NEW YORK - When I first moved to New York from Hong Kong, I set my clock radio to the local Cantonese station in order to help myself get over my Hong Kong withdrawals. Every morning I would wake up to the Cantonese news, and while I was getting ready for work I would hear Hong Kong actress Lisa Wang touting the benefits of lingzhi capsules during the commercial break. These lingzhi capsules were made from lingzhi spores and extract, and promised a host of health benefits.

(left) Lot 273, A Celadon Jade Carving of a ‘Lingzhi’ Cluster, Qing Dynasty, 18th Century, Estimate: $10,000-12,000. (center) Lot 374, A Carved Boxwood ‘Lingzhi’ ,Late Qing Dynasty, Estimate: $10,000-15,000. (right) Lot 372, A Carnelian Agate ‘Happiness and Longevity’ Carving, Estimate: $8,000-10,000. In this carving the lingzhi represents longevity, while the bats represent happiness.

Dried American Northeast lingzhi on sale in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Lingzhi is a mushroom which has been used for medicinal purposes in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years. The name lingzhi was first recorded during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 CE), and in 1881, Petter Adolf Karsten, a Finnish mycologist named the genus Ganoderma, which means shiny skin. There are about eighty different species within the genus.

Lot 280, A Pale Celadon Jade ‘Longevity’ Table Screen, Qing dynasty, 18th/ 19th Century, Estimate: $60,000-80,000. The detail shows Shoulao’s attendant holding a sprig of lingzhi while leading a deer.

In ancient times it was believed that the lingzhi could revive the dead and bestow immortality and as such, it became a very popular motif in Chinese art.  The Daoist, in their search for immortality embraced the lingzhi, and under Ming dynasty Daoist emperors, the lingzhi became a popular art motif. Immortals such as Magu and gods such as Shoulao, both associated with bestowing longevity, were depicted surrounded by sprigs of lingzhi growing from rocks, though in truth, lingzhi grows on the trunks of living or dead trees.

Lot 227, A Three-Piece Famille-Rose Garniture, Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng Period, Estimate: $200,000-250,000.  The details show little sprigs of lingzhi growing as part of the botanical landscape.

By the Qing dynasty, lingzhi as an art motif was so popular that it eventually lost its earlier religious connotations and became a botanical motif, used on its own, or populating secular landscapes.

Lot 223, A Pair of Famille-Rose and Underglaze Blue Lobed Bowls, Jiaqing Seal Marks and Period (one shown), Estimate: $6,000-8,000. The detail shows a leafy sprig of lingzhi, although being a mushroom, lingzhi does not have leaves.

It was also believed that deer could sniff out lingzhi in much the same way that pigs could find truffles, and this also became a popular art motif.

(left) Lot 214, A Pair of Famille-Rose ‘Deer’ Wine Cups, Yongzheng Marks and Period, Estimate: $20,000-30,000. (right) Lot 407, A Pale Celadon Jade Carving of a Deer Group, Qing Dynasty, 18th Century, Estimate: $15,000-20,000. Deer are often depicted with lingzhi.

Another animal often depicted with lingzhi was the crane, believed to be able to live a hundred years. The crane and deer were both used as mounts by Shoulao, furthering strengthening their associations with longevity.

(left) Lot 172, An Eight-Panel Blue and White Porcelain Inlaid Wood Screen, Early 20th Century (detail of one panel), Estimate: $30,000-50,000. Cranes are also often portrayed with lingzhi. (right) Red lingzhi on sale in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

The shape of the lingzhi also inspired the object known as a ruyi, a scepter used to represent good fortune in Chinese culture. A traditional ruyi has a long gently-curved handle and a head fashioned in the outline of a lingzhi. The name ruyi, means ‘as you desire’ which is where the object gets its auspicious connotations.

(left) Lot 422, A Zitan and White Jade Inlaid ‘Longevity’ Ruyi Scepter, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period, Estimate: $50,000-70,000. (right) Lot 413, A White Jade ‘Nine Quail’ Ruyi Scepter, Qing Dynasty, 19th Century, Estimate: $20,000-30,000.

Lingzhi is used in traditional Chinese medicine to help lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. It is also believed that lingzhi can help boost the human immune system, and is currently being investigated for cancer fighting properties.  

A Celadon, Copper-Red and Underglaze Blue Yen-Yen Vase, Qing Dynasty, Kangxi Period, Estimate: $15,000-20,000.  An immortal on a donkey asks a Daoist youth where he found his basket of lingzhi, and the youth points the way.

To find lingzhi today, you no longer need to go into the mountains, asking immortals to point the way. All you need to do is make a trip to any store that sells traditional Chinese medicine and you will find lingzhi extract in capsule form, or if happen to be in New York’s Chinatown, you get red lingzhi for $16.99 a pound or an entire head of American Northeast wild mountain lingzhi for $300. To prepare it, you crush the head and boil it for two hours, drinking the resultant dark liquid, which is so bitter I’m told, it can wake the dead.  

All the examples of lingzhi in art used will be offered in the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale to be held in New York on 19th and 20th March 2013.