Sometimes you are trying to work something out for ages, then you give up, then you come back to it and then suddenly the penny drops. As I am in the last stages of finishing the text for my forthcoming book on Chinese wallpapers in the British Isles, I decided to revisit the prints of female figures at Saltram, which had puzzled me for some time.
These prints depict female figures in elegant poses and with beautifully detailed clothes and accoutrements. I had long been wondering whether they might be ladies – because of their elegance – or peasants – because of the humble, outdoor nature of their dress – or perhaps even the Chinese equivalent of Queen Marie-Antoinette at her hameau, i.e. upper class ladies engaging in country pursuits or playing at being peasants.
But then I noticed the dainty hoe again that one of the figures carries over her shoulder. And I remembered that Christer von der Burg, the collector of and expert on Chinese prints, had once told me that one of the immortals carries a hoe. And then after some searching online the name Lan Caihe came up.
Lan Caihe is one of the eight immortals, a group of deities connected to Daoism. Their characters and exploits exemplify Daoist thought and teachings. Various folk tales developed around the different immortals, emphasising their whimsicality and untrammelled spirit.
Lan Caihe is an androgynous immortal, sometimes depicted as a young man, sometimes as a young woman. She often carries a basket of flowers, a reference to the fleeting nature of life. She travelled around making a living from singing and dancing and is often shown with castanets or a flute hanging from a hoe slung over her shoulder.
So the figure at Saltram with the hoe and the basket could well be Lan Caihe. Perhaps the fact that nothing hangs from the hoe and that the basket is empty may relate to a particular story, perhaps with some kind of stern message to the effect that ‘the music is over, the flowers are gone.’
If that figure is indeed Lan Caihe, then perhaps the other similar figures at Saltram are immortals as well, or deities of some other type. Certainly the cape made of leaves that one of them wears – a nicely ‘untrammelled’ fashion statement – seems to point in that direction. But I haven’t worked out who they are yet. I will need to wait patiently for another flash of insight – or for one of you readers to tell me.