Chinese Works of Art

A Smile in the Mind: Puns and Symbols in Chinese Art

By Sheryl Sze
Auspicious meanings often form a major component in Chinese works of art. To name a few examples, peach symbolises longevity, pomegranate represents the prosperity and joy of a large family, peony suggests wealth, whilst the peacock is an emblem for civilisation.

T here are easily more than hundreds of fruit, vegetables, trees, flowers, animals, mythical creatures and everyday objects that convey multiple meanings for the general viewer. Together they make up a visual language, which artisans will employ when crafting works of art.


Some symbols originate from literature or religion, while others are based on the way certain names sound. In some cases, such connections have evolved over long periods of time so the definitive sources are now difficult to trace.

Often these ideas refer to four-character aphorisms or poetic phrases that convey blessings of good luck, marital or family harmony, fertility, career success, longevity, peace, and of course wealth. Also included are themes on aspirations toward achieving ideal moral character. Meaning is created using a combination of image, homophone, wordplay and rhyme. (In some ways, this is similar to the associative logic of Cockney rhyming slang.)

For instance, a ding cauldron decorated with ruyi wand pattern has a particular meaning. “One cauldron” (yi ding) is a pun for “a certainty” (yi ding). Put that together with ruyi, which means “as you wish,” and the result is yiding ruyi or “all will be fulfilled as you wish,” a very auspicious blessing indeed. The quantity and shape of the vessel as well as its decoration are all used by the artist to express the overall meaning.

Religion also plays an important role in visual language. This includes religious symbols such as the Eight Auspicious Signs (bajixiang), which became part of the iconography when Tibetan Buddhism was introduced into China. This may also include tradition Chinese mythology such as the crane, which carries immortals on its back and represents longevity. Another bird, the peacock, was praised for its nine virtues in Chinese literature.

Some references are rather straightforward. Take, for example, beibei feng hou. The word “back” (bei) is a homophone of the word “generations,” and “monkey” (hou) can be a play on words with “marquis.” So a jade carving depicting a monkey carrying it baby on its back means “may every generation be given the title of marquis.”


There are references that evoke multiple layers of poetic imagery. Changong zhegui, which literally means to pluck a branch of osmanthus in the toad palace, is a phrase commonly used to describe the top-ranked scholar in the imperial court examinations. The toad palace refers to the moon because, according to legend, Chang’e, the wife of hero archer Houyi, took the elixir of immortality and floated up to the moon, where she transformed into a three-legged toad. As for the osmanthus branch, an outstanding scholar during the Jin dynasty once used this as a metaphor for his unrivaled ability. In another legend, an osmanthus tree thrives on the moon and is eternally self-healing despite being cut with an axe by a gentleman named Wugang. Over time, such stories have made the act of picking an osmanthus branch in the moon synonymous with achieving top honors on an exam or, in general, winning a challenging race. Viewed through an analytical lens, the logical links between plucking osmanthus on the moon and official success seem tenuous, perhaps. But as E.B. White famously quipped, once you explain a joke or dissect a toad, it dies in the process. Such is the case with much of wordplay in Chinese art. The poetry, connections to history and references to traditional legends all coalesce and appeal to the imaginative mind. This may be the reason it has become one of the timeless classics in auspicious phrases.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's