The subject-matter of the decoration on this dish is extremely rare with the only other known identical example of the same size in the Beijing 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, pl. 129 (fig. 1).
The design of the current dish was inspired by genre paintings known as huolang tu, 'commodities for children' or more popularly known in the west as 'toy peddler paintings'. This amusing depiction of children in eager anticipation at the arrival of an itinerant tradesman who plied his goods from large baskets was intended to reflect social realities of the time. This cheerful theme gained tremendous popularity among Southern Song court artists such as Su Hanchen and Li Song. Two examples of these 'peddler' paintings by Li Song, active during the early 13th century, are illustrated in Zhongguo Gudai Shuhua Jianding Zu, Zhejiang renminmeishu chubanshe, 1999: the first is a handscroll dated to 1211, in the Beijing Palace Museum Collection, nos. 31-33; and the other is an album leaf in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, no. 34.
This genre perpetuated into the Ming period, and was popularly adopted by Ming court artists as visual means to convey auspicious wishes. A comparable depiction to scene on the present dish is a painting by the Ming court painter Ji Sheng, who was active during the Xuande period (1426-1435), illustrated in Gugong bowuguan cang Ming Qing huihua, Beijing, 1994, pl. 6 (fig. 2). An interesting point of note is the similar rectangular construction of the make-shift stall from which various trinkets are suspended and displayed. Whilst the tradesman in the painting is depicted in the pre-occupation of setting up his canopied stall, the scene on the dish illustrates the peddler with one hand raised as if to attract the attention of the surrounding children to his goods laden baskets.
The theme of 'children at play' or a 'hundred boys' was topical throughout Song to Ming periods. Images of children became symbolic of progeny and fulfillment of the Confucian ideal in the education, and advancement of sons. As such, this type of pictorial images was progatated on a wide range of decorative objects, including porcelain, jade, textile and lacquerware. One can easily see parellels between the many playful children depicted on the present dish, and 'hundred boys' motif often seen on Jiajing period porcelains. Compare for example a Jiajing-marked blue and white 'hundred boys' jar depicting young boys in various leisurely pursuits, in the J.M. Hu and Jingguantang Collections, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27 November 2007, lot 1738 (fig. 3). The boys painted on the jar share many characteristics with the present dish such as their loosly-fitted tunics, large shaven heads, and rounded faces with wide eyes. This theme would undoubtly appeal greatly to the Jiajing Emperor, who was known to be particularly wishful for a male heir.