Emblems Of Longevity

The greatest desire of a Chinaman is long life, which prolongs his enjoyment of this world’s goods, and ensures his receiving the respect paid to old age in a country governed by the maxims of Confucius. Longevity is therefore the first and greatest of the Woo Fuh or ” Five Blessings.”

The Taoists, or followers of Lao Tsze, carried this still further, spending their time like the mediaeval alchemists, in the search after the elixir of immortality.

As might therefore be expected, the emblems of longevity occur very frequently on porcelain, and take a great variety of forms, all symbolizing good wishes to the possessor; it may be therefore useful briefly to describe these emblems.

One of the commonest of the seal characters with which porcelain is decorated is the word Show (Japanese Ju or Z’yu), ” longevity ” (see Pl. C, fig. 17), of which the varieties are endless. On a vase published by M. Jacque-mart (1873, p. 44) a number of different forms occur. A set of a hundred varieties is on a roll in the British Museum, another set is given in Hooper and Phillips’ Manual of Marks. The word is also used as a mark on porcelain.

We also find statuettes and representations of the god longevity, with an elongated bald head, holding a sceptre of longevity, resting on a deer or riding on a stork or tortoise.

A knot pattern (Chinese, Chang ; Japanese, Cho) is also used as an emblem of long life, more especially in China. It is a Buddhist symbol, the intestines, and is represented in Pl. B, fig. 16. It is to be observed that the line forming it has neither beginning nor end.

Among the animals connected with longevity should be mentioned the fabulous K’i-lin, though it was rather employed as a symbol of good government, which its appearance was supposed to herald. It was said to attain the age of one thousand years. It must however be remembered that most of the animals commonly termed Kylins are other monsters, especially the fabulous lion of Corea.. The true K’i-lin is represented with the body and hoofs of deer, the tail of a bull, and a single horn on his forehead.

The deer (Chinese, Luh ; Japanese, Roku) is also an emblem of longevity. A white stag frequently accompanies the god of longevity. It sometimes carries in its mouth another emblem, the fungus. A deer however is also used as a symbol of official emolument or prosperity, having the same sound as the word for the latter (Luh). It is probably for this reason that we find a fawn accompanying the Japanese god of talent, Toshi-toku.

The hare (Chinese, Tu ; Japanese, Usagi) is sacred to the moon, where the Taoists believe it to live pounding the drugs that form the elixir of life. It is stated to live a thousand years, and to become white when it has reached the end of the first five hundred. The hare, often miscalled a rabbit, occurs on porcelain, both as a decoration and as a mark.

The fox (Chinese, Hu ; Japanese, Kitsu-ne) is considered, especially in Japan, as a very mysterious animal. There are several wonderful legends concerning it in Mitford’s ” Tales of Old Japan.” It is said to attain the same age as the hare, when it is admitted to the heavens and becomes the celestial fox.

The tortoise (Chinese, Kwei; Japanese, Ki or Kame) was also a supernatural animal, and its shell was used in divination. The tortoise with a hairy tail is depicted in Japan as an attendant on the god of old age, and is used as an emblem of longevity. A Chinese phrase Kwei-hotung-chun signifies May your days be as long as the tortoise and stork.”

The stork (Chinese, Ho ; Japanese, Tsuru) is one of the commonest emblems of longevity. It is said to reach a fabulous age, and when six hundred years old to drink, but no longer eat; after two thousand years to turn black.

Among plants are three trees, which though not all strictly speaking emblems of longevity, are closely connected with it ; these are the pine tree, bamboo and plum. They are termed by the Japanese in combination Shochiku-bai. The Chinese say “the pine, bamboo and plum ” are like three friends, because they keep green in “cold weather.” The pine tree (Chinese, Sung ; Japanese, Matsu) is a very common emblem, and to be found on many specimens in the collection. Its sap was said to turn into amber when the tree reaches the age of a thousand years. The bamboo (Chinese, Chuh ; Japanese, Take) is another emblem, owing probably to its durability. Its elegant form causes it frequently to be depicted in works of art, both in China and Japan. The plum tree or prunus (Chinese, Mei ; Japanese, Mume), though not properly an emblem of longevity, is indirectly connected with ,it, as the philosopher Lao Tsze, the founder of the Taoist sect, is said to have been born under a plum tree. It forms the decoration of the porcelain erroneously termed “May flower” or “hawthorn pattern.”

The peach (Chinese, Tao; Japanese, Momo) is a symbol of marriage, but also of longevity. Great virtues were attributed to the peach, especially that which grew near the palace of Si Wang Mu, Queen of the Genii, on which the fruit ripened but once in three thousand years.

The gourd (Chinese, Hu-1u; Japanese, Hiotan or Fuku be) is also an emblem of longevity, especially in Japan, owing perhaps to its durability when dried.

Of all plants, however, the most common emblem of longevity is the fungus (Chinese, Chi or Lingchi ; Japanese, Reishi) which has been already mentioned.

The fungus in question is probably the Polyporus lucidus, which when dried is very durable. It is preserved in temples, and is often represented in connection with Lao Tsze and the immortals. It is a very common ornament on porcelain.

Though not strictly an emblem of longevity, it may be well to mention the Joo-e or sceptre of longevity (literally “as you wish”), which is often given at marriages, and to friends for good luck. It is made of a great variety of materials, such as jade, enamelled metal, lacquer, &c. It is often represented in the hand of the god of longevity.