Li Yuankai was an artist active in the eighteenth century, an era also known as the high Qing period. He was born in Shanyin (now Shaoxing, Jiangsu) and sojourned in Lianzhou (now Beihai, Guangxi). He mastered bird-and-flower painting, following the style of Yun Shouping (1633-1690), an established early Qing artist known for his bird-and-flower painting.
Li’s brush traces demonstrate the artistic lineage of Yun’s meticulous, refined, and nearly self-effacing style of the washing (mogu or boneless) technique, which is an alternative to the refined delineating (gongbi) technique in the tradition of bird-and-flower painting. Li constructed a lively scene with several pictorial elements forming an interactive, coherent rebus of the auspicious meaning related to birth and marriage.
The four honey bees in the upper part of the scroll are interacting with the lotus flower, implying the process of pollination, which is commonly represented in Chinese literary tradition to symbolize a romantic relationship. The lotus depicted is at the later phase of fluorescence, with exposed seedpod with lotus seeds (lianzi 莲子), which carries the auspicious meaning for birth and fecundity. In the lower part of the painting, we have a pair of white ducks – the “black beak white-crowned duck” – a domestic breed of duck that was popular in the late imperial era. The pair of birds, symbols of married couples in Chinese cultural convention, are depicted looking at a red crab, which metaphorically refers to the auspicious meaning of pregnancy and birth. Crabs are covered by shells, in Chinese “jia” 甲, which is a synonym for “child.” (There is an idiom featuring the word jiain Chinese, meaning pregnancy). The meaning is better established in the region of Guangdong and Guangxi, where Li Yuankai worked, as in Cantonese, the word “xie” for “crab” is pronounced as “hai,” the same word for “children.”
Thus, the central message of the painting would be conveyed with the pair of ducks looking at the crabs, which symbolically means a married couple looking forward to give birth to a baby. The rebus is well constructed in the movement of the ducks’ neck and head, and the gazing eyes locked on the crab. The eyes in Li’s painting are nearly emotionless, with only the motion of their necks conveying their eagerness to capture the crab – the symbol for pregnancy and birth.
Lotus Flowers and Pair of Geese 荷花雙鳧圖
春田李元開 Chuntian, Li Yuankai
Li Yuankai yin 李元開印 (square relief) Li Yuankai's seal
Chuntian 春田 (square relief)