The subject-matter of the five different species of birds, known as the Wulun, was a popular theme propagated in paintings of the Ming period to portray an imagery of harmony. In this instance, the five birds are represented by a peacock, an egret, a pheasant, a crane and an oriole. It is the peacock that represents the mythical phoenix, and is the principal among this group of birds. In legends, the phoenix not only represents the ruler but is seen only in times of peace. Depicted among other birds on paintings and works of art, the phoenix symbolises the ruler in harmony with his officials. This 'harmonious relationship' theme is derived from the Book of Odes, Shijing, where the text compares the wagtails to the relationship between brothers, and orioles to the relationship between friends.
In Chinese art, images of the peacock and phoenix are often inter-changeable, and with the peacock being a substitute for the phoenix. Symbolic of beauty and dignity, the Book of Changes (Yijing) calls the peacock a cultured bird that brings civilisation to the world. With the advent of Buddhism, the peacock is associated with the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Otherwise known as Guanyin, the Bodhisattva enters the Chinese Buddhist pantheon in male form but comes to be represented in female form, especially in relation to the role of Goddess of Mercy. One of the stories relating to the Chinese Guanyin in female form tells of Guanyin summoning a large bird with dull plumage, sweeping her hands across her own face and then over the feathers of the bird. The bird was suffused with brilliant lights and colours, to the extent that other creatures had to look away. When they looked back they saw that each of the bird's 100 tail feathers contained an eye. Guanyin explained this by saying that as she was unable to be omnipresent in watching over them, the eyes in the peacock's tail would keep watch for her and remind them of her constant care (see M. Palmer, J. Ramsay and Man-ho Kwok, Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion, Harper Collins, London, 1995).
The peacock depicted on the present dish is comparable to a similar example carved on a bracket-lobed cinnabar lacquer dish in the Palace Museum Collection, illustrated in Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2006, p. 118, no. 86. The Wulun scene, carved against a ground of dense trees and flowers, on the Palace dish is typical of lacquer carvings dating to the mid Ming period whereas the present dish with its well-defined definition of land and air is very much in keeping to the styles of landscape scenes carved on early Ming lacquer wares.