Vegder's Blog

February 21, 2012

The 7 Propitious Gods: Hotei is Okay by Me – 布袋

Don’t let the jolly fellow with the big belly surrounded by children fool you! In 1904 a man named Arthur Diósy, a man I know nothing about, gave a warning in his book, The New Far East, against Westerners being deceived by what they saw when they looked at the Japanese. “We are told, at the same time, that the Japanese are of the sweetly simple, lovable disposition indicated by their extreme fondness for children and their unvarying kindness to them, extending even to the provision, in their pantheon, of a special divinity to watch over the little ones [Jizō (地蔵)], and of another, Hotei, a jolly, plump, smiling god, for them to romp with. On the other hand,  we are warned to beware of the Japanese. They are, it is alleged, a danger to the white races, for their much-vaunted progress has been only in things material; their adaptation of our civilisation has merely laid a thin veneer over their native savageness. Hence our peril, we are told, and we are asked to consider the awful probability of a conflict some day with a determined race, hating us bitterly, turning against the West the weapons, the organisation and the training originally borrowed from it, but remaining at heart ruthless barbarians capable of the most fiendish atrocities.” While Mr. Diósy’s remarks are clearly prophetic – remember this was published in 1904 – they are also blatantly racist. The title of his second chapter makes it perfectly clear what he thinks of East Asians: Parting, Pigtail, and Topknot [sic].

Below is a drawing on paper by Torii Kiyomitsu (鳥居清満: 1735-1785) showing Hotei being pulled in a cart by children. It is in the collection of the V & A in London and is thought to date from ca. 1751-64.

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

   This is a detail from a Hokusai surimono where Hotei is judging a wrestling match.

Freer_Kuniyoshi_Hotei_children_lanterns_7b   Freer/Sackler Galleries – A humorous print by Kuniyoshi showing Hotei leading a parade of children holding lanterns at the end of long poles. Notice that on the brown banner one child is holding. At the top of it is an image of Hotei’s bag of goodies.

Hotei’s press in the West has not always been flattering – There is a small portable shrine in the British Museum which features a seated Hotei with Chinese children painted on the inside of the doors. It was made in Japan, stands a little over 1′ high and entered their collection in 1885. In the Monthly Review (vol. 26) from 1907 there is a not very pretty picture of Hotei and what I believe is this very shrine. “Being a mendicant, he wandered about with a large cloth bag, to which he owed his name, and this became the inexhaustible sack of the legend which spread the report of how he never allowed water to touch his body, though he had no objection to,  or difficulty in, sleeping in snow, and of his powers as a soothsayer. He is generally seen with a Chinese fan, rosary, and priest’s dress open in front, and playing with children, but our illustration of him is from a small shrine in Room III, with gilded doors, each adorned by a painting of a boy, wherein the ugliness of the bronze figure is fortunately subdued by shadow.”

   © Trustees of the British Museum

And, what is this stuff about Hotei never letting water touch him? Balderdash! Rot! There are any number of representations of Hotei ferrying people piggy-back across a stream. How could he have done this without touching the water? I ask you. Below are two examples of this god engaged in this activity. They are both in Boston, one in the MFA is a painting by Kyōsai (1831-1889) and the other at Harvard is a Shunshō (1726-1792) print. I think this should refute once and for all the so-called legend of a waterless Hotei.

   © Harvard University

It is amazing how similar, but I would guess unconnected, the Hotei images are to those of St. Christopher. Below is a fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio (ca. 1448-1494)which hangs in the Met.

Back in 1969 A.D., of course, a number of my favorite saints – I am not Catholic – were removed from the liturgical calendar because there was not enough substantial historical proof that they ever existed. Among these were St. Barbara, St. Lucy, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Valentine, St. Nicholas, St. George, St. Patrick and St. Christopher. Their feast days, medals and statuettes were all devalued. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers and drivers, was now little more than a myth. How odd that someone like Hotei went from being human to being godly while Christopher went the other way. Will miracles never cease?

What do we know about the man? Or, what do we think we know? – First a general warning: Don’t trust this information! Quote it at your own risk! Pay attention to the contradictions! There will be plenty. But don’t grumble because that is the way of things. History is more often a moving target than filled with solid facts. For that reason I will try to cite a source and date with each little entry. Sometimes that will be an author, sometimes a publication. Why fill this post out with ‘reams’ of superfluous data when a notation will work just as well? That said, you have been warned.

1) Pu-tai lived most of his life during the last years of the T’ang dynasty (618 – 907), but died a few years later in 916. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Zen Buddhism says Pu-tai was a Zen priest from the time of the Sung dynasty (960 – 1279). Since most, if not all, sources agree that Pu-tai died in 916 something doesn’t quite jive here. However, to be fair, in another place in this book he is said to come from the T’ang times.

“In the course of time, so many legends and anecdotes have surrounded Budai that it has become impossible to filter out the historical facts of his biography. It would appear that he was a migrant Chinese mendicant monk by the name Qici hailing from Siming (Ningpo). He died in 916 (or 905) at Yuelinsi, a Chan monastery at which he spent an exceptional three years.”  (Zen: Masters of Meditation in Images in Writings by Helmut Brinker and Hiroshi Kanazawa. I don’t know why the discrepancy.)

Stephen Addiss wrote in The Art of Zen that Hotei “After his demise he is said to have reappeared walking through the area, a famous nonattached being who predicted the weather, slept out in the snow but was never covered in flakes, ate meat, and drank wine.

2) “Now, in China, the four protectors of the world, along with the so-called ‘fat-bellied Buddha,’ or Ho-shang ‘with the sack,’ represent a pentad, which are so arranged in the entrance halls that the four protectors (Chaturmahârâjas) hold the four corners of the hall while Pu-tai Ho-shang sits in the middle. ¶ Ho-shang is the representative of the Mahâyâna system, thus it occurs that the peculiarities characterizing the old Mahâyâna art, i.e. the Ghândhâra school, have been applied to him. Further, it strikes one, that the figures of children, which surround Ho-shang, are the survivals of the diminutive attendants in the late antique model, and that his bare stomach, which has earned for him the European epithet of  ‘fat-bellied,’ goes back to the peculiar arrangement of the robe, as shown in our accepted Ghândhâra Lokapâlas. The peculiarity of his dress, which, according to eastern Asiatic ideas, borders on the indecent, tended to make the figure ridiculous and gave rise to those entertaining caricatures in which the Japanese especially excel…” (Buddhist Art in India by Albert Grünwedel, 1999)
This image is one of my favorites. It is attributed to the Japanese ceramicist Toyosuke who died in 1858.

3) We don’t know what name he was born with. “He called himself Ch’i-tz’u. [This information tells us nothing since we need to see the Chinese characters for this name to determine the sense of their meaning.] The name Pu-tai literally means ‘cloth sack’ and was given to him by the people of the day, who took to calling him Master Cloth Sack because he always carried a large sack over his shoulder. It is said that he carried all of his worldly possessions in the sack and often stuffed in bits of leftover food he had received when begging.” (The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Zen Buddhism, 2002)

4) For whatever reason, Pu-tai came to be a stand in for Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. Maitreya, Miroku (弥勒) in Japan, was originally shown as either a buddha or a bodhisattva. In his role as Maitreya Pu-tai is often shown in a particularly jovial mood with full belly showing and is commonly referred to as The Laughing Buddha. However, that is not how the original future buddha was traditionally thought of.

“His [i.e., Pu-tai’s] exuberant joy and laughter connect him with the Maitreya bodhisattva, the Buddha of the future. He becomes a symbol of hope, contentment, joy and celestial happiness for millions of Mahayana Buddhists, including Zen.” (The Laughing Buddha of Tofukuji: The Life of Zen Master Keido Fukushima by Ishwar C. Harris, 2004)

In Inventing Hui-neng… Jørgensen cites Faure (1991) and Nagai (2000) in footnote 186 stating that they traced… “the changes in the belief in Pu-tai and Maitreya [and caution] that Ch’an tended to deny that individual monks were Maitreya (incarnations).”

Yves Bonnefoy says in Asian Mythologies: “The Monk with the Canvas Bag and the pot-bellied Buddha are related characters. We do not know which one is the transformation or variant of the other (nor do we know the chronology of these forms, although they are attested by the ninth or tenth centuries at the very least). Among the stucco figurines that came from central Asia (and are dated from the sixth to the tenth centuries according to the Delhi Museum), we can see pot-bellied individuals, naked, laughing, holding their belly with their right hand, their left hand resting on a canvas bag. According to a Chinese catalog of the eighth century, there appeared as early as the first century a translation of a sutra called ‘The transformation of Miluo (Maitreya) into a Woman’s Body.’ In A.D. 690, a woman, the empress Wu zetian, was declared to be the incarnation of Miluo, and already in 602 another empress was considered to be an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara.”

Later Bonnefoy adds: “The Monk (Budai hesheng)  stuffs everything into his canvas bag; for this bag is inexhaustible and contains the three worlds. He tastes everything he receives and puts the leftovers in his bag… even wastes, even stones and bricks… In so doing, he is said to be ‘full of pleasure and supremely at ease’ (huanxi zicai)…. In China, the bag of Miluo or Budai is called ‘the mother of breaths’ (qimu) because it contains the primordial breath of life, the seed of all past worlds.”

Moreover, this author notes: “Interestingly, in modern China the fat and laughing Miluo is placed at the entrance of temples. A great Sinologist (Maspero) found this surprising: ‘We do not know why or when this particularly ugly type was chosen to welcome visitors at the entrance of Buddhist temples.’ The choice does not seem so arbitrary to us. We have seen that the fat Mahākāla and his counterpart Ucchuṣma (filth) were placed as guardians in the same place. Better still, their Hindu prototype Gaṇeśa  is placed at the southern end of the temple, right by the entrance, looking southward, whereas his mount, the rat, looks northward. We can see immediately that this is what characterizes the position of the fat Miluo.”

John Snelling in The Buddhist Handbook… is unequivocal about what he feels are the differences between the dignified Maitreya and the hedonistic, pot-bellied, grinning Pu-tai.

There is a fascinating 20th century forgery in the British Museum – or what they believe to be a remarkable forgery – of a Japanese bronze statue of Maitreya meant to look like it is from the late 7th century. The figure is svelte, the exact opposite of the corpulent monk from China – to be born as an incarnation of this buddha several centuries later – and it is definitely not smiling or laughing. In fact, this is more what I think of when I think of Maitreya – which isn’t often.

   © Trustees of the British Museum [The curator’s comments – Jones 1990 – are well worth reading. They lay out carefully all of the evidence working against this piece being an original 7th century bronze. Technically it seems fine, but stylistically it has problems. For anyone who is curious it would be worth your time and effort to go to this museum’s web site, find the exact page and read the notes yourself. They are very illuminating and should act as a cautionary warning for all museum goers, collectors and art lovers.]

In the same museum is a 19th century, Chinese, turquoise glazed, mould made Happy Buddha or Putai Hoshang (or Budai heshang 布袋和尚 or ‘cloth sack monk’). He is seated on the ground, with monstrously large ear lobes, grinning, holding his bag with his left hand and a rosary with his right. It is the rosary which tips us off that this is Maitreya, the buddha of the future.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

5) There is a Zen temple in Kyoto, the Mampuku-ji (萬福寺), which houses a large, golden colored statue of Hotei. Below is an image of that statue. It was posted at Flickr by wonder_lis.

6) Hotei is one of three of the 7 Propitious Gods of Chinese (Shichifukujin – 七福神) origin. The other two are Fukurokuju and Jurojin.

Pu-tai is “…considered to be the Buddha of Prosperity. Prosperity is in this connection is not only thought of as riches, but also as having many children especially, of course, sons. Attention has been drawn by previous authors to the fact that the Indian god of riches, Jambhala, is also represented with a bag at his side. The temptation to draw hasty conclusions from this is great.” (The Iconography of Chinese Buddhism in Traditional China: Sung to Ch’ing by H. A. van Oort, 1997)

7) Henri Joly in his 1908 Legend in Japanese Art… tells us: “Clay statuettes of Hotei are bought by the people on the first horse day of the second month at the temple of Inari at Miyako ; if kept in good order, on a raised throne near the kitchen oven for seven years, this is considered a token of good luck, the images are then buried n the garden of the temple, and a new series started.”

8) Zhao Mengfu (趙孟頫: 1254-1322), one of my favorite Chinese artists – I have many – is said to have painted Putai. I haven’t found an image yet, but if I do I will post it here if I can, i.e., if it is permissible.

9) In the early 14th century a Zen monk, Mokuan, went to China to study. While there he became a well-known painter. In Paine and Soper’s Art and Architecture of Japan it says: “The Hotei in the Sumitomo collection is one of the best-authenticated paintings by Mokuan and one of the first great sumi-e or ink paintings to be made by a Japanese. Hotei the Chinese Pu-tai,is one of the new subjects. Fat and jolly, he sums up symbolically the type of man who through intuitive understanding has passed beyond the doubts and troubles of practical life and returns home happy in mind and rich in spirit.”

I have a friend in Mi Li Fo* – Actually, I have a friend in a fellow I met over the Internet, with whom I have never spoken nor seen. Nonetheless, we have had an awesome correspondence. He is bright and creative and taught English in China for a number of years. I can’t hold it against him that he is British [because I never hold it against anyone that they are from anywhere, past, present or future]. Who am I to judge? Anyway, he wrote me today, March 3, 2012 and asked: “A question: Hotei is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese Mi Lo Fo, is that right? Are there any notable differences? Please forgive me if I’m being dense…” My suspicion: He knows damned well that the two are basically the same, but is prodding me to deal with this issue here and now. So here goes. But before I go full-on I need to repeat something I have said before somewhere else: There are a myriad number of buddhas. Most people, especially those in the West, don’t know this. For them Buddha is Buddha and that’s that, but that is not exactly correct. Buddha is just another buddha. However, some buddhas are more equal than others when it comes to their pantheon and some play a more prominent role. Such is the case with the Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, Mi Li Fo, aka Pu-tai, Budai, Hotei, etc. He has so many aliases that it reads almost like a rap sheet. Oh, and just one more note: fo is Chinese for Buddha or buddha or whatever.

So, what does C.A.S. Williams in his Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs have to say about Mi  Li Fo – and I hope you are ready for this one because I wasn’t: Maitreya Buddha – The Coming Buddha. The Sanskrit term Maitreya, ‘the Merciful One,’ is rendered into Chinese Mi-li: the name is said by some to be derived from the Syriac Molekh, a King (hence also Melchi-Zedek, King of Righteousness, Heb. 7: 1-3).” Nothing like a little New Testament citation now and then to make one’s point. I’ve done that. I’m guilty. Later Williams talks about when the historical buddha met the future one in the Tushita heaven. Not only that but “Sakyamuni… appointed him as his successor, to appear as Buddha after the lapse of 5,000 years. Maitreya is therefore the expected Messiah of the Buddhists…” A cautionary note: Not all scholars or devotees agree on the time span. Many sources give it as 3,000 years, but Williams and Eitel say 5,000, but who’s counting? Not I.

In a book called The Muslim Private Sector in Southeast Asia (1992) there are several footnotes who refer to a publication called Pu-tai which they translate as ‘The Messiah’.

*My reference above to having a friend in Mi Li Fo is/was meant as a take-off of Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 song Spirit in the Sky in which he sang “I have a friend in Jesus.” If someone with a name like Norman Greenbaum can say that then I can say what I said. Right?

A political significance to Maitreya in ancient China – John J. Jørgensen in Inventing Hui-neng, the sixth Patriarch: Hagiography and biography in early Ch’an says: “Not long before… 732, the T’ang state condemned those who claimed that Maitreya had been incarnated in China threatening in this edict of 715 to arrest all those involved. During Hui-neng’s own lifetime, Empress Wu Tse-t’ien had been tentatively identified with Maitreya and a Buddhist Universal Monarch, but after the collapse of a massive Maitreya statue she had been building, the religious establishment was opposed to millenarian Maitreyism, banning its apocryphal sutras and populist appeal in an attempt to maintain the orthodoxy that asserted the Maitreya was not due to appear until the distant future.” Therefore to make a claim of being or for the Maitreya was a direct threat to the state. From then until the collapse of the T’ang Confucianism dominated. However, “It was only during the periods of division and weak state power that such identifications occurred. The only two cases in Ch’an associated with Maitreya eschatology were Yün-men (864-949), who lived under the Southern Han, and Pu-tai (d. 916), an obscure figure whose fat-bellied and good-natured image would seem to preclude any threat. Such identifications were seen as threats to the state and to the Buddhist Order, for it implied the state and clergy were corrupt.”

Does this man look happy? There is a painting by Kano Tanshin Morimichi (1785 – 1835) in the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston. It pretty much represents an imagined portrait of Hotei (aka Pu-tai) but runs to the atypical side when it comes to pictures of that god. To me this representation looks darkly wicked which is not at all how he is generally portrayed. Actually, I can’t remember him ever looking so sinister. Which brings me to the point, the point of how the Kano school, supposedly, first came to paint Hotei’s countenance, his essence. According to an article in a 1910 issue of Kokka Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542 – 1616), founder of the Edo shogunate, “…once asked Priest Tenkai what was the best way to promote both national and individual welfare.” The priest said that a particular recitation would squelch the 7 calamities and would promote the 7 treasures. “When asked what he meant by the Seven Treasures, he replied, ‘Longevity, Wealth, Popularity, Purity of Heart, Reverential Love, Dignity and Magnanimity.’ The priest furthermore explained his points with pictorial illustrations, in which Pu-tai was represented as the God of Magnanimity. Highly pleased with this suggestive exposition, Iyeyasu at once ordered a Kanô painter to make pictures of the Seven Treasures. From such an incident Pu-tai came to find many worshippers among our common people.” That brings me back to the picture shown below: Do you think it promotes the 7 treasures? If it does it does it in a rather strange way. Of course, to be fair, it was painted about 200 years after Ieyasu’s death. Time not only heals all wounds, but it brings on new ones in spades.

Perhaps a more appropriate image, one more in keeping with Ieyasu’s dictate, would be a surimono designed by Kita Bunsei (1776 – 1856). It shows Hotei opening his bag and revealing a tumbling group of small children. The fabric of the bag is designed with the ‘myriad treasures’. Outside of the bag, toward the left, near the bottom are two flaming pearls or jewels of wisdom. It is much more common to see this god as a happy and benign figure accompanied by joyous children than as a leering man you would hate to meet (in a dark alley or anywhere else for that matter) and definitely would never trust.

There is a Smithsonian publication from 1901 in which they describe Hotei as the Japanese Santa Claus. Odd. I have never seen a publication that describes Santa Claus as the Western Hotei. Whatever. Anyway, the description used by the Smithsonian was based on another book William Griffis, Japanese Fairy World: Stories from the Wonder-Lore of Japan from 1887.  “Hotei is the patron of contentment, and of course is the father of happiness. He does not wear much clothing, for the truth is that all his property consists of an old, ragged wrapper, a fan, and a wallet. He is as round as a pudding, and as fat as if rolled out of dough. His body is like a lump of mochi pastry, and his limbs like dango dumplings. He has lop ears that hang down over his shoulders, a tremendous double chin, and a round belly.” Children love him and he always has something for them in his ‘wallet’. Later Griffis adds: When the seven patrons meet together, Hotei is apt to drink more wine than is good for him.” Oh… so now he is an over-drinker. Amazing what one can find when one looks deep enough.

Basil Stewart, a man who never seemed to shy away from telling us what he really thought, referred to Hotei as a man “…who corresponds to our Friar Tuck…”

Probably the oldest known Japanese painting of Hotei – According to Zen: Masters of Meditation… “Probably the oldest independent Japanese representation of Hotei is an ink painting of the late thirteenth century at Shinju’an of Daitokuji in Kyōto… It bears an inscription dated 1290 by the Zen prelate Nanpo Jōmin (1235-1308) who was trained in China. The silk hanging scroll – unfortunately not very well preserved – by an anonymous artist showing us the merrily laughing Hotei relaxing on his tightly stuffed sack, is one of the earliest Japanese Zen paintings in monochrome ink.”

In many Zen paintings Hotei is pointing into the void – What is he pointing out. In Zen: Masters of Meditation… it says that he is pointing toward the future Buddha. The original source of this imagery may go back all the way to the Sung dynasty period, “…a hypothesis supported at least by a recorded eulogy for a lost picture of this type entitled… ‘Budai Pointing at the Buddha in the Void’.” A poem by Xiyan Liaohui (1198-1262) brings this subject home:

The burlap sack, budai, is half collapsed and the cane stretched on the ground,
With his hand he is pointing into the ground of the void, kong.
If it is not the Buddha
what is it? Duo, duo, duo!

At the Met there is a painting of Hotei by Kano Takanobu (1571 – 1618). He appears to be standing there looking up into the void. While in Los Angeles there is a painting by Fūgai Ekun of Hotei pointing upwards. They don’t get more Zen-ish than this.
 (directly above)

Before we leave Fūgai Ekun let me tell you what Stephen Addiss wrote: “Fūgai Ekun renounced the traditional Buddhist path; he gave up temple life to live in a cave and painted intensely personal depictions of Zen masters of the past taht he gave to local farmers in return for rice. He revived Zen in northeastern Japan in part by introducing doctrines from other Buddhist sects, and he brushed calligraphy in easy-to-read, standard script.” Later Addiss added: “…Fūgai has not received the recognition that the other Zen artists have been given, in large part because he lived far away from the major cultural centers, had no pupils, and founded no school.”

In Cleveland there is an early 16th century painting by Yamada Dōan of Hotei pointing. It is accompanied by a four line poem by Tōkei Dōjin, a total unknown as far as I can tell:

Big stomach, gaping garment,
Teasures gathered deep in the bag’s bottom,
Passing through the sky is another road,
Do not seek what his fingertip points out.

Helmut Brinker says: “Most likely this is to be taken as a warning not to seek after the way toward enlightenment consciously or frantically.”

Many of you who have found this site will already be familiar with Yoshitoshi’s Hotei from his 100 Views of the Moon Series. What you may not know is a poem by Gesshū Sōko (1618 – 1696), also quoted here from Zen: Masters of Meditation…

His finger points to the moon,
but the finger itself is not the moon;
If you wish to know his heart,
as the moon in the sky!
In heaven there is Maitreya,
on earth, Hotei –
May I presume to ask everyone:
are they the same or different?

Could anything look more non-Hotei-ish than this image? There is an absolutely elegant, gilded, wooden statue of a standing Miroku in Boston dating from the late 12th century Japan. For me there is no finer example of sleekness and beauty that can be found anywhere. It is beauty like this which makes one wonder even more intensely how Hotei came to be identified with such… perfection.

Hotei and the Zen Oxherding Pictures – These 10 pictures are said to have originated during the Sung dynasty and were used by Ch’an, the Japanese term for Zen, practitioners to learn the path toward buddhahood. At first the oxherd seeks the ox, then catches it, tames it, lives comfortably with it, and learns to forget it. All of this is metaphorical, of course. Here we have a metaphor for the “…deepening Buddhist understanding of attachments and the innately enlightened character of the mind.” It is only in the last picture that Hotei, an incarnation of Maitreya, appears going merrily off to market, as can be seen below.

   I found this image at commons.wikimedia. I added the black ground around the picture. The original is in the possession of Shokoku-ji temple in Kyoto.

Hotei, hanging with his buds – There is a Harunobu print in the British Museum showing the 7 gods in their treasure ship. Hotei is in the ship’s bow reaching down toward a long-tailed tortoise. His fan, for whatever reason, is shown at the back near Bishamonten. My guess is that it dates from ca. 1770 because that is nearly always a safe bet if you don’t know for sure with this artist.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

In the same collection is a triptych by Toyokuni I dating from 1808-9 in which the gods have been replaced by famous and identifiable actors riding is a treasure ship constructed of chrysanthemums. The left panel is the one that concerns us here because it holds the actor standing in for – or should I say ‘sitting in for’? – Hotei. He too is at the bow. At least here the fan is in the actor’s hand. Also, notice particularly the floral dragon’s head. It is just as good as anything found in the Rose Parade today.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

The Fan – There is an inro in the British Museum which displays on one side three differently shaped enclosures. Each one hold an attribute associated with a particular propitious god. The one in the lower right is of a fan, rapids, a mountain, chrysanthemums and other plants. It is the fan that is the give-away here. It represents Hotei.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

In Haiga: Takebe Sōchō and the Haiku-painting Tradition by Stephen Addiss it says that the Zen artist/monk “…Hakuin reached out to the public with paintings and calligraphy, often based on folk or popular subjects. He even utilized haiku, as well as Chinese-style and classical Japanese poetry,with his paintings. Here Hakuin has symbolized Hotei, the happy-go-lucky god of good fortune, by his attributes of bag, ran, and staff.

Neta uchi wa                                                  While sleeping
kami ka hotoke ka                                         a Shinto god? A Buddha?
nonobukuro                                                    – just a cloth bag

Humor, not oftened encountered in religion, is a special feature of Zen, and Hakuin’s haiku is full of puns. The first line of the poem can mean ‘while sleeping,’ but it can also signify ‘a leaning round fan.’ Therefore the main image can be seen not only as Hotei’s bag, but also as a round fan put down to rest at an angle. Furthermore, as the scholar Joshua Mostow has pointed out, ‘Mr. Nono’ (nono-sama) is Japanese baby-talk for gods and Buddhas. Hotei’s name itself can mean ‘cloth bag.’ But where is Hotei himself?”

Hotei (pronounced: Hō-tay) has a long and distinguished history – especially when it comes to representations in various art forms. Supposedly he was a real-life Chinese fellow who is said to have died in 916 A.D. If the porcelain piece shown below is accurately attributed and identified then Hotei – here called Pu-tai (pronounced: Budai) – was already being immortalized by the time of the Northern Sung dynasty (960 – 1126 A.D.). It was a gift to nation by Charles Freer in 1909. So, my inclination is to trust the data provided by the Freer/Sackler Galleries.

   © The Smithsonian – Freer Sackler Galleries

Already in the 11th/12th centuries Putai – another way of writing his name in the West – there are others, but I will get to them later – was shown with a prominent belly and holding his large bag of goods by his side. That may even be a fan in his right hand, but I can’t be sure. But most likely it is because that is another one of his iconographic motifs.

I started off by showing you a Chinese porcelain piece because the Europeans went wild for Far Eastern porcelains once they had been exposed to them – supposedly for the first time seriously by the returning Marco Polo (マルコ・ポーロ: 1254-1324).  In fact, by the mid-18th century manufacturers across Europe were producing models in both hard and soft paste of this jolly Chinese character. [Hard paste porcelain is what the Chinese have made since the first millennium and soft paste was made by Westerners who hadn’t learned of the required secret ingredients or couldn’t get their hands on it by the early 18th century.] Below are two Hotei pieces, one hard from Vienna, one soft from Chelsea, and both dating from ca. 1744-5. Remember – imitation is said to be the greatest form of flattery.
Viennese hard paste porcelain figure of Hotei from ca. 1744.
Chelsea soft paste figure of Pu-tai Ho-Shang (yet another variation on his name) from ca. 1745.

There are two other ceramic pieces from Chelsea ca. 1745-49 which need to be shown here. Both are variations on the figure of the robust happy Chinese man, but in both of these cases they have been transformed into teapots. One shows the figure holding a snake – the mouth acting as the spout. The other he is holding a parrot – same thing basically. Their existence proves the popularity of such exotic items.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A marriage of East with West – Naturally the European taste for East Asian art was not just limited to ceramics. Lacquers were highly prized in both places and sometimes the ones which made it to the West were cut up and fitted into mostly  French and English items which included everything from the smallest hand held object d’art to panels in large pieces of furniture. There is a gold, English snuffbox made in London and dating from 1800. The top is decorated with an image of Hotei which could only have been made in Japan – because of the quality of its lacquer technique, takamakie.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some objects were never married, but did migrate later to the West anyway – There is a late 19th century inro, an item not totally unlike the snuffbox shown above, which is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. It shows on one side Hotei looking upward with a small child strapped to his back and on the other side a slightly older child following behind. This case was crafted by Tokoku Fuzui. Its charms are apparent. Oh, and remember, this beautiful ‘homage’ was made more than a thousand years after the original historical figure died. Now that is staying power, if you ask me.


A few more images -Below is a detail from a Toyokuni I triptych from ca. 1800 showing elegant women, courtesans?, in front of one of the best know fabric and dry goods shops in Edo, the Hotei-ya. Notice that the Hotei as he is portrayed on the noren appears to be holding a sacred jewel.

A little more than half a century later Hiroshige produced his own version of the front of this shop.

If anyone had told me that I would be writing about and quoting Kafka on this page I would have said “You’re crazy!” – But I would have been wrong and probably would have felt the need to apologize. Turns out there is a book called Behind the Great Wall: A Post-Jungian Approach to Kafkaesque Literature by James Whitlark. He discusses one part, An Address to the Landscape, of one section, The Fat Man, of an early story, Description of a Struggle, by Kafka. Whitlark says the fat man is Putai. It says:

From the thicket on the opposite bank four naked men strode vehemently forth, carrying on
their shoulders a wooden litter. On this litter sat, Oriental fashion, a monstrously fat man.
Although carried through the thicket on an untrodden path, he did not push the thorny branches
apart but simply let his motionless body thrust through them. His folds of fat were so carefully
spread out that although they covered the whole litter and even hung down its side like the hem
of a yellowish carpet, they did not hamper him. His hairless skull was small and gleamed yellow.
His face bore the artless expression of a man who mediates and makes not effort to conceal it.
From time to time he closed his eyes: on opening them again his chin became distorted.

Not a pretty picture. Whitlark calls this “a nightmarish version of Pu-tai…” However, he points out that this distortion from what the Chinese saw and what the West saw was more commonplace than not. Westerners could not relate properly to Pu-tai’s true meaning. To them he was just a grossly obese and rather comic/disgusting character who came to be found everywhere the Chinese style was adapted.

Whitlark continues: “In a probably unintentional irony, Kafka ridicules the Putai-like-figure for trying to separate himself from nature; the original Pu-tai, however, stood for union with it, because of a Taoist component in Chinese Buddhism.”

Now back to some early European porcelains for a moment – A giant in the development of European hard paste porcelain was Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719). While trying to figure out the exact formula he came up with a high fired stoneware first. Below is an image of a ‘Buddhist Divinity’ from ca. 1710 based loosely on Böttger’s knowledge of Putai/Hotei figures from the East – sans the corpulence.

Within a few short years Böttger had figured out how to make hard paste porcelain like the Chinese and Japanese did. The factory must have used the same mold from the stoneware firing to produce the example found in the collection of the Los Angelses County Museum. It dates from ca. 1715.

In a Metropolitan Museum publication as an addenda to the Jack and Bella Linsky collection catalogue it notes: “Of all the Chinese export porcelain sculptures to reach Europe that of the laughing seated Pu-tai was probably the most imitated, and nowhere more so than at Chantilly.” It helps to know this when looking at the more Hotei-ish Chantilly figure from ca. 1735. In this case it is a soft paste porcelain with a tin glaze. For me it has a distinctive Japanese look.

Miscellany – 1) In 1906 the king of England sent a mission to Japan “…to carry the Order of the Garter to the Emperor of Japan…” One of men on this mission was Lord Redesdale, Baron Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford Redesdale, wrote The Garter Mission to Japan in which he described seeing a local performance put on by children. “After dinner we had a performance by children of notables of the town dressed up as the Seven Gods of Fortune. Very cleverly they went through their dances. One little fellow, a little creature not more than seven years old, I should think, represented Hotei, the fat god of luck, with a Falstaffian stomach.  That child is a real little comedian, full of drollery, and ought to grow into a first-rate actor. He raised shouts of laughter all over the room, but he himself remained as grave as a bishop. I believe, by the bye, that he was a girl.”

Below is the Order of the Garter pin given to Prince Albert by Queen Victoria. It is probably similar to the one given by their son to the emperor of Japan.

   © 2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

2) There is an area on Titan, a moon of Saturn, named the Hotei Arcus. I found this at a USGS/NASA site which confirms that it was named after our Japanese god. If I am reading the information correctly in a 2009 article this area has “…cryovolcanic flows that are excessively bright in the infrared…” A later article (2011) disputes the cryovocanic claim and states that may its brightness  is due to “…fluvial or lacustrine deposits related to the drainage networks [nearby]…” Remember, cryovolcanic refers to something very, very cold. Such volcanoes produced slushy ice lava. How could it be otherwise considering that the temperature on the surface of Titan is thought to be about -180º celsius. That is a bone chilling -292º fahrenheit. Brrrr!

Below is an artist’s rendition, that of Michael Carroll, found at a NASA web site. It imagines “A short but fierce ‘gullywasher’ rainstorm of methane falls on the mountains surrounding the intriguing flows of Titan’s Hotei Arcus…”


Since I am not well-enough versed in this area to be sure, it would seem that Hotei Arcus is one part of the larger Hotei Regio. A further search leads me to believe that H. A. is somewhere near western Xanadu. I like that! UPDATE: The two Hotei’s appear to be similar, but different. It turns out that the IAU (International Astronomical Union) approved the name Hotei Arcus in 2006 while Hotei Regio was not approved until May 7, 2009. H.A. is at -28 degrees latitude and H.R. is at -26. Their longitudinal positions are even closer.

One last (possible) fact about Hotei Arcus: According to one search tool I use H. A. has a diameter of 373 miles making it the 619th largest of its kind in our solar system. Now that’s bragging rights.

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at

1 Comment »

  1. Wonderful collection. And sharp pictures. The citation from a Smithsonian calouge 1901 hits the point & the link I am searching; namely that Putai is the origin of the SantaClaus-figure, (or Jule-Nissen (Yule-) we call him here in Norway.) Another intriguing detail can be noticed when comparing some of the sitting positions of Putai and the “kingly”,realxed position of (some) Avalokiteshvara staues: one knee (the right) raised, and leaning on the other arm or sack.

    Comment by Frode Rathe (male) — December 5, 2012 @ 9:05 am | Reply

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