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Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters.  Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty.  He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.

Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting.  Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him.  He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.

Early Spring (Guo Xi, 1072, ink and light watercolor on hanging silk scroll)

The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus.  Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom.  The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains.  The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes.  Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless.  The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.

It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting.  On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center.  Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute.  The tiny people seem excited for spring to come.  They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.

The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too.  But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident.  The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.

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

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