NEW YORK - The winter of 2013-'14 is shaping up to be one of the most severe in North America in over a decade. This bitterly cold season has been particularly hard on deer herds in northern North America, and deer are finding it hard to survive. It was therefore upsetting to read that sixteen dead deer, along with other animals, had been found at Santa's Land, a holiday-themed amusement park in Southern Vermont, and that the owner and a caretaker have been accused of animal cruelty. That the animal cruelty was alleged to have taken place at an amusement park called Santa’s Land, makes the entire episode all the more heinous.
A Rare Susancai Figure of A Recumbent Stag, Qing Dynasty, Kangxi Period, from the non-selling exhibition Embracing Classic Chinese Culture: Kangxi Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection, 14-22 March 2014 (Lot 37).
In the western world, while deer are closely affiliated with Santa, to the Chinese, the deer is a much beloved creature, associated with immortals and good fortune.
An Embroidered Silk ‘Longevity’ Panel, Qing Dynasty, 19th Century. Estimate $10,000-15,000, from the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Auction, New York, 18 & 19 March 2014, depicting Magu and a Deer (Lot 425).
In ancient China deer were regarded as ‘immortal creatures,’ believed to have a lifespan of five thousand years. They inhabited the abodes of immortals and gods, and served as mounts for the god of longevity, Shoulao, and were companions of Magu, the goddess of immortality; often serving as her draught animal.
(Left) A Famille-Verte ‘Longevity’ Dish, Qing Dynasty, Kangxi Period. Estimate $40,000-60,000, from the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Auction, New York, 18 & 19 March 2014 (Lot 433). (Right) A Rare and Large Wucai Cylindrical Vase Qing Dynasty, Kangxi Period, from the non-selling exhibition Embracing Classic Chinese Culture: Kangxi Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection, 14-22 March 2014 (Lot 38). (Bottom) Detail of Lot 38.
It was also believed that deer could sniff out the mushroom of immortality lingzhi, in much the same way that pigs could find truffles, which was the main ingredient in Magu’s Immortality wine. These associations further added to the deer’s connection to immortality.
A Celadon Jade Russet ‘Luohan’ Boulder, 17th-18th Century. Estimate $25,000-35,000, from the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Auction, New York, 18 & 19 March 2014, showing a deer locating a sprig of lingzhi growing from a cliff face (Lot 288).
The word for deer in Chinese, lu, is also a homophone for the word for emoluments, the salary an official receives. As such the deer also came to represent official position and wealth, and paintings and depictions of deer were given and displayed during celebrations with the wish that one will attain high position, wealth and honor.
(Left) A Painting of a Deer, 17th-18th Century. Estimate $6,000-8,000, from the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Auction, New York, 18 & 19 March 2014 (Lot 402). (Right top) A Rare Carved ‘Tixi’ Lacquer Gilt-Decorated Square Tray, 17th Century. Estimate 20,000-30,000, from the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Auction, New York, 18 & 19 March 2014 (Lot 247). (Right bottom) A Twelve Panel Coromandel Screen, Qing Dyansty, with date corresponding to 1671. Estimate $100,000-150,000, from the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Auction, New York, 18 & 19 March 2014. The detail shows deer cavorting in the grounds of a general’s mansion (detail) (Lot 410).
In ancient Chinese, and some modern Chinese languages, such as Cantonese, the word for deer is also a homophone for the word ‘six.’ Combining the deer and crane, which is also associated with longevity, creates the rebus liuhe, the six harmonies. The six harmonies refer to the four cardinal points of the compass and heaven and earth, and is a concise way of referring to everything on earth under heaven. Combining the deer, crane and pine tree expresses the desire that everything under heaven and throughout the earth remain evergreen, and is a wish for longevity. This expression can be seen on the pair of rare and impressive cloisonné censers and covers in the upcoming Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art sale, where the body of the censers are decorated with the ‘One Hundred Deer’ motif, to represent wealth and status, and the legs are formed as cranes, to represent longevity. Together these motifs combine to make the censers full of auspicious and symbolic meaning.
(Top) A Rare and Impressive Pair of Cloisonne Enamel Censers and Covers, Qing Dynasty, 18th / Early 19th Century. Estimate $200,000-300,000, from the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Auction, New York, 18 & 19 March 2014 (Lot 359). (bottom) Detail of Lot 359.
In addition, the use of deer antlers to prolong life was recorded in the Chinese medicinal classic, Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, written over 2000 years ago, and complied into a book during the Qin and Han dynasties. Deer antlers are believed to nourish the yin forces in the body, aid kidney function, invigorate the spleen, strengthen bones and muscles and promote blood flow. Recent scientific studies have shown the velvet on deer antlers to contain a growth hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1, which has shown promise in helping children with stunted growth or people with dwarfism, as well as for healing cartilage or tendon injuries. The base of the deer antlers have also been shown to possess immunomodulatory, anti-cancer, anti-fatigue, anti-osteoporosis, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-stress, anti-oxidant, as well as a host of other beneficial properties. It is no wonder then that the deer was chosen by the ancient Chinese as a symbol of longevity.
(Left) An adult male Manchurian sika deer. (Right) Sliced deer antler base for use in Chinese medicine. Slices are either boiled in soup with other ingredients or brewed as a tea.
The species of deer depicted in Chinese art is the sika deer, also known as the spotted deer or the Plum Blossom deer in Chinese, named because of the markings on its fur, clearly visible on all the examples pictured here. It is a species of deer native to much of East Asia. China used to have the largest population, but thousands of years of hunting and habitat loss have reduced the population to less than one thousand. Of the five subspecies in China, three are believed to be extinct. Sadly ironic for a symbol of longevity and a companion to immortals.
A Relief Decorated Wucai Vase, Qing Dyansty, Kangxi Period, from the non-selling exhibition Embracing Classic Chinese Culture: Kangxi Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection, 14-22 March 2014 (Lot 24).