Pair of Antique House Deities
Item No. 19408
19th - 20th Century, Taoist / Popular Religions, China
Lacquer over Wood with Polychrome and Gilt
8" x 2.75" x 1.75"
( 20.32 x 6.985 x 4.445 cm)
(H x W x D)
These small carved wood figures are house deities, sacred beings who are believed to protect and bring blessings of “fu” into the home setting. Fu broadly means happiness, luck, good fortune or blessing, and signifies the bestowal and receipt of divine favors. Chinese families make concerted efforts to attract fu to their homes such as placing furniture in certain locations, using certain colors (red attracts the most fu) and having a family altar upon which different types of major deities, house deities and ancestor figures were placed and revered. There, family members would propitiate them with offerings of food, flowers, incense, candles and other treasures on special holidays and important family occasions to bring the family, including the deceased, blessings of fu.
In most dwellings, there was a family altar which “is usually an elongated high narrow table called a shenlong anzhuo that faces the entryway” and which was accompanied by a lower square table. On the longer table “ancestral tablets, images of gods and goddesses, and ritual paraphernalia are all arranged in a prescribed order. Ancestral tablets are usually placed on stage right of the tall table, and the gods on stage left. (Knapp p. 22).
It is difficult to identify individual Chinese house deities, especially since there is not much in the literature about them in English. Additionally, in the past centuries China’s four religious traditions, Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and popular religions, have blended so thoroughly that it is difficult to extract one religion and its artistic traditions from the other. While “each of these has its own particular characteristics, the cross-fertilization of beliefs and practices between all four has been prolific, resulting, almost, in a fifth genre---Chinese religion. Thus, it is often difficult to extract Taoist from Confucian, Buddhist and popular beliefs and practices” (Fowler, p.5), let alone identify particular deities.
Based on their poses and attributes , we assume they are a pair of Taoist deities, possibly the God and Goddess of wealth. They each sit on a high backless chair with painted decorations on the front foot rest in a traditional pose of a Taoist deity or official: the hands are held in front of their chest covered with a triangular a ritual cloth into which originally were inserted vertical “hu” tablets. These small vertical tablets with pointed tops were “routinely carried by Taoist priests or officials, and were used to call forth deities, exorcize evil forces and manipulate both deities and demons. “(Predagio p. 411)
The male and female figures are wearing similar traditional Taoist official attire that includes a high rounded official’s cap for the male figure, and a high circular band on the female image. Long surcoats flow below the knees over undergarments that are tied at the waist and a have hanging band which extends down the front of the garment. The undergarments have high collars, long sleeves and extend to the tips of their shoes.
These figures were probably made for a Chinese family of means as their quality is superior to most images of this kind. The pair is in extremely good condition, with almost all the lacquer covering and pigmentation and some of the gold gilt in tact. It is extremely rare to find a pair of matching Taoist carvings, as many were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution or have crumbled over time. The backs of the statues both contain calligraphic inscriptions which probably describe the family for which they were made, their date and their place of origin.
The original bung (the cover of the carved cavity on their backs) are in place covering the contents were placed their during an eye opening ceremony, which was a dedication ceremony celebrating the day when the chi or life-force of the deity would enter the statue and begin to bring favor to the temple and the family who commissioned the statue. (Stevens p. 26)
Since the Chinese believe the spirit of the image remained enclosed in the statue as long as the contents were in the cavity, the contents were generally removed when the figure was sold, abandoned or discarded. Thus, it is rare to have an image which is sealed with its original contents.
Jonathan Chamberlain, Chinese Gods, Selangor, Pelanduk Publications, Malaysia, 1997
Jeaneane D. Fowler, An Introduction to the Philosophy and Religion of Taoism: Pathways to Immortality, London, Sussex Academic Press, 2004
Jeaneane D. Fowler and Merv Fowler, Chinese Religions: Beliefs and Practices, London, Sussex Academic Press, 2007
David K. Jordon, Gods, Ghosts, & Ancestors: Folk Religion in a Taiwanese Village, Third Edition, San Diego, Department of Anthropology, UCSD., 1999. (Published as a WWW document.
Ronald G. Knapp, China’s Living Houses: Folk Beliefs, Symbols, and Household Ornamentation, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1999.
Fabrizio Pregadio, The Encyclopedia of Taoism, Volume 1, New York, Routledge, 2008.
Wang Shucan, Paper Joss, Deity Worship Through Folk Prints, Beijing, New World Press, 1991
Keith Stevens, Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons, London, Collins and Brown, 1997.
Po Sung-Nien and David Johnson, Domesticated Deities and Auspicious Emblems: The Iconography of Everyday Life in Village China, Berkeley, The Chinese Popular Culture Project, Distributed by IEAS Publications, University of California, 1992.
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