Not the three wise men, but a trio of Chinese Immortals
The auction house was holding another one of its “special” sales – the second, it seemed, in as many weeks. These are the sales where everything is out of my reach, the merchandise high-rent with prices to match.
The glass cases where they keep the good stuff was filled with Chinese ivory figures, bronze vases and jade pots. For us regulars who think $5 is too much to pay for a Limoges dish, the auction folks had covered table after table with lesser items for us to fight over.
A few Chinese items had found their way onto the fire-sale tables, most of which were heavily laden with stuff from a dealer who had sold antiques. The auctioneer mentioned that the items had been stored away for 15 years. Many of them still bore the dealer’s old price tags.
What caught my eye among the Chinese items on the tables were three flat male figures – about 10″ tall – in very colorful traditional garb. They looked like paper dolls, but their bodies were lightly padded silk fabric glued to a stiff cardboard. Their faces were also silk with painted facial features. Their hands were thin paper, and their feet were painted cardboard.
How different, I thought, silk-on-board Chinese figures. I loved the look of them and decided that I’d buy them just so I could learn more about them. Paper dolls – vintage and new - were pretty common at auctions once, but now I don’t see them as often.
These apparently were not paper dolls for play; if so, their silk clothing would have been shredded and the cardboard torn. They obviously were made and used for another purpose. The face and bodies of these figures were in impeccably good condition. In fact, they looked to be handmade.
Wanting to know more, I Googled, but I was not sure what to call them. There was no marking on them, except for the dealer’s price tag. It’s hard to Google when you have no idea what search words to use.
So, I started with “Chinese paper dolls” and got literal photos of paper dolls with Chinese faces and clothing. Scrolling, I finally found something that resembled the silk figures.
One retail site was selling what it called “Chinese Immortal Dolls Circa 1940s,” describing them as a grouping of the Eight Immortals along with Lao-tzu, founder of the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. The eight were Taoists who lived at different times in history and represented various states of life, according to the site. Each had his/her own symbol of power. The figures were made for decoration and not for child’s play.
My paper dolls were similar in style to the Eight Immortals of Chinese mythology: Li T’ieh-kuai, Chung-li Ch’üan, Lan Ts’ai-ho, Chang Kuo, Ho Hsien Ku, Lü Tung-pin, Han Hsiang Tzŭ, Ts’ao Kuo-chiu. Three are believed to have lived, but the others were conceived by man, according to the book “Myths and Legends of China.” All are capable of wielding power through their symbols (including a crutch, fan and flute) for life and against evil. Six are men, one is a woman, and one’s gender is ambiguous, according to several sites.
The Immortals have been a part of Taoist legend for more than 1,000 years, most likely beginning in the Sung/Song or Yuan Dynasties, according to the book. They appear solo, in threes or as all eight. They represent all manner of people, from young to the old to the poor to the sick. The figures are incorporated into Chinese artwork, vases, fans, teapots and much more, and are associated with the feeling of happiness.
A Temple of the Eight Immortals was erected in the city of Xi’an and is said to date back to the Sung/Song Dynasty (from the 10th to 13th centuries). It is still being used today for religious ceremonies by the people and is visited by tourists.
I suspect that the three figures I bought at auction were not among the Eight Immortals but styled after them. Two of mine hold symbols in their hands; the third one has one arm covering the other.
I was curious about what they were worth, though. I found a set of eight dolls that sold at auction in 2011 for $175. Per doll, that’s close to the price the dealer was selling them for 15 years ago.