Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fu Dog vs Lion and Hand Carved Stone Art

What the West calls Fu Dogs (Foo Dogs) the Chinese call lions. Why is that? The root of the confusion between Fu Dogs or lions dates back at least a couple thousand years when Buddhism first crossed into China.

Lions are not indigenous creatures to China. But they did exist in India and traveling Buddhist monks described them, along with tales of the Buddha and the power of Buddhism. It seems temples in India perched stone lions at their doorways as symbols of protection. As Buddhism caught on in China, so did the idea of stone lions as guardians. Yet none of China’s stone carvers had ever seen a lion. But stone lions were demanded and to make due the artist used a more obedient and readily available model for their stone carvings, the dog. Thus was born a new mythical beast. Fu Dogs are lions and vice versa.

Fu Dogs have become a de-facto emblem of China. Few mythical beasts are as instantly recognizable. Through the centuries the Fu Dog morphed from after thought to guardian at the emperor’s door. To this day, having survived the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and Mao’s Cultural Revolution a spectacular pair of Fu Dogs still guard the thrown rooms in both the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace in Beijing. You will also find them in front of restaurants the world over, from Shanghai to Cincinnati. And they have been adopted by the Taoist practice of Feng Shui as well, which is interesting because as Buddhism swept across the Asian world it displaced many of the religions and philosophies that preceded it. Rather than be completely overcome, Taoism adapted and incorporated. And it could even be argued that the Fu Dog has very little to do with modern day Buddhism in China. Buddhism may have inadvertently created the Fu Dog but it seems they are more firmly rooted in Taoism today.

Typically stone Fu Dogs come in pairs, one holding a cub underfoot symbolizing protection of children and the next generation and the other holding a ball, symbolizing protection of the world. But this is mainly an architectural adaptation and may be a convention of Feng Shui and the need for balance. In terms of Buddhism, the origin of Fu Dogs, single depictions are far more common. That is why, apart from entryways, you will still see singular Fu Dogs in many forms of Chinese art and paintings.

One of our favorite examples of a Fu Dog from Reorient’s own collection is the hand carved stone box with a Fu Dog lid. We have a limited supply and each is a vintage piece, originally carved in the late 1970s. The period was a sort of short lived renaissance in China as the extremist cultural bans of the Maoist doctrine started to fade away. China was yet to become the world’s factory and small traditional carvings like these became the backbone of China’s international trade. Our small stash of these stone carvings was discovered in an old wooden crate in a warehouse almost entirely forgotten. So while they are over 30 years old they are still brand new. Each is entirely hand cut from a variety of black soapstone that has beautiful character and natural luster and veining.

They are each about 5 inches tall and are perfect for a curio cabinet, desk or end table. Collectors of Asian art will appreciate them for the authentic style and unique black soapstone. Functionally they can be used to store paper clips and other little office essentials, burn incense or hide the key to your safe.

Stone carvings are an artistic way to make the mythical literal. Stone represents reliability and Fu Dogs symbolize protection. Make a gift of this Fu Dog box and you give loyalty strength and guardianship.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Jade Carvings

Jade carvings are among the oldest known art forms in the world. Jade has been mined in China for over 8,000 years with evidence of its ceremonial value dating nearly as far back as human history itself. Many Chinese connoisseurs consider jade to be of a value higher than gold or diamond. It’s green, cool to the touch and extremely hard, but what makes jade such a uniquely Asian fascination?

The traditions and high regard of jade and jade carving is rooted in the culture of China itself. Jade’s rarity and uniqueness lends itself to ideas of symbolic perfection and even magic. All stone in China embodies the idea of hardness representing reliability and jade is an exceptionally hard stone, harder than steel. Though its appearance can be almost glass like to the modern eye it is difficult to break or scratch. Jade is non-crystalline with interlocking fibers, making it one of the strongest natural minerals in the world. Ancient peoples discovered the stone’s exceptional strength and used if for both tools and weaponry. Perhaps an early Emperor’s secret to solidifying power was the potently lethal strength of jade blades, spear tips or even an invincible jade armor.

Jade’s hardness is part of the mystery and mastery of jade carvings. There is an element of the Taoist yin and yang in the hardness of the stone and the fluidity of the carved design. Jade is rarely carved with hard edges, instead having a fine polished feel of something that looks gentle and soft. Fish in water, dragons in clouds, running horses, laughing Buddhas… these are all common jade carvings with distinctly flowing elements. It’s harder than marble or steel and yet looks like liquid. It embodies the very essence of Taoist ideals. Neither gold nor diamonds can achieve quite the same balance of elements and thus do not appeal quite as strongly to a culture steeped in Taoist traditions.

Tributes to China’s Emperors were preferred rendered in jade, which was then carved by skilled artisans into everything from elaborate statues to belt buckles. In modern China carved jade is seen as a highly respectful and gracious gift evoking imperial traditions.

China’s emperors, like many ancient rulers, were thought (or self aggrandized) to be descendants of heaven and they communicated to their mythical over lords through a jade disk. Kings were buried in jade suits that were thought to preserve them in their glorious tombs. Ancient Taoist devised secret potions of longevity and immortality from a variety of sources (some we know today to be highly toxic) and always included jade among the ingredients.

In Chinese mythology the heist deity is the Jade Emperor, ruler of heaven and every thing beneath it. Some creation myths credit the Jade Emperor with fashioning humanity out of clay. On Chinese New Year the masses clean and tidy before the New Year arrives. It’s a nice tradition that might be rooted in myths about the Jade Emperor passing judgment on humanity each year and if they don’t clean up their act he’ll pull the plug on the whole existence party.

Perhaps jade’s most potent imagery in China is its close linguistic ties to sexuality. Many colloquial terms for organs and acts incorporate the word for jade. At the same time jade is a symbol for purity and is used in metaphors for both youth and beauty.

Reorient offers a classic selection of authentic jade carvings. Each is an entirely hand worked piece of Asian art. Typically with jade carvings the shape and inconsistencies of the individual stones determine both the subject and execution of the design. Odd shapes are transformed into mythical dragons, Fu Dogs or Buddhist symbols. The natural grains and markings in the jade are incorporated into the overall carving. For example a vein or fissure may become part of a horse’s mane, adding an illusion of wind and flow.

All the carvings in our current jade collection are vintage pieces carved in China during the end of the Cultural Revolution. Most include a hand crafted wooden stand for display.

Please browse our selection and feel free to contact us with any questions on individual pieces.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Taoism and Oxblood Red Porcelain

Taoism is as much a lens for looking at the world, as it is a philosophy. Taoist reasoning works its way into so many aspects of Chinese culture that it is difficult to separate them out. From the ancient arts of Tai Chi and Kung Fu to the most basic elements of writing with a brush, the concept of balance, finding harmony in the universe, permeates everything. Yet Taoism is not a specific religion or school of thought based on a specific collection of ancient texts. Taoism is more of an abstract idea that gets played out in painting, architecture, landscaping, meditation, military tactics, writing, cooking and the myriad acts and arts that make up life.

Most often Taoism is literally translated as “the path” or “the way,” which isn’t particularly helpful to understanding what “path” that might mean. In one way it can be thought of as the “ethical” way. But Taoism can also be interpreted as the path of least resistance. Overall the Tao is better thought of as “seeking balance.” In Chinese landscape paintings for example there is a concerted effort to portray a balance of elements and energies. The mountains, solid and immovable, are cut by water, fluid and ethereal. They co-exist and yet both push and pull against one another. Rock may stand in the river’s way but water will seek a path down and eventually wear its way through the rock. There is always this give and take such that you reach an effortless balance, precisely like the arm of a scale hovering in equilibrium. It’s a matter of “is” and “isn’t” in equal doses.

Creating art in China is very much an exercise and an exploration of Taoist balance, even when it isn’t called that by name. Buying arts in China is too. Westerners who go in seeking the deal, the low cost, the great savings, often come out disappointed. The same is true whether you are buying stone carvings or car parts. People from the West, focused entirely on price, will come away complaining of quality or difficulty in working with suppliers. But the fact is they sought a deal that was unbalanced. When you negotiate in China you are negotiating two things, price and what you will get for that price. You may think price is the only thing that changes in the negotiation, but it is not. The finished product, at least in the mind of the supplier will also fluctuate with the price.

On our trips to China we always try to keep this form of business Taoism, or the Tao of buying, in mind. We are able to find and procure some of our best values when we remember not to seek a price but a balance. It may seem incongruous, but we are often able to offer some of our highest quality items at exceptionally low prices because we sought the Tao of value. Our fine oxblood porcelain pieces are just such an example.

Oxblood porcelain is itself an exercise in balance. The dramatic red coloration, with a certain luster and texture is not simply a matter of glaze and heat. To get that real authentic oxblood there must be a precise balance of glaze ingredients and kiln atmosphere as well as proper temperature. Too much oxygen in the kiln, or not enough and you may end up with blue or purple instead of the brilliant red. It is all a matter of balance.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Original Chinese Watercolor with Tibetan Antelope and Shepherdess

The title of this painting is “The Song of the Shepherd,” as inscribed in Chinese characters along the top of the painting. The sharp detail of the inks and sparse use of vibrant colors creates an evocative scene. The animals in the painting appear to be Tibetan antelope, a threatened species widely poached for valuable skins and wool. By pairing the shepherdess with these endangered animals, the artist makes a comment on China’s disappearing traditions. This beautifully rendered painting pays tribute to the history and folklore of China’s West.

From the northern Gobi rangelands to the southern Tibetan Plateau, the western reaches of China are home to nomadic ethnicities and cultures. Geographically the area is characterized by arid grasslands, deserts and towering mountain ranges. The summer heat can be oppressive and the winter chill is routinely sub zero. For centuries, survival in the region depended on nomadic traditions of herding livestock and journeying from established homesteads to distant pastures. To this day the area has the largest sheep and goat population in the world. Even in the dark ages, before "Walkmans" and "iPods", music and song was an important part of local cultures as they traveled with their livestock. Throat singing and tunes played on a Dombra, a traditional instrument stringed with sheep intestine, were mainstays in the ears of local populations.

The style of this painting, a one of a kind original, employs a unique combination of simple “fast brush” work with isolated areas of finer detail. The grassland and animals are almost mere blotches of color fading off into the bare white background of the rice paper. In contrast the figure is created with dark defining brush strokes and brighter colors. The result is captivating. The shepherdess stares out at you from her fading environment. She is not quite pleading or desperate, but simply observing. Both the character and viewer are paying witness to a tide of progress. The painting does not seem to stage an abject protest but only seeks to make record and prompt you to ask yourself if this is the right path for civilization to take.

You can view more vintage and contemporary watercolor paintings at

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bodhidharma, Ancient Buddhist Sage and Originator of Zen

Bodhidharma, also know as Batua, Daruma or Dot Mor is credited with bringing both Kung Fu and Buddhism to China in the 5th or 6th century. He practiced a deep self-introspection that at the time was often called “wall gazing” but today we know it as meditation. He spoke of the Bodhisattva entering the minds of those who could recognize and accept the truth of self-realization, become masters of their minds and accept Buddha. In legend the figure is closely bound to ideas about spiritual, intellectual and physical wholeness, an indivisible singularity or enlightenment that is said to be the root of both Zen Buddhism in Japan and China’s Chan school of thought.

Bodhidharma practiced a kind of fighting exercise, said to represent the five animal forms of Dragon, Tiger, Leopard, Snake and Crane. The style was adopted by his disciples and refined over the centuries. There is some association with Bodhidharma at the Shaolin temple. Some say Emperor Xiaowen erected the temple in his honor. Other histories maintain that when Bodhidharma arrived in Shaolin, he was confronted by a wall, upon which he meditated for nine years. Upon his departure manuscripts were discovered including the basic descriptions for Qigong or Yì Jīn Jīng.

Without getting too specific, it is safe to say that Bodhidharma is an extremely important figure in the legends and culture of Asia. He is most often depicted with wide eyes and a bushy beard. He is a traveler, having spread the ideas of Buddhism and self-discovery/discipline from the Himalayas to Mt Fuji, from the Mekong Delta to the Gobi Desert. He is even credited with the advent of tea as one story says that during his nine years of meditation in Shaolin he cut off his eyelids to fend off sleep. From his discarded eyelids grew the first tea plants, which is why tea keeps you awake.

As with many aspects of Chinese culture, Bodhidharma represents a convergence of philosophies and history. Buddhist and Taoist ideals often merge, both seeking a certain wholeness of thought and being. The legends of Bodhidharma also bridge these two worlds as Taoism is largely incorporated into Kung Fu and Tai Chi, both draw on the meditation and self control that were cornerstones of Bodhidharma’s teachings.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Elephant as Symbol in Chinese Art

The elephant in Chinese art is a symbol of strength and wisdom. It also bears some reference to Buddhism as the elephant is a sacred animal in Buddhist traditions. In China the Buddha is sometimes depicted riding an elephant, which may reference the religion’s origin as transported from India.

The word for Elephant in Chinese is pronounced and written the same as the word for “sign” or “things to come,” so pairing elephants with other symbols creates a kind of pun.

A stone elephant emphasizes the concept of strength or power while an elephant with a vase can be interpreted as a sign of peaceful times. The words for “peace” and “vase” in Chinese have close pronunciations. It is also legend that during the Qing Dynasty elephants carrying vases on their backs were featured in parades celebrating the Emperors birthday.

Our elephant candle sticks, made of hand painted blue and white porcelain, draw from this tradition. The actual candle holder is a stylized vase, perched on the elephant’s back. Putting this set on your dinning room table declares peace in the home.

Another popular motif shows a young boy riding on the back of an elephant. This pairing announces the arrival of good fortune. In Chinese the phrase “elephant rider” sounds similar to “auspicious” or “fortunate.” Our Celadon teapot is an artistic adoption of this ancient Chinese theme. The teapot itself is formed like an elephant and its removable lid is shaped like the rider.

Reorient has many elephant items, including vases and planters. All are hand made and are personally selected by us on our buying trips to China. The porcelain candle holders shown on this page are a slightly vintage find. They were produced in the late 1980s. The characteristic variance in the blue cobalt glaze is a tell tale sign of an old style coal or wood fired kilns. The heat in these kilns is not always uniform resulting in the slightly faded look of the hand painting.