A popular Chinese saying in regards to decorations is that there must be a meaning to the picture, and the message therein must be auspicious and of promising omen. Chinese porcelain decorators have a long history of using symbolic designs, and on kraak ware the symbolism reaches new heights of ingenuity. Individual motifs with accepted popular symbolism are combined to give more complex messages that often rely on homophones and on words that harmonize in the Chinese language. In fact, most non-Chinese speakers would not realize that the designs did carry messages. Buyers abroad simply reacted favourably to the artistry of the designs. One can wonder if the producers purposely used such designs in order to have a level of esoteric interpretation that would not be understood by non-Chinese. The messages in the designs are nonetheless universal wishes for such things as happiness and long life or portrayals of Daoist ideas. A design with fish and waterweed, for instance, is a wish that one be blessed with abundance of good things. A vase with oranges is a wish for peace with good fortune; and pines and deer symbolize wishes for a long life. Other designs show ‘yin’ elements (e.g. moon, bamboo) balanced with ‘yang’ elements (e.g. goat, sunflower) to give the idea that a balance between the yin and the yang creates harmony. All the main designs and interpretations of their meanings are giving in the following pages. The Wanli Shipwreck cargo presents a valuable range of designs and meanings that must have been prevailing and commonly used at the time of the Wanli ship’s demise.
Ser. No. 5070.
The theme here is ‘pines and deer toast to one’s longevity’. Pine remains green through tough winters, and legend says that eating the sap from a 1,000-year-old pine gives immortality. The words for ‘deer’ and ‘happiness and prosperity’ are homophones. Deer, which sometimes accompany the immortals, also signify longevity, as does the peach.
Ser. No. 5028.
Deer and pine trees represent ‘ever-green through the ages’. The design conveys a wish for life-long vitality and health. Pine is well-known for its tough endurance. Deer (lu) are associated with happiness and prosperity (lu) because the words are homophones. The bamboo tree (to the left) and the 'zhu' character may be read as ‘toasting to’ and thereby grant whatever may be desired. The deer (lu) stands as a symbol for ‘happiness and prosperity’ because the word lu is homophone of the word for happiness and prosperity.
Ser. No. 2617.
This medallion carries the same meaning as the above plate although it shows a running deer in similar landscape setting. The theme is wan shou chang qing or ‘ever-green through the ages’. Note the 'rui' shaped cloud above the pine tree which is an auspicious emblem which suggests; ‘as one’s wishes be fulfilled’.
Ser. No. 1440.
Here is one version of the ‘spring time and longevity’ theme that was popular in the Ming dynasty. It is portrayed by a landscape of rock, insects (e.g. bees, butterflies, crickets, cicadas) and flowers (e.g. camellia, sunflower, rose, chrysanthemum, peony). The insects are vibrant life forms; a rock stands for longevity; and the flowers are spring blossoms. Altogether, the design expresses a wish for youth, health and longevity.
Ser. No. 1662.
The theme in this medallion is also chun guang chang shou which also refers to ‘spring time and longevity’. This medallion depicts the mantis religiosa on a rock, about to pollinate a peony flower with a lively butterfly above. Together this connotes the blessing for vibrant youth, healthiness and longevity. Alone, the rock would represent longevity and the peony would represent spring time.
Ser. No. 2547. The theme in this medallion is chun guang chang shou which is the same as the above. The rabbit/squirrel on the rock represents lively youth and the Azalia, a shady plant belonging to the yin category, belong to the yang group. Together these motifs represent ‘spring time and longevity’.
Ser. No. 1726.
The theme ‘all is well and peaceful with great fortune’ is represented by a vase with two oranges. Both vase and the first character in the phrase ‘all is well and peaceful’ are pronounced ping. The words for ‘orange’ and ‘luck, fortune’ are also homophones. The starry design on the vase gives the idea that good things are forthcoming. A fence divides the interior of the house from rocks in the garden. With the left and right side being mirror images, it suggests that everything is in good balance and gives a sense of inner peace.
Ser. No. 2608.
A basket with a silver carp represents ‘surplus throughout the years’. The symbolism is based on homophones. The Chinese words for silver carp sound the same as for ‘throughout the years’; the words for fish and surplus also sound the same. The full basket also implies surplus, and the fence separates the interior of the home from river rocks outside. The design expresses a desire for abundant resources that are never depleted.
Ser. No. 2542.
The theme is ‘prosperity - progressively for endless generations’. Prosperity, which implies abundant wealth and nobility, is represented by a hot air lantern with swastika and peony designs. The cylindrical lantern is the same shape as the hat of a famous general from the Three Kingdoms period, Kong Ming, who supposedly invented the lantern. There are homophones in the phrases for lantern which read tian deng which literally mean heavenly lamp and for ‘give birth to one more son’ which is a Chinese blessing. The peony is a symbol for wealth and nobility. The swastika, a Buddhist symbol for perpetual virtue and perfection, has been called wan since at least the Tang dynasty. Wan also means ten thousand, and wan tai means endless generations. During the lantern festival people write wishes on a lantern and release it into space, hoping their wishes will come true. Two sky ladders at the upper sides represent upward progression. Overall, the design conveys a wish for ‘progressive prosperity over endless generations’.
Ser. No. 2539.
The combination of phoenix and peonies is common in Chinese art. When this divine, beautiful phoenix appears, say legends, the world is peaceful. The peony symbolizes abundance, honour, wealth and nobility. Together they offer a blessing for wealth, honor and nobility in a peaceful society.
Ser. No. 2575.
This design shows a coiled dragon and fiery pearl among clouds. The Chinese dragon symbolizes supreme power, superior virtue, nobility and divinity. It is probably the ultimate symbol for good fortune. In ancient Chinese astronomy, the stars formed 28 constellations that were assigned to four groupings in the directions of North, East, South and West. The dragon represented East; the tiger represented West; the phoenix, South; and the tortoise, North. The legend of the dragon and the pearl comes from the Han dynasty when observers noted that on the lunar New Year the moon rises between the two horns of the stars in the dragon formation. The so-called fiery pearl is actually the moon. In later times the pearl was interpreted to be an equivalent of the Sanskrit cinta mani, a wish-giving gem. In most Chinese art, twin dragons are shown with a red fiery pearl in flames among clouds.
Ser. No. 2558.
The theme here is ‘blessings to the family’ since the words for rock and family are homophones, as are the words for cockerel and auspicious things.
Ser. No. 2629.
The theme in this medallion reads shuang he chang he which means ‘harmony between the pair of storks’. Typical of Daoist Ying Yang culture, twin storks and blossoming plum trees represent loftiness uncontaminated by mundane affairs, and the balanced composition gives a sense of serenity. The stork is a divine bird of the ancient Daoist hermits who live in the solitude of mountains and valleys. Because plums blossom in winter, they signify endurance through tough conditions.
Ser. No. 2583.
Another version of the ‘spring time and longevity’ motif with the same meaning as in 1440 above.
This design refers to the belief that the appearance of the dragon and phoenix portend the coming of wonderful things. Both creatures are popular in all forms of Chinese art. The composition here, with a 4-clawed non-imperial dragon chasing the fiery pearl and a phoenix below, also portrays Daoist 'yin' (phoenix) 'yang' (dragon) theory.
Ser. No. 2656.
A crane and peaches on a whirlpool of sea waves conveys a popular congratulatory birthday message to respected old people. It can be read ‘boundless blessings comparable to the Eastern Sea and longevity comparable to the Southern Mountain.’ Ancient Daoists rode the divine crane across the skies, and they are offered divine peaches for their banquets and on birthdays. Both the crane and peaches are longevity symbols. Waves represent the Eastern Sea with its vast blessings.
Ser. No. 2541.
A pattern of rui-shaped leaves on a paper-folding of four folds means ‘may all your heart’s wishes be fulfilled’. The geometric folds signify multiples or enormous, and the literal meaning of 'rui' is ‘as one’s wishes be fulfilled.’
Ser. No. 2578.
Here the idea ‘may all your heart’s wishes be fulfilled’ is expressed by two paper-folds of two patterns: 'rui'-shaped leaves and the wan (swastika) character. Wan expresses multiples or enormous.
More images may be added to this page when time permits....
A full list and artefact description (and comparison to private and museum collections) is elaborated on in the catalogue's End notes. To view or to order the full catalogue, go to: Publications.
The meaning of medallion decorations seen on porcelain wares in the Wanli shipwreck cargo
To view or to order the full catalogue: "The Wanli Shipwreck and its Ceramic Cargo," go to: Publications.
The Wanli Shipwreck.com
Interpretation of painted center medallions on the Wanli (c. 1625) shipwreck porcelain. This site also offers antique Chinese porcelain and other Asian antiques
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Chinese porelain marks and medallions meanings
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