did not want to appear discourteous when the emperor arrived.
As Emperor Taizu’s most entrusted strategist, Zhao Pu (赵普 922-992) was the most important politician in the court of the first two Song emperors, Taizu and Taizong (宋太宗 939-997). Emperor Taizu often consulted him on matters of national security and power consolidation. ‘Emperor Zhao Kuangyin Visiting Grand Chancellor Zhao Pu on a Snowing Evening’ is an epitome of the emperor’s comradeship with his right-hand-man.
One bitterly cold snowy evening, Zhao looked at the blowing snow outside with a sense of relief. He thought that it would be most unlikely that the emperor would come out of his palace in such weather. No sooner had Zhao Pu sat down with a book than he was informed that the emperor was at the gate.
Zhao Pu hurried to the courtyard and knelt down to welcome the sovereign. Double mattresses were laid on the floor of the hall and barbecue grill racks were set to cook meat. When Zhao Pu’s wife came out to serve wine, the emperor addressed her as ‘Sister-in-law’.
During this casual home visit, the emperor told Zhao Pu his grave concern of reunifying China. Sure enough, Zhao Pu came up with effective strategies to subjugate various small kingdoms starting from the south, which was fertile and rich but weak in combat forces. The meeting laid the foundation of the following nineteen-year military campaigns that reunited the Chinese people.
Other stories of emperors from different dynasties:
The main figure in the scene is a dignitary, often gripping a hu (笏) tablet in his hands, which an official uses to take notes when he has audience with the emperor in court. He is usually sheltered by page boys erecting some fans or a parasol or guarded by a soldier holding a weapon with an iron melon on the top. Facing the dignitary is an attendant presenting a vase containing three miniature ji (戟) halberds to him. Sometimes there is a tray underneath the vase. The Chinese character for ‘vase’ is 瓶 ping, which is a pun on 平 ping for ‘unexpectedly’ or ‘surprisingly’. The character for the halberd is 戟 ji, which puns on 级 ji for ‘grade or rank’ and three halberds stand for ‘three ranks’. Put together, the design is used to express the message “May you have three successive promotions unexpectedly” (平升三级 ping sheng san ji).
Related Pun Pictures:
When Prefect Mao Bao 毛宝 was stationed in the city of Wuchang 武昌, Hebei province, during the Jin dynasty (晋 265-420), there was a story about a white tortoise who repays its benefactor by saving his life.
One day, one of Mao Bao’s soldiers went to market for groceries and returned to the camp with an extra white tortoise. The tortoise was about four or five inches long and still young and vulnerable. So the soldier took the responsibility to feed it. When the tortoise grew to be too large to be living in a tub, the soldier set it free to the Yangtze River. Later, the army that the soldier belonged to was defeated in a battle. In despair, the soldier put on his full armour and threw himself into the river with his cleaver in the hand. Curiously, he found himself landed on a rock unhurt. To his amazement, it was none other than the very white-backed tortoise he had raised! Now it turned out to be a giant fellow, 6 to 7 feet long. The tortoise carried the solider to the east shore and he survived the enemy’s slaughter.
image identification and literature research by Dr Yibin Ni
Another story relating to ‘Repaying Gratitude’:
This scene is an episode from the Ming drama ‘The Story of the Girl Holding a Red Fly Whisk (红拂记 Hongfu ji)’.
The story is an account of how a talented scholar Li Jing (李靖) meets Lord Yang Su 杨素’s favourite singsong girl Red Fly Whisk (红拂女). Later, they meet the formidable knight errant Zhang Zhongjian (张仲坚) whose nickname is Curly-bearded Fellow (虬髯客), and they form the well-known ‘Three Chivalrous Heroes of the Wind and Dust 风尘三侠’.
Through twists and turns, the Curly Beard realised that Li Shimin 李世民 (598 – 649) was the true ‘dragon’s son’ and, therefore, destined to be the future ruler of the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) and decided not to compete with him. After Curly-bearded Fellow handed over to Li Jing and Red Fly Whisk all his possessions, he left for overseas to start his cause of taking over a small kingdom of Fuyu in the south-east sea. Before his departure, he told the couple that in ten years’ time they would hear his success and should celebrate this occasion by pouring him a libation of wine toward south-east.
In the present scene, the sensible knight Zhang with his signature baby-dragon-like (虬髯) beard is riding a horse, accompanied by his wife sitting in a wheeled sedan chair on their way abroad.
The Ming-dynasty play The Story of the Blue Robe (青袍记 Qingpao ji, also called《梁氏父子传胪记》) tells the story of how Lv Dongbin (吕洞宾 Lü Dongbin or 吕纯阳), one of the Eight Daoist Immortals (八仙 baxian), survived a catastrophe with the help of Liang Hao 梁灏 and repaid him by ensuring him to be able to enjoy the highest academic title, longevity, and a flourishing extended family.
A scholar named Liang Hao in Song dynasty was the human form taken by the God of Literacy when he was disgraced to be sent to the human world. Once the Thunder God and Lightning Goddess were ordered to cleanse the earth with seven days of thunderstorm. This was the ordeal which Lv Dongbin, Liu Hai 刘海, Iron-Crutch Li 铁拐李, Han Shan 寒山, and Shi De 拾得 were all predestined to go through. Liang Hao helped Lv Dongbin by letting him hide in his fingernail as a grain. After Lv Dongbin survived the disaster, he decided to repay Liang Hao by leaving him with his good wishes for a successful career, longevity, and many successful descendants.
The next day, Liang Hao invited his three friends over and dined and wined them on a boat. Towards the evening, two of the friends said that they heard that there was a spirit in the Pavilion of Looking at Immortals (望仙楼) and whoever spent a night there would come under its spell. They dared Liang Hao to spend the night there for a reward of a tael of silver. Liang Hao took up the challenge and stayed in the pavilion reading by a lamp. Lv Dongbin thought that this was an opportunity and mobilised a willow-tree spirit (柳树精 liushu jing) to carry a girl to Liang to be his future wife. Since the girl was taken from her bed and arrived naked, Liang Hao had to wrap her in his blue robe, hence the title of the play. Liang Hao sent the girl to spend the night with his mother and the following day the girl’s parents were informed of the event and happily married their daughter to Liang Hao.
Li Yuan 李渊 (566-635 CE) excelled at horse-riding, archery, and calligraphy as a young man. He was to be the future founder (reigned 618-626 CE) of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Miss Dou was exceptionally smart and her father Dou Yi 窦毅, the governor of Dingzhou, was very particular about the quality of his future son-in-law. The family decided to erect a screen with two peacocks painted on it and announced whoever could shoot two arrows on each of the peacock’s eye would be qualified to win Miss Dou’s hand. Dozens of young men entered for the competition but left with disappointment because of failure in achieving the full score. Li Yuan as a later comer managed to hit the eye of each peacock with the two arrows and thus captured Miss Dou’s hand.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
Ancient literature shows that Laozi (Lao Tzu, 老子) served as the Keeper of the Imperial Archives of the Eastern Zhou court (东周, 770 – 258BCE). He must have greatly benefited from the perk of the job – the easy access to the best stock of classics written on bamboo slips at the time and became so learned that even Confucius (孔子, 551 – 479BCE), the paragon of the Chinese sages, consulted him several times on matters concerning rituals of mourning and funeral and spoke very highly of him.
The legendary meeting between Laozi and Confucius was first pictorially presented during the Eastern Han period (东汉, 25 – 220CE), in which the two sages were usually bowing to each other with the precocious boy prodigy Xiang Tuo (项橐) standing between them. However, this early simple characterisation of the famous meeting was taken over by a new composition of the two literary giants surrounded by their own pupils and servants in late imperial China. One surviving early example attributed to the Yuan painter Shi Gang (史杠, active around 1352) staged the conference among huge jumbles of rocks in an austere landscape.
Laozi (Lao Tzu 老子) is a great ancient Chinese thinker, to whom a five-thousand-character book ‘Dao de jing 道德经’, or The Scripture of the Way and Virtue, has been attributed. He is regarded as the founder of philosophical Daoism (Taoism), daojia 道家, because of his profound insights to life and the world, and a supreme deity in religious Daoism (Taoism), daojiao 道教, and popular Chinese religious cults.
Legend goes that Laozi grew unhappy about the moral decay and decline of the society and decided to leave for the unsettled frontier in the west. A noble lie says that Yinxi (尹喜), the official in charge of Han’gu Pass (函谷关) on the border saw some purple clouds flying towards his direction, and then euphorically expected and welcomed the renowned master’s arrival. Yinxi managed to persuade the master to write down his wisdom before he began his new life as a hermit. The brief pamphlet, also named after its author as ‘Laozi’, enjoyed a long-lasting appeal, resulting in more than seven hundred commentaries devoted to it by men of letters throughout the long history of China.
When the old duke of Jin (晋) passed away, his heir was still in the cradle. It was with the powerful minister Zhao Dun (赵盾)’s support that he succeeded in ascending the throne. Unfortunately, the young duke, who was posthumously given the title Duke Ling of Jin, Jìn Líng Gōng (晋灵公, ? – 607 BCE), became increasingly the opposite of an ideal ruler. When the righteous Zhao Dun tried to alter the young duke’s misbehaviours by repeated remonstrances, he aroused resentment in the duke’s heart, who subsequently made several attempts on his life.
Once he made the excuse to invite Zhao to drink with him while soldiers were gathered to ambush him. Zhao’s retainer Timi Ming (提弥明) realised the plot and rushed to the table to rescue his master. When Zhao was supported to leave the place, the duke sent his immense dog to attack him. Timi was a valiant fighter and he smote the brute and put an end to it.
This scene served as a classic admonishing example for statesmen and rulers alike.
The young duke of the State of Jin (晋) who was posthumously given the title Duke Ling of Jin, Jìn Líng Gōng (晋灵公, ? – 607 BCE), has been known as a ‘ruler who does not deserve his title (bu jun 不君)’. His despotic behaviour was enumerated in the records by historiographers. For example, he levied heavy taxes to build more fancy palaces; he had the chef killed only because he didn’t cook his bear paws soft enough; and, when he was bored with shooting birds and animals in his ever-expanding parks, he whimsically indulged in shooting his ministers and pedestrians with catapult slingshots from his palatial terrace and enjoyed watching the victims suffering from the hazard and ducking the pellets.
This is a story of a righteous woman. As the army of the state of Qi (齐国) launched an invasion against the state of Lu (鲁国), soldiers approaching a Lu suburb saw a woman struggling along the road with two children. When the army got closer, she abandoned one of the children and grabbed the other, moving toward the mountains. When the general caught up with her and asked her why she had abandoned one child and run away with the other, the woman explained, ‘I was too weak to protect two children in this calamity. I parted with my own son in order to save my brother’s son; in line with the moral ideal of keeping others’ interests before one’s own.’ On hearing this, the general halted the advance and sent a messenger back to persuade his king not to continue fighting against the Lu, feeling that one could never beat a country in which even an illiterate woman had such high moral values.
The story scene depicted on the porcelain ware displayed in this listing was first deciphered by Dr Yibin Ni.
More story scenes on Morality:
In the 14th-century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义 – 甘露寺招亲), the generals in the Dongwu (东吴) kingdom conspired to murder Liu Bei (刘备), head of the Shu Han (蜀汉) kingdom, by inviting him to their territory with the promise of their king Sun Quan (孙权)’s sister for his wife. When Liu Bei was trapped in Sun Quan’s camp, he seized an opportunity while he was standing beside a large rock in the garden. Taking an attendant’s sword, Liu Bei pledged to Heaven, ‘If I am destined to succeed in my mission of reviving the Han, let this sword cut through the stone. Otherwise, let the stone remain intact.’ As he struck, the stone split in two. When Sun Quan came onto the scene and asked Liu Bei what he had wished for, Liu told him a lie to throw him off the scent.
Sun then gripped his own sword and cried, ‘I, too, shall put a question to Heaven.’ To himself, Sun Quan swore, ‘If Dongwu is to thrive, let the rock split!’ The giant stone broke again with Sun’s strike!
This tale aptly illustrates the expression, ‘being strange bedfellows’, i.e., sharing the same bed, but having different thoughts and dreams. The cross cracks on the rock are evidence of two strange bedfellows’ inner thoughts.
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:
With strategic plans to restore the war-torn country back to order, the talented scholar Li Jing (李靖) was paying a visit to the powerful Lord Yang Su (杨素), who enjoyed luxurious ways of living and female company around him. To Li Jing’s disappointment, Lord Yang did not take his plans seriously. However, Red Fly Whisk (红拂女 hongfu nv as nickname, real name 张凌华), an exceptionally beautiful maid who was present at the meeting, immediately fell head over heels for Li Jing, while Li was passionately airing his ambitious views to Lord Yang.
Read more story of Li Jing and Red Fly Whisk with the other hero Zhang Zhongjian (张仲坚, nicknamed the Curly-Bearded Fellow 虬髯客), who left all his possessions to the couple and went overseas to start his new life.
Read Dr Yibin Ni‘s interesting analysis on How to depict the scene of falling-in-love on Chinese porcelain.
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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.