Tanzi Feeding Parents with Deer’s Milk


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Deer were reputed to live for a very long time and hence, like cranes and tortoises, they are symbols of longevity. For this reason, deer antlers are a highly valued ingredient in many preparations of traditional Chinese medicine, and are reported to prolong life, aid virility and alleviate various ailments. An illustration of these medicinal properties is found among the Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety (二十四孝), compiled by Guo Jujing 郭居敬 during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368).

According to one of the stories, there once was a boy, referred to as Tanzi 郯子 (‘Young Master Tan’), whose parents suffered from an eye disease that could only be cured by drinking deer’s milk. Observing a herd of deer and their young, the couple’s son donned a deerskin and crept among a group of fawns as they suckled their mothers. In this way, Tanzi was able to collect a bucket of deer milk and bring it to his delighted mother and father. He repeated the ploy every day for many weeks until their sight was restored. The son’s devotion came to light when a hunter almost shot him one day by mistake. Luckily the boy stood up just in time to reveal his disguise.


Yibin Ni (2009), 一百个漢字 Symbols, art, and language from the land of the dragon: The cultural history of 100 Chinese characters, Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd, London

Other stories in Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety:

Yang Xiang Trying to Throttle the Tiger to Rescue Her Father 杨香扼虎救亲

Wang Xiang Lay on Ice to Catch Carp 王祥卧冰求鲤

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


Fig 1: brick carving, Northern Song (960–1127), courtesy of Palace Museum, Beijing

Fig 2: molded brick, Dading period of the Jin dynasty (1161–89), courtesy of the Shanxi Provincial Museum, Taiyuan, China

Fig 3: brush holder with underglaze blue decoration, Chongzhen period (1628–44), Ming dynasty, courtesy of the Sotheby’s Auction House, Paris, 18 Dec 2009, Lot 069

Fig 4: jade carving, late Ming – early Qing dynasty, courtesy of private collection of Qing Xiang Lou

Fig 5-6: porcelain lidded jar with underglaze blue decoration, Kangxi period (1662–1722), courtesy of The Dresden Porcelain Collection, State Art Collections of Dresden, Germany

Fig 7-8: soldier vase with underglaze blue decoration, Kangxi period (1662–1722), courtesy of Anita Gray Collection

Fig 9: silver cup, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), courtesy of private collection

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