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Porcelain Boy with Rabbit
Item No. 19419B

16th - 17th Century, N/A, China
9.5" x 6" x 4.75"
( 24.13 x 15.24 x 12.065 cm)
(H x W x D)

For thousands of years in China, the ideal life for a couple was to be married, to have many sons, for the sons to pass the provincial examinations, and for them to be able to lead a life that led to high office, respect and wealth. When the Chinese spoke of having children, they really meant that they wanted to have sons. This traditional preference for males in China has its roots in the structure of Chinese society, the laws concerning inheritance and the early Chinese fondness for the teachings of Confucianism.

Before 1949 only a male could inherit the parental estate, perform the ancestral sacrifices for one’s ancestors—which meant honoring one’s father and forefathers—and really become the head of the family and be considered the patriarch after the death of the father. A woman who bore no sons was seen as barren and was considered a failure as a wife. Divorce in Chinese society was no problem for the male if the reason for the divorce was that the wife could not or did not bear sons. The men in a family who bore many sons were considered very strong and dynamic and were held up in Chinese society as examples, especially Wen-Wang, the founder of the Zhou Dynasty who, we are told, had a hundred sons.

The traditional preference for sons is deeply rooted in the structure of the society. In both China and India sons enjoy a great deal of social prestige. Only men can perform the rituals of the traditional ancestor cult or perpetuate the family name. Since girls marry into another family, only sons can guarantee for the care of the parents in old age. In societies where families have to pay a dowry when their daughters marry, the practice of discrimination against daughters is far more widespread than in those where the bridegroom has to pay bride-money or where marriage is possible without financial transfer. To not have a descendent (son) is considered a great sin against filial piety, so a Chinese man is considered to have a good excuse to bring a concubine into his household if his wife is barren.

To ensure a fruitful marriage, both Chinese men and women wear charms in the shape of infant boys, and women wear clothing with designs of “boys at play” and the “hundred boys.” The marriage bed is sprinkled with seeds and dried fruit in the desire to produce many distinguished and important sons who will continue the family name and bring glory and wealth by passing the civil service examinations and becoming high officials. (Bartholomew, p. 58) Chopsticks are an important item in a bride’s dowry and are hung over the door to the bride’s room, because they are symbols of a speedy pregnancy as their Chinese name, kuaizi, is a homophone of “speedy arrival of sons,” kuaizi. The four characters on ceramic chopstick containers of the 19th century (see items # 16966, 16963A and 19324), baizi qiansun, imply a wish for a hundred sons and a thousand grandsons, and the bat (fu) flying above a coin (qian) on the piece alludes to a wish for blessings before your eyes (fuzai yanqian), as the Chinese word for bat is a pun for “blessings” and “coin” (qian) is homophanous with “before” (qian). Also ancient Chinese coins have a square opening in the center called an “eye” (yan). (Bartholomew, p. 25)

When we examine the porcelain boy with a rabbit, we must first state that the image is very closely associated with designs generally called “boys at play” which were mentioned above as being worn on clothing by Chinese mothers-to-be as a wish and desire for the ability to bear many sons. Typically, the boy is very young, usually wears the traditional bib-like undergarment that covered a baby’s or toddler’s chest and abdomen called a doudu and appears as plump to reflect prosperity. Most of these kinds of representations are generic, and , although their appearance is enough to portray the wish for sons, a further emphasis of their meaning or symbolism lies in the milieu in which the boys are portrayed, the symbolic objects they hold or are surrounded by or the accessories that may appear with them. Also, the appearance of these symbols without the presence of a boy gives the scene the exact same meaning (Welch, p. 153) There are, in fact, scores of symbols, rebuses, homophones, puns and accessories which, arranged alone or in combination, express the Chinese desire for numerous sons. This wish is so central to Chinese beliefs that Tse Tse Bartholomew devotes an entire chapter of her book “Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art” to get a handle on the subject. Thus, bamboo shoot (sun) is a pun or homophone for grandson (sun). The bottle gourd is a natural symbol of fertility in China as it has many seeds and, therefore, has become an auspicious symbol for “bringing hundreds of sons.” As the plant can produce both large (gua) and small (die) gourds, it also stands for “Guadie mianmian” or zisun wandai both essentially meaning “ceaseless generations of descendants. “ Other popular symbols for having many offspring include pomegranates, gourds and vines, melons with butterflies, lotus seeds, lotus blossoms, the bulb of an arrowroot, a mouth organ, a boy riding a qilin, chestnuts, chopsticks, lychee, seeds of any kind, a shuttlecock, and many, many more. (Bartholomew, Chapter 3 “motifs for Numerous Sons,” pp. 58-81)

There are a few representations of this kind, however, which are not generic, but have specific moral, mythological, religious and/or historical roots and the appearance of a child or two children with a rabbit is one of them. Here, the child represents both the desire for male offspring and is also a child of the Goddess of the Moon. (Welch, p. 154) The tale of the beautiful moon goddess Chang E is ancient and is recorded in the Western Han book of fairy tales Shanhaijing The Book of Mountain and Seas. It described how Chang E stole the pill of immortality from her archer husband Hou yi, swallowed the pill and escaped to the moon where she lives a lonely life forever with her constant companion, the rabbit, who guards her palace and pounds herbs of immortality at the base of a cassia tree. (C.A.S. Williams, p. 278) The rabbit also appears in a Buddhist legend where a hare becomes a symbol of self sacrifice and faith by throwing himself on the fire to provide food for the starving Buddha. As a reward, the rabbit is sent to the moon to live for a thousand years. Therefore, rabbit is a symbol of longevity and also of femininity, as they are both fertile and bear many offspring, something for which Chinese women also aspire to strive. (Pei, p. 159)

Published Sources:

Terese Tse Bartholomew, “Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art,” Hong Kong. The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 2006.

Fang Jing Pei, “Symbols and Rebuses in Chinese Art: Figures, Bugs, Beasts, and Flowers,” Berkeley, 10 Speed Press, 2004.

Patricia Bjaaland Welch, “Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery” Rutland, Tuttle publishing, 2008.

C.A.S. Williams, “Outlines of Chinese Symbolism & Art Motives,” New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 1976.

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