Thursday, April 23, 2015

Mystery Object Revealed: Muyu, or Wooden Temple Bells

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.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Chinese Mystery Object with Kissing Dragons

It's time for a new Mystery Object. Although I have often acquired items mainly because of their historical interest and without considering their looks, this piece is one of my favorites because of its tremendous eye appeal. 

These utilitarian objects are still in common use, and typically have a characteristic decoration, although rarely featuring dragons. The form of the dragons here, however, does have a symbolic significance appropriate to this type of object.

This is made out of wood and is about six inches long, but others range from considerably smaller to much larger. While other types of these can be found, this is the most common general shape.

If you know or can guess what this is, please let me know in the comments. As usual, Comment Moderation will be turned on for Mystery Objects posts. 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!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Happy Birthday Sigrid Arnoldson, plus a cautionary tale

My last trip to Cleveland, I was going through a box of old photographs and came across the following dramatic portrait, obviously a singer or actress. Although the features seemed familiar, I couldn't recall whose portrait this was, so I looked at the back, only to be confronted with a blank expanse. 

Mystery portrait: Who is she???

The identity was known when I obtained it, but nothing was written on this large photo, which was likewise dissociated from any receipts or catalog entries. In other words, an orphan photograph. However, luck was watching out for me, for later a small album yielded this late 19th century trade card of singer Sigrid Arnoldson, advertising Lorillard tobacco:

This certainly looked like the photo, and now that I had a name it was a matter of minutes to look on the internet and confirm the identification with other Arnoldson photos from the same session, such as this one on the website. 

Sigrid Arnoldson, a famous Swedish singer with an international career who lived from 1861 to 1943, was an important part of the music scene in the late Nineteenth century. In a manner reminiscent of Adelina Patti, Arnoldson combined the high status of classical singers with the relentless merchandising of the period to enter the realm of popular culture. Her face and name appear often in relics of the period, frequently in sets of trade cards issued by tobacco and other companies.

Luckily, Arnoldson lived into the era of early phonograph recordings, so her voice was preserved for the future.  That same visit, I opened a box of old 78-RPM records stored in a cabinet, and miraculously there was Arnoldson's 1906 Berlin rendition of the Swiss Echo Song, a popular Victorian display piece. (You may hear this recording, although not from my copy, on Youtube.) 

The important lesson here is that we are the custodians of the objects we collect, and there is no excuse to allow identifying information to be lost. Names and locations should be written on the backs of photographs with pencil (but please avoid ink or felt tips, which over the years will bleed through). 

Arnoldson's birthday is March 20th, which makes this an especially appropriate time to review her story. I must have had a premonition that I would one day be called on to celebrate her birthday: I was all prepared with this c.1890 box of Sigrid Arnoldson Birthday Candles! That is the pleasure of collecting—once someone like Arnoldson registers on your mental radar, locating an insignificant object like these candles becomes an occasion of great excitement and amusement.

Still filled with the original candles!

The spirit of Sigrid Arnoldson must have been at my elbow last summer, protecting her image from neglect. Although most of my things are packed away in deep storage, it seems that every time I opened a box I found an object related to her. A few days before I left, one last very beautiful portrait from 1894 virtually materialized in a folder of architectural photographs. She looks very relaxed now that I have labeled her picture, and order has been restored!

Sigrid Arnoldson, March 20, 1861 – February 7, 1943

All photographs and original items, except as noted, property of the author.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Taipei Lantern Festival for Goat Year, 2015

(Note: Lots of colorful photos, so please be patient while they load.)

This pig driving a banana is welcoming you to Lantern Festival!
Lantern Festival comes at the end of Chinese New Year, a time when handmade lanterns in incredible shapes are built to celebrate the special themes for the year, or for that matter any subject, charming or strange, that comes into the maker's head. (I last reported on Lantern Festival during Dragon Year.)

The way it works is that different schools, groups, and even companies enter their lanterns in various categories, and at some point winners are chosen. This post has only still photos, but many of the lanterns were mechanized, having various moving parts, and sometimes even steam issuing forth.

Since this is Goat Year, many of the lanterns are goat themed, and this arrangement of two goats with the Taipei 101 Tower was one of the best.

As you leaf through these photos, note your favorites, and let me know at the end. It is a difficult choice; even these here were weeded out with difficulty from over five hundred photographs! (How could we ever have existed before digital cameras?) 

The festival was spread out over a large park, as seen from one vantage point.

This one was looks like a slug with its tail in a bowl—perhaps a genie-like creature coming out? I saw many local people who seemed equally bewildered.

A set of horse lanterns was particularly finely made.

Pegasus, or at least some flying horse, was the centerpiece.

The makers couldn't resist adding this charming pony.

Although this traditional house is a larger complex, I'm sure you can identify all the same features as on the Chinese House Bank.

This sea creature tableau, composed of turtle, sea urchin, clam with pearl, crab, and adorable smiling shrimp, is supposedly made by an elementary school, but I somehow detect the hand of the art teacher.

This lantern does look like it was actually made by elementary school student, which to me gives it an extra charm. Although somewhat crude, it is still much better than I could do were I to try my own hand at it.

One problem with recent lantern festivals is the increased use of Christmas-type lights, which I feel is cheating. However, in this scene both types appear combined to good effect.

This tufted elephant is a very well crafted lantern.

Stunning is the only word that can describe this eagle on a rock.

Off to the circus, starting with this delightful carousel.

…a Ferris Wheel…

It is always a mystery whether clown figures are deliberately meant to be scary, or just come out that way. This huge clown’s head coming out of the ground is many times larger than the surrounding acrobat lanterns.

The reason that Taiwanese children behave is because their parents tell them that otherwise this giant clown lantern will come to get them!


It’s a little hard to see in the picture, but this tree lantern was a real tour de force.

A pumpkin coach right out of a fairytale.

Astonishing quality, both design and construction-wise, in these dancing elephants.

I always like to see lanterns depicting traditional Chinese scenes.

Every year there is a main lantern with the theme of the current zodiac animal. This metallic, twinkling goat on a mountain top was about five stories high. There were lights playing, music blaring, and the mountains grew and changed shape!

One problem with the giant goat lantern was the ultra-bright, moving yellow and purple lights at the base, which played over the crowds, blinding people and making photography difficult.

Here is one final overview picture of the Goat Year Lantern Festival. The creativity and quality of these huge lanterns (the average height was probably six to ten feet) is amazing, especially for something so ephemeral. It is sad to think of all these being dismantled next week.

Again, let me know your favorites, and if looking at these has given you any ideas, tell me what design of lantern you might submit for a future festival. 

An elevated walkway made a convenient spot to take this photograph.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

May Your Halls be Filled With Gold and Jade

“May Your Halls be Filled With Gold and Jade” is a common Chinese New Year greeting, and one that can literally become true if you happen to have a Chinese lithographed tin house bank like the one below. This object combines many of my favorite collecting interests: houses, toy banks, lithographed tin objects, and Chinese antiques.

This bank represents a traditional Chinese house, the type that can still be found in the countryside and occasionally in the city. The construction is of large bricks, with stone windows. On top is a tile roof with an elaborate crest and decorative gable ends. These fancy elements on real buildings are often picked out with colorful glazed tile work, as indicated on this model. A favorite detail is that it sits asymmetrically on its cobblestone base, thus giving it the tiniest of yards. 

Chinese New Year is under celebration in this tin house, indicated by the red papers, inscribed with auspicious sayings, pasted around the doors. These red papers are still to be found absolutely everywhere, on old buildings as well as new ones. Touchingly, even when these old houses are crumbling and uninhabitable, the owning families will return each year to the family seat and paste up fresh red papers.

From Handbook of Old Taiwan Houses, by Kang, Ruo-xi
The real house above in Taoyuan County (near Taipei's International Airport) closely resembles the tin example, down to the stone courtyard and lucky red banners.

On the doors of this bank are the single characters for Spring and Luck, as Spring Festival is the alternate and more traditional name for Chinese New Year. Here they are displayed right side up, but it also is traditional to display them upside down.

Above the doors is the banner hoping that the house will be “filled with gold and jade,” with the coin slot located conveniently just above. This greeting is still in frequent use; there are also variants wishing you “gold and silver” and even just plain gold.

The 'plain gold' version “A thriving business and Halls filled with gold”, on a transom in my own apartment, present when I moved in.

The two vertical side banners convey a specifically New Year’s sentiment. On the right it says, “One night joins two paths” and on the left “The dawn separates two years.” The word used for path, wai, suggests the kind of twisting paths found around mountains and rivers, thus symbolizing the preceding and coming years. Instead of the actual word for dawn, the adage interestingly employs the term “fifth watch,” using an ancient Chinese system for dividing time. The night, roughly 7:00 PM to 5:00 AM, was divided into five watches, with the fifth watch covering the period from 3-5:00 AM, which was considered the true dividing line between the days. 

The sides show several window grills of the type usually made from heavy green tiles. 

The back of the bank features a stone window set with vertical bamboo posts. The actual posts in these frequently seen windows are either stone carved like bamboo, or sometimes colorfully glazed terracotta.

When I was small, my father collected toy banks, both tin and cast iron, and family excursions hunting for these were my introduction to collecting, so I was doubly pleased to find this traditional Chinese example. Let me know if you ever had a favorite toy bank, or special container for saving coins. 

Chinese sayings often wish the recipient wealth and prosperity. Their presence on a coin bank helps to guarantee this by teaching the virtue of saving money. However good fortune arrives, here's hoping that your halls this year will be well filled with gold, silver and jade, in addition to peace and health.

[I hate to distract readers with Chinese characters and accented transliterations, but since rough translations cannot specify the original sayings, I place them here for reference:

金玉滿堂        jīn yù mǎn táng          (May your halls be filled with gold and jade.)
,              fú,    chūn                 (luck,  spring)
一夜連雙崴    yī yè lián shuāng wǎi  (One night joins two paths.)
五更分二年    wǔ gèng fēn èr nián    (The dawn separates two years.)
生意興隆 金滿堂  shēng yì xīng lóng, jīn mǎn tang  (A thriving business and Halls filled with gold.)]