Those who have visited Buddhist or Taoist temples surely have seen Chinese temple blocks, called muyu (木魚, literally wooden fish). These hollow blocks are struck with a mallet to produce a sharp sound, used to accompany chanting or religious recitation.
The Mystery Object, a muyu carved with facing dragons.
Part of a very old tradition, muyu are still found in every Chinese temple, usually elaborately carved and resting on a cushion. The temple versions can be quite large, from a foot or so across to some monsters wider than a meter, although size seems to have little to do with the volume or tone produced.
This side view makes its musical function more readily apparent.
The above two-dragon muyu is exceptional for the appeal of its conception and the quality of its carving. Muyu traditionally feature a motif of two fish centering a pearl, a common theme in Chinese art, previously seen in this rock-crystal paperweight/brush rest.
Here are some more muyu, showing a variety of forms:
This muyu of traditional form, also painted red, clearly shows the traditional two fish motif.
|The fish motif here has become very rudimentary, but oddly the pearl is sharply and clearly defined.|
|The carving here has been reduced to two simple scaly patches. Notice the beveled striking surface.|
|The bell-like structure of the above three muyu is clearly visible in this bottom view. These three are about 4-5 inches across, slightly smaller than the dragon model.|
Usually the original mallets are lost, but with a little searching, old examples can turn up.
This black-painted example is a larger, table-top model, with a carved fish below, supporting the sounding block, in turn carved with scenes of leaping fish. The top has the Chinese characters, 阿彌陀佛 (Emituofo, or Amitabha), one of the names of the Buddha, indicating its religious use.
|The reverse side shows a similar level of carving.|
A good way to keep the muyu and beater together is to tie them with a strip of red cloth. The stick-mounted block shown below is another favorite, for its sharp black and red color scheme, its matching beater, and the gem-like knobs on the handles.
Most of these muyu are still quite functional. There is no way to tell from the size or appearance how they will sound, you simply have to try them out. One miniature two-inch version, made of boxwood, is so loud that it practically hurts your ears.
Muyu are especially appealing to me because of my general interest in musical instruments. Like many Chinese antiques, they are decorative, surprisingly functional, and full of traditional symbolism. They embody that essential Chinese character, built up from centuries of tradition, that makes them so visually arresting and rewarding to study.
PS: I found this demonstration of the sound of the muyu on Youtube. Of course, older ones may sound different because of age, use or cracking, but many are still perfect.
All photos and original objects property of the author.