Five Quail (Anonymous, 13th century, Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper)

Five Quail (Anonymous, 13th century,
Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper)

Quail are mid-sized members of the Galliformes (the gamebirds) which live around the world, usually staying close to the ground where they hide among the undergrowth and peck out a living eating small invertebrates, seeds, and berries.  Multiple species of the quail genus Coturnix  live in China, where they have long been a favorite of hunters, poultry farmers, gamblers, and, of course, artists.  Quail were associated with autumn and they form the centerpiece of several lovely scrolls and small compositions about the plants and flowers of fall.  The birds also are utilized as a symbol of bravery (since a certain element of Chinese society fought male quail in battles reminiscent of cockfights and bet on the winner).  The painting at the top of this post also utilizes the quail as a symbol, albeit in a way which is extremely obscure to non-Chinese speakers.  The Chinese phrase for 5 quail is “wu anchun”–and the first two syllables “wu an” are a homonym for “no peace” (in China, a land which frequently knows censorship, homonyms are an indirect way of making political of social comments).  The painting above was thus a plangent comment on the fall of the Sung dynasty in the mid-13th century (which felt like a dark autumn to the Chinese literati).   Fortunately the following quail paintings are not quite so somber in tone, but convey instead the beauties of autumn or the simple delight the artists took in the endearing rounded form of the wild quail.

Smartweed and Quails (Qi Baishi, ca. first half of twentieth century, ink and watercolor on scroll)

Smartweed and Quails (Qi Baishi, ca. first half of twentieth century, ink and watercolor on scroll)

Quail (attributed to Li An-Zhong, ca. Southern Song Dynasty, ink and watercolor on scroll) 12th–13th century

Quail (attributed to Li An-Zhong, ca. Southern Song Dynasty, ink and watercolor on scroll) 12th–13th century

Quail painting from the Ming dynasty animal painting model book of Shen Zhou (ca. 1427-1509)

Quail painting from the Ming dynasty animal painting model book of Shen Zhou (ca. 1427-1509)