The depth and complexity of the carving on this magnificent ivory brush pot is extraordinary, to the extent that it is very difficult to find an equivalent vessel even within the Palace collections. The deities and others amongst the cast of characters on this brush pot come mainly from the Daoist pantheon, while even some of the bystanders appear to be involved with magical occurrences.
Seated on a circular throne covered with flowers is Shoulao, the Star God of Longevity. He holds in his hand a ruyi sceptre, the head of which is shaped like a lingzhi fungus - the fungus of immortality. The clouds which float above his head are also shaped like lingzhi fungus. In addition to their longevity symbolism the clouds provide a rebus for luck, since the word for cloud, yun, sounds like a word for luck. In front of Shoulao's throne a servant appears to be attending to a tripod incense burner on an incense stand. Both above and below are symbols of long life, and indeed the throne is situated below a pine tree, while further pine branches can be seen at ground level in front of the throne. The pine tree is a symbol of longevity, as are the cranes, which stand and sit on the branches. Just above the seated crane a long-tailed turtle, another symbol of longevity expels vapor from its mouth. The vapor forms the character shou, 'long life', before widening to accommodate the character wan, meaning ten thousand - in this case wishing 'ten thousand years of long life'. On the other side of the brush pot a spotted deer, also a symbol of longevity, and a familiar of Shoulao, raises its head towards another deity. Along with the pine, another tree can be seen on the lower part of the brush pot. This is the wutong, Chinese parasol tree, which provides a rebus for 'together', or Toona sinensis, the fragrant toon tree, which provides a rebus for 'spring' and hence a wish for longevity.
Approaching the enthroned Shoulao from various directions are the Eight Daoist Immortals. This group of eight provided a popular theme for ivory carvers - both as subjects for carved relief tableaux and as small individual sculptures. It is notable that amongst the wealth of ivory pieces confiscated from the estate of disgraced Grand Secretary Yan Song in AD 1562, only figures of Guanyin outnumbered those of the Eight Daoist Immortals (for a list of the ivory pieces contained in Yan Song's inventory see Craig Clunas, Chinese Carving, London, 1996, p. 14). Biographies for the Eight Immortals, based on history or mythology, have been developed over the centuries and by the Ming period they could be identified either by physical attributes, their mode of dress, or what they carried. One of the Eight, Zhongli Quan, who, although he is supposedly a military man, is often dressed in a loose robe open to the waist, stands to the left in front of Shoulao's throne. Zhongli Quan is associated with prosperity, progeny and long life, and is credited with the ability to revive the dead with his fan. Appropriately in the depiction on the brush pot he is carrying a large peach, which is a symbol of longevity. Another of the Eight immortals, Li Tiegui (Iron Crutch Li) approaches purposefully in his shabby clothes and carrying the iron crutch, whence comes his name. Legend has it that Li had to adopt the body of a crippled beggar after his own body was accidentally destroyed while his spirit was away in the heavens visiting Laozi. He is shown carrying a double gourd from which he is believed to have dispensed medicine for the sick. On this occasion, however, a vapor emanates from the gourd which reveals another figure of Li Tiequi within another double gourd from which vapor emanates. In contrast to the solemn approach of Zhongli Quan and Li Tiegui, a third member of the group of Eight Immortals, Cao Guojiu, is shown capering along behind the scholarly Lu Dongbin. Cao Guojiu holds aloft the castanets, with which he beats time.
Shoulao is not the only enthroned figure on this remarkable brush pot, there are four in all. While Shoulao's throne is topped with a carpet of flowers, Li Tiegui - appearing on the brush pot for a second time - sits on a large leaf placed on top of his throne, with his iron crutch behind him. In front of his throne there is a tiger, which is one of the ancient protectors of China. Beyond the tiger another of the Eight Daoist Immortals, Zhang Guolao, walks beside his donkey carrying the bamboo drum and drum sticks, which are his usual attributes. Legend has it that he travelled great distances on his donkey and when the journey was at an end he folded up the donkey and put it into his pocket or a small box, until it was needed again. Another deity sits on a circular mat of leaves, placed on his throne. The occupant of the fourth throne is seated on an embroidered square mat with a piece of cash attached to the corner. This may represent Laozi himself, leaning on an arm rest, and behind him stands the immortal Han Xiangzi, playing his flute. Each of these revered figures is attended by a servant who holds a fan or a parasol above their heads as a symbol of their importance. In addition to the major Daoist figures, minor figures on this brush pot emphasize the magical side of Daoism. One of the two figures standing behind Li Tiegui, for example holds a jar from which is expelled two cups and cupstands, a ewer, and what appears to be an arrow in a crossbow.
While the majority of ivory brush pots either have a plain band around the mouth, or a band decorated with a simple squared spiral motif, the band around the mouth of the current brush pot has a much more complex design. Set against a background of a lozenge lattice are alternating examples from the Eight Daoist Treasures and the Eight Buddhist Emblems. In the band directly above Shoulao's head, for example are the paired fish, which are a Buddhist Emblem, while on either side of the fish are a coral branch and a pair of crossed horns, which are both Daoist Treasures.
Several cylindrical ivory brush pots carved with an encircling scene of figures in landscape are preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. An early Qing dynasty example, which is bordered top and bottom with a band of squared spirals is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 44 - Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Hong Kong, 2002, pp. 163-4, no. 142. Two other imperial ivory brush pots from the Palace collection, with this type of decoration but without decorative borders, are illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji, Gongyi meishu bian 11 zhu, mu, ya, jiao, qi, Beijing, 1987, nos. 95 and 96. A further example, also without borders, from the Irving Collection is illustrated in Chinese Ivories from the Shang to the Qing, London, 1984, p. 132, no. 176. None of these brush pots matches the current example for complexity of decoration or the number of figures.