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The Endless Knot

In Chinese art the endless knot (Chinese: 盤長; pán cháng) is one of the eight auspicious symbols or “eight treasures” which were borrowed from Indian Buddhism (which in turn probably borrowed the symbols from earlier Hindu mysticism).  Among the eight, the mystic knot is especially popular, since it “ties together” so many different metaphorical concepts.

Since it has no end, the knot is said to represent that which is divine and eternal:  essentially it is an Asian version of the infinity symbol.  To people who believe in reincarnation, the knot represents samsara, the eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth in which all living beings are imprisoned.  Each different faith conceives of such endlessness differently and to different worshippers the knot has different sources and varied meanings.  In Hindu religious paintings the knot was found upon the breast of Vishnu the preserver of the universe, while Buddhists see it as the intestines of the Buddha. To some it is a symbol of individual longevity, while others regard it as emblematic of the eternal nature of perfect love.

 

Or the permanent nature of a tattoo…

To the most subtle philosophers the knot is itself a sort of koan which cannot be untied or solved.  It represents being and non-being knotted together inextricably.  The emptiness around the knot defines the knot itself just as emptiness and nothingness pervade and define the apparent reality of existence (according to Buddhist monks and atomic physicists anyway).

My favorite interpretation of the endless knot however is not so abstruse and cosmic but has a rather more human cast. Some sages assert that the knot represents compassion and wisdom, which are components of each other. Without wisdom, compassion is empty and to no avail, whereas without compassion, there is no true wisdom. Each concept grows out of and encompasses the other.

Many of the stories and myths of Taoism center on the eight immortals, a group of ancient entities who mastered powerful magic to such an extent that they transcended mortality and rose to a state of near divinity.  Zhang Guo Lao, the eccentric elderly potions master, is one of the eight immortals (and we have seen what an odd figure he is), but some of the others are even more peculiar.  Probably the strangest member of the group is Lan Caihe, whose age and precise origin are unknown. In fact, the gender of Lan Caihe is unknown: S/he is sometimes depicted as a young girl or a cross-dressing boy or a strange genderless old person.

Lan Caihe is the patron saint of florists and minstrels (or maybe I should say “singing courtesans” since the musical lifestyle in classical China often bore some relation to the pleasure trade). His/her sacred emblem is the flower basket, a bamboo or wicker container born on a hoe-like handle filled with up with sacred flowers, herbs, and plants.  Lan Caihe is also sometimes shown holding castanets, playing a flute, or riding a crane.  Ambiguity and the reversal of expectations are trademarks of this immortal as is the power of unheeded prophecy.  In addition to not having a fixed gender, Lan Caihe dons heavy winter clothes in summer but strips down to a flimsy barely-there shift to sleep in snowbanks in the winter. Sometime s/he is portrayed within a melting snowbank transforming into steam from quasi-divine magic.

While some of the eight immortals have lengthy or complicated creation stories (involving magic items or a lifetime of study) Lan Caihe’s apotheosis to immortality was quick and random. While playing music, drinking heavily, and otherwise entertaining at a bar, Lan Caihe got up to go to the bathroom. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he/she flew up to heaven on a crane letting a single shoe fall down (in some versions of the tale various other dubious garments joined the shoe).  Despite having immense power and magic (and immortality), Lan Caihe is frequently portrayed dressed in a frayed blue dress and only one shoe, consorting with the lowest classes of society.  I can think of few figures from any mythology more evocative of the socially constructed nature of identity than this gender-ambiguous immortal.

Liu Haichan (Attributed to Wu Wei who lived from 1459-1508, Ming dynasty Hanging scroll, ink on silk)

Liu Haichan was a high official during the tumultuous Five Dynasties era, a time of bloodshed and civil war at the beginning of the tenth century in China.  He served the powerful warlord Liu Shouguang, who in 911 proclaimed himself emperor.  Liu Haichan became the new emperor’s grand councilor–one of the most powerful positions in China.  Shortly thereafter, a famous Taoist wizard visited Liu Haichan to discuss the mysteries of the Tao with the councilor.  At the end of the meeting, the wizard requested ten eggs and ten coins which he adroitly stacked into a teetering pagoda on the grand councilor’s desk.

“This is precarious indeed!” exclaimed Liu Haichan.

“It is not as precarious as your current life” stated the wizard who snatched the ten coins from the pagoda and vanished, leaving a ruin of smashed eggs on the polished wood.

The interview caused Liu Haichan to carefully re-examine his situation.  The next day he abandoned the wealth and power of his position and fled to a wooded mountaintop to live as a hermit.  Since the new emperor was soon captured by an opposing army and executed, this proved to be a wise choice.

Liu Haichan (by Yang Youlan, ca. 1700’s, Qing Dynasty, Ink on silk scroll)

Like Zhang Guo Lao before him, Liu Haichan devoted himself to a life of alchemy, sorcery, and potions in the wilderness.   He became strong in Taoist magic, and rose to head the Quanzhen school of Taoism.  In the fullness of time he took the name Haichanzi (Master Sea Toad) and apotheosized to immortality.

Liu Haichan gained his distinctive sobriquet because he is usually pictured with a three-legged toad, Chan Chu, who today has outstripped the Taoist master in fame.  Stories concerning this toad differ, but my favorite is that the toad was the reincarnated spirit of Liu Haichan’s father, a greedy petty official whose human life was spent squeezing peasants for money.  One day Liu Haichan peered into a ruined well and saw the toad’s red eyes glowing in the filthy darkness.  Recognizing something familiar about the creature, Liu Haichan dangled a string of money down the well.  The greed of his previous life could not be left behind and the toad grabbed the coins with his mouth.  Liu Haichan drew Chan Chu up from the slime and thereafter the two became inseparable.

A black stone sculpture of Chan Chu, the three legged wealth toad

Liu Hainchan was a popular subject for Ming and Ching era literati painters but Chan Chu, the three legged wealth toad, went on to find international success.  The avaricious amphibian admirably suits today’s zeitgeist. Statues of the wealth toad can be found in businesses around the world.  Usually Chan Chu is portrayed holding a coin in his mouth sitting on a pile of gold coins.  Sometimes he is covered with jewels. You could probably buy a resin Chan Chu statue at your nearest Chinatown or online.  If you choose to do so, Feng Shui enthusiasts advise you to place the statue near the cash register facing away from the door so that money comes in but does not leave.  Never put a wealth toad statue in the bathroom: Chan Chu regards moist enclosed spaces with little fondness after his time in the well.

A mass-produced resin sculpture of Chan Chu


The Song Dynasty (960 AD to 1279 AD) is revered as an aesthetic high-water mark in Chinese civilization.   During this period (and later during the Yuan Dynasty) the city of Quanzhou in Fujian was one of the largest seaports in the world–if not the largest.  Although Quanzhou was the starting point of the maritime silk route, diverse ships from around Asia came to the port to trade for tea, herbs, lychees, rice, paper, porcelain, and art as well as for precious silk. At some point during this Song era of prosperity, unknown craftsmen carved a magnificent 20 foot tall statue of an old man on the nearby Qingyuan Mountain (which means Pure Water-source Mountain).

Originally known as the “Rock of Immortals”, the statue is believed to represent Laozi, the founder of Taoism.  The carved stone sage still looks surprisingly good despite its approximate thousand year age. The great statue of Qingyuan Mountain was originally at the heart of a complex of temples and related buildings. Although these architectural structures were destroyed a few hundred years later, the statue was carved from the durable bedrock of the mountain itself and so it survived. The statue still stands looking down on Quanzhou which is again growing prosperous from the same trade goods and from some new ones including footwear, fashion apparel, packaging, machinery, and petrochemicals.

Covered in lichen, Laozi is surrounded by freely growing flowers and trees.  The great green bulk of Qingyuan mountain rises up behind the serene old sage. Laozi wears a peaceful but solemn expression.  His fine flowing robes cascade down over his solid form like waterfalls 9which proliferate from local springs) and his hand rests on a table as he looks off into the clouds. Although the kind face and grandfatherly beard of the sage speak of benevolence, the antiquity of the statue and its penetrating gaze hint at otherworldly secrets.  Laozi was famed for his knowledge of the secrets of magic and his mastery of the elixir of immortality.  The statue at Qingyuan is surely one of the loveliest in the world.  Surrounded by nature but overlooking an ever changing city, the work is a perfect homage to the founder of Taoism.

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