Magpies on plum tree

The rich Chinese houses are usually encircled by simple white-painted, gray-tiled high walls. Their only glory is the huge gate, which is especially decorated. It is a two-storey building, with slightly curved tile roofs on the top and on the two gateposts, decorated with frescos and calligraphs on every surface, which reflect the rank, richness and well-being of the house. At every lunar new year, this permanent decoration is also complemented by a changing décor, which remains there all year round: wise sayings vertically on the gateposts, the sign of happiness above the gate, and the images of the two giant gatekeepers (門神 ménshén), Shenshu 神荼 and Yulei 鬱壘, who originally stood in the Strait of the Western Hills, on the Path of the Dead, and every time a ghoulish spirit wants to get up out of the underworld, they grab it and throw it before the tigers. Because of this, they are also often portrayed tiger-headed, or rather charmingly cat-headed, on the apotropaic pictures attached to the gates, also becuase the cat, by keeping off the rats, is another apotropaic animal, and its portrait is also a common element of the permanent decoration of the gate.

The two inner sides of the gate are generally decorated with two lovely genre pictures in the light-handed, sketchy style – 文人畫 wénrénhuà – of the erudite calligraphers, including the name-giver of our blog, Wang Wei. One of them mostly depicts a beautiful mountain landscape, with twisted old pine trees, and with a hermitage between the mountains, where the weary soul can find relief, just like in this house. In the other, we often see birds, standing on floral branches, or landing on them, chatting with or standing close to each other. The birds are magpies, and the flowers are branches of plum trees.

Xu Beihong: Magpies on blossoming plum tree

The “bird-on-flower” genre, one of the most important topoi of Chinese painting, was developed in the 10th century, during the Five Dinasties (907-960). Its greatest master was Huang Quan (黃筌, 903-965) from Sichuan, and it is in his famous “catalog painting” that we find the first Chinese mapgie.

Huang Quan: Birds, insects and turtles after life (寫生珍禽圖). Beijing, Palace Museum

Of the many winged creatures, the magpie excels not only with its long tail, but also with its name, 喜鹊 xĭquè, meaning “happiness bird”. In fact, its first syllable is identical with 喜 xĭ, “happiness”, attached to the door of every house at the Chinese new year. This is what we see in the opening picture of this post, on the gate of one of Shaxi’s richest houses the Ouyang merchant house (about which we will write more later). The same syllable is part of 喜欢 xĭhuān, “love”, of which thus it becomes an intermediary and a messenger. For example, acording to a popular legend, two famous separated lovers could meet again at certain times through a gate formed by magpies. Therefore, the name of a magpie couple, 双喜 shuāngxĭ, also means “double happiness”, displayed in the sign of a double on the red flags of Chinese restaurants decorated for wedding.

Xu Beihong: Double happiness. Observe the similarity of the two figures to the 囍 sign

Happiness is a big word. Double happiness is unspeakably big. How can you further enhance it? By planting the two magpies on the top of a blossoming plum tree. In fact, the plum tree is called 梅 méi, which is homonymous to the word 眉 méi, “eyebrow”. Thus, 喜上梅 xĭshàngméi, “magpie on plum tree” is homonymous to the good wish  喜上眉梢 xĭshàngméi(shāo), “happiness to the top of your eyerows!” That’s why we see a magpie couple flirting on a plum tree as a pendant of a landscape in the gate of most old city palaces. For example, in this ancient merchant house in Shaxi, which, in spite of the unhappy times past since 1949 – the term is paraphrasing the famous film by Zhang Yimou – still resist to the temptation of depression.

Guo Gan: Himalaya. Erhu solo

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