Watching a Staff Change into a Dragon
Li Cheng (919-967)
Song Dynasty, China
"The scene depicted in this painting comes from the story of Fei Changfang, a Daoist magician who lived during the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 C.E.). Originally a watchman in the city market, Fei learned that an unusual old man who sold medicines and potions there was actually an immortal spirit banished for a time from heaven, but whose penance on earth was coming to an end. The old man invited Fei to join him in the spiritual realm to learn about the Dao and, while traveling together, he administered three ordeals to see if Fei was truly ready to receive his secrets.
Unfortunately, Fei failed the third test, and as he took his leave to return home, the old man gave him a bamboo staff, saying, “Ride this and it will take you where you want to go. When you arrive, just throw the staff into Gebei pond.” Fei Changfang then straddled the bamboo staff and in an instant had returned home. When he threw his staff into the nearby pond as instructed, it transformed into a dragon and flew away. Using a magical charm the old man had given him, Fei went on to a career as a defender of the area from evil spirits.
The painting shows Fei Changfang standing on a promontory beneath an enormous cypress tree. He has thrown the bamboo staff into Gebei pond, and as he looks over his shoulder, it begins to change into a dragon, with just its blurry head emerging from the shaft.
The cypress is a hardy evergreen known for living to a great age, and its contorted upper branches are often compared to a dragon’s head. In this painting, therefore, the ancient tree not only represents Fei Changfang’s innate moral character, but also forms a direct visual counterpart to the transformation of his traveling staff.”
Smithsonian Freer-Sackler Collection