My mind has been on China’s Ming dynasty (1368–1644) recently because of the show of Ming dynasty court art that is coming up this summer at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. So let’s look at a few examples from this long-lasting dynasty (the last to be ruled by native Chinese).
Shown here is an ornament of nephrite and gold depicting a lotus pond, from the Nanjing Municipal Museum. Egrets and aquatic plants appear beneath two large lotus leaves. According to He Li, there is some uncertainty whether such ornaments, used as hat knobs during the previous Mongol Yuan dynasty, were repurposed during the Ming as covers for vessels.
According to Terese Tse Bartholomew, the combination of lotus and egret is a rebus, or visual pun, signifying a wish for advancement in the governmental meritocracy. This is because “egret” is pronounced lu and “lotus” lian; together the two words suggest yilu lianke, or “May you pass your [civil service] exams all the way.”