Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

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.

Many people take it for granted that the antique pieces with the motif of two-horned peony blossom were from Kangxi period, but is that true? Let Dr Yibin Ni use examples to prove otherwise to you.

‘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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.

The character ‘yu 玉’ in ‘yulan hua 玉兰花’ for ‘magnolia’ is the same ‘yu 玉’ for ‘jade’. The word ‘tang 棠’ from ‘haitang hua 海棠花’ for ‘crab apple’ is homophonic with the word ‘tang 堂’ for ‘house’. The combination of the two characters ‘yutang 玉堂’ means ‘jade house’ with connotations of being grand and palatial.

The peony flower, known in Chinese as ‘mudan hua 牡丹花’, has a nickname of ‘fugui hua 富贵花’, literally, the ‘flower of wealth and prestige’.

Therefore, a composition of blooms of magnolia, crab apple, and peony can be used to convey the auspicious wish of ‘May your jade palatial home be honoured and full of riches!’

Related Pun Picture:

May your household be piled high with gold and jade 金玉满堂

Common sources such as Baidu refer to the motif of a peony flower head with two distinctive ‘horns’ as a characteristic feature unique to Chinese porcelain of the Kangxi period (1662-1722). As a matter of fact, the tradition can be traced back as early as a fan painting by the legendary Ming romantic artist Tang Yin 唐寅 (1470-1524).


Read more about Dr Yibin Ni’s research on this motif in this blog.

Book is a symbol of education or examinations.

Peony is a symbol of wealth and prestige.

The motif combination of book and peony sends a message to the receiver ‘You may become rich by receiving good education!’


Related Pun Picture:                                 

May you couple live a harmonious life and enjoy prestige 并蒂双贵


Related motif:

Peony 牡丹花

The peony flower, known in Chinese as ‘mudan hua 牡丹花’, has a nickname of ‘fu gui hua 富贵花’, literally meaning the flower of wealth and prestige.


Related motif:

Two-horned peony blossom 双犄牡丹

Related Pun Pictures:

May your wealth and privilege expectable 富贵有期

You may become super rich by receiving good education 读书大富贵

Fu gui 富贵’ in ‘fu gui hua 富贵花’, literally, the ‘flower of wealth and prestige’,  which is a nickname in Chinese for ‘peony’, contributes to ‘wealth and privilege’ in the saying. ‘Ji 鸡’ is a pun on ‘qi 期’, which means ‘can be expected’.

The same design may be also referred to as ‘gong ming fu gui 功名富贵’.


Related motifs:

Rooster 公鸡

Peony 富贵花

The Chinese phrase ‘Gong ming 功名’ for ‘scholarly honour or official rank’ is a pun on two Chinese characters ‘gong 公’ and ‘ming 鸣’.

Gong 公’ from ‘gong ji 公鸡’, the Chinese name for ‘rooster’, makes pun on the Chinese word ‘gong 功’; and ‘ming 鸣’, which is the Chinese word for ‘cock’s crowing’, is a pun on ‘ming 名’.

Peony has a nickname in Chinese as ‘fu gui hua 富贵花’, literally, the ‘flower of wealth and prestige’.

Thus, the combination of roosters and peony flowers in one picture in Chinese people’s eyes sends the message of wishing someone do well in civil-service examinations, and go on to enjoy a rich and prestigious life.

The design may also be referred to as fu gui you qi 富贵有期’.


Related motifs:

Rooster 公鸡

Peony 富贵花