Three Star Gods
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The figures of Three Star Gods are personified representation of Good Fortune, Prosperity, and Longevity. They originated from Chinese people’s worship of the stars in the southern sky. During the time of Lichun 立春 (the Beginning of Spring), there are three stars that are close in distance and form a straight line. These three stars are commonly named as ‘福’ (Fú), ‘禄’ (Lù), and ‘寿’ (Shòu). They are personified as auspicious star immortals who respectively govern one’s blessings, official career, and lifespan.
‘福’ fu primarily represents five types of blessings (五福 wu fu). According to the Book of Documents (书经 Shujing) in the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE), the Five Blessings are ‘longevity 寿 shou’, ‘wealth 富 fu’, ‘wellbeing and peace 康宁 kang ning’, ‘love of virtue 攸好德 you hao de’, and ‘natural death 考终命 kao zhong ming’. The Fu Star Fuxing 福星 is represented in human form of a star deity holding objects like a ruyi (如意, a symbol of good fortune) or a yuanbao (元宝, an ancient Chinese currency).
The ‘禄’ Lu Star Luxing 禄星 is in charge of literary success and official salary. In ancient China, scholars took imperial examinations to become officials. Once a scholar passed exams, he could hold an official position and receive a salary. Therefore, attaining a high-ranking official position with a substantial income became the aspiration of many scholars. The Lu Star was revered for his governing of success, fame, official position, and emolument, as well as his blessing of having many descendants. He is often signified by holding a child.
The ‘寿’ Shou Star is also known as the Old Man of the South Pole (南极仙翁), or Shoulao (寿老, elderly man of longevity). His features are white whiskers as well as a high and protruding forehead. He usually holds a long cane in one hand, and sometimes a peach in the other. He is often accompanied by a deer and/or a crane, both being symbols of longevity. There may also be lingzhi (灵芝, fungi or mushrooms) and longevity rocks in the surrounding, emphasising the good wish of a long life.
In traditional Chinese decorative art, there are various methods to portray the theme of Good Fortune, Prosperity, and Longevity. Apart from depicting the three deity figures directly, using a combination of other motifs to infer the three stars is a clever way to express the auspicious wishes. Homophonic images such as bats (蝠 fu) and deer (鹿 lu) are applied to pun on Fu and Lu Stars, and cranes, peaches, lingzhi, pine trees, or longevity rocks are used to symbolise ‘longevity’.
Fig 1: porcelain vase, Kangxi period (1662–1722), Qing dynasty, courtesy of Palace Museum, Beijing
Fig 2: famille verte brush pot, Kangxi period (1662–1722), Qing dynasty, courtesy of SOAS, photo from the Trustees of the British Museum
Fig 3: porcelain vase, Kangxi period (1662–1722), Qing dynasty, courtesy of Palace Museum, Beijing
Fig 4: porcelain dish with scalloped lip, Kangxi period (1662–1722), Qing dynasty, courtesy of the SOAS, photo from the British Museum, London
Fig 5: porcelain bowl with underglaze blue decoration, Kangxi period (1662–1722), Qing dynasty, courtesy of Princessehof Ceramics Museum, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands
Fig 6-8: famille verte square-section vase, Kangxi period (1662–1722), Qing dynasty, courtesy of the Jie Rui Tang Collection
Fig 9-10: famille verte dishes, Kangxi period (1662–1722), Qing dynasty, courtesy of Guest & Gray Antique Dealer, London
Fig 11-12: famille rose yuhuchun vase, Yongzheng period (1723–35), Qing dynasty, courtesy of Palace Museum, Beijing
Fig 13: ivory desk screen,18th century, courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1927. Photo: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Fig 14: ivory snuff-bottle, 18th –19th century (early), courtesy of the British Museum, London
Fig 15: porcelain vase decorated with iron red enamel, 19th century, courtesy of Musee Guimet, Paris
Fig 16: porcelain snuff bottle in underglaze blue and red, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Fig 17: The Three Star Gods, silk embroidery, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei