Welcome to WAM Updates

WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

We hope you like reading the Updates! If you are interested in learning about something specific, or have a suggestion for a WAM Update, please update us at wamupdates@worcesterart.org

Friday, May 22, 2020

Among Friends in the Chinese Decorative Arts Gallery

In my role as a WAM docent, I did some research on the Chinese Decorative Arts Gallery and learned that many of these objects were likely gifts: functional, beautiful, and valuable desk accessories, screens, paper weights, dishes, vases, boxes, and other containers. The objects are adorned with motifs such as animals, birds, plants, mythical creatures, natural landscape features, humans in various activities, or other designs. These design motifs indeed beautify the objects, show the skill of the artisans, and enhance the value of the objects.

However, they also serve as puns and rebuses in the Chinese language and convey specific “coded” messages to a knowledgeable viewer. Each time I visited the gallery, I imagined lots of happy talk among a warm group of friends, congratulating and sending best wishes to each other.

The Chinese language is made for word play and punning as there are so many homophones (words with the same sound). Visual artists and artisans take advantage of this feature to link word and image and many common design motifs are explicitly chosen for this reason. For example, a bat decoration on a woman’s hairpin may seem a strange choice to someone of another culture and language.

However, the word for “bat,” fu in Chinese, is a homophone or pun for fu, or “good fortune.” Bat designs decorate lots of Chinese artworks, as well as clothing items, everyday objects, architectural details, signs, and advertisements.

Let’s look at a few objects in the gallery and decode some of the common visual symbols to discover their messages.

Fig. 1: Boulder with Mountain Scenes: Two Deer on a Path, late 18th–early 19th C.,
 Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), pale green nephrite with white and russet areas.
Gift of Maria and John Dirlam, 1997.137

If you received a card with a deer image and the inside inscribed with, “You are so ‘deer’ to me,” it’s obvious the deer image is meant to convey a “dear” affection. Was this jade boulder (Fig.1) with the two deer possibly meant as a valentine or love letter?

In traditional Chinese culture, deer in a forest imply “long life” as deer eat lichens and fungus, which traditional Chinese medicines attributes good health and long life. The other meaning of “deer,” however, is based on a pun. “Deer” is lu in Chinese, is an exact homophone of lu or “official salary.” The recipient of this gift may have received this jade as congratulations for passing the highly competitive civil service examination in Imperial China and winning a lifelong position with a big salary. This jade boulder is communicating, “You scored! Congratulations on your hard work!  Live long and prosper.”

Fig. 2: One of a Pair of Vases with Lids and Chains, 19th century, Qing Dynasty
(1644–1911), white jadeite w/ some green, and hints of lavender.
Gift of John and Maria Dirlam, 2002.550

The two matching vases share the plum tree motif with its five-petaled blossoms (Fig. 2). The plum, mei, is a harbinger of spring as it blooms early in the season, even in snow. In China, this beautiful, graceful, and long-lived tree is symbolic of hope and toughness—good qualities for life.

Depicted on the vases up in the plum branches are magpie birds, xi que, which allude to a famous folk tale that tells of the birds reuniting separated lovers. But the word-image link on this vase is even more complex and fun. The first part of “magpie,” xi, means “happiness,” and the sentence, “The magpies are up in the plum tree,” is homophonous with the Chinese xi shang mei shao—a wish for “happiness up to one’s eyebrows!”

The chains on the vase handles, lian, pun with “connections” and “continuity.”  The pair of vases were possibly a wedding gift.

Fig. 3: Jar with Plum Blossom and Cracked Ice Design (Blue-and-white ware), Jindezhen studio in Jiangxi Province,
Kangxi Period (1662–1722) of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911),
porcelain with cobalt blue under clear lime-alkali glaze; pierced
and carved ebony lid with nephrite medallion.
Museum purchase, 1916.4

There also is a plum motif on this vase (Fig. 3) that conveys hope and grace under pressure. The “Cracked Ice Design” refers to the crackle glaze on the vase. “Cracks” are sui in Chinese. “Many cracks” are sui sui, which sounds like “year after year.” The message is wishing “hope and perseverance year after year.” The vase also is a pun. “Vase” is ping, and sounds like “peace,” so the message expands to, “May you have hope, perseverance, and peace, year after year.” This object, a “ginger jar,” may have only been an everyday container for tea, fruits, or other edibles, but it still conveys good wishes to anyone who views it.
It is interesting that a gift can be given with the message encoded in its decorations. No need for a card or any words spoken. The recipient will understand the message!
Congratulations, stories, jokes, heartfelt feelings, and other messages are expressed in the Chinese Decorative Arts Gallery. The objects are silent until we learn how the images speak. The warmth sent with the gifts ironically contrasts with the coldness of the jade and porcelain objects themselves. The messages give us a glimpse into relationships among people who lived long ago, and what they hoped and wished for each other.

When the Museum reopens to the public, please visit our Chinese Decorative Arts Gallery to see these delightful objects and other enchanting highlights of the collection to discover their hidden messages.

—Diane Mammone, WAM Docent
May 22, 2020

Recent WAM Updates