1. Dish with Immortals (picture from The British Museum)

Dish with Immortals: Porcelain Art with a Legend


Country: China
Artist: Unknown
Date: 1662–1683 CE
Period: Qing Dynasty, Kangxi reign
Medium: Porcelain
Location: Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province
Height: 8.8cm
Diameter: 36.5cm
Current Location: On display at The British Museum. Acquired in China and donated to The British Museum by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks.


The Chinese Porcelain Dish Showing Immortals is an artwork from the Qing Dynasty porcelain revival in Jingdezhen which was largely organized by emperor Kangxi. Composed of blue underglaze and other colored details, this dish features a Taoist scene with the Eight Immortals visiting Shoulao 壽老, the Chinese god of longevity. The artwork illustrates a popular Chinese method of incorporating popular stories and legends into artwork.

2.Map of the Qing Dynasty

Descriptive analysis:

The Qingera Dish with Immortals is a white porcelain dish colored with blue underglaze, typical of the time period, and details in red and green. Dimensions of the dish are 8.8 cm in height and 36.5 cm in diameter, about the size of a large dinner plate. A scene is painted on the dish with eight individuals, the Eight Immortals, in the lower right corner, and another man, Shoulao or Shouxing, in the upper left corner.

The blue underglaze of this dish is composed of the same blue "color" in all areas, but the color is applied more heavily upon the white background in certain spots to give the scene an illusion of depth and texture. The same is done with the reds and greens, but to a lesser extent. Darker blue is used, for example, to outline or color the garments of the Immortals, to darken a tree in the background, and generally to create a naturalistic environment. Reds are used for the inner sleeves of garments, to outline smoke, water, and wind, and provide some environmental details. Green is used as sparsely as red and only to create images of vegetation in the scene.

The Dish with Immortals is perfectly round with raised edges. Considering a height of 8.8 cm, the dish must flare out from the bottom, although the painted scene appears as if it is on a flat surface. The surface of the glaze appears smooth and transparent, clearly due to the refinement in Chinese porcelain making.

The scene on the dish depicts eight people on the right and one person with a deer seated next to him on the left. One should note that next to Shoulao is the tree of longevity. As we learn from the title, the people are the Eight Immortals and Shoulao (or Shouxing). The Immortals seem to be following a path, each of them carrying a particular object, and each dressed slightly differently. The man in the rear of the group holds a small pot from which smoke or clouds are rising. The path they walk seems to be surrounded by rocks, vegetation, and possibly a stream on the left edge. The environment of the scene is generic, so there is no way of knowing exactly where the Immortals are, or where they are going, if it is indeed a realistic location. Across the river, Shoulao is seated with a small deer just behind him. He wears a robe and is holding a staff of some sort. Shoulao appears to be an older man with his long beard and eyebrows, and balding head. His head also happens to be abnormally large and elongated, a feature commonly attributed to Shoulao.

Dividing the group from Shoulao is either a river or a height, as between different elevations on a mountain. Swirling clouds create a channel between the characters, and the same swirling patterns appear at the top of the scene. There is also an object, too small to discern, that appears to float among the clouds within the smoke from the last Immortal's pot.

Contextual Analysis:

Literature depicting immortals, scholars, and other famous historical figures was abundant in Chinese history, and so the figures were well known by educated patrons of the arts. Collectors and artists of such ceramics as the Dish with the Immortals would have been familiar with both Shoulao, the god of longevity, and the Eight Immortals of Taoism. Relating a quote by Craig Clunas on the images Chinese lacquerware to the images in Chinese Ming and Qing ceramics, Rosemary Scott writes,"'The beginning student could be pardoned for the impression that the entire population of China once consisted of sages, scholars, and immortals'" (Scott 1992, 90).

So it seems auspicious characters, such as those suggesting long life, from other art forms were used liberally in ceramic decoration to create pleasant scenes for patrons. In addition to the historical characters, other elements such as clouds and deer, pictured in this dish, have "good fortune" connotations. In this section, we will discuss the meanings of these characters and images, explore the development of porcelain from the Qing era, and compare the Dish with the Immortals to other Chinese artifacts from the same period.

The Qing Dynasty under Emperor Kangxi was an era of prosperity, and so members of the emperor's court and wealthy citizens could patronize ceramic art. It seems while porcelain was not the most highly prized art form, it did serve a significant role in the daily life of emperors and wealthy elite (Scott 1998, 1). While A.D. Brankston postulates that Early Ming, "Hsuan-te" (1426-1435) dishes were used in ritual offerings (Brankston 1970, 25), decorated Qing dishes such as our Dish with the Immortals might have been used frequently at the table of its wealthy owners.

The Eight Immortals

The Dish with the Immortals, as one can tell from the title, pictures the Eight Immortals who are travelling a road to visit another man in the scene. The Eight Immortals arose from the Chinese religion Taoism, but images of the Eight Immortals can be seen in popular Chinese culture all over the world. In Taoist thought, the Immortals are responsible for warding off evil and ensuring good fortune, and might be displayed around temples or during religious practices or specific holidays or events. Buddhist temples might also display the Eight Immortals simply as decoration (Ho, O'Brien 7-8). A few of the Immortals actually were historical figures and stories of the Eight came about as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE) until about the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368)(Ho 23).

The Eight Immortals are Elder Zhang Guo (Lao Zhang Guo), Pilosopher Han Xiang (Xiang Zi Han), Iron-Crutch Li (Tieguai Li), DongBin Lu, Immortal Lan Caihe, Woman He (Xiangu He), Zhongli Quan, and Royal Uncle Cao (GuoJiu Cao). According to legend, the Eight Immortals represent eight types of people: male, female, old, young, poor, rich, people with high social standards and people with low social standards. By symbolizing people of different "walks" of life, the stories of the Immortals are enjoyable for a diverse audience (Ching 215). Each of them has a unique tool or power, and in the legend painted on this dish the Immortals use these abilities to cross the river without a boat in order to convene with Shoulao.

  • Picture of Eight Immortals:

3.GuoLao Zhang
4.XiangZi Xiao
5.GuaiLi Tie
6.DongBin Lu

7.CaiHe Lan
8.XianGu He
9.ZhongLi Han
10.GuoJiu Cao

11. God of Longevity with the Eight Immortals, 1597.

Shoulao: The God of Longevity

Shoulao is the other man painted in this dish. He is the god of longevity in popular Chinese and Taoist legend, and so the theme of longevity continues with the characters in the Dish with the Immortals.

In the late Song Dynasty (960-1127 CE) stories about an "Old Man from the South Pole" arose in which this man gained certain powers from a so called "Old Man Star" entity (Fong 161), one of them being the power of long life. It seems that Shoulao is this "Old Man" from the South. Shoulao is traditionally pictured with an elongated, bald head, which may seem odd if the context is not clear. According to Mary Fong in her Iconography..., Confucius was born with a similarly shaped head, and so the style applied to Shoulao is to form a connection with the philosopher (183). Beer notes that the shape of Shoulao's head may also be what allows him to determine if a person is worthy of immortality(96).

Fong also comments on Shoulao's being pictured alongside the Immortals, indicating that it simply emphasized the theme of long life (184). A print featuring a scene very similar to the Dish with the Immortals is featured in Fong's article, and Shoulao is depicted standing in front of a deer and under a tree. Shoulao is often shown with at least one of the six icons associated with longevity: The Deer, Crane, Peach tree, and a Jade fountain are most common. His being underneath a tree suggests that the print was intended for an upscale audience with knowledge of the arts (Fong 184) while the deer is believed to be able to live very long, according to Taoist thought (Fong 182). The Deer is Shoulao's vehicle and can be seen with Shoulao riding in some artworks. The Deer can travel great distances, and is the only creature that can find Ling-chih, the plant of immortality (Beer 96). Shoulao is also associated with the Tree of Longevity; a large fruit laden peach tree behind Shoulao. This tree is a peach tree that bears the fruit of eternal life (Beer 96). The Dish with the Immortals if you look closely shows the Deer of longevity to Shoulao's left, and the Tree of Longevity - laden with fruit - to his right.

Porcelain in the Qing Dynasty:

Following a hiatus in Chinese porcelain-making at the end of the Ming Dynasty, the Qing Dynasty ruler Kangxi worked to once again make porcelain a popular and refined art form. The Chinese Porcelain Dish Showing Immortals was created between 1662 and 1683 [British Museum] and thus would have come from the so-called “flourishing age” of wealth and productivity during Kangxi reign (Wei 186).

This “flourishing age” brought innovations in pottery such as improved coloring and new patterns of expression. Kangxi potters improved upon the traditional blue painting techniques and learned how to create different shades and levels of coloring. And content like “famous figures, historical tales, and allusions to well-known novels, poems and prose,” became more detailed and strongly expressive (Wei 192).

It is important to note that Taoism was mainly a folk religion and would not have the official religion endorsed by the emperor. Commoners and artisans, like those who would have created this particular dish were more likely to practice Taoism(Ho 33), so the artists must have had considerable control over the content of their artwork even if the emperor was encouraging production.

Comparative works:

  • Contemporary Chinese Porcelain

12. Kangxi Period porcelain Dish with Immortals & Shou Lao on Crane

This dish could be from the same set of dishes as the primary object. This bowl is the same style and era of the Kangxi Period, Qing Dynasty. To tie in the appearance of Shaolao (Shouxing), is the flying immortal crane overhead, while the Immortals are on the ground below. This suggests that there could be a full set of this dishware with the Eight Immortals and Shaolao on them.

Not all Kangxi Period porcelain dishes are done in the tradition blue and white. Much of the most beautiful pieces were commissioned from Emperor Kangxi directly.

13. Ruby Bowl Commissioned by Emperor Kangxi

Visit this Chinese Antique dealer for more information about the piece and to see other items from the Qing Dynasty.

See also

Works Cited

British Museum. “Chinese porcelain dish showing immortals.” 25 February 2009, <> (February 2009). The original web source for the Dishes of Immortals.==
Ching, Julia. Chinese Religions. New York: Orbis, 1993. This book contains overviews of the religions of China.
The Eight Immortals of Taoism: Legends and Fables of Popular Taoism. Translated by Kwak Man Ho and Joanne O'Brien, Introduction by Martin Palmer. New York: Meridian, 1990. This book discusses the origins and stories of the Eight Immortals in popular and Taoist Chinese history.
Beer, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Serindia Publications, Inc., 2004. Text realted to Shoulao and the icons of longevity and his representation.
Fong, Mary H.. The Iconography of the Popular Gods of Happiness, Emolument, and Longevity (Fu Lu Shou). Artibus Asiae, Vol. 44, No. 2/3 (1983), pp. 159-199. Artibus Asiae Publishers. Stable URL: This article discusses, among other things, the meaning of certain images related to Shoulao, and gives some interesting insight into the identity of Shoulao.
Wei, Ji. The Art of Chinese Ceramics. San Francisco: Long River Press, 2006. This book chronicles Chinese ceramics from their creation to modern times and includes many images showing this evolution.

O'Brien, J.P. "Ming and Qing Dynasties." 2008, < > Introduces the Chinese Porcelain in the Ming Dynasty.

Gates, Williams, C."A History of Pottery." < > The general background information about the Chinese Porcelain.

"Porcelain Platter: China, No.3" 2005. < > The website which provides much information about Asia.

Scott, Rosemary. "Archaism and Invention: Sources of Ceramic Decoration in the Ming and Qing Dynasties." In New Perspectives on the At of Ceramics in China, edited by George Kuwayama, 80-96. Los Angeles: Far Eastern Art Council, 1992. This article discusses the inspirations for artists creating pottery in the Qing era, such as literature and scholarly and historical figures.

Scott, Rosemary E. "Ceramics in daily life at the Qing court. " The Magazine Antiques 153.n1 (Jan 1998): 162(8). Accessed at General OneFile. Gale. Eastern Michigan University. Retrieved 12 Apr. 2009. This article describes the use and history of a specific collection of Qing dynasty ceramics that was on display at the Percival David Foundation, London.

Brankston, A. D. Early Ming Wares of Chingtechen. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp, 1970. This book analyzes several porcelain artifacts from specific time periods in the Ming Dynasty, and describes the processes potters use in modern Jingdezhen ceramics.

Image References

1. Download from Dish of immortals The original image source of the Dish of immortals from British Museum.
2. Download from map/qing_dynasty_map.htm Providing some tourist information of China.
3-10. Download from Chinese picture website which provides the picture of the Dish of Immortals.
11. From Fong, Mary H. The Iconography of the Popular Gods of Happiness, Emolument, and Longevity (Fu Lu Shou). See "Works Cited."
12.Download from A non-beneficial cultural website which introduce the Chinese culture.
13. Download from The website for the Chinese Art collection.