Friday, 31 October 2014

the three immortals

You don’t have to go far, in places where the Chinese have a significant presence, before you encounter a group of three ceramic figurines of venerable Chinese gentlemen. These are Fuk, Luk and Sau (the Cantonese names for these characters), collectively known as the three immortals. They are found in temples, in restaurants, in shops and in many Chinese homes, and they have huge symbolic cultural significance.

The first thing to note about the figures in the above photograph, which was taken at the same place as the first photograph in A Baker’s Dozen, is that they aren’t placed in the traditional order. Tradition requires that Luk stand in the centre, but here he stands on the left, while Sau, who should be on the left, is in the centre. These three figurines were not there when the first picture was taken earlier this year, and it is certainly odd to see them standing atop a pile of junk.

Fuk, Luk and Sau represent what the Chinese consider to be the three most desirable characteristics of an ideal life: good luck, prosperity and longevity.

Fuk is a scholar who is usually depicted holding a scroll in one hand and a small child in the other. He is regarded as the personification of good fortune, although it would make more sense for him to represent knowledge or wisdom.

Luk translates as the salary paid to a government official, and he was often seen as the tutelary deity of candidates for the imperial civil service examinations. He wears the winged hat of a court official, and nowadays he represents prosperity.

Sau, the old man with the domed forehead, obviously represents longevity. He always carries a peach, which in Chinese folklore is the symbol of a long life. One of the best-known exploits of the monkey king, the central character in Journey to the West and one of the most popular characters in Chinese folklore, is his theft of the peaches of immortality from the heavenly peach orchard (and scoffing the lot). The following picture is a still from Havoc in Heaven, a feature-length animated movie that was produced by the Shanghai Animation Studio in the 1950s, that shows this incident.

Peach blossom is also a symbol of longevity, and small peach trees are bought by many Chinese families as part of their new year celebrations. The following photograph shows a plantation of such trees a couple of kilometres south of Fanling. Like the European Christmas tree, these peach trees are sawn off close to the base and therefore cannot be reused the following year. Note that some of the trees are much bigger than the others, which means that they weren’t sold the previous year. However, bigger trees always fetch higher prices, so the grower can’t lose.

Of course, all this is mere superstition, although in saying so it is not my intention to denigrate Chinese folk beliefs, because I’m only too aware of the dozens of irrational notions that are native to my own country. However, the number of people there who touch wood for luck, who believe that it is unlucky to walk under a ladder or who deem it prudent to stay in bed whenever the thirteenth day of a month falls on a Friday has probably declined steadily in recent decades, while belief in the efficacy of the three immortals does not appear to have dimmed in the forty years I’ve been associated with Hong Kong.


  1. I believe I've seen those three fine fellows a few times. Are they usually all included in one statue? In the proper order?
    Very interesting Dennis!

    1. The three statuettes are always separate Pat, but there is a set order in which they should be arranged.


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