An article in “The Oriental Collection” (dongfang shoucang 东方收藏) introduced a rarely seen Chinese charm from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
One side of the charm has the inscription gui zi lan sun (桂子蘭孫).
So, what does “cassia seeds and orchid grandsons” mean?
The Chinese love puns and the Chinese language has many homonyms which facilitates the making of puns.
The word for cassia (gui 桂) shares the same pronunciation as “honorable” (gui 贵). And, “seeds” (zi 子) can also mean “sons” (zi 子).
Therefore, “cassia seeds” sounds the same as “honorable sons”.
The cassia also symbolizes success in the imperial examination system.
“Orchid grandsons” is also a play on words. The orchid (lan 蘭) is a reference to zhilan (芝蘭) which literally means “irises and orchids” but to the Chinese has the implied meaning of “noble character”.
“Orchid grandsons” thus means “noble grandsons”.
The entire inscription gui zi lan sun therefore means “honorable sons and noble grandsons”.
The inscription on the reverse side of the charm reads rong hua fu gui (榮華富貴).
Rong (榮) means “grow luxuriantly” and “flourish” but also has the meaning of “honor” and “glory”. Hua (華) means “flowers” but is also used for “glory”. Ronghu (榮華) can thus refer to flowers, such as the cassia and orchids, growing luxuriantly but it also has the meaning of “honor and glory”.
Fu (富) means “wealth” and gui (貴) means “honor”. So fugui (富貴) translates as “riches and honor”.
The entire inscription rong hua fu gui is commonly used to express “glory, wealth and rank” or “high position and great wealth”.
This charm was made when emperors still ruled China. A traditional Chinese family’s greatest wish was to have sons who would be successful in passing the imperial examinations. In so doing, they would be assigned an important position in the government bringing honor and prosperity to the entire family.