The Eight Immortalsby Peter Krebs
Older than the art of bonsai is the art of shaping and firing clay. The very beginnings of mankind also mark the appearance of the very first bowl, not as a work of art, but as a means of survival. The prototype of a bowl is the shape of cupped hands, used to collect water or food. This prototype is still reflected today in the shapes of cups, plates and bowls.
The symbolism of the cupped hand that opens, keeps and protects is also reflected in a bonsai pot. It prevents the root ball from falling apart and the soil from drying out.
In China, which was the origin of bonsai art a few thousand years ago, the first containers in which the small trees collected in the mountains were planted were ritual vessels and water containers. Since these containers didn't have drainage holes, they were later drilled into the bottoms of the pots. We don't know when potters were consigned to build bonsai pots for the first time. Very old Chinese pots indicate that there was a gradual change from ritual vessel to bonsai pots. Both the bonsai and the pot were originally objects of religious cult. Unfortunately many exquisite pots were destroyed in the disturbances of the cultural revolution. The few pots that still exist are precious and therefore no longer in use as planting containers. As witnesses of the past they can only be found in museums or private collections. You would have to travel to Japan, China or Taiwan in order to be able to enjoy viewing and studying such old bonsai pots. In Europe there are only three or four places where they are on display. In most cases, these are private collections; there are hardly any pots to be found in the "Asian Art" sections of public museums. This web site wants to offer an alternative, as do some of the available bonsai journals. Here you can see pots that would otherwise be inaccessible. The knowledge and the study of antique pots is essential for the discriminating bonsai enthusiast, since it provides you with a deeper understanding of the relationship between pot and bonsai.
It came from China and was worth its weight in gold. Marco Polo coined the term 'porcellana' - derived from the word 'porcella' for the cowry with its smooth and shiny shell. Today we call it porcelain. Exploring the history of porcelain is an endeavor which leads us back to the beginnings of the art of producing ceramics. About 700 years ago, a European merchant gave an account of the high degree of fineness of this ceramic, which is reminiscent of glass, but much more durable. In 1271, Marco Polo made a trading voyage to Peking with his father and his uncle. On his return in 1292, he brought back porcelain among other goods.
The pot presented here is from China and is about 200 years old. It was in Paul Lesniewicz's collection and is currently part of my collection. It is made from porcelain and is one of the finest pots that survived the cultural revolution. The pot has an octagonal shape (22 x 22 x 18cm / 8.5 x 8.5 x 7 in).
In China, the number eight - like all even numbers - represents Yin, the feminine element. It is one of the most important symbolic numbers and is linked to the "Eight Lucky Treasures", the Eight Trigrams, the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism, the Eight Taoist Emblems, and the Eight Immortals. It's the pictures of these Eight Immortals that make this pot so special. The Eight Immortals are a group of legendary patrons of Taoism. They lived in China at different times and gained their immortality through a detailed study of nature.
ZHONGLI GIUAN is the leader of the group. He possess an elixir and the ability to revive the dead. His attribute is a fan.
LAN CAIHE used to roam the streets as a beggar and was often only seen wearing just one shoe, singing songs about the impermanence of all existence. He is the patron of florists and gardeners; his attribute is a flower basket.
CAO GUOJIU is the patron of theater and actors. He is almost always shown in formal court dress. According to the legend, he occupied himself with the secret teachings of Taoism from his early youth on. His attribute are the castinets.
ZHANG GUOLAO has magic powers and the ability to make himself invisible. His attribute is a mule which can be folded together and which he usually rides backward. He is often depicted with a fish drum, a tube-shaped bamboo drum with two drumsticks.
LI TIEGUAI was a sorcerer. One time when he was asleep, he let his soul wander around. His disciples thought he was dead and burned his body. When Li returned home and couldn't find his body any more, he entered the body of a dying beggar lying near by, also acquiring his lame leg. This is why he is shown with an iron crutch. His attribute is a gourd from which a bat escapes.
HAN XIANGZI lived in the early 9th century. He abandoned his society life and studied with the holy Lü Tung Bin. After this he was bestowed with the power to let flowers grow and blossom instantaneously. His attribute is a flute, and with its sounds he can attract birds and other wild animals.
LU DONGBIN is the patron of the sick and of the barbers. He owned a magic sword with which he fought against all kinds of evil. His attributes are the magic sword and a fly brush.
HE YIANGU is the only woman among the eight immortals. She lives alone in the mountains. She reached immortality through a special diet of powdered mica and moonlight. She is the patron of the household and her attribute is the lotus flower.
The Eight Immortals on this pot have been brought back to life with a master's brush. The painting is of highest quality and shows the Chinese people's deep affinity to nature. Almost every wish and every situation in life was depicted in a symbolic form. Other lucky symbols are intertwined with the depiction of the eight immortals, e.g. a three-legged toad.
The three-legged toad (HA-MA) is a moon symbol. Since the toad has a high life expectation, it is also a symbol for longevity. On this pot, the saint LUI HAI is depicted as a young man, hanging a string of money down to the toad. The three-legged toad is also a symbol of prosperity, success and wealth.
The crane which is shown on one of the sides has many mythical properties in Asia. He is said to stop having solid food after 600 years, and only water from then on. Along with the pine tree, which is also depicted on the pot, it symbolizes a long life.
The deer, LU, which sounds like LU, the word for wealth, is depicted between ZHONGLI QUAN and LAN CAIHE and symbolized wealth, honor and longevity.
The entire pot is full of secrets of Taoist teachings. It only reveals them to people who can open themselves to these secrets.
In the collection, this masterpiece is paired with a small porcelain water pot showing the eight attributes of the Eight Immortals: Bamboo sticks, sword, flower basket, gourd, lotus flower, fly brush, flute and castinets.
Technical details of the pots: Blue underglaze, upper rims decorated with a floral pattern, fired to ca. 1300°C. Age of the large pot ca. 200 years, age of the small pot 60-80 years, size 16 x 10 x 4.5 cm (12.3 x 4 x 1.8 in). Pottery probably southern China.
Both pots are originally from PAUL LESNIEWICZ's collection and are now part of my small collection.
__________Photographs: HELMUT RÜGER
Article first published in BONSAI ART Vol. 38.
Translation: Stefan Ulrich
Republished with permission of the author.