Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The sacred hu 壺 vessels

The hu vessel was a ritual drinking container for wine and water used from at least Shang dynasty times. Vessels similar to the Hu jars date back to Neolithic times, and during latter periods there were earthenware, laquerware and bronze hu.

Hu vessels were somewhat gourd-like in shape and the original word hu means "gourd."

According to Liezi (4th century BCE), one of the three islands of the blessed was shaped like a hu with a square mouth. Starting in the Han dynasty, we see the production of boshanlu censers and jars meant to represent mountains on the three paradise islands of the southeastern seas. These mountains were Peng-hu on the island of Peng-lai, Fang-hu on Fang-chang, and Ying-hu on Ying-chou. Notice the "-hu" element in all these names.

The hu mountains were conceived as resembling hu jars in shape and with open mouths at the top.

On one of the mountains represented on the boshanlu, known as the "Mountain without peer," a hole was placed on top to allow smoke to rise from the peak. The smoke symbolized the "cinnabar furnace" that was supposed to exist within this mountain creating the elixir of immortality.

From this elixir, the Qin emperor was advised to create vessels of transmuted gold, with the help of beings from Peng-lai, that would convey long life. I have suggested that this "transmuted gold" is alchemical jargon for the clay of said vessels that was thought to have special properties. This clay was the elixir or philosopher's stone that originated from the cinnabar furnace of Peng-hu in the seas to the southeast.

In this same region, the dog deity or ancestor known as Pan-hu was also placed by ancient Chinese texts. The "hu" in Pan-hu's name again means "gourd" and Pan-hu was known as "emperor of the center" apparently a reference to the idea that this region was the center of the earth. From this center one gained entrance to Heaven through the axis mundi. Chinese cosmological texts sometimes identify Pan-hu with the primoridial dumpling from which cosmos was created. The southern peoples, whom the Chinese called Man, linked Pan-hu with the primordial gourd sometimes said to have carried the first ancestors. This gourd or dumpling was represented in microcosm by the hu-like mountain at the center of the world in Peng-lai.

Interestingly in royal Shang tombs of the cross (ya) shape variety, a dog is buried in the center of the tomb, the location possibly representing the entrance to Heaven. In Chinese astrology, the dog is also associated with the gate of Heaven. Earlier I have written that the dog guardian represented the royal lineage entrusted as custodians of the sacred volcanoes.

So the central mountain, or Peng-hu was seen as the axis mundi and as a crucible for the creation of the elixir. Indeed, the Chinese alchemist Wei-Po Yang called the pot, used in latter practices to make an artificial form of elixir, by the name Peng-hu after the mountain on Peng-lai. Chinese texts describe the hu mountains as containing the "Sun and Moon" an imagery that we have linked in this blog with the idea of a volcanic eruption. It was this eruption that produced the "elixir" i.e. the volcanic ash that later weathered into clay used to make sacred vessels of longevity.

Bird and sun-moon motif on jade ring from Liangzhu Culture (3500 BCE-2250 BCE), left, bird on cartouche and sun-moon on bi disc, Liangzhu. The sun-moon motif, in one case combined with what could be a 'fire mountain' motif appear also on Ling-yang-ho vases (4300 BCE-1900 BCE) from Shangdong, source: Wu Hung, "Bird Motifs in Eastern Yi Art." I have interpreted "crescent sun" motif as a symbol of a great Neolithic volcanic eruption that occurred centrally along the routes of the Nusantao maritime trade and communication network. The turbulent volcanic islands beyond the southeastern coast were also linked with the "Mulberry Fields" that were said to periodically rise above the sea, possibly an allusion to the still significant sea level changes in this region that continued well into the Middle Neolithic period.

Hu vessels and the Luzon jars

Japanese merchants called the region from which they purchased the fabled Luzon jars by the name Mishima "Three Islands" referring specifically to Luzon, Formosa and an unidentified island known as Amakawa, possibly Macau. I have not found anything yet to link these three islands specifically with the three islands of the blessed in Chinese literature, and there are other areas known as "Mishima" in both ancient and modern Japan. There is a Mishima mentioned in the ancient epic Kojiki, for example. However, interestingly one type of important pot brought back from Mishima was known in Japanese as tsubo, specifically the Ruson-tsubo "Luzon jar."

Tsubo in Japanese kanji script is represented by the character i.e., the same one that represents hu in Chinese.

While the Chinese appear to have lost at an early date the linkage of the clay as the sacred element of the hu jars, they nonetheless preserved the ideas surrounding the production of the "elixir" used to make these vessels. In Southeast Asia and Japan, the idea that the sacred jars drew their powers from the special clay with which they were made had survived.

And I have suggested that this was known as the clay of the Sun and Moon, taken from the dual volcanoes -- the mountain of Aldo (Sun) known as Arayat, and the mountain of Bulan (Moon) known as Pinatubo, and used to make the highly-valued Ruson-tsubo (Luzon Jars).

I have resided all my life between Heaven and Earth, with my constant residence in the Penglai Isles. I rely on the sun, moon, and stars to aid my life, and on the Five Pneumata to complete my body. I have received the Dao methods transmitted by the Lord Lao and have become enlightened to the Mysterious Perfection. By day I travel on simurghs and cranes to the Penglai Isles, at night I fly on clouds to stay at the immortals' pavilions. I honor the lords of the South Pole and the Eastern Florescence as my landlords, and the Northern Dipper and the Western Mother as my neighbors.

-- The Story of Han Xiangzi (17th century)

Paul Kekai Manansala


White, David Gordon. The Alchemical. Body: Siddha Traditions In Medieval India. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Stein, Rolf A., Phyllis Brooks (translator). The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought, Stanford, Calif., 1990.

Yang Erzeng; Philip Clart (translator). The Story of Han Xiangzi: The Alchemical Adventures of a Daoist Immortal. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2008, 238.