|(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: http://www.25977463.org/images/folk2_16.jpg)|
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 http://www.ncfta.gov.tw/ncfta_ce/c05/c05020510.aspx?E=SWRlbnRpdHlJRD0yMjA=&S=REAL)
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: http://guanyu.chms.org.tw/ab/ab-2/abb1-25.html)
(Except where noted, all objects and photos property of the author.)