The Chinese penchant for looking at objects and interpreting their hidden meaning is revealed by the prolific use of symbols within their culture and these symbols are like a secondary language, rich in nuances and that penetrates all their communication.
In Chinese, each written character represents an entire word which is in deep contrast to alphabetical text where a sequence of individual letters signifies a word. This means that more or less every word in the Chinese language is represented by a different symbol so it is not unrealistic to consider that whenever pen is put to paper or in carvings it usually has some mysterious or obscure meaning.
Chinese Symbols are generally categorized as either auspicious or inauspicious and can be viewed as conveying the unseen messages of good or bad luck. All Oriental artworks are viewed as symbols, and their characteristic themes – water, clouds, flowers, trees, animals, rocks even colors – portend not only themselves, but also something beyond themselves – there is meaning far beyond the visual experience. There is virtually nothing in all of nature or any artifact that the Oriental does not see as imbued with particular significance.
There is much controversy as to exactly when the eight immortals came to be however most stories and artworks can be dated back to the Song Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty and Han Dynasty.
The Gourd: It is one of the items carried by Li Tie-guai, one of the most recognizable of the eight immortals as he is lame. Legend has it that he would frequently leave his body to wander the land and heavens. On one particular day whilst his spirit was wandering around the mountains his body was found lifeless and he was subsequently pronounced dead. In keeping with the custom of the time he was cremated so, upon his souls return he could not find his own body and therefore he had no option but to take refuge in the first available body. This happened to be the body of a crippled beggar and so it was that Li Tie-guai continued his existence supporting himself on a crutch or staff and is therefore always depicted as a lame beggar. The gourd is said to contain the holy nectar of the Gods, therefore, it is a popular accessory of many Buddhist Deities. Shao, the God of Longevity carries a staff with the gourd containing the elixir of immortality on the end of it. In art a gourd decorated with arabesques and roses signifies the wish that ‘spring may last for ten thousand generations’. In other words – this is a wish that your family lasts forever.
The Fan: – Fans first appeared in China during the 10th Century AD and these beautifully painted fans have been a specialty of the great Chinese artist ever since. One of the eight immortals, Zhong Li Quan, who is said to have lived during the Chou Dynasty around 112-249BC, is the chubby chief of the immortals and recognizable by the Fan which he uses to revive the dead. Many other Gods also use the fan to drive away evil and as a result, from a Feng Shui perspective it has been said that fans have the power to deflect negative ‘chi’ or energy that has been directed your way by a hostile source.
Lotus: As the symbol of purity modesty and love, the lotus enjoys a unique importance in Chinese folklore and it seems that this is largely due to the influence of Buddhism. The lotus comes out of the morass and yet is not itself tainted. It is inwardly empty, outwardly upright. It has no branches and smells sweet. There are two Chinese words for lotus: lian and he. Lian is to love, bind, connect uninterrupted as in marriage and also means modesty. A lotus bloom with a leaf and a bud means ‘complete union’ whilst a boy with a carp beside a lotus means abundance year in year out. He Xian-gu was the immortal carrying the lotus and was brought into the group by Lu Dong Bin after he rescued her from a demon by using his magic sword.
Castanets: – Cao Guo-jiu is the finest dressed of all the immortals. He is always depicted in court dress and is often seen holding an official castanet. So, for those budding thespians ensure you have this deity around you to help you on your way.
Flute: – A patron saint of musicians, this happy immortal is always depicted carrying or playing the flute. It is said that Han Xiang-Zi could make flowers bloom at will and soothe wild animals with his music. He is said to be the great nephew of the statesman and philosopher Han Yu who lived AD 768 – 824. There are many types of Chinese flutes, however; the vertical flute which has only five holes in the upper part and one in the lower section with only one end open is played mainly by women. In Feng Shui a pair of flutes is often used to divert the negative flow of energy.
Sword: – A demon slaying sword is the attribute of Lu Dong-bin (born around AD 755) another of the eight immortals. There are many legends regarding swords and their magical properties. In fact, it is said that an ordinary sword can be turned into one that will repel demons by going through a special ritual. In Feng Shui terms there is the sword of coins. Coins are usually associated with prosperity; however, they were also used as protective charms. So it came to be that a cluster of coins were strung with red cording in the shape of swords. These were then worn around the neck to ward off ‘sha chi’ directed your way by a hostile source.
Bamboo cane: Zhang Guo-lao is the immortal that is always shown carrying a long bamboo cane, the so called ‘Fish Drum’. Inside the cane are two rods fitted with hooks, and the whole piece can be used as a means of making various sounds and music. Legend has it that he flourished around the late 7th and early 8th centuries and is always accompanied by a donkey on whose back he would sit backwards and could cover a thousand miles a day.
Basket of flowers: Lan Cai-he is one of the eight immortals and is represented by a basket of fruit or flowers. A decorated basket of flowers represent riches and therefore the motif is a popular one used during the New Year period.