Suigetsu Shonin, “Sakikusa ko” (1850) (courtesy East Asia Library, Stanford University)

In ancient Chinese art, plants often served as more than decorative motifs, also representing valuable concepts such as luck and longevity. Most widely recognized for their symbolic status are the “Four Gentlemen” — the plum blossom, the orchid, the chrysanthemum, and the bamboo — but much less known is the humble mushroom. Brown, wrinkled, and often stubby, the fungus may not be the most beautiful, but it proved to be a highly popular motif, first in Chinese art, and gradually throughout East Asia.

Changtai, “Shennong, the Divine Farmer” (courtesy Cantor Arts Center Collection)

These were specifically depicted as mushrooms with powers — yes, magic mushrooms of sorts — that could bestow people with physical and spiritual strength. Known as lingzhi mushrooms, they’re found today in medicinal stores that promote their immune system–boosting benefits, but as far back as 2,000 years ago, they were believed to grow only at sacred sites, particularly on mountains.

A Mushroom Perspective on Sacred Geography, a small exhibition at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center, explores the visual history of the lingzhi mushroom and its connections with the natural landscape, examining art from China, Japan, and Korea. Curated by PhD candidate Yu-Chuan Phoenix Chen, it highlights the significance of the small fungus through paintings, works on paper, and decorative objects, all drawn from the Cantor’s collections.

In East Asia, mountains are traditionally sites of spiritual activity, where people drank spring water, took hot-spring dips, and carved meaningful writings into cliffs; these engagements were a means of deeply connecting with the landscape. Eating the mushrooms that grew on the mountains provided one of the strongest connections, one that, it was believed, would lead to individual spiritual strength and even immortality. The visual record of the mushroom in East Asian art provides insight into a particularly fascinating relationship between humans, our natural environments, and spiritual realms.

“I want to show that by consuming the organism, the mushroom was a critical mediator that connects humans ‘physically’ with spirituality,” Chen told Hyperallergic. “Few natural substances can do that in the context of East Asian culture. Therefore, the mushroom provides a great entry point for thinking about ecological connections.”

Artist unknown, “Netsuke of Three Rats on Mushrooms and Leaves” (19th century) (courtesy Cantor Arts Center Collection)

Lingzhi literally translates as “divine mushrooms” (early illustrations of them even appeared as part of the canonical Daoist texts Daozang), but they lost their original religious associations over time. A Mushroom Perspective on Sacred Geography traces the evolution of their meaning between the 16th and 19th centuries, which witnessed the secularization of the ’shroom.

The capped fungus is tough to find in a number of works, although its presence is always significant. A c. 18th-century Chinese painting by Changtai of the deity Shennong, also known as the Divine Farmer, shows the bearded sage with a basket holding lingzhi. The divine herb-picker was a recurring trope, representing someone with superhuman powers to find lingzhi in the wild, as Chen describes in an accompanying catalog, and to create elixirs of life. Gods and lingzhi also appear in a lengthy 16th-century silk painting by Qiu Yang, where the mushroom is presented as a gift to the most-worshipped goddess in Chinese mythology, Queen Mother of the West.

Other objects feature lingzhi more prominently and in secular contexts in which they represent more general notions of longevity. Wispy mushrooms appear on a medicine box among other auspicious motifs like a black turtle, a lotus, and a deer; orange ones adorn a 17th-century painted fan, sprouting behind a Chinese scholar’s rock and an evergreen plant, which are also symbols of good fortune. Tiny, finely carved netsuke are displayed above a porcelain dish, which features a different take on the divine herb-picker: lucky deer forage for lingzhi, not unlike trained pigs who sniff out truffles. There’s also a 19th-century “Mask for a Guardian Spirit,” fabricated by an unknown artist — an example of the lingzhi adopting an anthropomorphic guise. It’s telling that these all arrive from a single collection. Like the spores of the real fungus, the image of the auspicious one spread far and wide, mushrooming in countless forms.

Chen Duo, “Rock, Mushrooms and Plant” (courtesy Cantor Arts Center Collection)

Artist unknown, “Mask for a Guardian Spirit” (19th century) (courtesy Cantor Arts Center Collection)

Artist unknown, “Two Recumbent Deer” (17th century) (courtesy Cantor Arts Center Collection)

Artist unknown, “Wine Bottle” (1392–1910) (courtesy Cantor Arts Center Collection)

Artist unknown, “Netsuke of Two Mushrooms with Fly” (17th century) (courtesy Cantor Arts Center Collection)

Yamada Masanao, “Netsuke of Mushrooms” (20th century) (courtesy Cantor Arts Center)

Lu Can, China, “Receiving Teachings from the Daoist Master Yuan Tong” (c. 1765) (courtesy Cantor Arts Center Collection)

A Mushroom Perspective on Sacred Geography continues at Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University (Stanford University, 328 Lomita Dr.) through May 15.

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...