Heymann Objects Discovered at the Musée des arts asiatiques Guimet

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Two Carved Wooden Chinese Eyeglass Boxes

All the information and the photos are courtesy of Catherine Delacour, chief curator, Musée National des Arts Asiatiques Guimet, Paris. The scenes carved on the exterior of these boxes have nothing to do with sight or any related topic. On the contrary they are only related to Chinese culture, beliefs and legends.

The Scenes Carved Upon Box MG 17040

This one has no ornaments on its sides but the two central scenes and the motifs on top of each part hint to a very rich background.

Let us first talk about the two standing men on the top parts. The one with arms thrown upwards as if he wanted to clap his hands and visibly laughing is a Buddhist fellow. His Sanskrit name is Maitreya, that is, the Buddha who shall come on the next age. But his cult, quite important in other countries did not last long in China when it was introduced in the 5th century. Instead he was slowly changed into a kind of replete old man and token of happiness and wealth. Small or larger figures, usually seated are especially numerous in different medium, stone, porcelain, jade or wood. His name in Chinese in Budai, 布袋. Though he is not seated here he can be easily identified thanks to his prominent belly, large face and ear pendants.

The other guy is the immortal Liu Hai. He is part of a very famous group called the “Eight immortals” which was constituted during Yuan-Ming Dynasty and is very closely associated with the birth of a very important Taoist school working mostly on internal alchemy.
Liu Hai is said to be especially able to help you win a lot of money (this, as longevity, many many children and a good job, are the essential constituents of happiness for Chinese minds).He has a toad for companion and assistant. And this toad is shown on the box, under the feet of Liu Hai, seen in front view. The story goes that this toad was very lazy and hated work but that he loved money. This is why, when Liu Hai needed his help and could not find him he only had to shake the string of coins for him to come at once.

The scene underneath shows two scholars and a young assistant or servant, to be recognized thanks to his hairdressing. They are either in a grotto or seated on rocks. There is a big tree with reclining branches which act like a roof. Mountains are seen in the far distance. In this natural setting one of the scholars is playing the qin. This vey reputed string musical instrument has become a symbol of solitary retirement in the mountain, the ultimate hope of an accomplished life for scholars. The other one, seated, is listening while the standing boy is certainly doing the same unless they are exchanging about the melody.

This scene calls to mind a reputed anecdote. It says that Boya, a scholar was a qin virtuoso but so excellent that nobody could really understand his music. For this reason he got into the habit of playing alone in his small Hermitage in the mountain. There, a woodcutter heard his him playing and was fascinated. The woodcutter thus became the only one who understood Boya’s music and they became friends. So much so that on the day the woodcutter died, Boya broke his qin into pieces saying that now he would never again play his instrument as he has lost the only one who understood him. It is supposed that since then, all scholars love qin playing.

The other scene is another depiction of the usual distractions of scholars when they are retired or having some rest in their hermitage. They are three in a setting rather similar to the previous one. But the action is different as they are playing a chess game called weiqi, 圍棋. This activity is so well known that it is, with playing the qin and reading or writing, one of the most common scenes to be discovered when you look at a Chinese landscape painting where there is almost each time a minute hermitage hidden in the mountain.

This scene again calls to mind a very well known story which was written in the 4th century, the Sou shenji, 捜神記, “Looking for spirits”. One of these tells about a man who, on his way back to his small village saw two men playing chess. He looked at them interested and when finally they took notice of him they asked him to be their assistant while they were playing. He agreed but the game lasted very long and he had to go. The two chess players in fact happened to be stellar deities, one was the star of the northernmost sky, beidou, 北斗or Northern Dipper and held the register of life and death, that is, he knew which was the span of life of anyone. The other was the star of the southernmost sky, nandou 南斗 or Southern Dipper and is very much worshipped as he is the one who grants long life.
To thank the villager for his help and patience they wondered what they could do. Then they looked at the register, saw that he was supposed to die very soon and decided to erase the written record and to add thirty years of life in front of his name.

So, the decorative topics used to improve the cold, scientific and barely utilitarian aspect of these “modern objects” owned by Chinese people are deeply rooted in Chinese culture and beliefs. To us it appears a very interesting contrast but, on the other hand we must not forget that these themes were part of the usual knowledge of intellectuals, the only ones in China in the 18th century who were wealthy enough to own such scientific marvels.


The Scenes Carved Upon Box MG 17041

The box is heavily decorated with upper and under part central scenes, animals above and below each of them and on both sides. But as an answer to this lavish use of ornament, the central scenes are filled with serene atmosphere: on one side a fisherman or a peasant using the river to go from on place to the other. The scenery is characteristic of the aquatic landscapes so much cherished by Chinese painters, expressing the profound desire of getting one with nature.

The other scene could be a bit more sophisticated as we have here one seated scholar holding a kind of stick and behind him a peasant standing and holding a bunch of herbs or faggots. However, they are sailing on a raft and not in a boat. This detail means that the scholar must be either Zhang Qian – sent to explore the western countries by Han Wudi in 2nd B.C. - who lost himself and is said to have sailed on a raft to reach the country of the immortals; or the great Tang poet Li Bo (8th century) who, as a state civil servant was often sent to different counties and each time it was possible, used a boat to take up his duties. And a lot of poems by Li Bo are about him on a boat.

On this side of the box, the upper and lower part has a butterfly for ornament. This is a very much used motif in Chinese art, not only because it is quite pretty but because of its numerous auspicious meaning: attaining purity after metamorphosis, long life and beauty. Further more, lingering underneath all this and comforted maybe by the central scene, there could be a hint to a very famous story written in the 4th century B.C. by the great Taoist writer Zhuangzi: as he was sleeping he dreamt he was a butterfly but when he woke up he said to himself “well, am I Zhuangzi who dreamt he was a butterfly or am I a butterfly dreaming that it is Zhuangzi?”

There is another butterfly on the other side but a bat in the upper part. This curious beast which is not much favoured in western countries is in China a symbol of happiness and longevity. Happiness because its name is “fu” and that this sound is the same as that which means happiness, though the characters of course are different: fu, happiness, and fu, 幅, a bat. Longevity because they live in caverns and for this reason are likened to “terrestrial immortals” those who became immortals but were not sage enough to become “celestial immortals”. The caverns are called “heaven grottoes” and much sought after by people seeking immortality.

Last are the two crawling mythical beasts on the sides. These have too a very long iconographic story and though often mistaken for Buddhist lions are more often related to ancient evil dispellers and protectors. They are holding cords which twist in beautiful and regular knots akin to those which are used to represent a set of Chinese coins, though the coins here are not shown. They could be too endless knots, a universal symbol of eternity. Both mean having a very strong auspicious value. Lastly we may notice that there is a very tiny character on a small tuft of hair on the head of each lion, which reads “wang”, 王, that is, « king » and equates its protective power to that of a king.

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