By Dolores McBurnie, Hunt Museum Docent, 2 minutes to read
Keywords: Hare, March Hare, symbolism, Ming, porcelain, tea ceremony, Japanese, Zen, longevity, immortality, Taoism
Fig. 1 Sweetmeat Dish in the form of a Hare. Item Code MG 116 B Public Domain, click here for object link
Alongside the search for physical immortality, was the quest for immortality in a spiritual sense. This was the goal of Taoist adepts who believed this could be attained by cultivation of ‘the Way’. Central to Taoist thought is the Tao, the ‘Nameless’. The immensity of the Tao, and the essential oneness of reality is conveyed through landscape painting, depicting the vastness of mountains and expanses of ocean, wherein man is depicted as a tiny, but integral, part of nature. The adept, in aligning himself with this natural order seeks to attain immortality.
Such ‘Immortals’ were said to live in an Ice Palace on the Moon, where the Hare grinds the elixir of immortality.
The unassuming appearance of this porcelain late Ming dynasty dish sweetmeat dish in the form of a hare, (1621-27) belies its significance both in terms of function and symbolism. Such Chinese blue and white dishes were made in sets of five or ten specifically for the Japanese market. The fluid blue lines and sprinkling of blue spots, designed to appeal to the Japanese market, is reminiscent of the fluidity and sweep of Japanese calligraphy. It also points to the Chinese creative spirit of innovation favoured during the late Ming period. Intended for use in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, the dish was designed to hold the sweet cake served as an accompaniment to tea – a green powered variety called ‘matcha’ tea.
The performance of the tea ceremony, requiring as it does space for a garden and a teahouse, indicates the wealth and status of the host. The purpose of the tea garden, and the ‘dewy path’ of stepping stones, is to convey them from the noisy activity of the outer world to the inner spiritual world of the teahouse, the entrance to which is through a small ‘crawling in’ door. The highly ritualised tea ceremony, with its special utensils and other essentials specific to the ceremony, is designed to offers a quiet interlude based on the Japanese principles of harmony (with people and nature), purity (of heart and mind) and tranquillity.
The custom of drinking tea, was already widespread in China. Zen Buddhism was the primary influence in its introduction into Japan, along with the development of the tea ceremony. Tea drunk in unhurried awareness was used by Zen monks as part of meditation. As Zen does not separate the spiritual and the material every human activity can be a meditation if practised mindfully.
The symbolic interest of the sweetmeat dish is provided by its form, which is in the shape of a hare. Within Chinese and other eastern world views, the hare is a traditional symbol of longevity and immortality. This quest for immortality is most closely associated with Taoist philosophy as well as Taoist popular religion, this latter including folklore, divination and the search for the elixir of immortality through various alchemical processes. The belief held was that through the transformation of base metals into an elixir an individual could attain perpetual youth and immortality by ingesting such a concoction. These metals included among others, gold, mercury, lead and cinnabar. That people, including emperors, died from these poisonous concoctions seems not to have deterred them in their quest!
Fig 3 Taoist Yin and Yang symbol. Public Domain, click here for image link
The Hunt Museum – Essential Guide. 2002. Scala Publishers, London
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