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.)

Monday, April 15, 2013

What is it? Mystery Object with Dragon

It's time for another Chinese Mystery Object. If you can guess what this is, please let me know in the comments.

This object is made out of wood, and is reasonably large, about 18 inches in its longest dimension.

Here are a couple of hints: These are still in use, and have a practical function (as opposed to a merely decorative one).

Some of you might already be familiar with these, so I'll use Rosemary's system of turning on Comment Moderation 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!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Three Lucky Babies

This post is dedicated to Ann from These Walls of White, and to her recently-arrived beautiful baby daughter, the first of the three babies alluded to in the title. Born in Japan, her life is starting out as an adventure, and she is lucky to have Ann for a mother, who will see to it that she never misses out on the excitement.

The other two lucky babies were the original occupants of these antique Chinese baby carriers adorned with auspicious silver emblems. These are the traditional way of carrying babies around, and many people in Taiwan still use them, although modern ones tend to be much plainer.

This carrier has a red background bordered with blue, and the center is virtually filled with ornaments.

The two illustrated here are made from cotton, and are remarkable for their central panels completely covered with lucky charms. The decorations are all made from sheet silver, but a number of them are vermeil (gold-washed). The designers used the gold and silver tones to advantage in the arrangement of the ornaments.

This orange bordered with light blue carrier, while still very ornate, is more open in design.

The Chinese have always been big on all kinds of lucky charms and amulets, and there are a number that are considered especially appropriate for babies or children. Prominently featured at the top of each carrier is a row of the Eight Immortals, surrounding a god (or gods) of Luck, Longevity and Prosperity.

The dragon and phoenix are appropriate symbolic elements, and are found a number of times on these carriers. Together, they illustrate femininity (phoenix) and masculinity (dragon), and are therefore a counterpart of the Yin and Yang principles.

Lions are one of the most basic Chinese symbols for protection and luck.

The qilin, which looks somewhat like a baby dragon, is always auspicious whenever it makes an appearance.

These spouting fish will help to bring prosperity and good luck.

The sun and moon are also present, with more spouting fish. Since they can look similar when worked in silver, they are helpfully labeled with the characters for sun () and moon ().

Virtually a necessity for protecting and blessing children is the lucky phrase, Chang Ming Fu Gui 
(長命富貴), which wishes a long life and prosperity. On both of these carriers it is prominently rendered in letters of silver.

Some of the smaller emblems depict vases, flowers, butterflies and various trophies. The blue-and-red carrier also has several dangling Bells, always useful to keep away evil spirits.

One can see that the Chinese are unwilling to leave anything to chance when creating an auspicious start for their offspring. Not all babies had fancy carriers like these; more common were coin-like amulets worn around the neck, often with the ‘Chang Ming Fu Gui’ characters, and hats embellished with similar silver figures of the Eight Immortals.

One of the carriers in its entirety, showing the construction out of fabric.

Babies today don't require so many amulets, yet their safety is much better looked after. Perhaps the most auspicious start comes from the home environment; some of the decisions Ann encountered in designing her nursery were presented in her design and travel blog.

Congratulations to Ann and her husband; I wish them a wonderful and happy life with their new daughter, and all of the luck contained in these two tour-de-force baby carriers.

(Baby carriers and photos, collection of the author.)