In Search of Immortality

The belief in some kind of existence beyond death plays a vital role in the ritual ceremonies of the most ancient Chinese tribes. Communicating with the dead is the central feature of the ancestral rites practiced in the earliest dynasties during the Chinese Bronze Age. The belief in Immortals and the possibility of attaining immortality are fundamental components of religious Taoism. Whatever the source, images of immortality are present in the art of every dynasty in China and even earlier in the most remote eras of prehistory.


Neolithic Pottery Pouring Vessel (Tripod), Neolithic Period (4500 - 2300 BCE)

A stoneware pitcher that is one of the earliest items included in this exhibition provides a clue towards how immortality themes were expressed in the Neolithic Dawenkou culture of northern China. There, as elsewhere, vessels for drink were regularly deposited in tombs, implying a common belief in an afterlife as well as the need for sustenance in the world beyond. The somewhat formal design of this vessel, the attention given to its finish, and its elegant profile, all suggest that this is not just an ordinary jug such as might be used to pour water. Rather, these carefully crafted details indicate an important vessel that probably served as the focal point in some kind of wine ceremony in which the living might honor the dead and provide a ritual equivalent to the social companionship associated with life. There is another element we should note in the decoration of this vessel; the small dot of clay, placed just at the point where the spout adjoins the mouth, looks almost like an eye and gives the vessel a playful, animal-like appearance. The hint of an animal conceit and the unusual shape of this stoneware vessel point to the future, to the time of the earliest dynasties, the Xia and the Shang, when vessels made of bronze and decorated with animal designs, or actually cast in the shape of animals, will be featured in regular sacrifices honoring the ancestors.

Vessels of many different shapes were used in ancestral ceremonies and they morphed dramatically from century to century, once-popular types giving way to new ones in keeping with the tastes of their era. A pair of wine servers (zun #3), illustrate the style of the early Western Zhou period. To better enhance our appreciation of the shape of the vessel and its elegant proportions, the decoration is restricted to a single band. The small animal heads that grace the neck of the vessel are an urbane version of the fierce animals masks which dominated in the art of the previous dynasty. The effect is quite sophisticated and an essay in good design. Interestingly enough, pairs of vessels may have been associated with owners of especially high rank.

Two other bronze vessels, each dating from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, a double boiler(yan/xian, #4) and a globular container whose lid might be used as a serving dish (dui, #5), document the shift away from wine vessels to those for cooking or serving food. Animal décor is still present, on the double boiler as narrow bands of intertwined dragons cast flush with the walls of the vessel, and on the serving vessel as three dimensional dragons that support the vessel and its upturned lid. Despite the differences in appearance and age, all of these vessels shared a common concern for sustaining the spirits of the departed and, in the case of the bronze vessels, it is quite clear that these vessels played a central role in the periodic sacrifice to the ancestors who represented the clan and, ultimately, the state. The emphasis then is on the corporate identity of the deceased and not just a single individual.

A bronze incense burner dating from the Former Han Dynasty offers quite a different view of immortality (boshanlu, #6). The bowl with conical lid depicted Penglai, one of the Isle of the Immortals; the intoxicating smoke of the burning incense would waft upward from the canyon-like openings between the mountains and create the illusion of this mythical landscape which was supposedly located in the Eastern Sea. The sea is partially suggested by the swirling form beneath the mountain and could be enhanced by the addition of water to the tray. Underneath this is an image of a tortoise, one of a legendary group of these creatures that surrounded Penglai and kept it in a steady position. The vessel facilitates a ceremony that is directed inward, prompting an experience that is personal and private and associated with Taoism, versus the earlier vessels that can claim a link to the Confucian tradition with its emphasis on family, clan and state.

The line between the Confucian, Taoist or Buddhist elements in the art of the later dynasties is often blurred. song Dynasty philosophers had self-consciously worked to synthesize these differing traditions. In addition, Song scholar collectors initiated fledgling studies in archaeology that would be maintained through succeeding dynasties and into modern times. This process was repeated in every succeeding dynasty, each generation contributing to the constant invigoration of the Chinese tradition. The result for the artist was an ever richer, more fully integrated repertoire of motifs from which they might choose in making a work of art. A cloisonné incense burner (#37) fashioned in the Qianlong era is a brilliant example of this process.

Technically the shape is called a ding. Initially a food vessel dating back to pre-history, the ding eventually became emblematic of the ancient Shang and Zhou Dynasties. Thus, the shape itself resonates with specific historic associations and meaning. Yet, this ding is no simple copy of an ancient one. This one has a lid, a feature never seen on the ancient examples of the type. The golden dragon handles, the elaborate knob on the lid (the latter feature that was unknown on the ancient examples), and the rich interplay of curving
surfaces, impart a baroque character to this piece that marks it indelibly as a product of the Qing Dynasty. The change in function, from food vessel to censer, can be directly traced to the Buddhist practice of burning incense as an act Of piety. And, in the choice of decorative motifs Such as the flowering peach, a symbol of longevity, or depictions of bats, which are emblems Of happiness, we may detect a subtle shift from the fantastic notion of immortality to the more attainable goal of a long and pleasant life. is not to suggest that symbols of immortality disappear in the later dynasties.

Quite the contrary. Li Tieguai, one of the Eight Taoist Immortals, is shown riding a Dragon on one of a pair of blue and white vases that date from the Kangxi Era and are featured in this exhibition (#31). Li Tieguai is always shown with his iron crutch and a gourd containing magic medicine, thus providing the compound image of an ailing person, a healer, and, since he is an Immortal, the best possible advertisement for his own work. Cranes, the airborne form which Immortals sometimes take, and deer, the frequent companions of the Immortals, may suggest the notion of immortality, but they are unconvincing as profound spiritual symbols. The anonymous person who inhaled deeply the mind bending "incense" that smoldered in the Han Dynasty boshanlu (#6) may also have taken doses of the often fatal elixirs of immortality that were concocted on a base of mercury. It is hard to imagine a Qing Dynasty incense bumer being used for anything of that sort.

Although the cloisonné tripod is unmistakably Chinese in choice of shape and decoration, the technique for making it was introduced from Europe. That should come as no surprise. Commercial intercourse, as well as missionary activity, had brought China and Europe into close contact and, in the 18th century, there was a certain sympathy between their various arts. The Qianlong Era is often compared to the reign of Louis XV and, in the courts of both monarchs, we might expect to find an interest in the arts and crafts of the other. Inevitably, this global exchange led to the production of exportable crafts, most especially Canton ware designed to satisfy foreign taste.

Art for the western market did not feature immortality themes; who there would understand them? Still, subtle symbols that were meaningful to the Chinese did slip in occasionally as on a beautifully enameled teapot decorated with both Chinese and western scenes (#40). A panel shows a gentleman, in western dress, carrying a large porcelain vase containing a single prunus branch, one the three Worthies, which, along with the pine tree and bamboo, symbolized the virtues of the Chinese scholar. Consciously or not, Chinese symbols began to enter into European art just as western motifs made their way into the art of Asia.

Dr. Robert Poor
University of Minnesota

This article was originally printed in a catalogue of Weisbrod Chinese Art. Here reprinted and adapted.