Mystery Object #25: Chinese Rockery Fountain

While visiting the Nanjing Confucius Temple area a few months ago with some visitors, I happened cross an incredible object. It was a water fountain for sale in a tourist shop at a dramatic discount. I was immediately captivated by its motion and drawn in by its fascinating and unconventional details. My companions initially thought that I was joking when I stopped to watch the fountain, and then after I inquired about its price, they realized I was serious.

Look at this fountain go. Watch its movements and contemplate the levels of signification that it offers. It is a synthetic Chinese rockery with flowing water action. The water, pumped from the pool at the bottom, starts at the top as it is pushed under an illuminated crystal ball. The water then cascades down to the right and left. To the left, it falls down past a small Chinese pavilion into two stone jars before pushing a waterwheel. Falling to the right, the water is collected and pushes a small rice grinder with a yellow bear on top and then falls into the pool at the base. Cast from some kind of hard plastic resin, the rockery it is painted like stone and with pine trees at the top. Across the entire surface of the object are affixed plastic flowers and small pebbles. At the top in front of the spinning crystal orb is a sparkly blue and purple plastic butterfly. Just below it is a golden money toad (招财蟾蜍). 

Of course, I have seen these kinds of fountains before—usually described with a combination of the words rockery, bonsai, zen or feng shui fountains. For sale in “oriental” galleries in shopping malls back in my home in the Midwestern US, I always dismissed them as just new agey Orientalist kitch. I mean isn’t that the point—bonsai/zen (Japanese) or feng shui (Chinese)—it makes no difference, the rockeries are “exotic Asian” accoutrements that will do something magical. As one website quite seriously describes:

Fountains are very popular in feng shui because they can add the energy of the water element, one of the five feng shui elements. The others are fire, earth, wood, and metal.

In feng shui, water can bring you wealth and prosperity. Its power is enhanced by its ability to change form—from liquid to solid to gas. It has freedom of movement or expression. Every living thing on earth relies on water for life. By activating the water element in your home or office, you can nourish chi energy, enhance your life journey, foster new beginnings, and promote abundance.

Setting aside Western notions of the Orientalist exotic, however, this fountain—the one in the shop at the Confucius temple—had something to teach me:

It had a yellow spinning bear and an iridescent butterfly on a spring!

The fountain didn’t move with a relaxing flow evoking a deep, calm serenity. It wasn’t painted in sublime color palate. It didn’t invite introspection or suggest flows of new age energy. No, this fountain moved in three directions at a frenetic speed—somehow just a bit too fast. The bear spun at a rate that evoked sympathy. The colors were bold and supersaturated.

No, this fountain smacked me in the face as I walked by the shop. It’s raw coarseness pulled me in like a moth to the flame.

“Make sense of me, anthropologist,” it called out.
“I dare you!”

This is a mystery object. It is deeply evocative of Chinese culture on the ground as practiced in daily street life. Its secrets could be a chapter in a book and its design, production, sale and performance lays waste to anything I think I might know about China. Who desires this object and why? Its existence is an enigma!

Of course, I asked the shopkeeper about its provenance. She replied that they weren’t selling as fast as she had hoped so she made the fountains more beautiful by adding more plastic greenery, gluing on additional rocks, the butterfly and the yellow plastic bear. In other words the fountain not only tells a story of design and production, but of local modification and ideas of aesthetics and marketing. Who would have guessed that a hot glue gun could be a weapon of design intervention!

I wish I had had more time to talk with the shopkeeper, but my friends were growing impatient. So I bought the fountain and had it packed up to bring home where it will continue to enchant and beguile me with its mysteries and remind me that I know nothing about China.

Chinese Fountain

“Make sense of me, anthropologist,” it called out. “I dare you!”



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