Myth and Magic in the East Asian Ivory and Jade Collections.
Across the world, traditional New Year wishes often focus on good luck, health and wealth for the year that lies ahead. To celebrate Chinese New Year 2021, which begins on February 12th this year, I have selected carvings from our East Asian ivory and jade collection to explore the ways in which these wishes are expressed in their symbolic forms and decoration.
The ivory and jade carvings in the Museum’s collection fall into two main categories, firstly – those that depict deities from two of the main philosophical belief systems of China and Japan: Daoism, based on the Eight Daoist Immortals (legendary figures said to have obtained immortality through the elixir of life by means of alchemy or by eating magical fruits and plants) and Buddhism; these deities were often used as a focus for devotional worship in the home. And secondly, carvings inspired by Chinese and Japanese myths and legends, depicting figures, plants, flowers and animals (real and mythical) in their designs. The depiction of nature has played an important symbolic role in Asian art from the earliest dynastic periods. Animal and botanical forms are reoccurring decorative devices used to convey a specific message or meaning.
Before we explore the carvings in detail, a brief outline of the material properties and historical use of East Asian ivory and jade may be useful. Elephant ivory is a very durable material that does not crack easily, enabling it to be carved in to a wide variety of delicate and intricate objects, which have long been regarded as prestigious status symbols. The use of ivory in China has been recorded as early as the Neolithic period, around 4000BCE when elephants lived in central and southern China – a now extinct sub-species of the Indian elephant. By the late 16th century, carved ivory began to be commercially exported to Europe. China established a considerable market in items such as figures and decorative sculptures made for export to many countries including Britain, where there was a demand for objects displaying intricate craftsmanship. The arrival of the steamship trade in the late 19th century enabled the transport of huge amounts of ivory from east Africa into the ports of south China. The sea port city of Canton (now known as Guangzhou) was the leading centre for ivory and jade carving. Carvings from here were presented in tribute to the imperial court as prestigious status symbols and also exported to the West.
China also had a long-established export trade in ivory to Japan. Ivory for the Japanese domestic market had traditionally been for small objects such as netsuke, the miniature sculptures which were used as button-like toggle fastenings to suspend bulky items such as tobacco pouches and purses from the traditional sash (obi) that wrapped around the kimono, as seen in this illustration below :
Netsuke evolved beyond strictly functional objects to become great objects of art and craftsmanship, often reflecting Japanese folklore and life. The example below features a playful group of a monkey and four frogs.
By the 19th century however, due to the wholesale availability of African ivory, decorative Japanese ivory objects became as large as the material would allow, and were carved with great skill.
A note on ivory: Since the last quarter of the 20th century, the devastating impact of the ivory trade on wildlife and local communities has been widely acknowledged. Consequently, a series of international conservation agreements and laws under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) have attempted to prohibit not only the illegal trade in elephant ivory, but also the buying and selling of all available forms of ivory; the ivory carvings in the Museum’s collections were made before 1915 and they were bequeathed to the Museum in 1964, before the international ban on the trade of ivory.
Like ivory, Jade is also a very durable material. It is an incredibly hard stone and it requires great skill to carve it. It has been fashioned into a wide variety of objects for over 5,000 years –its earliest uses include axe heads and tools for hammering and scraping. The term ‘jade’ actually refers to two different varieties of stones: nephrite – which occurs in a variety of colours including green, white, lavender, yellow, blue, grey and black, and jadeite – the brilliant green stone often used in jewellery. Jade has always been highly prized for its colour and translucency, and it has long been venerated in China for its symbolic properties – as a personal ornament worn as a charm against misfortune, and to attract good luck to those who carried it. Jade is found in many parts of the world, Myanmar ( formerly Burma), is one of the main mining centres which supply the world’s gemstone markets today.
My first example is one of the largest Japanese carved ivory pieces in the collection, measuring just less than half a metre across, is a ‘Ship of Fortune’ or ‘Treasure Ship’– known as Takarabune.
The ship is crewed by the Seven Lucky Gods which are associated with the January New Year celebrations in Japan. During the first three days of the New Year, these gods are said to pilot through the heavens and to intercede on behalf of mortal beings; each of the gods represent a different virtue, longevity, dignity, sincerity, happiness, amiability, magnanimity and popularity and hand out good fortune to believers in the New Year. They are:
Ebisu – the patron of fishermen; his attribute is a large fish
Daikoku – the guardian of farmers and cooks, he symbolizes abundance; his attribute is a lucky mallet in his right hand that dispenses good fortune whenever he strikes it.
Benzaiten – the only female goddess amongst the group, she symbolizes luck, love, the arts and science; her attribute is a Japanese mandolin.
Fukurokuju – the god of wisdom, luck, longevity, wealth and happiness; he is commonly represented with a large or elongated forehead, and wearing traditional Chinese dress. His attributes are a staff and a scroll (denoting wisdom and learning). He is usually accompanied by a turtle, a crow or a deer – animals that frequently symbolize long life.
Jurojin – the god of longevity in Japanese Buddhist mythology. He is similar to Fukurokuju in his representation, with a large forehead and beard; he often holds a staff and fan.
Hotei – the god of fortune, and guardian of children, he is also the god of popularity and contentment. He is depicted as a fat, smiling, bald man; he always appears half-naked, as his clothes are not wide enough to cover his enormous belly.
Bishamonten – the god of fortune in war and battles; as the patron of fighters, he is represented dressed in armour and a helmet. His attributes are a usually a pagoda in his left hand and a spear in his right hand; as the protector of holy sites and important places he guards against evil spirits.
These gods traditionally carry treasures with them which sound a bit like Harry Potter’s wizarding wish list. They include items such as the hat of invisibility (kakuregasa), the inexhaustible purse (kanebukuro) the scrolls of wisdom and life (makimono), and the lucky raincoat (kakuremino).
The Ship of Fortune with the Seven Lucky Gods also appeared in print form and became an essential part of Japanese New Year celebrations. It was placed under the pillow in order to promote lucky dreams; below is an example of a 19th-century Japanese wood block print by Utagawa Hiroshige from the East Asia collection at Victoria and Albert Museum.
In both the carving and the print, the sail of the ship carries the written character Ju, meaning longevity, long life.
The Japanese God of Longevity, Jurojin can be seen below, on the right-hand side of the carving and is also represented in the print (detail below) on the left-hand side.
Jurojin is often depicted with other animals or plants associated with long life spans, such as the crane. The crane is an especially auspicious bird, in many legends, cranes bear the souls of the departed to the heavens. We may also note that in the print, the prow of the ship is a dragon instead of the cockerel. A symbol of benevolence and power, the dragon is ranked first among the mythical beasts – it was believed to bring fertility to the land at times of drought when dragons could bestow precious water, and in times of flood, they could stop the rain and clear the skies.
Other mythological creatures are often incorporated into decorative schemes around theme of longevity. This carved ivory figure of Jurojin has been tinted in red, black and gold.
The decorative patterns inscribed on Jurojin’s robes includes the image of the phoenix, seen in this detail below. The phoenix symbolises transformation, death and rebirth.
Shou Xing, the Daoist God of Longevity, shares similar attributes with Jurojin, conveying wishes for a long life. In the example below, this ivory vase cover has been carved in the round depicting the figure of Shou Xing , represented here as an old man holding a peach wood staff and a peach. He is accompanied by a child attendant carrying a bowl of peaches and a deer – common symbols in Chinese art representing the wish for good health and long life.
The peach was thought to be a magical fruit with the power to confer longevity or immortality on those who ate it, and that the wood of the peach tree could keep evil spirits away. Deer were believed to long-lived and the only creatures able to locate the plant of immortality known as ‘ling zhi’ – a type of lichen or fungus found around the base of evergreen pine trees – which can be seen in the carving around Shou Xing’s feet.
The main body of the vase itself is typical of the skilled craftsmanship of Guangzhou ivory carvers. It is a tour-de -force of intricate carving through and around its elongated body, and is achieved by undercutting and leaving the ivory decoration attached only in a few places. The heavily undercut design depicts continuous scenes of groups of immortals around the top and mythological figures, dignitaries and musicians in and around pavilions against a background of trees and rocks below; the decorative relief around the base features a lotus leaf border with four guardian lion masks. The guardian lion, a powerful protective symbol, often appears as an ornamental feature in Chinese architecture. Statues of guardian lions have also traditionally stood in front of imperial palaces, temples and tombs, government offices and the homes of the wealthy.
This carved jade sculpture in the form of a mountain combines several of the previous emblems associated with Shou Xing.
Carvings of mountains were popular subjects for objects of contemplation. They symbolised the retreat from worldly interests and the virtues of a reclusive life. Mountains pierced by caves and grottoes were viewed as gateways to other realms – ‘cave heavens’ leading to Daoist paradises where aging is suspended and inhabitants live in harmony. Here we have on one side, the figure of Shou Xing and child attendant, a crane and pine trees and on the reverse, a deer and the ling zhi fungus, all of these reiterate the wish for a long, healthy life.
If we look closely we can also see a bat inscribed amongst cloud scrolls on the reverse. The Chinese character for bat is fu, which is a homophone for the word happiness. Therefore the image of the bat together with the deer, the ling zhi beneath its feet, forms the meaning of long life, good fortune and ‘happiness as you wish’
The carved forms of cranes, deer and pine trees are often incorporated in decorative schemes in inventive ways. This jade ru’yi sceptre is a good example of this.
The origins of the ru’yi (translated: ‘as you wish’) sceptre are rather obscure. The sceptre is thought to have been a kind of ceremonial sword. It is believed that the sceptres may have been originally carried by the emperor as a symbol of status and power, and in their later form they were given as tokens of esteem to officials. This ru’yi sceptre has been carved with a cloud-shaped head piece to represent the sacred ling zhi plant. The themes of good luck and long life are further symbolised in the carved forms of cranes, deer and pine trees along the sceptre’s handle.
Its a large carving, measuring around 40 centimeters long, and like the earlier example of the carved jade mountain, it would have been an object for contemplation. Such objects would have had pride of place on a scholar’s table, joining more practical utensils such as brush washers and ink stands. Ru’yi sceptres are still given as gifts today to embody the notion, ‘May everything go as you wish’.
Alongside the pine tree and ling zhi, another symbolic plant form that often is depicted in carved ivory and jade is the gourd. This jade sculpture of a double gourd plays upon this symbolism for its practical use as a brush washer.
Below, we can see the Chinese character ‘shou’ (meaning longevity) has been carved between the two brush washer bowls and the plant stems that form the base of the brush washer. As a symbolic plant, the gourd carrying the water of life is often used as an overall emblem for the Eight Daoist Immortals. The gourd is also a common protective symbol associated with Shou Xing and the immortal, Li Tieguai – whose attribute of the double gourd is believed to carry medicine and so he is frequently referred to as the God of Medicine.
There is a great variety of animals and other creatures represented in the ivory and jade sculptures in the Museum’s collection. Whilst many carvings include other symbolic elements to convey or highlight meaning, some directly relate to stories from Chinese and Japanese mythology.
The humble toad is one such example. In Chinese and Japanese art, the creature symbolises good luck and prosperity. This carved ivory figure of Gama Sennin, the Toad Immortal (or Toad Hermit), is one of the mountain-dwelling immortals of Japanese mythology.
Toad immortals could be male or female, and were gifted with magical or medicinal powers. Gama Sennin is thought to be based on a historical figure, the civil servant and alchemist Liu Hai of 10th-century China. Various stories associate Gama Sennin with a large, three-legged toad by which he is often identified (though in this carving they all have 4 legs). He was thought to be able to release his spirit from his body, metamorphose, and fly with the aid of his magical toad companion.
The toad is also a well-known symbol in Chinese folklore. According to one legend, the Jin Chan – ‘Money Toad’ (or ‘Money Frog’) was once a woman who was turned into a toad as punishment for stealing a peach of immortality. In Chinese mythology, Jin Chan appears during the full moon near a home or business that is soon to receive good news or financial gain.
My final couple of examples are jade carvings of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac – the monkey and the ram.
The monkey symbolises cleverness, often cheekiness, agility, and protection against malicious spirits. The jade carving below depicts two monkeys amongst pine trees, holding the magical peaches of immortality.
The carving recalls the legend of a monkey stole a peach from the garden of the Chinese Goddess of Immortality, Xi Wangmu, whose powers of creation and destruction ordained life and death, disease and healing, and determined the life span of all living beings. A monkey shown holding a peach is therefore a common theme in Chinese and Japanese decorative arts. This carving, with the two monkeys shown on an evergreen pine tree, can therefore be interpreted as a wish for good luck to last many generations.
The ram has been considered an auspicious animal symbol throughout Chinese history. In Chinese art, the ram is a symbol of peace, prosperity and filial piety and was a popular subject for jade carvings.
The ram often features prominently in Chinese New Year celebrations as the Chinese word for ram is ‘yáng’ and the first three months of the lunar year (spring) are considered yáng months because they represent growth and rebirth. Three rams therefore symbolize spring and new beginnings, and they frequently appear as a lucky seasonal motif on gifts and decorations during the festivities.