Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Chinese Antique Thread Winders with Bats

Detail of carved bat.
Congratulations to Rosemary and to Mariette for correctly identifying the Mystery Object as a thread winder or spool. These wooden winders are two to four inches long, while smaller ones, beautifully worked from mother of pearl, often resemble game counters. Winders are often adorned with flowers, butterflies, fish, or geometric shapes, although readers here can readily imagine that I was pleased to find the bat motif.

This winder has a pattern of two bats on each end, facing a peach, the symbol of longevity. As the Hattatts reminded us, bats are a Chinese symbol of good fortune, so although I know of no special connection to thread or sewing, it is not surprising to see this figure turn up. 

The reverse of the winder shows a repeat of the same pattern.
I was lucky enough to acquire an additional example of these bat-carved thread winders. This other one is somewhat different. The spool section is deeper, and the carving is open or pierced. There are only two bats on each side, facing the center, and their auspicious symbolism is augmented by that of the coin placed in the middle.

As before, the carving on the back duplicates that on the front. Note that the coin has changed into a longevity symbol.

It is difficult to decide which one I like better—the second example is quite graceful with its openwork filigree, but the solid first one, with eight bats in total, has to have one of the highest bats-per-square-inch ratios for an object its size. They both show signs of considerable use, and the gilding on each is almost gone. They must have been quite dazzling when new, although possibly I prefer their current worn and patinated condition.

Reader Dianne in the original post mentioned Bat Conservation International, and I had a fascinating time perusing their site. I strongly recommend taking a look at their website to learn more about actual bats and about the various problems, natural and human, that currently threaten them.

(All photos and original objects property of the author.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Chinese Mystery Object with Bats

It has been a while since I posted a Mystery object.  I have tried to select one a little less obscure than before; these household objects are still in use, and have a practical function.

This is made out of wood, and is about three inches long. Other forms are common, but many still look like this, although perhaps without the decorative carving.

If you know or can guess what this is, please let me know in the comments. Comment Moderation will be turned on for this post. If your solution is correct, I will withhold it until the end, to allow others a chance to guess.

The answer will be revealed in a few days. Good luck!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Before Calhoun College: The Old Yale Divinity School

1: Postcard of newly-built Calhoun

At the corner of Elm and College streets, and diagonal to the Green in New Haven, Connecticut is Calhoun College, one of the twelve undergraduate divisions of Yale College.  The Gothic, weathered stones and leaded glass of Calhoun seem so solid and permanent that one might imagine it has stood there for ages.

Yet Calhoun was only constructed in 1931-2. Its site has been integral with New Haven history since the Seventeenth century, and part of Yale since shortly after the Civil War. Fortunately, many early maps and photographs exist that allow us to peel back the layers of time, and reveal the early appearance of the Yale campus.

2: John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) was the seventh Vice President of the U.S., under Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He at various times served as Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and also Senator and Congressman from South Carolina. Since he was an 1804 graduate, Yale desired to honor his distinguished career by naming one of the colleges after him. Unfortunately, Calhoun was virulently pro-slavery, so in recent decades especially there has been considerably controversy of the propriety of using his name.

 3: Detail from 1748 map, Calhoun Site buildings shaded in red.
(Click on any image to enlarge.)

Early Days:
New Haven was settled in 1638, and by 1641 the land on what is now College and Elm was the farm of John Brockton. By 1748, the Wadsworth Map (above) shows Innkeeper Mix established on the site, which remained an inn until the mid-Nineteenth century. Note that on the Wadsworth map, Yale College was still a single building.

Yale Divinity School, 1869-1931:
The Calhoun land was initially obtained by Yale to provide a new home for its Divinity School. In its earliest days, Yale College was confined to the Old Campus block, bounded by College, Chapel, Elm and (later) High Streets. The famous Brick Row was started in the Eighteenth century, culminating with the construction of Divinity College at the Elm street end of the Row in 1835. 

 4: This c.1869 photo shows only East Divinity
After the Civil War,  a new growth plan meant the demolition of Divinity College in 1869 to make way for Durfee Hall (1870), and the Establishment of a new Divinity School across Elm Street. The first phase was the construction of East Divinity in 1869, designed by the acclaimed architect Richard Morris Hunt.

5: Hallway in East Divinity

6: Library in East Divinity

7: East Divinity + Marquand Chapel to the left.
1871 saw the addition of Marquand Chapel, also designed by Hunt. In this photo we can still see the early small white houses, so characteristic of New Haven, flanking the new Divinity School on both the College and Elm Street sides.
8: Stereoviews like this, which appeared 3-D when viewed in a special holder, were popular in the 1800's

9: A special kind of luck favors collectors, one result of which was this obtaining this original admission ticket to the 1871 dedication of Marquand Chapel.

10: This is actually a palimpsest photograph, pasted on another; notice the faint elm branches in the background. Luckily, I have a copy of the underlying photo, which fittingly is a close-up of the Divinity School.
The above picture from 1873 helps make sense of the new Divinity School as seen from the Old Campus, taken in front of Farnam Hall looking across Elm to the new Divinity School and the future site of Calhoun. At the extreme left is North College dormitory (built 1820, razed 1901), part of the old Brick Row. Just beyond it is the brand-new Durfee Hall (1870), looking just as it does today. Across Elm Street, we get the best view of that early wooden house, reminding us that Elm Street was known as New Haven’s Quality Row. Marquand Chapel and East Divinity come next, then at the extreme right is a very recognizable and still-standing Farman Hall (built 1869).

Because of Yale’s intensive building program, photographs of this period are often easy to date. This photograph marked 1873 is readily confirmed, because it had to be taken after the construction of Marquand in 1871, yet the view across Elm Street is unimpeded by Battell Chapel, not built until 1874.

11: Looking past the future site of Battell Chapel
This similar view taken at a different angle allows us to see, across College Street, two buildings which are still there: the First Methodist Church, and the Colonial house that is the current home of the Elihu Club, although not when the picture was taken, as Elihu was founded in 1903. Durfee and East Divinity are to the left, and a tiny sliver of Farnam on the right.

12: From a Bird's Eye View of New Haven, published by Bailey & J.C. Hazen in 1879.
In addition to Battell Chapel, 1874 saw the construction of the West building of the Divinity School. This 1879 Birds-eye view, with the Divinity School is in the center, provides some context. On the left across Elm Street (unlabeled) is the edge of the old campus, showing Farnam, Battell, and Durfee. In the foreground is the New Haven Green, showing the Center Church (1812) and United Church (1814), both still standing. Notice the two particularly fine houses at High and Wall, and at College and Wall, both long gone.

13: By 1874, West Divinity had been added on the left, but there is still an available gap between West Divinity and Marquand.
14: Colored postcard shows addition of Trowbridge Library
Nature abhors a vacuum, and in 1881 the gap between Marquand and West Divinity was filled with Trowbridge Library. Old postcards, although often colored imaginatively, can give a good idea of what strolling by the site must have been like. The photo below shows the interior of Trowbridge Library:

15: Interior of Trowbridge Library--those windows face Elm street.

16: Blount Avenue separating Berkeley Oval and West Divinity
Blount Avenue:
In the 1890’s the Divinity School received some new neighbors. The houses on Elm Street to the west were replaced by the buildings of Berkeley Oval, the precursor of Berkeley College. In the above photo, West Divinity is on the right, and on the left is Fayerweather Hall of Berkeley Oval. Between them, the mall-like space was known as Blount Avenue, which still separates Calhoun and Berkeley. In the distance can be seen the University Dining Hall, built in 1901.

17:  In 1911, the Noah Porter Gate was installed, which still serves as the entrance to the current Cross Campus.

18: What you would see taking a stroll on the Green in 1900.
The above postcard seems to show the final development of the Divinity School on the site of the future Calhoun. Fayerweather is briefly seen to the left, and the colonial houses on the right have not yet relinquished their hold.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi…
All was soon to change when the College Plan for Yale went into effect in the early Twentieth century.  A new Divinity School was built on Prospect Street past Science Hill, on the site of the former Winchester mansion. The old Divinity School was razed to make way for Calhoun College. In the 1931 photograph below, looking towards College Street, all elements of the Divinity School are gone. Across College Street we can see Battell and Durfee, and a bit of Harkness Tower in the background. On the right are Blount Avenue, the Porter Gate, and finally Fayerweather Hall in its final days, as it would be torn down in 1933 to make room for Berkeley College.

19: The End of an Era:  This dramatic photo shows the demolition site of the Divinity School, and the future site of Calhoun. Notice the one legacy--the Calhoun Elm carefully protected by boards!
As a student in Calhoun, I was completely unaware that it occupied the site of the Divinity School that had stood there not that long ago—even within my grandparents’ lifetime. It is a shame that such a large part of Yale's history has been virtually forgotten. Other than in these old photographs, no vestige seems to be left of the building that inhabited the corner of Elm and College for six decades. I will take a good look at Calhoun itself the next time I am in New Haven. Perhaps in the stone carvings that adorn Calhoun are hidden some reminders of its historic predecessors.

Coming Soon: The Construction of Calhoun

A note on the images:  It is my hobby to collect photographs and other ephemera that document the Nineteenth-century history of Yale University and the city of New Haven. These have been augmented with images from the treasure-trove at Yale Manuscripts and Archives, and from the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Photo Credits:
Photos 3 and 12 from Leventhal Map Center of the Boston Public Library.
Photos 5,6,15,16,17 Credit: Yale University buildings and grounds photographs, 1716-2004 (inclusive). Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University
Photo 19 Credit: Photographs of Calhoun College, Yale University, 1931-1932 (inclusive). Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University
All other photographs and objects are from the collection of the author.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Chinese New Year 2014—Year of the Horse

It seems that Chinese New Year comes around more quickly each year. This Friday, January 31st will mark the start of Horse Year. Thinking about horses in Chinese culture, images of the Terracotta Army Horses at Xi’an and of the famous Tang dynasty pottery horses immediately spring to mind.

With associations going back to antiquity, horses are firmly entrenched in Chinese art. Looking though my objects for images of horses, I notice two main types: horses mounted by people or gods, and those in more natural settings.

Click on any image to enlarge.
For all its apparent simplicity, this small wooden statue is a well-planned composition. The black horse, red face, and metallic garments all contrast nicely with each other. There is a constant sense of balance—the horse’s head with the rider’s ‘apron’, the fall of the tail with the fall of the ‘skirt’, and the rider’s bent arm with the horse’s bent leg. Even the gilt scrollwork on the front of the base ties it in with the statue and also echoes the rider’s headdress.

As opposed to the martial air of the first mounted example, this friendlier rider is holding up a toy and playing a game of catch. The above detail comes from a very colorful set of carved furniture panels.

At first I thought this finial represented a horse, based on the head and overall shape, but on closer inspection, the legs (with paws!) and under-carriage look more like those of a lion. Perhaps this is some sort of horse-lion chimera, or perhaps an idiosyncrasy of the carver—I’ll have to be on the lookout for similar examples.

The creature in this finial is definitely all horse. The way it is mounted on an iron pole reminds me of a carousel animal, especially the way it is posed prancing.

Horses are associated with warfare, and this detail from an intricately-carved battle scene shows the horse at full gallop while its rider brandishes spears and weapons.

This battle scene, from a painted furniture panel, features the female warrior Deng Chanyu on horseback.

Here is a scene from the end of a wooden offering box, showing a horse that is saddled but without any rider. This makes a good transition to the second type of horse in Chinese art, those depicted as plain animals in more natural settings.

This carved pierced panel with its gilded, grazing horse has great appeal. The curlicue fretwork is very well done, and the red-gold-black color scheme is used to great effect, although very different from the mounted horse statue above.

The scene carved in shallow relief on this inkstone has a charming folk-art quality. The horse is once again in a grazing posture, and the monkey in the tree seems about to jump on his back, and looks very pleased with his plan.

Finally, here is the top of a small medicine container, embossed with a horse. The still-sealed tin contains Triangle Brand ‘genuine horse bezoar’, a kind of stone formed in the horse’s digestive tract, and which is used in traditional medicine. 

These few examples barely scratch the surface of horse imagery. If you have a favorite among those depicted, let me know in the comments. Horses in Chinese culture, similar to those in the West, can symbolize battle-readiness, importance, power and speed, as well as nature and freedom. Embodying all these qualities, this Horse Year is bound to be an auspicious one. 

Happy Year of the Horse!

(All photographs and original articles property of the author.)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Taipei’s Halloween Earthquake

Tonight, October 31, 2013 at about 8:00 p.m., there was a sizable earthquake in Taipei. I was working at my desk when I felt the first tremors. It quickly got worse; the bookshelves were swaying hard, and I thought they might fall over, but a minute later it was over. 

Taiwan is in the earthquake zone, and small temblors occur often, but this one was pretty strong—6.7 magnitude. Still, as far as I've heard, there was little real damage. The last really tragic earthquake in Taiwan hit central Taiwan in 1999, before I arrived here.

Broken netsukes—the brown ironwood one was holding a double gourd, and the lighter boxwood one was bent down and holding his tibia. 
Nevertheless, when I looked over my living room, I discovered a few casualties. I had put out some skeleton netsukes for Halloween, but the spirits-at-large must not have liked the irreverence of this display, for several of them had fallen and smashed. 

The strangest part is that although I looked and even swept carefully, I was not able to recover all the fragments. I can only assume that the malevolent spirit that swept through Taipei and through my apartment had come to retrieve them, like Madame Zena in A Drop of Water (from the movie Black Sabbath) reclaiming her stolen ring.

Netsukes, small Japanese carvings of wood or ivory, are found in an infinite number of designs, often depicting people, children, gods and animals, but scary themes such as skeletons, rats or insects, are also common.

I was amused to notice that this toy balancing bat, resting on its pinpoint on a narrow strip of wood, managed to maintain its perch through all the shaking. The god on which he has alighted, called the Fighting Money God, may have lent his protection, as bats often symbolize money or wealth in Chinese art.

All of you who can place delicate objects on high shelves, count yourself lucky, because here such freedom is not a given. I was fortunate that nothing happened to these lacquered wooden boxes, which I had riskily lined up on top of bookcases:

I just realized that all the books on this shelf are by P.G. Wodehouse--there goes my reputation for serious scholarship.

Often around Halloween there is a weird glow at night which adds to the spooky atmosphere. The view tonight from my balcony is a perfect example, reminiscent of the nighttime postcards I wrote about last year.

Have a Happy and Safe Halloween!

Who knows what strange spirits roam Taiwan on Halloween?

(All photos by the author.)

Monday, May 27, 2013

A good time to be in Taiwan

Taiwan is a food-lover’s paradise, and in late May two of its greatest seasonal specialties make their appearance, shu mei (berries) and Yu-he-bao lychees.   

Shu mei are the lesser known of the two. The name means literally tree-berry, officially Myrica rubra. Since I am in Taiwan I will call them Shu-mei  (樹梅 ), their local name; in China they are known as yang-mei (梅). There is also a host of English names, among them red bayberry. (They are related to the waxy bayberries that grow in the Eastern U.S., the ones made into candles. although the edible ones are juicy, not waxy.)

One of the most welcome sights in Taiwan—a bowl of shu-mei. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

The extremely beautiful berries are bright red in color, darkening to purple as they ripen. They are sweet yet very tart, and have one of the best fruit flavors I have ever experienced. The season only lasts a week or so, and shu-mei are often not seen in regular stores. This year I located my supply from a street vendor in the Shi-lin night market.

The jewel-like shu-mei as displayed by their vendor.

Shu-mei are one of the most delicate of fruits, so they should be consumed immediately, admittedly not a very difficult task.  Within a day or two they will turn to vinegar, even in the refrigerator.

They are best simply eaten out of hand. They have a stone in the middle, kind of like a cherry, and the fruit is composed of juicy cells that radiate from the seed to the outside of the fruit. The darker berries are sweeter and less acid, yet the sprightliness of the shu-mei comes from their tartness, so if you insist on very ripe ones, the flavor won’t be as exciting.  

I attempted to cut one berry open to reveal the internal structure.

I did try to get the juice out of a few and make a sort of shumei-ade. It was a beautiful pink-red color, and very delicious, but these berries are so precious that unless I had my own tree, I would prefer to eat them fresh.

The evergreen trees are very handsome with their long leaves, and even more ornamental when bearing  their bright fruit. They grow in a number of warm places, and I am sure that they would do well in Florida.

I wish I were in a position to grow a few of these shu-mei trees.  Source:

Shu-mei are surpassingly beautiful berries. Yu-he-bao lychees, on the other hand, do not have such a prepossessing appearance. Regular lychees, as you may know, are bright red with a scaly outer shell, juicy white flesh, and a large seed that often takes up half the fruit. Yu he bao are green with a reddish tinge; even when ripe, they never turn completely red, and the shell is prickly rather than scaly.

Everyone in Taiwan knows what a treat is waiting in these plain-looking fruits.

They are larger than most other lychees, and amazingly, when you open them, the seeds are very tiny, giving you a generous quantity of  extra-juicy flesh. Most people also believe that Yu he bao have the best flavor-- they are very sweet, with a tiny sub-acid addition that underlines the taste and gives it complexity.  The season is much longer than for shu-mei. As a rule, the first lychee to appear in May are the Yu-he-bao, and their season can last over a month.

The Yu-he-bao lychees cut open show their plentiful meat and small seeds.

These fruits are a perfect example of something better enjoyed in its native habitat. I can’t imagine that shu-mei could travel at all, and while I have eaten lychees in America, they were only a shadow of their luscious perfection in Taiwan, consumed within hours of their picking. In the same vein, the crisp tartness of good fall apples, or the honeyed sweetness of fruits like mayapples, will have to remain a closed book to those who live in warm climates.

Taiwan has many types of exceptional produce and a plethora of regional dishes, but when shu-mei or Yu-he-bao are available, other specialties are forgotten, and my life suddenly centers around them. They are such a treat that my top priority becomes getting as many as I possibly can.

A fresh package of shu mei, about to disappear.

(All photos by the author, except where noted.)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Mystery Object Revealed: Chinese Planchettes, or Spirit-Writing Pens

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Do you recall using a Ouija board or planchette when you were a kid to obtain messages from the beyond? The planchette was the wedge-shaped instrument that connected the user to the spirit world, pointing to letters on the Ouija board, or fitted with a pen, writing directly onto paper.

Spirit writing is also common in Chinese areas, and the mystery object recently presented is in fact a Chinese planchette, called luan-bi or ji-bi. Bi means pen or writing brush, while luan is a type of Phoenix bird, and ji refers to the process of divination. An important distinction is that with luan-bi, the spirit of a specific god is believed to enter the pen, while “departed souls” are usually considered to inspire the Western planchettes.

This planchette (featured in the original What-is-it post) is boldly modeled.

Made from naturally curving tree forks, and carved with dragons, these look like a fancy kind of divining or dowsing rod. In use, the long handles are held by one or two people, and the short leg traces the writing in a tray of sand. Also present are people to record and interpret what the luan-bi has written.

An old photo showing the planchette in use. (Source:  

The ceremony and symbolism of these planchettes even precedes their manufacture. They are made of peach (or sometimes willow) wood, to repel malevolent spirits that might affect the writing of the pen. J.J.M de Groot tells us in The Religious System of China that forks cut from the south-east side of the tree are especially feared by specters. The red color also helps to fend off evil spirits.

Additionally, “before being cut off, one or more mighty charms may be carved in the bark of the tree, or attached to it; and during the cutting, efficient spells may be pronounced, commanding the fork to…give clear revelations whenever handled.”

My second example, more delicate in weight and carving.

Sounding like a long-lost relative of Paul Fussell, de Groot suddenly warns us: “Clubs which practise the system are in many cases a shabby lot, their chapels or temples unknown to fame, their spirit-writing only appealing to the very lowest class.”

Feeling somewhat crestfallen and déclassé, I was about to burn my luan-bi before anyone found out about them, but luckily I read further: “But there are many of a better sort….Of such a ji of higher order, the end below the vertex is also nicely carved and gilded, representing the head and scaly neck of a dragon or snake.”

A side-by-side comparison shows differences in the details of the carving.

Most of the planchettes I have seen have dragon heads, but some are plain and a few are adorned with luan-birds at the apex.

A luan-bird headed planchette, ready to write on its tray of sand, with some spares against the wall. (From

I have placed these luan-bi in a number of locations, together or apart, and they never fail to create a dramatic focal point. Perhaps their strange appearance was originally intended to enhance their spirit messages by visually involving the petitioner. After all, who could doubt oracular predictions emanating from these gilded dragons, manipulated by their bright red handles.

Although not used in pairs, together they create an interesting vignette.

A different shape of planchette, and perhaps my favorite Chinese artifact ever. (Source:

(Except where noted, all objects and photos property of the author.)