Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

Chinese people deeply respect the elderly and traditionally consider a long existence to be one of the most important blessings in a person’s life. Here are many examples of how artists have combined a variety of longevity symbols to reinforce the potency of this concept.

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.

The character 龟 gui for ‘tortoise’ is explained in volume 13 of the annotated version of the oldest dictionary in China, Shuowen jiezi 说文解字注 (Explanations of Simple Graphs and Analyses of Composite Graphs). There is a quote from Liu Xiang (刘向, 77 BCE – 6 BCE), the Han-dynasty imperial librarian, in the annotation, which says ‘… Tortoises last long. The tortoise lives for a thousand year and, therefore, can be a medium to communicate with spirits (龟之言久,龟千岁而灵).’ During the early fourth century, the Jin (晋) dynasty scholar Ge Hong (葛洪, 283 – 343) complied The Baopuzi (抱朴子) ‘Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity’. In the chapter entitled ‘Rejoinders to Popular Conceptions (对俗)’, he wrote, ‘Once you live, you will die. The tortoise and the crane can live for a long time. We know that they live long and then we can learn from their way of life to realise our own longevity.’ These thoughts laid the foundation for the Chinese to regard the tortoise as a longevity symbol. In the same chapter, Ge Hong also quoted from an earlier book that ‘The one-thousand-year-old tortoise has five colours and … floats on a lotus leaf.’ Therefore, corresponding images were created to enhance their owners’ health and life expectancy. Naturally, the tortoise accompanies immortals and fairies to indicate their everlasting state.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

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

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.