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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

The story scene comes from a marvel play Legend of the Jade Hairpin, which is not to be confused with the scene in Romance of the Western Chamber. Read the following article to find out details of the story and how this figural scene is depicted.

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.

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.

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.

There have been a few interesting discussions even guesses on a mysterious scene which depicts mainly three figures surrounding a large bowl. The story scene actually comes from an important anecdote in Song dynasty in China. Let Dr Yibin Ni explain to you with fascinating details.

Have you ever been puzzled by the description of ‘figural paintings’ for Chinese porcelains listed by various museums and auction catalogues? In fact, many Chinese paintings with figures refer to ancient stories and have meanings behind the scenes. Here is an unusual story about an official and his pet crane.

This blog is modified from Dr Yibin Ni’s research work first published on Antiques and Fine Art Magazine. The purpose is to appreciate how Chinese porcelain painters from ancient times passed on classical stories and illustrated traditional morals through their craftworks.

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.

Have you ever seen such an image and wondered why a young man is holding a shoe and kneeling down in front of an old man? Is there any historical event relating to the shoe and such scene? Read on to see how Dr Yibin Ni deciphers the figures and stories for you.

In Chinese porcelain painting, it can be tricky to interpret a round disc in the sky as a sun or a moon. Knowledge of Chinese culture and pun rebuses are the keys to explain the meanings of the motifs and scenes correctly. Here are some examples…

What is the value of deciphering pictorial scenes on traditional Chinese artworks? What is the importance in identifying correct figures and story scenes on antiques? Here is the editor’s conversation with Dr Yibin Ni, an internationally renowned researcher on Chinese iconography.

The traditional theme of ‘Chen Ping Dividing Meat’(陈平分肉) is often mistakenly referred to as Chen ‘Selling Meat’ or even ‘Picture of Selling Meat’ in Chinese art reference books, which reduces a historically significant theme to a mere genre painting. See how Dr Yibin Ni analyses this with examples.

Images of Tao Yuanming Appreciating Chrysanthemum, like many other traditional historical themes, are often mistaken as a mere ‘flowering-picking’ scene, or, worse, simply a ‘figure painting’.

Legend of the Jade Hairpin (Yu Zan Ji 玉簪记) is a Ming-dynasty ‘marvel play’ which was the major drama genre of the time. The play, consisting of thirty-three scenes, was written by Gao Lian (高濂 fl. 1573-1581) around 1580 and remained to be a popular classic for the following three hundred years. It is a Shakespearean love story of a young couple who were betrothed at birth, torn apart by war, and unwittingly fell in love with each other at a nunnery.

The scene is a snapshot of Act 19, Consummation of Love after the Revelation of the Girl’s Love Poem. The lovesick young scholar Pan Bizheng 潘必正 accidentally discovered the love verse from Chen Miaochang 陈妙常, the female protagonist in the play, and she could no longer repress her love for him anymore.

In a coarsely produced version, the horsetail fly whisk, a traditional trademark of a Daoist nun, is missing from Miaochang’s hand. In more sophisticated versions of the same scene, there is an additional figure playing the role of ‘Peeping Tom’, hiding behind a tree or the curtain of the ‘Moon window’. He is Scholar Pan’s page boy, Ange 安哥, and an opportunist. He took the advantage of the situation and threatened the young couple that he would report their tryst if they didn’t address him as ‘Sir Ange’.

Acknowledgement: The story scene depicted on the porcelain ware displayed in this listing was first deciphered by Dr Yibin Ni. His article is published here for your reference.

Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303-361) is often said to be the greatest calligrapher in Chinese history. He has his biography in the official history of Jin 晋 dynasty (c. 265-420). One anecdote in it concerns his fame for his calligraphic skill and his love of geese. A Daoist priest in the neighbourhood raised a handsome flock of geese. Wang Xizhi paid a special visit to him in order to see the geese and found it hard to tear himself away from them. He pleaded with the priest to sell the flock to him. The geese raiser made him a counteroffer: ‘I will let you have the whole flock if you write a copy of Laozi’s Daodejing (道德经) text for me.’ Wang Xizhi willingly finished the job and went home happily with the geese.

Ever since the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), there are two basic types of composition depicting Wang’s love of geese. One type shows Wang watching geese in the river from the bank; the other features him being offered a goose by his servant or the priest.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

This is Scene Five of Book Two of the Chinese classic popular drama Romance of the Western Chamber (西厢记 Xixiang ji).

At a family dinner party, Zhang Junrui’s (张君瑞, also called Scholar Zhang 张生) dream of marrying Yingying (莺莺) the love of his life was shattered by Yingying’s mother because he was a nobody with no respectable official’s position.

This drove him to thoughts of suicide. He tried to drown his sorrows in alcohol, and had to be supported by the maid Hongniang (红娘) to return to his own quarters. His desperation moved Hongniang. She suggested that he express his passion through a performance of the qin (琴) zither and she would arrange for Yingying to hear it on their way to their incense-burning ceremony in the evening.

When Yingying was led to pass Scholar Zhang’s quarters, Hongniang coughed to send Zhang a signal, in line with their secret prior arrangement. Zhang started to pour his heart out through the enchanting music that his deft fingers were playing. It did the trick: Yingying’s heart was melting!

image identification and story scene description by Dr Yibin Ni 

Other episodes in the Romance of the Western Chamber:

Scholar Zhang Embarking on His Journey to Sit for Civil-Service Examinations 张生赶考

Consummation of love from Western Chamber 月下佳期

Yingying receiving good news delivered by the pageboy 泥金报捷

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:

Consummation of love from Western Chamber 月下佳期

Yingying Listening to the Qin Zither Playing 莺莺听琴

Yingying receiving good news delivered by the pageboy 泥金报捷

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.

‘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.

References:

  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 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.

Romance of the Western Chamber (西厢记 Xixiang ji) is the most popular love comedy in late imperial China. In the story, Scholar Zhang (张生) falls in love with a beautiful lady named Cui Yingying (崔莺莺), who happens to be stranded in a monastery with her widowed mother and, after plenty of twists and turns, the young couple consummate their love under the nose of Yingying’s mother without her approval.

There is a popular motif on early Qing porcelain which vividly depicts a scene in the Act ‘Consummation of Love’ of the play Romance of the Western Chamber. Eventually, Scholar Zhang has persuaded the lady he has been courting to come to his quarters. Zhang is holding a candle in one hand to light the way with his left arm around Lady Yingying’s shoulders. He is almost dragging the shy lady towards the doorway with the candle noticeably tilting forward. Ahead of them, Yingying’s maid Hongniang (红娘) leads the way. She is carrying a folded duvet under her arms in case Scholar Zhang’s quilts were too shabby for the occasion, while she cannot help turning her head back, stealing glances at this thrilling human drama rare in her mundane life.

Motifs evolve during their use and spread. When the same image is adopted on an enamelled dish made in late Kangxi period, the maid Hongniang is abbreviated and the couple look much more relaxed, seemingly enjoying each other’s company. Zhang’s arm remains around Yingying’s shoulders and his hand that holds the candle stick is much surer and steadier. The couple are not moving towards a concrete door of Zhang’s bedroom, as they do in the two earlier examples. Instead, a dubious curved bridge or a planked passageway appeared behind them. It no longer serves a narrative function to indicate the locale of the event but only satisfies decorative needs in the graphic composition.

image identification and literature research: by Dr Yibin Ni 

Other stories from Romance of the Western Chamber:

Yingying Receiving Good News Delivered by the Pageboy 泥金报捷

Scholar Zhang Embarking on His Journey to Sit for Civil-Service Examinations 张生赶考

One day during Su Shi (苏轼, 1037 – 1101)’s exile in Huangzhou, Hubei province, his friend, Fo Yin (佛印, 1032 – 98) invited him and Huang Tingjian (黄庭坚, 1045 – 1105) to taste the ‘Peach-Blossom-Flavoured Vinegar’, made with a famous recipe inherited from the Tang dynasty (618 – 907). Su Shi, Huang Tingjian, and Fo Yin gathered around the vinegar pot and all scooped a sample and had a taste of it. Since the vinegar was exceptionally potent and sour, the three gentlemen all pulled a funny face as a result of a surprising experience.

This scene (三酸图) depicts an important historical anecdote, which symbolises the advocated belief of the three great teachings of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism harmonious as one (三教合一) in traditional China.

Read more interesting discussion on this topic in our blog section.

Zhao Bian (赵抃, 1008-84) was held in high esteem all his life and posthumously because of his incorruptibility and sound statesmanship during his entire career. His prize possessions were legendarily well-known: a qin zither and two pets, a crane and a tortoise. They were inseparable from him wherever he was posted.

Some time during the years between 1064 and 1068, Zhao Bian was nominated as governor of Chengdu, which was a prosperous town contaminated by extravagant upper echelons. Zhao went there alone with his musical instrument and two pets without an entourage. In time, his good leadership made a name for himself and people of neighbouring areas moved to central Sichuan to seek better opportunities.

Once he had an audience with the emperor in court, the emperor asked Zhao, ‘Did you really go to Sichuan alone with only a qin zither and a crane as they say?’ Zhao modestly kowtowed to thank the emperor for his recognition.

Up till today, the saying ‘one qin zither and one crane (一琴一鹤)’ has been used to praise a virtuous official.

Read Dr Yibin Ni’s research article here for more interesting discussion.

Pines, bamboos, and plum blossoms (prunus) form the ‘Three Friends in Winter’ (岁寒三友) motif. The early blossoming plum is the harbinger of spring; the bamboo bends in wind but does not break; and the pine needles remain green throughout the harsh winter. They all symbolise moral integrity and friendship in difficult times and have been cherished by generations of Chinese literati (scholar-officials).

Related story regarding plum blossom:

Meng Haoran Looking for Plum Blossom on a Snowy Day 孟浩然踏雪寻梅  

Qiuhu (秋胡), a native of the state of Lu during the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BCE), was ordered to take up an official post in the state of Chen a scant five days after his marriage to Jiefu (洁妇), the ‘Loyal Wife’. Five years later, on his way back home, he encountered a woman by the roadside picking mulberry leaves, used as food for silkworms.

Qiuhu approached the woman and told her that toiling among mulberry leaves was certainly not as fun as yielding to a high-ranking minister’s offer who took a fancy to her. Qiuhu baited the woman with some gold ingots. The woman retorted, ‘I work hard to support my parents-in-law and the son left behind by my husband. I wish that you did not take fancy of women outside your family. I have no intention of fooling around. Take your gold back.’

On arriving home, Qiuhu sent for his wife and, to his great embarrassment, discovered that she was none other than the woman he had solicited.

There are two endings to this story. One version relates that after condemning Qiuhu for being lecherous and for not exercising virtues of filial piety to his parents, as was customary, the wife felt so disheartened that she threw herself into the river. The other ending, suggested by the Yuan dynasty literatus Zhao Mengfu (赵孟頫, 1254–1322), is a happy one. In his version, Qiuhu was merely testing his wife. Since she proved to be chaste and not materialistic, he reunited with her and they lived happily ever after.

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. 28-29.

Bamboo in Chinese art is a symbol for a man with humbleness in quality.

When bamboo is painted together with pine trees and/or plum blossoms, it symbolises as one element of the ‘three friends in the winter’.

The pronunciation of bamboo in Chinese is ‘zhu 竹’ which can serve as a pun on ‘zhu 祝’ for the verb ‘to wish’.

 

Related Pun Rebus:

Sending you a safe-and-sound message 竹报平安

 

Sima Xiangru Inscribing on the Bridge Gateway (相如题桥)’ was a popular theme in theatre from at least the Song (960 – 1279) through to the Qing (1644 – 1911) dynasty. Sima Xiangru (司马相如) was a Western Han (202 BCE – 8CE) scholar unsuccessful in making a career in civil services. However, Wang Ji, the magistrate of Linqiong county, was impressed by his dazzling talents and invited him to live in his house as a guest.

One day, a rich local businessman, Zhuo Wangsun (卓王孙), held a house party for Wang and Sima, at which Sima played the qin zither. Zhuo’s recently-widowed daughter, Wenjun (文君), heard the music and was fascinated by Sima’s performance as well as his genteel manner and bearing. The two fell in love and she eloped with him. Mortified, Zhuo Wangsun refused to support the couple and the poverty-stricken lovers had to earn their living by running a wine-shop by the roadside.

One autumn day, encouraged by his wife, Sima made up his mind to leave home to seek his fortune in the capital, Chang’an. Wenjun went to see him off at the Bridge of ‘Ascending to the Realm of Immortals’ (昇仙桥) on the outskirts. When he made farewell to his wife, Sima vowed that he would not cross the bridge again unless he did so riding in a grand carriage drawn by four horses.

Sure enough, his ambition was realised in a few years’ time and he enjoyed a triumphant home-coming ceremony given by the local officials. The anecdote has encouraged generations of young men leaving hometown to seek fortunes in the big world!

Read more on the story in this blog.

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:

The legend of Chang’e the Moon Goddess and her bestowing osmanthus blossom to scholars

Young Chen Ping (陈平, ?–178 BCE), later a minister of Western Han dynasty, as being an exemplar of fairness in his everyday work. According to Sima Qian’s (司马迁, 145BCE – ?) famous work Historical Records – Prime Minister Chen’s Family (史记 – 陈丞相世家 ), one day, Chen Ping’s village held a ceremony to offer sacrifice to the Earth God. He was entrusted as the arbitrator to divide the meat offerings among attending villagers after the ceremony. As he divided the meat offerings in very even quantities, a village elder remarked that Chen was very impartial, to which he replied ‘Should I one day take rule of the land, I would rule it as impartially as I split the meat offerings.’

The story scene depicted in the centre of the Kangxi plate in the collection of the British Museum was first unveiled by Dr Yibin Ni. His article with historical pictorial and literary evidence is published here.

This is a story from the Romance of the Western Chamber, a famous Chinese play written by Wang Shifu (王实甫, 1260-1336) in Yuan dynasty (1271-1368):

On his way to the capital to take civil-service exams, Scholar Zhang (张生) fell in love with the beautiful Cui Yingying (崔莺莺), who was stranded in a monastery. They had to be separated because Yingying’s mother only allowed Zhang to marry Yingying after he succeeded in his exams. Half a year passed and, when Zhang won the official honours, he sent the page boy to tell Yingying the good news. Yingying was thrilled to receive the glad tidings.

image identification and literature research: by Dr Yibin Ni 

Related blog:

The gifts standing for love: an appreciation of Chinese porcelain painting

Other episodes in the Romance of the Western Chamber:

Scholar Zhang Embarking on His Journey to Sit for Civil-Service Examinations 张生赶考

Consummation of love from Western Chamber 月下佳期

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.

After Zhang Liang (张良, d. 189 BCE) failed to assassinate the first emperor of China, he changed his name and went into hiding. One day, he ran into Lord Yellowstone (黄石公), a guru strategist by the Yi Bridge (圯桥). The old man could see Zhang’s great potential but he wanted to put him through a series of tests before taking him as his pupil.

Lord Yellowstone deliberately dropped his shoe down the embankment and asked Zhang to fetch it and put it back onto his foot. Stomaching his resentment, Zhang meekly did what he was told to do. And then, Lord Yellowstone twice made early-morning appointments with him but cancelled them because Zhang arrived later than he did. The third time Zhang arrived at midnight way ahead of the designated time and his humility and perseverance impressed the old man, who then passed on to him the ancient wisdoms and art of war. Later, Zhang helped the founder of the Han dynasty, Liu Bang (刘邦, d. 195 BCE), with the invincible strategies and became one of Liu’s three top lieutenants.

images on porcelain: first deciphered by Yibin Ni

More stories about Zhang Liang:

Why is the scene of a man holding a shoe popular in Chinese antique artworks?

The action of ‘pointing to the sun’ is termed in Chinese as ‘指日 zhi ri’, which sounds and looks exactly the same as (both homophone and homograph of) the phrase ‘指日 zhi ri’ meaning ‘in a few days’ time’. The state of ‘something rising high up’ is ‘高升 gao sheng’ in Chinese, which may be metaphorically used to mean ‘getting a promotion’. Thus, the image of a person pointing to the sun high up in the sky visually cues the congratulatory saying ‘zhi ri gao sheng 指日高升 – May your chance of promotion be just round the corner’.

Interesting reading:

How do you tell a sun from a moon in porcelain painting

Related Pun Pictures:

May you have repeated promotion 官上加官

May you have an imminent promotion 封侯

A scholar official in Song dynasty Sima You (司马槱) dreamed of a beautiful girl presenting him the first half of a song, which he later developed into a full version called Huangjinlv (黄金缕). The girl was none other than a famous courtesan Su Xiaoxiao (苏小小) who lived by the Qiantang River and was in the local high society centuries earlier, an embodiment of the Southern sophisticated culture that the Northern young man absolutely adored. Since he had chanced on her relics in his backyard and gave her a proper burial the previous afternoon, the girl appeared in his dream to show gratitude to him.

The story scene on the Butler dish and the Cizhou pillow was first deciphered by Dr Yibin Ni.

References:

  1. Yibin Ni (2002) The Shunzhi Emperor and the Popularity of Scenes from the Romance of the Western Wing on Porcelain, Treasures from an Unknown Reign: Shunzhi Porcelain, Art Services Intl, p.78.
  2. 倪亦斌:《被遗忘的<钱塘梦>》,《艺术世界》, 上海: 上海文艺出版社, 2004-04, pp.74-75.
  3. 倪亦斌:《被遗忘的<钱塘梦>》,《看图说瓷》, 北京: 中华书局, 2008, pp.11-18.

Other dream scene on antique artworks:

A Startled Romantic Dream in the Back Garden 杜丽娘游园惊梦

One of the most commonly drawn motifs in Chinese traditional artworks, particularly favoured by scholars.

Lotus in Chinese can be translated into He Hua (荷花) or Lian Hua (莲花). The use of their images, however, are interchangeable.

Lotus flower, leave, stem and pod may all have different meanings. See examples below:

Lotus bouquet 一把莲

May you pass examinations all the way 一路连科

You are an honest and uncorrupted official in your entire career 一路清廉

Zhang Chang (张敞, ?- 48 BCE) and his wife grew up in the same village. When they were both children, Zhang Chang once threw a pebble at his future wife and, unfortunately, the scratch left a scar on one of her eyebrows. Later, Zhang became a civil servant and learned that the girl he once hit with a pebble was unmarried because of her marred face. He went to propose to her. After they got married, Zhang made a practice of painting his wife’s eyebrows every morning to cover up the scar. When Zhang Chang served as the Mayor of the capital, Emperor Xuan of Han dynasty (汉宣帝, reigned 74-48 BCE) rallied him on the point. He replied, ‘There were more intimate things that a husband would do to his wife in the bedchamber. (闺房之乐, 有甚于画眉者)’ The story remained a famous example of harmonious marriage in imperial China.

literary summary: by Yibin Ni

These set of images portray the last moment of the life of Qu Yuan 屈原 (340-278 BCE), an important Chinese poet and politician, who was in exile in the wilderness because of his unsuitable political stance in court. He was talking with a fisherman on the bank of the Miluo River (汨罗江) in Hunan province before he threw himself into water in despair. In Qu Yuan’s autobiographical poem the ‘Fisherman’, the fisherman recognised the dishevelled man and greeted him. Qu Yuan claimed: ‘The whole world is soiled and I alone am clean; all men are drunk and I alone am sober (‘举世皆浊我独清,众人皆醉我独醒’) – that’s why I’ve ended up like this.  I would rather jump into the river, bury myself in the bellies of fishes than sully my own purity in this vulgar world.’ The fisherman offered him a subtle metaphor before he rowed away: ‘When the water in the river is clear, it’s fit to clean my hat-tassels; when the river water is muddy, it will still suffice to wash my feet.’

Today, the Chinese people still commemorate Qu Yuan’s death by eating pyramid-shaped rice dumplings wrapped in leaves and taking part in dragon boat races on the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar.

Communities in Vietnam and Korea also celebrate variations of this Dragon Boat Festival (龙舟节) as part of their shared cultural heritage.