May the length of your life be eternally prolonged!
In this scene, there are several Chinese longevity symbols such as the crane, the generic immortal, the pine tree, and the deer, etc. However, the proper meaning of this particular scene is not a simple assemblage of individual symbols. It is a snapshot of a coherent narrative that has been well-loved and widely consumed in the visual oeuvre that represents the Chinese longevity ideal.
The literary origin of the scene can be traced back to an anecdote collected in Notes by Dongpo (东坡志林), compiled by a prominent man of letters of the Song dynasty, Su Shi (苏轼, 1037-1101). During one chance meeting of three geriatric men, the topic of age was broached. Each one of them tried their best to exaggerate his own great age. The second speaker famously boasted, ‘After every cycle of the sea drying up and becoming mulberry fields, I put a strip of bamboo in my house as a counter and now the strips have already filled ten of the rooms.’ Later, this dramatic detail evolved into a classic allusion to longevity, a popular dream cherished by all people in China. Pictorial representations of this dramatic moment were invented and elaborated into different versions to adorn birthday presents of all kinds.
Initially, the title of the scene is, literally: ‘A bamboo counter is being added to the house in the sea (海屋添筹 hai wu tian chou)’. The first two characters of the phrase resulted from compressing the paragraph spoken by the second speaker in the story into an abbreviation consisting of the first and the last characters 海屋 hai wu (‘海水变桑田时, 吾辄下一筹, 尔来吾筹已满十间屋’). The coined two-character phrase ‘海屋 hai wu’ now means a ‘pavilion at sea’, serving as the first two characters in the set phrase. The rest two characters of the phrase ‘添筹 tianchou’ denotes the action (of a crane) adding a bamboo strip as a counter’. Thus, the four-character phrase alludes to the second speaker’s words in the original story.
During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), pun rebus designs became more and more popular in folk decorative arts. The last character of the phrase ‘筹 chou’ for ‘bamboo strip counter’, acquired a pun on ‘寿 shou’, the Chinese character for ‘longevity’. Then, the phrase virtually conveys the meaning of a birthday wish: ‘May the length of your life be eternally prolonged (海屋添寿 hai wu tian shou)’. One of the earliest mentions of this pun phrase in literature can be found in Section 22 in the second part of the book Tao Ya (匋雅), or ‘Notes of Chinese Best Pottery and Porcelain’, compiled by Chen Liu (陈浏) and published in 1910.
This research article is written by Dr Yibin Ni.
- Jeffrey P. Stamen and Cynthia Volk with Yibin Ni, A Culture Revealed: Kangxi-Era Chinese Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection: Jieruitang Publishing, Bruges, 2017, p. 84-85.
- 倪亦斌：《仙鹤寿桃祝寿碗 暗藏海屋添筹图》，《读者欣赏》，兰州：读者出版传媒股份有限公司，2018-01，110-117 页
Fig 1: famille rose vase, Qianlong period (1736-95), Qing dynasty, courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Fig 2: porcelain dish with underglaze blue decoration, Kangxi period (1662-1722), Qing dynasty, courtesy of the Jie Rui Tang Collection
Fig 3: porcelain dish with underglaze blue decoration, Kangxi period (1662-1722), courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum
Fig 4: porcelain dish with underglaze blue and overglaze enamelled decoration, Yongzheng period (1723-35), courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art
Fig 5: porcelain dish with underglaze blue and overglaze enamelled decoration, Yongzheng period (1723-35), courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington
Fig 6: silk fabric hanging scroll, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Fig 7: textile fabric, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), courtesy of Tianjin Museum, China
Fig 8: wooden lidded box, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), courtesy of Palace Museum, Beijing
Fig 9: ink stick, Guangxu period (1875-1908), Qing dynasty, courtesy of Palace Museum, Beijing