‘Zhong Kui’ Elephant Leg Vase
This tall elegant form is known in China as an ‘elephant leg’ vase and in the West as a
‘rolwagen’ (1). An invention of the Chongzhen potter, it stands on a flat unglazed base and presents to the artist a broad surface ideal for painting continuous landscapes and moun- tainous scenes. As on this vase, the scenes
are usually set between broad incised anhua (‘hidden’) bands at the shoulder and foot.
Painted in a vivid cobalt blue (2), the figure seen here riding a spotted deer is Zhong Kui, the fabled King of Ghosts. It is very rare that Zhong Kui is depicted riding a deer. The bat flying over his shoulder however seems to be a constant companion, and is a symbol of abundant happiness and good fortune.
The artist has conveyed to us a marvel- lous spirit of stubbornness in the deer, as it determinedly resists being pulled by a demon.
Legend has it that Zhong Kui set forth from his hometown with his friend Du Ping to take part in the imperial examinations. Passing these exams would set one on the path to high office. A brilliant scholar, Zhong
Kui passed with the highest marks in the land, attaining the title of zhuangyuan, or principal graduate. The emperor, however, had other ideas and stripped Zhong Kui of his title due to his extreme ugliness. Deprived so cruelly of his hard-earned title, Zhong
Kui committed suicide by smashing his head against the palace gates, thus damming himself to hell. Unlike the mortal emperor, the Hell King recognized Zhong Kui’s genius and named him ‘King of Ghosts’, entrusting him with the task of hunting and capturing ghosts for all eternity.
Zhong Kui later returned to the mortal world to rid the Emperor Xuanzong (712–756) of the ghosts who haunted him during an illness. In his dream the emperor saw a small ghost stealing a purse from his favourite concubine. A larger ghost wearing an official’s hat, like the one we see Zhong Kui wearing here, then captured the smaller ghost, tore out his eye and ate it. The emperor awoke from his evil dream cured of his illness and out of gratitude awarded Zhong Kui the title of judge.
高 :4 2 . 5 公 分 1 6 3⁄4 英 寸