Gold Coins and Immortality: The Legend of Liu Hai and Toad

Gold Coins and Immortality: The Legend of Liu Hai and Toad

For centuries, portrayals of Liu Hai and Toad have symbolised wealth and prosperity.
For centuries, portrayals of Liu Hai and Toad have symbolised wealth and prosperity.

S teeped in 5,000 years of history, tradition and craftsmanship, jade has long been an essential part of Chinese society, and intrinsically valuable to the evolution of its culture. An arduous material to carve and shape, a great degree of highly honed skills and spiritual concentration is required from Chinese artisans to deliver works of jade with finesse and detail. At the crux of early Chinese statecraft, jade was worked into the ritual system, ceremonial weapons, ornaments, and society as a symbol of status. Throughout Chinese history, jade has held a highly prized position and has captured the zeitgeist of dynasties.

Jade carvings from the Yuan to the Qing dynasties have an undeniable association with Taoism, a philosophical thought that evolved from an officially recognised religion to a diffused system of popular beliefs, eventually becoming an integral part of secular life in China. The Ming dynasty in particular was a critical juncture in the development of jade carving.

As the Ming dynasty witnessed drastic economic transformations, jade in parallel enjoyed unprecedented growth, craftsmen’s skills and imagination knew no bounds. Where jade workmanship reached its apex is manifested in the elaborate details and soft high polishing. Their carvings depict an array of plants, animals, human figures and pavilions in a fantastical realm whilst instilling moral virtue and immorality as informed by Taoist principles.

The jade carvings during this transitional period are also characterised by the depiction of Liu Hai and Toad (ch’an), which persisted into the Ming and Qing dynasties but may be dated as far back as the Yuan dynasty. This greyish white translucent jade seen in the present lot here offered in The Victor Shaw Collection of Chinese Jades: Online Part 1 portrays a three-legged toad with protruding eyes, lying on its haunches with its head and jaw thrust forward. Sitting astride the toad’s back is a youthful figure dressed in flowing robes and brocade trousers, seemingly catching a bat that has a ribbon. A hallmark of late Ming and early Qing jade is the increase in size compared to previous dynasties, which is also typified in this present Liu Hai and Toad jade carving.

Though it is unclear whether Liu Hai existed as a historical figure or as a legend, he is believed to be based off a play-on-words of Liu Hai-ch’an (ch’an meaning toad in Chinese), a 10th century immortalised court official and Taoist practitioner. Liu Hai is often depicted travelling with a tree-legged toad that he trapped with a string of squared-hole cash coins.

Animals depicted in jade sculptures historically symbolised power and grace of the creatures of nature, and over the course of time, seen as companions of humans, sharing their own comfortable domesticity. The pattern on the skin of the toad resembles coins, as it was believed that the toad had the power of spitting gold coins out of its mouth. Liu Hai was able to study the secrets of immortality and gain numerous gold coins with the help of the toad, which he then used to help the poor and earned him the reputation of the god of wealth, while the toad was worshipped as an auspicious animal that brought prosperity to its human companion.

Initially derived from Taoist fairy stories from the Yuan dynasty and regarded as folklore, Liu Hai and Toad became a symbol of wealth and prosperity and a much sought-after motif not only in jade but also more broadly all ancient Chinese works of art. The combination of the two figures on the present jade carving perfectly encapsulates the essence of the Taoist principles that calls for man’s pursuit for an understanding of nature, its surroundings, and for a way of becoming part of a greater whole; married with society’s affinity for auspicious symbols, and underlying the foundation of Chinese artistic tradition, all of which continues to echo down the centuries.

Chinese Works of Art

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