Mythical creatures in the life and art of ancient China

Mythical creatures in the life and art of ancient China

On 4 April in Hong Kong The Pavilion Sale presents a curated collection of mythical animals drawn from Chinese history. Here, we take a look at the cultural symbolism attached to these strange and powerful creatures

In ancient China, farmers and hunters explained natural and social phenomena through stories about deities and mythical creatures. These myths were transmitted by word of mouth, and eventually became the subject of religious worship, superstition and folklore. An integral part of Chinese culture, these tales have gone on to inspire artists for centuries.  

Unique in their appearance, character and symbolic significance, the mythical creatures of Chinese folklore were first recorded in books such as Shan Hai Jing and Er Ya. They were thought to possess magical powers and were associated with prosperity, disaster or, in some cases, the birth of sages. For example, before Confucius was born, it was said that a qilin  — a mythical beast with dragon-like features — appeared and delivered a jade book. Below, we take a look at some of the highlights from The Pavilion Sale on 4 April in Hong Kong. 

Taotie — a savage glutton

Taotie was the fifth son of the dragon, and was first mentioned in Zuo Zhuan, an ancient Chinese narrative history covering the period from 722 to 468 BC. According to Shan Hai Jing, another classic Chinese text on mythical geography, Taotie had a goat’s body, a human face, tiger’s teeth, human hands and the voice of a baby — and its eyes were under its arms. Taotie was a savage whose gluttony was such that it was prepared to eat its own body. Its face was widely used on vessels and dining utensils to warn against greed. 

A silver-inlaid iron archaistic censer and cover, Fangding. Late Ming-early Qing dynasty. 12¼ in (31 cm) high, box.  Estimate HK$100,000-150,000 (US$13,000-20,000). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
A silver-inlaid iron archaistic censer and cover, Fangding. Late Ming-early Qing dynasty. 12¼ in (31 cm) high, box. Estimate: HK$100,000-150,000 (US$13,000-20,000). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
A gold and silver-inlaid bronze jar, Zhadou. Qing dynasty, 18th century. 8 in (20 cm) high, box. Estimate HK$80,000-120,000 (US$10,000-16,000). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A gold and silver-inlaid bronze jar, Zhadou. Qing dynasty, 18th century. 8 in (20 cm) high, box. Estimate: HK$80,000-120,000 (US$10,000-16,000). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Xiezhi — the animal of truth

Xiezhi, or Renfa Shou, was associated with good omens and looked like a goat, with black fur, hooves and a horn. Capable of telling lies from truth, legend had it that it pointed its horn at the guilty party in conflicts or disputes, and would sometimes kill the most despicable offenders with it. Known as the ‘animal of truth’ and ‘pointer of evil’, Xiezhi was not surprisingly feared by outlaws. Gao Yao, the judicial commissioner during the reign of Emperor Yao (2333-2234 BC), used the creature to assist him when ruling in difficult cases. Xiezhi therefore became the symbol of impartiality and justice, and the hat worn by judges became known as the ‘Xiezhi hat’.

A gilt-bronze Xiezhi-form paperweight, possibly early Ming dynasty. 2¾ in (7 cm) high. Estimate HK$60,000-80,000 (US$7,800-10,000). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A gilt-bronze Xiezhi-form paperweight, possibly early Ming dynasty. 2¾ in (7 cm) high. Estimate: HK$60,000-80,000 (US$7,800-10,000). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Luduan — guardian of enlightened rulers

Luduan was a unicorn that looked like Gilin, but had the body of a lion and the paws of a bear. It could travel 18,000 li (9,000 km) a day, and mastered different languages. Known as the guardian of enlightened rulers, it was said that this mythical animal was originally named ‘jiaoduan’, but Emperor Qin Shihuang decided to use ‘luduan’ because the Chinese character of ‘lu’ (甪) matched the image of the unicorn better. During the Ming and Qing eras, incense burners, seals and statues by doorways were usually shaped as Luduan because of its auspicious associations.

A parcel-gilt bronze Luduan-form censer, Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century. 14 in (36 cm) high. Estimate HK$150,000-250,000 (US$20,000-32,000). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A parcel-gilt bronze Luduan-form censer, Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century. 14 in (36 cm) high. Estimate: HK$150,000-250,000 (US$20,000-32,000). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A silver-inlaid bronze Luduan-form censer. Late Ming-early Qing dynasty, 17th century. 9½ in (24.1 cm) high. Estimate HK$40,000-60,000 (US$5,200-7,800). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A silver-inlaid bronze Luduan-form censer. Late Ming-early Qing dynasty, 17th century. 9½ in (24.1 cm) high. Estimate: HK$40,000-60,000 (US$5,200-7,800). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Suanni — the patient mount of Buddha

An offspring of the dragon, Suanni was a fearless lion — Er Ya: Shi Shou noted that ‘Suanni resembles a lion and eats tigers and leopards’. Because Suanni loved incense and sitting down, Buddha enrolled this patient creature as his mount. Its image is most frequently seen on incense burners.

A Silver ‘Suanni and Ram’ paperweight, Ming dynasty or later. 4 in (10 cm) wide.  Estimate HK$30,000-50,000 (US$3,900-6,500). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A Silver ‘Suanni and Ram’ paperweight, Ming dynasty or later. 4 in (10 cm) wide. Estimate: HK$30,000-50,000 (US$3,900-6,500). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Dragon fish — a big fish that can swallow anything

Dragon fish, also known as makara, originated in Hindu mythology and were considered guardians of gateways and thresholds, protecting throne rooms as well as entryways to temples. With the body of a fish and a head which variously combines the features of a crocodile, whale and elephant, according to Buddha’s teachings dragon fish travelled a great distance before arriving in China. Buddhist scriptures describe it as ‘a big fish in the sea that can swallow everything’. 

A bronze dragon fish-form censer, late Ming dynasty. 8 in (20 cm) high. Estimate HK$60,000-80,000 (US$7,800-10,000). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A bronze dragon fish-form censer, late Ming dynasty. 8 in (20 cm) high. Estimate: HK$60,000-80,000 (US$7,800-10,000). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

The ‘Mythical Animals and Grapes’ mirror

A highlight of The Pavilion Sale is the ‘Mythical Animals and Grapes’ bronze mirror from the Tang dynasty, which reflects the power that mythical creatures held among ancient people, and the role they played in life and art.

A very rare large ‘Mythical Animals and Grapes’ bronze mirror Tang dynasty (618-907). 10½ in (26.8 cm) diameter. Estimate HK$700,000-900,000 (US$91,000-120,000). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A very rare large ‘Mythical Animals and Grapes’ bronze mirror Tang dynasty (618-907). 10½ in (26.8 cm) diameter. Estimate: HK$700,000-900,000 (US$91,000-120,000). This lot is offered in The Pavilion Sale on 4 April 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Manichaeism was introduced into China around the time of the reign of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian (649-683). In Manichean iconography, mythical sea creatures and grapes both held special significance, the former representing a large family and the latter referring to warriors. The ‘Mythical Animals and Grapes’ mirror was first mentioned in Xiqing Gujian, a 40-volume catalogue of Chinese ritual bronzes in the collection of the Quianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, compiled between 1749 and 1755.

The decoration on the back of the mirror can be viewed in three parts: the inner border, which features six mythical animals, including the mythical horse, tianlu and bixie; the middle border, which depicts dragonflies and butterflies; and the outer border, which shows pairs of phoenixes, luan birds, hoopoes and peacocks, alternating with other mythical figures. Since the mirror incorporates numerous foreign cultural elements as well as mythical animals which are difficult to identify, this type of mirror is also known as a ‘Mirror of Enigma’.

These mirrors gained popularity as Manichaeism developed in China. Yet in the fifth year of Huichang (845 AD), Emperor Wuzong banished all foreign religions and Buddhist temples and statues were destroyed. The ‘Mythical Animals and Grapes’ mirrors, which had been widely used for nearly 150 years, were consequently abandoned.

Representing the most important mirror design of the Tang Dynasty, the bronze mirror offered in The Pavilion Sale is exceptional and rare both for its size and its pristine condition.