Hehe er xian – 和合二仙 – The Two Immortals

Our collection contains two prints that initially look identical, as if printed from the same woodblock. The image shows two males, one holding a lotus flower and leaf (he 菏), the other a round box with lid (he 盒). This motif is from the Daoist pantheon and quite a well-known one in Chinese art: the hehe er xian  和合二仙, the two immortals or spirits, where 和 is the immortal of harmony and 合 is the immortal of union. The general symbolism is that of association with a happy marriage or union. Iconographically there is also a relation with the representations in Chinese and Japanese art of the Tang period eccentric monk/poet Hanshan and his playmate Shide.

. Image


Above the figures is printed a black field, in imitation of a rubbing, with the character for long life, shou 壽, written in various styles and a cash coin in the centre with the text taiping tongbao 太平通寶, a standard phrase on old cash coins. The print is not particularly rare, there are examples in Japanese museums and it can be occasionally seen in auction and dealers’ catalogues. The size is approx. 70×35 cm. The colours are applied by hand, only the black lines are printed from woodblocks.  Both our prints are mounted as scrolls, of Japanese origin as evidenced by the material and style, and in need of restoration — flaking paper, folds and creases, worm holes, etc.  

Now, to the interesting part: on the back of the right hand one is pasted a woodblock printed note in Japanese hiragana and kanji. 




A previous owner has transcribed the text into more readable characters:



We even possess an edited version of the text:  



Unfortunately, the note is not signed or dated. But it is evident that the author (artist) of the note has acquired a Chinese print of Hehe erxian, which he copied accurately, without adding any single detail, had it printed and added some light colouring (?) and printed several tens of these, which he now hesitatingly and respectfully (?) offers to the recipient.

I am grateful to Guita Winkel, Leiden, and Norman Waddell, Kyoto, for helping me with the reading and the interpretation of the text. 

There remains a few problems with the text, for example what is a kanaban かなばん? The reference to 水無 in the month is a period in the lunar calendar, but we do not know the era or year. From the style of characters and the spirit of the note, it seems to emanate from the kind of antiquarian circles of the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries. The use of “Morokoshi” for China and the interest in Chinese culture as well as the interest in making a true to life depiction not meddling in any way with the original image suggests it is related to those men who saw themselves as kōshōgakusha (Chinese 考證學 kaozhengxue or ‘evidential research’).

 Whatever problems are inherent with this text, the fact remains that we have here documentary and material evidence that Chinese prints were not only appreciated by the Japanese public, but that they were also re-cut and printed in Japan, and disseminated among the Japanese. Assumedly other copies of the Japanese print were accompanied by this woodblock printed text, which in itself indicate a certain quantity, pasted on the back of the mount or loose, but I have not seen any records of this on any extant prints.

Looking at the two prints, they are, as mentioned, virtually identical. A casual glance does not readily differentiate the two. The Japanese copy follows meticulously the Chinese original, but small details differ and make it obvious that the prints are from different blocks. Those details can not be attributed to the wear of the blocks, the inking of the block, the pressure applied against the paper nor to the colouring by hand. 



The primary and easiest detail for separating the prints are the eyebrows of the lotus-holding boy. In the Chinese original the eyebrow lines are regularly spaced whereas in the Japanese print they are running into each other.


Other tell-tales are the two small lines crossing the sole of the box-boy’s shoe in the Chinese print, lines which are missing in the Japanese version. Studying the details of shoes and bottom part of the dress in these two images, one notes more minute differences in the cutting of the black details. 

We show one more image with details, this one of the lotus flower:



It also appears that where the Chinese print has green colour, it has turned brown in the Japanese version. Maybe this is due to oxidation of the Japanese pigments? A red seal on the Japanese print could also be an identifying item, but I do not know if the seal occurs on all Japanese versions, nor have I been able to read it. 

This print has been dated to the Ming (1368-1644) period and to the Qianlong (1736-1796) period, but personally I lean towards a 19th century date, maybe early Jiaqing date (1796-1820) for the Chinese original and a bit later for the Japanese facsimile. 

I hope to be able in the future to show other Chinese prints that might have been copied/re-cut by Japanese woodblock cutters.


About chiwoopri

Collector and researcher of old Chinese woodblock prints
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