Red Coral Culture

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One fundamental characteristic of red coral that distinguishes it from other ‘gems’, is its naturally branching dendritic form. The analogies made between branching coral and trees, was a longstanding one. According to historian, CAS Williams, red coral ‘was anciently supposed to represent a tree called the T’ieh shu [tieshu], which grows at the bottom of the sea, and flowers only once a century’. This suggests a link with marine origins, as well as rarity and a supernatural nature. Further, according to the Daoist belief, red coral was categorised as yang, as wood element, indicating fluidity in the wuxing system. The tree is a long-standing conceptual form in China. Many societies consider trees to contain living spirits; and in ancient…show more content…
Shafter says that ‘the revered many branched coral tree … had been a gift from Chao T’o of Nam-Viet’. According to the Han Wudi gushi (Precedents of the Emperor Wu of Han), a temple in the garden had a fabulous tree built to imitate the mythical trees of Mount Kunlun:
‘In the front courtyard stood a jade tree, created by fashioning branches from coral and leaves from green jade. Its flowers and fruits, some green and others red, were made of pearls and jade; the fruits were all hollowed like little bells to make tinkling sounds.’

Later tomb art from the AD c. 1st - 2nd century Han dynasty, features a model earthenware fish-pond with miniature clay tree. The link between such objects and the shape of red coral is speculative, however given the longevity of visual concepts in China, it is plausible that there was at least a visual, if not idealogical, connection between the use of clay trees in a bowl, and the later practise of ‘planting’ coral trees in miniature landscapes in the eighteenth and nineteenth
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In the Qing fairy story by Pu Songling (1640 - 1715),The Rakshas and the Sea Market, the hero Ma Jun is blown off course to a land of barbarians. Ma is invited to the Dragon Lord’s watery kingdom and there he meets and marries his beautiful daughter. The sea princess’s bridal couch of coral is studded with eight jewels. At the end of the story, the sea princess brings her young daughter several dowry gifts, including an eight foot coral tree. This story is connects coral with a supernatural kingdom, otherworldly furniture, beauty, fertility and marriage. At the same time, coral remains a magical substance, associated with high-status individuals. Within such stories, the very experience of seeing coral in its natural habitat was an act of metamorphosis, where the human need for oxygen is somehow magically suspended. It may be that such tales had their origins in the European myths of the ancient Greek and Roman sea-gods, Poseidon and Neptune and their watery kingdoms made of red coral. Certainly, stories circulated in China from the Han period onwards that in ‘the kingdom of Ta-ts’in [Roman Syria] … the columns of its palaces are of crystal. Its houses have beams [kingposts] of coral …’ Distant echoes of the Greek and Roman cultural regard for coral and its transformative properties may have travelled the trade route along with the commodity
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