Zhongli Quan Crossing the Ocean (detail), 1368–1644. Zhao Qi (Chinese, active early 1500s). Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; image: 135 x 57.5 cm; with knobs: 233 x 77.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1976.13.
In times of a pandemic, migration crises, and frequent natural and humanitarian disasters, the theme of “Escaping to a Better World” may resonate with many of us. In fact, this idea has long been part of China’s culture, embedded in the country’s religious and philosophical thinking. China’s legendary eccentrics and immortals often exhibit unconventional appearances and behaviors, expressing supernatural power and a rejection of everyday norms. By doing this, they embody the longing for an ideal world.
This installation presents paintings, porcelain, and metalwork, all mediums in which these popular figures and their stories were depicted throughout the ages, including today.
Mirror with Xiwangmu, Six Dynasties Period (AD 317–581). Bronze. Diameter: 18.5 cm (7 5/16 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund, 1983.213.
This mirror depicts Xiwangmu, Queen Mother of the West, and her husband, Dongwanggong, King Father of the East, surrounded by mythical figures and animals. One of the earliest and most powerful goddesses in the Daoist pantheon, Xiwangmu can be identified by her U-shaped crown. Legend says that the two deities meet once a year representing the meeting of yin and yang, the two forces that constitute the universe. This mirror shows a band of 14 squares around the center containing a long inscription.
Octafoil Mirror with Two Immortals Crossing the Ocean, Song dynasty (960-1279). Bronze. Diameter: 17.6 cm (6 15/16 in.); Overall: 1 cm (3/8 in.); Rim: 0.6 cm (1/4 in.). Weight: 606 g (1.34 lbs.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Drs. Thomas and Martha Carter in Honor of Sherman E. Lee 1995.378.
Octafoil Mirror with Lunar Palace, China, Jin dynasty (1115-1234). Bronze. Diameter: 21.3 cm (8 3/8 in.); Overall: 0.9 cm (3/8 in.); Rim: 0.8 cm (5/16 in.). Weight: 954 g (2.1 lbs.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Drs. Thomas and Martha Carter in Honor of Sherman E. Lee 1995.375.
Bronze mirrors typically have one polished and one decorated side and were used in tombs for ritual purpose or served as disks for reflection. This mirror depicts the imagined scene of the moon in Chinese mythology. Legend says that the goddess Chang E consumed the elixir of immortality that she stole from her husband, the archer Yi, and flew to the moon. Chang E’s palace, the Broad Cold Palace (Guanghan gong) on the left side of the composition, is juxtaposed with a tall pine tree symbolizing longevity. A rabbit and a toad, both creatures believed to live on the moon, can be seen in the center.
Li Tieguai; Liu Haichan, 1300s, China, Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Pair of hanging scrolls; ink and color on silk. Overall: 106 x 38.6 cm (41 3/4 x 15 3/16 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Edward L. Whittemore Fund 1982.29.
This pair of hanging scrolls show the Daoist immortals Li Tieguai and Liu Haichan.
Li Tieguai walks with an iron crutch, while Liu Haichan is depicted with a three-legged frog.
It is said that Li Tieguai’s ethereal self visited the deified Laozi but when he returned, he found that his own body was burned. He had to inhabit the corpse of a person who used a crutch to walk, and thus gained his name Tieguai—the Iron Crutch. The painting depicts Li Tieguai after he took possession of the body, with the iron staff in his hand. As Li exhales, he blows a small Li Tieguai in the air, showing the immortal’s ability to send his spirit on journeys.
Liu Haichan is often shown as a young man wearing bangs across his forehead. He was said to have lived during the Five Dynasties period (907–979) and left his position as a grand councilor to become a hermit. Usually depicted carrying a string of coins and accompanied by a three-legged toad, Liu Haichan became a god of wealth and his toad symbolizes wealth as well. In this scroll, Liu is teasing the three-legged toad with a string of coins tied to his waist.
The Hermit Xu You Resting by a Stream, 1400s. Dai Jin (Chinese, 1388–1462). Hanging scroll; ink and slight color on silk; painting: 138.2 x 75.2 cm; with knobs: 232.5 x 96.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 1974.45.
Xu You, a recluse who refused the throne offered to him by legendary Emperor Yao, chose instead to farm on Mount Ji. Sitting under cliffs, his left arm resting on his risen leg and his loose robe revealing his belly, he displays a nonchalant attitude. Xu You is wearing a laborer’s outfit, a short robe and tight leggings, while his composed pose and gentle features reveal his lofty character.
The composition shows rising mountains on the left juxtaposed by open space on the far right. Powerful brushstrokes and nuanced ink washes follow the style of the Southern Song (1127–1279) academy painters.
The Poet Lin Bu Wandering in the Moonlight, late 1400s. Du Jin (Chinese, 1446-c. 1519). China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Hanging scroll; ink and color on paper. Image: 156.4 x 72.4 cm (61 9/16 x 28 1/2 in.); Overall: 286.4 x 99 cm (112 3/4 x 39 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund 1954.582.
Lin Bu (967–1028), a Northern Song (960–1127) poet and hermit who lived at the West Lake in Hangzhou, was known for having plum trees for his female companions and cranes for his children. This hanging scroll depicts the poet walking in the moonlight and looking at the plum tree, a scene described in his most well- known poem on plum blossoms.
Surviving works signed by Du Jin are rare and this painting is one of them. Here, the artist used lively brushwork to depict the plum tree and rocks, exemplified in varying dots and strokes, and sweeps in different shades of ink.
Zhongli Quan Crossing the Ocean, 1368–1644. Zhao Qi (Chinese, active early 1500s). Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; image: 135 x 57.5 cm; with knobs: 233 x 77.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1976.13.
Here, Zhongli Quan is crossing the ocean. He is one of the Eight Immortals (baxian), a group of popular Daoist figures who understood the way of life and could transform into otherworldly beings. Zhongli Quan is usually depicted as a scholar with a big belly seen through his partially open robe. The artist used expressive brushwork to depict the immortal’s fluttering robe and the roaring waves, skillfully creating a sense of movement.
This scroll may have been one of a set depicting the Eight Immortals. Although the painting has no signature or seal, its style supports an attribution to the Ming dynasty painter Zhao Qi.
The Immortal Li Tieguai, 1500s. Su Wennan (Chinese); China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Bronze, 41.8 cm (16 7/16 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cornelia Blakemore Warner Fund 1973.158.
This bronze statue of Li Tieguai shows him dressed as a beggar in a tattered robe, holding a crutch in his right and a ball of medicine in his left hand. Li Tieguai is the patron saint for physicians and legend says that he dispenses pills from the gourd for the sick. He wears a belt of leaves and another gourd hangs from his waist. His head is crowned with what appears to be a metal ring, signifying his immortal status. Four incised characters in seal script on the back of the figure reads “made by Su Wennan (蘇文南製).”
The Five Hundred Arhats (detail), 1591–1626. Wu Bin (Chinese, active c. 1591–1626). Handscroll; ink and color on paper; painting: 37.7 x 2347 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 1971.16.
More than 66 feet long, this handscroll depicts 447 luohans, 72 attendants, and the bodhisattva of compassion at its very end. Luohans (arhats in Sanskrit), disciples of the Buddha and protectors of the Buddha’s law, possess supernatural powers and take on myriad external appearances. The amusing assortment of characters are engaged in an array of religious, secular, and miraculous activities. The painter used stylistic features borrowed from earlier artists, carefully controlled lines, and refined coloring.
Wu Bin was a lay Buddhist and depicting this sort of image was part of a religious practice seeking understanding of the Buddha’s teaching.
Xu Jingyang Moving His Family (detail), 1644. Cui Zizhong (Chinese, 1574–1644). Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; painting: 165.3 x 64 cm; overall with knobs: 268.2 x 74.1 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund, 1961.90.
Xu Jingyang, wearing red, is in the upper register of figures, while below his servants transport a rooster, dog, and other supplies.
Xu Jingyang was a dedicated fourth-century Confucian official who allegedly turned into a Daoist immortal. This scroll depicts the legend that when he attained immortality, he took his entire household, including chickens and dogs, to paradise.
Cui Zizhong’s painting style intentionally referenced ancient masters. Typical of the pre-Song dynasty landscape tradition, there is the use of blue and green colors and an emphasis on outline rather than texture. While the trembling outlines are reminiscent of earlier painters, the flickering light on rocks and trees is a stylistic feature of Cui’s own time.
Dream Journey among Rivers and Mountains, no. 90, 1658. Cheng Zhengkui (Chinese, 1604-1676). Handscroll; ink and color on paper. Painting section: 24 x 341.5 cm (9 7/16 x 134 7/16 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1960.182.
Cliffs and waterfalls interspersed with trees and dotted vegetation are spread over this handscroll. Long paths wind their way through villages, beside cottages, shrines, and over bridges. In the past, Chinese literati officials liked to take a “dream journey” along mountains and rivers when viewing landscape paintings in their studios. Scenery of this kind thus became a way to escape from the world of bureaucracy and administration. The painter Cheng Zhengkui used the title “Dream Journey” for a whole series of paintings, of which this is number 90. He is said to have painted 500 of them, but the actual count remains unknown.
Lohan (Arhat) Holding a Peach; Lohan (Arhat) Holding a Fu Dog, China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen kilns, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Kangxi reign (1662-1722). Porcelain with famille verte overglaze enamel decoration, 24.3 x 12.6 cm (9 9/16 x 4 15/16 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance and Greta Millikin Collection 1964.191.
Luohan are disciples of Buddha with supernatural powers and eccentric behaviors. One luohan is holding the peach of longevity (shoutao),the other is holding the fu-dog, symbolizing good luck. With carefree smiles and playful gestures, these two figures embody a humorous attitude and a detachment from worldly affairs. This pair of porcelain figures was perhaps part of a house altar set or a decorative item in a household.
Daoist Immortal Zhongli Quan, China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen kilns, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Kangxi reign (1662-1722). Porcelain with famille verte overglaze enamel decoration, 29.9 cm (11 3/4 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance and Greta Millikin Collection 1964.193.
This porcelain figure represents Zhongli Quan as a scholar. He is wearing a scholar’s hat and carries a scroll on his back. He holds a fan that, according to legend, could bring the dead to life. Thus, he also bears the auspicious meaning of longevity. On his bare belly, the potter painted a qilin, a mythical auspicious creature that turns his head to the sun. The same design in different colors also decorates his back.
Daoist Immortal Han Xiangzi, China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen kilns, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Kangxi reign (1662-1722). Porcelain with famille verte overglaze enamel decoration, 28.3 cm (11 1/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance and Greta Millikin Collection 1964.194.
One of the Eight Immortals, Han Xiangzi was said to be the nephew of the famous Tang dynasty poet Han Yu (768–824). He is usually shown as a young boy holding a flute. Han is wearing a white robe decorated with peonies, hinting at his identity as the patron of florists and his legendary ability to make peonies bloom in winter. A four-clawed dragon, a decorative motif typically used for imperial nobility and certain high-ranking officials, decorates Han’s robe.
Dish with Zhang Guolao, 1662–1722. China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen kilns, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Kangxi reign (1662–1722). Porcelain with famille verte overglaze enamel and painted gold decoration (interior) and powder blue glaze with painted decoration (exterior); diam. 19.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. Severance A. Millikin, 1989.306.
Zhang Guolao, featured on this dish, is one of the Eight Immortals and a gifted magician who was believed to know the secret arts to obtain longevity. Typically depicted as an old man and accompanied by his mule, he is the patron saint of artists. His mule is said to be magical; it can be folded up like a piece of paper to fit into a small bag. The central scene is framed by a sumptuously gold-decorated rim showing spaces reserved for landscape scenes in primarily fresh blue and green colors.
Plate with Isle of the Immortals, China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen kilns, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Yongzheng mark and reign (1723-35). Porcelain decorated in underglaze cobalt blue and overglaze enamels. Diameter: 21.2 cm (8 3/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Fanny Tewksbury King Collection 1956.709.
This multicolored dish is decorated with the sacred isle, also seen on the exterior of the blue-and-white dish nearby. A pavilion emerges amid rising and falling waves, a symbol of constant transformation and change. Above the waves are mysterious clouds, symbolizing the cosmic vital energy (qi) that animates all things and beings on earth in Daoism. The interior of the dish also shows cranes carrying sticks in their beaks, a motif that symbolizes longevity. Cranes carrying sticks above a pavilion in the sea express the wish “May you live to a ripe old age (haiwu tianchou; 海屋添籌).”
Dish with Laozi Riding a Water Buffalo (interior); Pavilion and Immortals in Rocky Landscape (exterior), China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen kilns, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Yongzheng reign (1723-35). Porcelain with underglaze blue decoration. Diameter: 19.9 cm (7 13/16 in.); Overall: 7.2 cm (2 13/16 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. Severance A. Millikin 1989.315.
Daoism traces its origins to Laozi, a sage believed to have lived in the sixth century BC, who was the reputed author of the Daode jing (Classic of the Way), a fundamental text for Daoism. The interior of this dish depicts the elderly Laozi riding a buffalo. He is accompanied by three servants and is greeted by a scholarlike figure.
This dish borrows brush and shading techniques typically employed by artists who paint on paper or silk, a development frequently seen in porcelain decoration around the 1700s.