It is hard to envisage a shape-shifting teapot.
Unsettling, in fact. For what could be more solid and unchanging, than a clay pot with a rotund middle and legs which sit foursquare on the damask tablecloth? However would one keep the tea cosy in place? Even Lewis Carroll resisted any attempt to personify this cornerstone of British culture. He settled for shoving a dormouse inside.
Here in Britain the teapot has been an essential part of the household for more than 300 years. The earliest teapot anyone seems to be able to trace is one dated 1513, which sits companionably in a museum in Hong Kong’s Flagstaff House Museum of Teaware, but they went back much further than that in China.
And we know it: because the teapot is an integral part of their folklore.
As is, incidentally,the raccoon dog. Tanuki. It’s what you get when you cross a racoon and a dog. Forest-dwelling omnivores, they pass through life feeding on small voles and vegetation, mating and producing prodigiously large litters of up to 12.
But they and the teapot haunt Chinese fairytales. Bake-Tanuki becomes a supernatural creation. In the seventh century, Empress Suiko wrote: ”in two months of spring, there are mujina [tanuki] in the country of Mutsu , they turn into humans and sing songs.”
Amongst its powers, it boasts shapeshifting.
And from this came the story entitled: “bunbuku chagama”; or, “Happiness bubbling over like a teapot.”
So there’s this poor man who did not have two pennies to rub together. But he got by. He was walking through the dense dark forest one day, when he came upon a racoon-dog, cruelly caught in a vicious trap. He felt desperately sorry for it, and turned aside from his life for an hour or so to free the little creature.
Once freed the tanuki shot off into the forest, and the man smiled: he derived considerable pleasure from its elation, though it improved his own life not one jot.
Later that night, there was a knock on the door.
It was the tanuki, of course.
He had arrived to thank the man for his kindness. And he wanted to make a difference to his poverty-stricken life. If front of the incredulous eyes of the peasant the small gruff animal transformed itself into a teapot.
“Sell me,” the tanuki advised sagely, “and you will make a tidy sum to live on.”
The peasant cast around for a suitable home for such a very mystical teapot, and settled at last on a monk. But not all monks are saintly, and this one polished the teapot roughly, and then set it on the fire to boil water.
Forseeing implications is not one of the tanuki’s strong points. It had not projected forward to the sitting-on-naked-flame bit. And it wasn’t about to hang around for its bottom to be roasted. It sprouted legs there and then, and in its half-transformed state it shot off, away from the monk, into the wilds of the forest.
The monk was cross. That teapot cost a lot of money: and he couldn’t very well return to the peasant demanding a refund because it had sprouted legs and run away. He would be clapped in an asylum.
Meanwhile, back at the peasant’s house, a man and a teapot sat round a small fire, deep in conversation. The peasant’s brow was furrowed with contemplation.
“I can only do teapots,” the tanuki confided glumly.”Fat lot of good that is to you…”
And then he brightened. “I know!” he exclaimed. “We could do a circus act! People would pay to see a walking teapot.”
The peasant looked doubtful. And so with admirable diversification, the tanuki hazarded an alternative. “Tightrope!” he squeaked joyfully, jumping crazily up and down. “I could walk a tightrope!”
It was a thought. And before the week was out, the mystery of the tighrope-walking teapot was bringing in hoardes of spectators, and greater riches than the peasant would ever have thought possible.
And yet the greatest wealth of all was the friendship between the peasant and the little shape-shifting racoon dog, who had found a happy, secure home.