Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images
A bear or a monkey? Understanding the meaning of pictorial art in the light of Chinese pun rebus culture
When you mistake a motif in a traditional Chinese picture, you could have misinterpreted the meaning of the whole image intended by the ancient craftsman. Dr Yibin Ni has used the following example to illustrate the hidden meaning of a series of images in the context of Chinese pun rebus culture.
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.
The story scene is originated from an anecdote dating back to the Tang dynasty (618-907). Cui Rong (崔戎, 780-835) is a statesman who is important enough to have a position in the ‘Biographies’ section in the official histories The Old Book of Tang (jiu tang shu 旧唐书), completed in 945, and the New Book of Tang (xin tang shu 新唐书), presented to the then emperor in 1060.
When Cui Rong served as the governor of Hua prefecture, his administrative skills and integrity impressed the locals, dignitaries and farmhands alike. One of his notable deeds was that, on his departure, he made sure that a large sum of money which had been allocated for the customary governor’s personal use was to be disseminated among ordinary soldiers of the local army. After hearing the news that Cui Rong had been assigned to a new post, a large number of people swarmed to the departure ceremony trying to prevent him from leaving. During the chaos, Cui Rong’s boots were accidentally removed by some overenthusiastic members of the crowd and they then kept them as a souvenir.
From then on, when a magistrate departed, a group of local dignitaries would come to him with a gift of a new pair of boots in exchange of the boots he had been wearing. They would display his old boots in a public place to show the locals’ appreciation of his legacy. The tradition endured over a millennium till the last days of the imperial China, as was vignetted in the American missionary Chester Holcombe’s (1842-1912) book The Real Chinaman (1895):
‘When a popular official is about to lay down the seal of office at the conclusion of his term of service, he is waited upon by a deputation of leading residents, who, with many flowery words of compliment and praise, gravely request him to donate to the city a pair of his official boots. The request is esteemed an honour, and is always granted. They are taken in solemn procession, with music and much parade, to the city gate and there suspended, where they remain until they decay and drop to pieces.’
The porcelain vessels adorned with this theme were popular in the early Qing period and were deemed to be an apt gift for departing officials to commemorate their highlights in life.
image identification and literature research by Dr Yibin Ni
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. 98-99.
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:
This pun rebus picture consists of four essential pictorial elements: bird, deer, bee, and monkey. The word ‘que 雀’ for ‘small bird’ in Chinese puns on the word ‘jue 爵’ for ‘high official rank’ or ‘peerage’. The word ‘lu 鹿’ for ‘deer’ shares the same sound with ‘lu 禄’ for ‘emolument’ or ‘salary’. The word ‘feng 蜂’ for ‘bee’, is a pun on ‘feng 封’ for the verb ‘to be granted’ and the word ‘hou 猴’ for ‘monkey’ is a pun on ‘hou 侯’ for ‘marquis’, which represents high ranks in the government in general. Thus, the juxtaposition of the four elements is used to convey the auspicious message of ‘May you be created a peer and earn a handsome official income’.
Curios bearing such motifs have been used as treasured gifts passing among friends and colleagues to lubricate the social machinery.
Related Pun Pictures:
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:
Fish is a basic composition motif in Chinese pictorial art. Its Chinese pronunciation of 鱼 ‘yu’ puns with the word 余 ‘yu’, meaning prosperity. It is an auspicious wish to one’s wealth.
Depending on the context, the actual type of fish or a combination of four distinctively different fishes can refer different pun rebuses. See the following examples.
Related Pun Rebuses:
Related Motif and Symbol:
Gourd (葫芦, hu lu) in Chinese is pronounced similar to ‘fu (福, fortune)’ and ‘lu (禄, wealth)’, therefore its image is often used as a pun picture referring fortune and wealth. In order to emphasise the good wish expressed by the image, traditionally the gourd is often presented in combination with bat 蝠, whose pronunciation in Chinese is also fu.
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).
‘Da ji 大鸡’ for ‘large rooster’ makes a pun on ‘da ji 大吉’ for ‘tremendous good luck’. This image can be expressed as a good wish for someone who has just started a new business venture.
Jin yu 金鱼 (goldfish) in Chinese is pronounced the same as the other Chinese words ‘jin 金’, literally meaning ‘gold’, and ‘yu 玉’ meaning ‘jade’. Therefore, the goldfish is often used as a basic motif in Chinese pun rebus pictures referring to wealth.
Related Pun Pictures:
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:
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 Pun Pictures:
‘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’.
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’.
‘Bing di 并蒂’ from ‘bing di lian 并蒂莲’ (twin-headed lotus flower) contributes to the meaning of ‘a loving relationship’. ‘Gui 鳜’ from ‘gui yu 鳜鱼’(mandarin fish) is a pun on ‘gui 贵’ prestige.
Hence this image is intended to wish a couple a harmonious life and much enjoyed prestige.
Related Pun Picture:
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:
The accumulation of family wealth in traditional China was lauded as jin yu man tang 金玉满堂 – a household is piled high with gold and jade. This saying was visually expressed with a design of goldfish in a pond; jin yu 金鱼 (goldfish) makes a pun on jin 金 (gold) and yu 玉 (jade), while the state of a pond (tang 塘) being filled with fish (man tang 满塘) sounds the same as mang tang 满堂 ‘a hall being filled with something.’
Other auspicious wishes: