Words in Images

Posted: September 17, 2012 - 13:00 , by royal

By Ka Bo Tsang, Assistant Curator – Chinese Paintings & Textiles

Most people think of Chinese painting as artwork created by artists using special brushes in combination with ink and colour pigments to give shape to ideas on paper or silk through the adroit manipulation of lines, dots, and spots. While this general impression is true, there are exceptions.

God of Longevity with Deer and Bat Detail showing the deity’s left eye

This picture depicting the God of Longevity in the company of a deer and a bat is a good example. From a distance, all pictorial elements appear to have been drawn with even outlines. On closer inspection, however, one is surprised to find that the contour lines are actually made up of words. The image of the God of Longevity and other emblems of long life (i.e., the peach and the double gourd tied with a long ribbon dangling at the top of the long walking stick), for example, are represented by repeating numerous times the word shou, meaning long life. The same is true with the images of the deer and bat hovering above, the only difference being two homophones, lu (rank and wealth), and fu (good fortune) are used instead for representing the deer (lu) and the bat (fu) respectively, in order to make sure these motifs’ symbolic significance is not missed.


Properly speaking, therefore, this picture is written rather than painted. Purportedly from the hand of Wan Shouqi (1603-1652), a Ming-dynasty scholar known for excelling in a variety of artistic skills, it is more likely that his name was appropriated not simply because of his fame, but because his name embodied the word shou, which would reinforce one more time the central message this work was created to impart. Nonetheless, the unique choice of using words to represent images and the technical proficiency demonstrated in their execution make this unusual work stand out from many real paintings depicting the same conventional theme.


This work is on view in Small Skills, Special Effects: Unusual Chinese Works of Art (July 28, 2012 – February 3, 2013).