Geese Descending on a Sandbank (Bian Shoumin, 1730, ink on scroll)

Geese Descending on a Sandbank (Bian Shoumin, 1730, ink on scroll)

Wild geese are an important symbolic motif in Chinese art and literature.  According to this weird old dictionary of symbols I am looking at, the wild goose was regarded as symbolic of “yang” virtues of “light and masculinity in nature” (whatever that means).  Wild geese were thought to mate for life and were thus regarded as emblematic of marital fidelity and bliss.  Alternately, lone geese were seen as a symbol of powerful longing—as between lovers separated by great distances (or, even more sadly, by death).  Additionally, the annual migrations of the wild geese were important markers of seasonal change (and thus became representative of the overall passage of time throughout life).

In the hands of a master, this was a heady mixture of themes, and so goose paintings often represent fundamental questions about one’s journey through life.  Here is a scroll painting from the Ching dynasty painter-poet, Bian Shoumin (1684–1752), who also went by the evocative and slightly dirty-sounding sobriquet “Old Man Among the Reeds.”  He was one of the renowned “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” and he was particularly famous for painting…geese (so maybe he was “among the reeds” simply because that is where he needed to hang out in order to best render his favored subjects).

Bian painted this painting in his mid-forties, and there is a middle-aged wistfulness and melancholy to it. The calligraphy poem at the top left reads as follows:

Just now wild geese came into the sky,

As I waved my brush before the master of the qin [zither];

Autumn sounds meld with autumn thoughts

As I stand beside I know not who.

Based on his poem, he sounds like a bit of a lonely goose himself.  The painting indeed shows a single goose staring off at the sky while a happy pair preen nearby.  It would be a sad subject, but, like an auspicious peach falling from heaven, a suitable companion goose making a beeline for the autumnal-hearted fowl beneath the poem.  Perhaps all is not lost, even for aging scholar-artists…