Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

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.

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.

Xiahou Dun, a heroic soldier in ancient China, was famous for his one-eyed appearance. Let’s appreciate how Dr Yibin Ni analyses the artistic presentation of this character on Chinese antique porcelain, woodblock print and other art forms, in association with comparable figures in Western culture.

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.

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.

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:

May you have three promotions continuously! 连升三级

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

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’:

The dream by the Qiantang river

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.

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.


  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.

Lv Bu (吕布 Lü Bu, died 199 CE) is known as an almost unchallenged fighter in the period of the Three Kingdoms (三国, 220-280 CE) in Chinese history. The scene on the vase depicts a crucial moment when Lv Bu’s exceptional archery stunt astounded all the generals and soldiers present and then successfully quelled an imminent collision between two opposing camps.

This vignette is found in the Records of the Three Kingdoms, the most authoritative source text for that period, composed by Chen Shou (陈寿) in the third century. General Ji Ling (纪灵) led thirty thousand soldiers to launch an attack on Liu Bei (刘备), one of the heads of the Three Kingdoms, and Liu asked Lv Bu for help. Lv Bu decided to lend Liu a hand in spite of the objection from his lieutenants. Lv Bu explained to them that, if Liu Bei’s army collapsed, then his army would be Ji Ling’s next target. Lv Bu went to see Ji Ling with one thousand soldiers and held a drinking party inviting Liu Bei’s men as guests. After a round of clinking of glasses, Lv Bu said to Ji Ling, ‘Liu Bei is to me like a brother. I’ve come to rescue him. I don’t like conflicts but love to resolve disputes between people.’ Then, Lv Bu asked to have a ji (戟) halberd erect at the entrance of the camp enclosure and, raising his favourite bow up in the air, he inspected the crowd around him and announced, ‘Watch me shoot the short blade on the halberd. If my arrow hits it in one shot, both parties must call it a truce and leave. If it doesn’t, you may stay and fight.’ Sure enough, Lv Bu’s arrow hit where it was meant to hit and, flabbergasted, the crowd burst into a roar ‘General, you possess Heaven’s might!’ The next day saw revels participated by all three forces and a happy departure.

image identification and story scene description by Dr Yibin Ni 

Xiahou Dun (夏侯惇, died 13 June 220) was one of Cao Cao’s (曹操, 155 – 220) most valued generals in the late Eastern Han dynasty (东汉, 25–220) of China. Xiahou showed his strong temperament even when he was in his early teens. Once his mentor was insulted, and he went straight to the insulter and killed him. During the 190s in a military campaign against the famous fighter Lü Bu (吕布, died 199), an arrow hit one of Xiahou’s eyeballs. He showed his valour by yanking the arrow out of his eye socket and ate his own eyeball as an act of filial piety because of the cherished belief that any part of the body was a gift from parents and should not be thrown away. From then on, Xiahou was known as ‘One-eyed Xiahou’.

Read this blog for more analysis of the artistic presentations of Xiahou Dun on Chinese antique porcelain, woodblock print and other art forms, in association with comparable figures in Western culture.

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.

Read related article How a massacre in ancient China influenced European literature, painting and theatre in Blogs section.

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.


Read related articleHow a massacre in ancient China influenced European literature, painting and theatre in Blogs section.

When the Baron of the Zhou vassal state (周西伯) did a divination with oracle bones for his imminent hunting trip, the message came: ‘You will not catch a small bear or a large bear, but a teacher will be presented to you by the divine power.’ After bathing and fasting for three days, the baron arrived at the River Wei, he saw an elderly man sitting on a grassy mat with a fishing rod beside him at the bank. The baron respectfully bowed to him and politely asked him to be his mentor. He invited the man to sit in his vehicle on the way back to the capital. This elderly man was Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), the famous sage strategist in ancient China. Later, when the baron passed away, his son, who posthumously bestowed his father the title of King Wen (文王), called himself King Wu (武王). With the able assistance of Jiang, who was then respectfully called Jiang Taigong (姜太公), King Wu launched a military campaign to overthrow the ruling Shang house (商, ca. 1600 BCE-1046 BCE) and established the new Zhou dynasty (1046 BCE-256 BCE), which lasted about eight hundred years.

Here is another story about Jiang Ziya on his assistance to King Wu in launching a military campaign to overthrow the Shang house. Dr Yibin Ni also wrote an article on the identification of Jiang’s famous yet mysterious ride.


  1. 倪亦斌:《子牙垂钓遇文王 明君得辅破殷商》,《读者欣赏》,兰州:读者出版传媒股份有限公司,2016-05,58-63 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. 92-93.

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:

Qiuhu Trying to Seduce His Own Wife 秋胡戏妻 (鲁洁妇)

Lu Ji Hiding Tangerines for His Mother 陆绩怀橘遗亲

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 story scene on the porcelain ware illustrated here was first deciphered by Yibin Ni. More of his interesting discussion on this topic is available here.

According to Confucian ethics, a man’s ambition and pride need to be balanced by humility.

General Lian Po (廉颇, active 298-236 BC) and Minister Lin Xiangru (蔺相如, active ca. 279 BC) were colleagues in the government of the state of Zhao. When Lin Xiangru received a higher appointment than Lian Po’s, Lian Po felt it was unjustified. He swore, ‘When I meet Lin, I shall humiliate him!’ Hearing this, Lin deliberately kept out of Lian Po’s way. His followers did not understand his response and thought he was a coward until Lin explained to them, ‘When two tigers fight, one will perish. I am behaving this way in order to put our country’s interests before private feuds so that we can have enough strength to survive threats from our enemies.’ When Lian Po heard this, he came to Lin’s residence and begged for forgiveness. The two then became friends for life.

In Fig 1 & 2, General Lian Po was apologising to Lin in front of the King of Zhao, while the other ministers present congratulate the king for his luck in being surrounded by such sensible courtiers.

image identification and story scene description by Dr Yibin Ni