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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

A Collection Of Ivory Carvings

By Devereaux E. Fay

( Orginally published November 1944 )



This collection was acquired. by a man who spent 25 delightful and interesting years in China. As there is no more charming introduction to the soul of China than her art, it is quite natural to want to collect the objects into which are woven the perfection of beauty, much that is frankly humorous, whimsical, and profound.

Some of the older pieces in the collection were acquired in 1937 and 1938 in Han Kow, where the former owners had buried them to save them from the Japanese. When the invasion seemed inevitable, they were dug up and sold to someone who could take them safely away.

There is, also, an unique value in ivory itself from an historical point of view, because in it only is it possible to study sculpture from its very beginning to recent days.

Illustrated is a pair of Phoenix perched on a Dryandra cordifolia, the only tree on which it is said to light. The Phoenix is adorned with everything that is beautiful among birds. The etymology of the name implies that it is the Emperor of all birds. It appears only when peace and prosperity prevails in the country, hiding itself at other times. It is benevolent, and will not peck or injure living insects nor tread upon living herbs; feeds only on the seeds of the bamboo, and quenches its thirst only at the sweet fountains. It is second among the four supernatural creatures. Its first recorded appearance was in the reign of Huang Ti, some 2,600 years B. C. Photographed with a pair of vases of Chien Lung Period (1736 to 1795 A. D. ) . Richly carved with allegorical figures-with Pagoda covers-the pagoda is symbolical of the legend of Buddha's ashes, after his death, being divided into 84,000 parts each of which was enshrined in a different part of the East and a pagoda raised to mark the Holy spot. Pagodas have also been raised in commemoration of unusual acts of devotion, as omens of good.

No collection of Chinese ivories would be complete without "The Eight Immortals" (illustrated) as they are ever present in the life of the Chinese. Their legends, which follow, will give the reader a glimpse into the naive folk lore of that country:

Chung-li-Chluan said to have lived under the Chow dynasty, which lasted from B. C. 1122-249, and to have obtained possession of the elixir of of immortality. He is generally represented as a fat man with a bare belly, and holds in his hand a fan, with which he is said to revive the soul of the dead. His emblem is a fan (shan) . He is also known as Chung-le-Kwan. But he is also sometimes represented with a peach in his hand.

Li T'ieh-Kuai. It is uncertain when he lived, he was instructed in Taoist lore by Lao Tzu, himself, who used to summon him to interviews in the celes. tial spheres. To do this his spirit had to leave his body, which he entrusted to the eure of a disciple. One day the disciple was summoned away, and when the disembodied spiri U returned the body was gone. Li T'ieh Kuo i therefore took refuge in the body of a lame beggar, in whose shape he continued his existence, supporting himself on a crutch or staff. His emblem is the pilgrim's gourd, and he holds a staff in his hand. He is also represented as standing on a crab, or accompanied by a deer, one of the emblems of longevity.

Ho Hsien-Ku. Stated to have been the daughter of Ho Tai, of Tseng-cheng, near Canton. She used to indulge in solitary wanderings among the hills, and, rejecting the ordinary food of mortals, ate the powder of mother-of-pearl, which was supposed to produce immortality. She was summoned to the court of the Empress Wu (A. D. 690-705) but on her way disappeared. She carries in her hand a lotus flower (leen-hwa) which forms her emblem.

Leu Tung-Pin, born A. D. 755-"whilst a magistrate of the district of Teh-hwa, he is said to have encountered Han Chung-le among the recesses of the Lu Shang, from whom he learnt the mysteries of alchemy and of the elixir of immortality. He was exposed to a series of temptations, ten in number, and having overcome them, was invested with a sword of supernatural power, with which he traversed the empire, slaying dragons, and ridding the earth of divers kinds of evil for upwards of four hundred years." His emblem is a sword (keen). This is generally shown as slung across his back, while in his right hand he holds a Taoist fly-brush.

Chang-Kuo-lao, said to have flourished towards the close of the seventh and middle of the eighth centuries. He was a great necramancer, and used to be accompanied by a white mule, which carried him immense distances, and when not required was folded up and put away. The Emperor Ming Hwang summoned him to his court, but he refused to go. He is represented with a bamboo tube (yu-ku), a kind of musical instrument used by Taoists, and two rods to beat it. The latter are sometimes placed in the tube, forming his emblem.

Han Hsiang-tzu, said to be a great nephew of the statesman and philosopher, Han L (who lived A. D. 768-825). He was a pupil of Leu Tung-pin, by whom he was carried to the fabulous peach tree of the genii, but fell from its branches. He is represented as a flute player, and his emblem is a flute (tieh).

Lan Tsai Ho. Of uncertain sex; but generally considered a female, and represented carrying a flower-basket (kwa-lau), which is the usual emblem.

Ts'ao Kuo chin, said to be the son of Tsaou Pin, a military commander, who died A. D. 999, and brother of the Empress Tsaou How. He is therefore represented as wearing court headdress. His emblem is a pair of castanets (pan) which he holds in one hand.

Very important to this collection is a vase of Ming Period (1368-1644 A. D.) with allegorical figures of priests and saints with the Sacred Elephant and four Buddhas seated on the cover, illustrated with a carved ivory arm rest, and a carved table screen of Ch'ien Lung Period (about 1740).

What a joy it must have been to have lived in China (as it was), for the 25 years that this collector did, and to have legendary romance associated with each and every piece acquired.

Ivory Carvings