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A new series, and Dong Gao 董誥 on yu’er mudan 魚兒牡丹 (fish-peony)

As I’m leaving for France soon, my new schedule for the coming year calls for a new mode of blog updating. Having contemplated several options for some time, I’ve decided to set up this new series of short blogs to alternate with the longer stories. This new series focuses on translating inscriptions on Chinese visual material, especially paintings, and perhaps other forms such as porcelain, book illustrations, etc.

Of course, a good painting speaks to its viewer even without having to say a word, but understanding the meaning of the inscription certainly does no harm, especially because in the Chinese context, calligraphy, inscriptions, and even seals are considered an integral part of an artwork. The significance of these inscriptions lies in their visual properties as well as their textual messages. I don’t recall seeing such general obsession with texts within the frame of a painting at, say, the National Gallery or the Louvre.

It’s not very common for a museum display of Chinese art or a Western publication on Chinese paintings to offer translations of all the inscriptions. Even in China, a display of paintings does not always provide transcriptions of the inscriptions, because reading the text is almost an optional part of appreciation for the general public. Only very keen viewers will actually read and think about what the text says. But even they usually can’t do this for each and every work during one visit, for the sheer volume of inscriptions in a gallery of traditional Chinese paintings can easily cost several days, weeks, or even years, to read.

My purpose here is to share this “optional” bit of fun around viewing a painting while continuing my reading and translating practice. Some of the inscriptions are poetry; some are not. There are no explicit formal differences between them in a painting. The texts are arranged in any way that the artist or inscriber sees fit on the paper.

So much for the foreword. To start the series, I have something organic. When I worked for the Chinese Iconography Thesaurus project at the V&A Museum a few years ago, I particularly enjoyed the botanical section. It was the first time I’d had the opportunity to look into so many lovely albums of painted flowers. So, let me begin with a selection of botanical album leaves.


Album leaf “Xiulan yupei” 繡闌魚佩 (Fish Sachets at the Embroidery Balustrade) by Dong Gao 董誥 (1740-1818)

The flower depicted here is known as yu’er mudan 魚兒牡丹 (“fish-peony”), or hebao mudan 荷包牡丹 (“sachet-peony”). Its common names in English are also fascinating. “Bleeding heart” vividly represents the shape of the buds, and “lady-in-a-bath” captures the image of a blossom with its outer petals pulled apart.

© National Palace Museum, Taipei





Buds red, pistils white,[2] [they] come from Xiang,[3]

Eyes side by side along the branch with uniform sublime demeanour.

Casually mimicking a floral imperial lady,[4] brocade sachets swaying,[5]

The string of fish, proudly beloved, boasts heavenly craftsmanship.

[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] The white bit is technically part of the petal, not the pistil or stamen. [3] The Xiang River runs through modern Hunan Province into Lake Dongting. [4] The first three lines may be read with Zhou Bida’s 周必大 (1126-1204) preface to his poem on the fish-peony; see


Fish-peonies are found in the region of Xiang. Their blossoms are red, pistils white, each like a pair of fish, lining up side by side in abundance. The branch, unable to bear their weight, hangs low as if bowing its head, with eyes and snouts [of the fish] clearly visible. Their leaves are the same as those of tree peonies, and [they] also bloom in the second moon [like peonies]. That’s why [they] get this name. Their stems [look like those of] herbaceous peonies. I call [the flower] “floral imperial concubine” and write this poem. [I've] heard there are many of them in the valleys along the Yangtze River.

[5] The last bit of this line evokes the analogy between the fish-peony blossom and a scented sachet, hebao 荷包.

Both pictures from the Wikipedia entry on the plant:

A scented sachet I bought in Guizhou


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1 comment

1 commentaire

Wow! Off to France! I am half French. My mother was French. Hope you have a good time. I will look forward to your new series.

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