A Golden Age of China – Gold for Language Learners Too

The Golden Age of China  exhibition at Melbourne’s NGV in 2015 was a blockbuster for Melbourne. The number of visitors and the level of interest reflects the enduring fascination with China – people travelled from far and wide to see it.

Chin was involved for months assisting in translating marketing materials and content, but we only scratched the surface of what was on show. I went along expecting to learn more about China’s history and see some beautiful objects. I got a whole lot more.

Who knows that bats represent good fortune and butterflies longevity? A butterfly is an auspicious symbol associated with joy and weddings, (蝴蝶 húdié) being a pun on “age seventy to eighty” and therefore a symbol of a long life. Bat (蝠 fú) has the same sound as the word for fortune (also fú 福).Then there was the sceptre made of jade and silk thread, which likely functions as a back scratcher. The ‘as you wish’ (如意 rúyì) sceptre as it is named means “may your wishes come true”. We often say on new year cards: wànshì rúyì 万事如意 (ten thousand wishes come true). A sandalwood scholar’s table revealed the four treasures of a scholar’s study in ancient China – they are: ink stone, ink stick, paper and brush. The ink stone was used to grind the ink stick into powder.

A plate with crab, pomegranate, nuts and seeds revealed more secret meanings and puns: the seeds of the pomegranate (zi) also means son and many seeds, presumably many sons! There was a jujube (枣子 zǎozi), suggesting the early arrival of sons. Lychees and lotus seeds and peanuts added to the collection with puns on clever (伶俐 línglì), (花生 huāshēng) peanut – the second character indicating ‘giving birth’ and the 莲 ‘lián’ of ‘lotus’ sounding like the word for continuous – continuously giving birth to clever sons, perhaps! Xiè (蟹 crab) is a pun on harmony ( 和谐 héxié). Gosh talk about layers of meaning, not to mention the fixation on having sons!

What about the humble magpie – a panel on a snuff bottle had a pair of magpies known as birds of happiness (xǐquè 喜鹊) on its own meaning happiness (喜 xǐ); the quail (鹌鹑 ānchún) had a character (安 ān) which is also a pun on (píng’ān 平安) or peace; together with a chrysanthemum (菊花 júhuā ) another pun on dwelling (菊 jú) – so together “living in harmony”.

For Chinese Language learners a visit to such an exhibition means fun with language and the interplay of homophones, and a window into Chinese values and traditions.

I’ve visited the Palace Museum in Beijing many times too, but I’d never seen objects like this up close, well lit and with good explanations. I’m told that some had not been seen before and probably went back in the Beijing vault as there are too many artworks to display.

Language enthusiasts, art lovers, history buffs and anyone wanting insights into China and Chinese thinking – a visit to an exhibition or a Chinese museum is always enlightening.


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