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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

People who are not familiar with Chinese history and parables may have the impression that the above image is a genre painting of fisherman’s daily life. But in fact, there is more meaning to it. Dr Yibin Ni will explain the story in detail and how this story scene has been presented in various forms of artworks.

Mr Henk B. Nieuwenhuys from the Netherlands is the first foreigner who has kindly donated his art collection to China. Here are short video clips from a documentary made for this special event, in which Dr Yibin Ni was invited to introduce Nieuwenhuys’ antique collection and the story depicted on the porcelain bottle.

The story scene refers to an old Chinese saying: in the fight between the sandpiper and the clam, the fisherman has the best of it. This parable came from an ancient Chinese text entitled ‘Strategies of the Warring States (战国策 Zhanguo Ce)’. The book contains anecdotes of diplomacy and warfare during the Warring States period (5th to 3rd centuries BC).

The State of Zhao (赵国) was planning to attack the State of Yan (燕国). Su Dai (苏代) was sent by the State of Yan to the State of Zhao to try to prevent the imminent calamity. During the audience that Su Dai had with King Huiwen of Zhao (趙惠文王, 310-266 BCE, r. 298-266 BCE), he found a clever way to persuade the king to change his mind. Here is Su Dai’s speech:

When I was leaving my country crossing the Yi River (in the present-day Yi County, Hebei province), I saw a clam lying open, enjoying the sunshine on the bank. Out of the blue, a sandpiper flew down and tried to snatch a morsel to eat between its shells. The clam promptly slammed its shells shut, locking the sandpiper’s beak in between. The sandpiper tried to wriggle out of the situation, saying, ‘If it doesn’t rain today and it doesn’t rain tomorrow, there will be a dead clam on the river bank.’ The clam retorted, ‘If I don’t let you go today and nor do I tomorrow, there will be a dead sandpiper on the river bank.’ While they grappled in a dead lock, a fisherman passed by and picked both up with very little effort. Now, if your majesty launched an attack on Yan, Yan would certainly try to resist your invasion. And the fight between the two countries would make both weak and then the State of Qin would be acting as that ‘fisherman’. I urge your majesty to reconsider your plan.

The king of Zhao got the message from Su’s story and called off the military campaign.

As a cautionary tale, this parable has been favoured by Chinese people for two millennia and has often been made into 2D or 3D images to educate the young.

Read Dr Yibin Ni‘s research blog here regarding how this important pictorial motif was rediscovered from previous research papers and museum catalogues that only took it as genre painting.

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.

Wang Zhaojun (王昭君, c.52 – c.15 BCE) was one of the court ladies in the harem of Emperor Yuan of the Western Han dynasty (汉元帝, 206 BCE – 8 CE). It was not possible for the emperor to meet every one of the three-thousand concubines, so he had a court painter paint their pictures to facilitate his selection process. Every lady tried very hard to win the painter’s favour so that the painter can represent them in a more flattering image. But Lady Wang Zhaojun was confident in her own beauty. She didn’t want to bribe the painter. As a result, the painter didn’t show her beauty in the portrait and the emperor never noticed her.

During that time, some nomadic groups from the western region invaded China quite often, so the emperor wanted to make peace with them by marrying some of his ladies to the chieftains. On one occasion, Lady Wang was chosen. When Lady Wang was unveiled at the court, her beauty stunned everybody present and the emperor was deeply regretted for not knowing her earlier. However, it was too late for the emperor to keep her and he had to let her go.

The journey to the new home was long and arduous so Lady Wang was given a pipa (琵琶), a Chinese musical instrument, to pass time and the pipa became her signature attribute. Because of her marriage with the Xiongnu (匈奴) chieftain, the region remained peaceful for decades. Lady Wang Zhaojun was credited as one of the four most beautiful women in the whole Chinese history.

More interesting reading:

Dr Yibin Ni explains in his blog the provenance of the porcelain bottle in Fig 1.

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: Quails + seedheads of foxtail millet

Punning Details:

The word ‘sui 穗’ for ‘millet seedhead’ is a pun on ‘sui 岁’ for ‘year’; the repetition of ‘sui’ means ‘year in year out’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’.

 

画面要素: 鹌鹑 + 粟米穗

谐音详情: ‘粟米穗’ 中 ‘穗’谐音 ‘岁’; ‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 的谐音 ‘安’。

 

Related Pun Rebuses:

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

May you both live a peaceful life 双安

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

Pun Design: Long-tailed Pheasant + Quail

Punning Details:

The combination of the first and third words in ‘chang wei zhi 长尾雉’ for ‘long-tailed pheasant’ is ‘chang zhi’ and it puns on the phrase ‘chang zhi 长治’ for ‘long-term good order (in a country)’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. Some images would even depict nine quails to make a pun on the number ‘nine (jiu 九)’ for ‘jiu 久’ meaning ‘for a long time’. Thus, these natural motifs form a pun rebus to convey the intended auspicious message to wish for a country to be in good order and a peaceful status for a long time.

Also named as ‘Jiu An Chang Zhi 久安长治

 

画面要素: 长尾雉 + 鹌鹑

谐音详情: ‘长尾雉’中首尾二字与‘长治’谐音; ‘鹌鹑’中‘鹌’与‘安’谐音。以画面祝国家得以长期治理,民生平安。

Pun Design: Quail + Long-tailed Pheasant

Punning Details:

The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The combination of the first and third words in ‘chang wei zhi 长尾雉’ for ‘long-tailed pheasant’ is ‘chang zhi’ and it puns on the phrase ‘chang zhi’ for ‘long-term good order (in a country)’. Thus, these natural motifs form a pun rebus to convey the intended auspicious message.

Some images will depict nine quails to make a pun on the number ‘nine (jiu 九)’ for ‘jiu 久’ meaning ‘for a long time’.

Also named as Chang Zhi Jiu An 长治久安.

 

画面要素: 鹌鹑 + 长尾雉

谐音详情: ‘鹌鹑’中‘鹌’与‘安’谐音; ‘长尾雉’中首尾二字与‘长治’谐音, 寓意祝长期国泰民安

Pun Design: nine + quail

Punning Details

The Chinese word ‘jiu 九’ for ‘nine’ puns on the word ‘jiu 久’ for ‘lasting’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. Thus, the image of nine quails can be used to cue the auspicious message of ‘May peace bless you forever’.

Related Pun Pictures:

May the country enjoy peace and good order permanently 长治久安

Pun Design: Quails + Magpies

Punning Details:

The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ puns on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The word ‘‘xi 喜’ in ‘xi que 喜鹊’ for ‘magpie’ can mean ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’. Thus, the combination of quails and magpies can be used to convey the auspicious message of ‘May you enjoy peace and happiness’.

 

画面要素: 鹌鹑 + 喜鹊

谐音详情: 取‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 与 ‘安’ 谐音和 ‘喜鹊’ 中的 ‘喜’ 字构成 ‘安喜’ 祝愿。

 

Related Pun Picture:

May unexpected good luck descend on you 喜从天降

 

Pun Design: Quails + Cereal Plant

Punning Details

The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The word ‘he 禾’ for ‘cereal plant’ makes a pun on ‘he 和’ for ‘harmony’. Thus, the combination of quails and cereal plant can be used to convey the auspicious message of ‘May you enjoy peace and harmony’.

 

画面要素: 鹌鹑 + 禾

谐音详情: 取 ‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 与 ‘安’谐音、 ‘禾’ 与 ‘和’ 谐音, 意为: 平安和谐。

 

Related Pun Picture:

May you enjoy a peaceful life year after year 岁岁平安

The Chinese character ‘an 鹌’ in ‘anchun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The character ‘zhu 竹’ for ‘bamboo’ is a pun on ‘zhu 祝’ for the verb ‘to wish’ and thus is used here to cue the character cluster ‘zhubao 竹报 (祝报)’ for the verb phrase ‘to wish to announce or send’. Thus, a composition containing quails and bamboo can be used to convey a good wish that you be safe and sound.

This pun rebus design has a variation in which the image of firecrackers is used. The reverse of the Chinese characters ‘baozhu 爆竹’ for ‘firecracker’ is ‘zhubao’, which puns on the character cluster ‘zhubao 祝报’ for the verb phrase ‘wish to announce or send’. Bamboo can be kept in a vase as a table top decoration. The Chinese character ‘ping 瓶’ for ‘vase’ is homophonic to the word ‘ping 平’, which can cue the phrase ‘pingan 平安’ for ‘safe and sound’.

Furthermore, a scene of children lighting firecracker can be used to cue the good wish that the receiver be safe and sound for the reason explained above.

 

Related topic:

Yingying receiving good news delivered by the pageboy 泥金报捷

Pun Design: Two + Quails

Punning Details: The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The Chinese word for ‘double’ is ‘shuang 双’. When there is a gathering of two quails, i.e.‘shuang an 双鹌’, a pictorial pun can be formed to mean ‘shuang an 双安’ for ‘both living a peaceful life’ or ‘double peace’.

画面要素:   二 + 鹌鹑;

谐音详情:  以‘两只鹌鹑’的形象表‘双安’

 

Related topic:

Heavenly immortals and fairies are celebrating your birthday 天仙拱寿

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

Quail is a middle-sized bird, and is nowadays farm-raised for table food and their eggs. However, they play an interesting role in traditional Chinese art with an auspicious meaning.

Quail’s Chinese name is ‘an chun’(鹌鹑). Its first character 鹌 (‘an’) is often used in Chinese language for its pun on ‘an’(安) which means peace and safety.

Related Pun Pictures:

May you live in peace and leisure 安居

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

May you enjoy a peaceful life year after year 岁岁平安