Ming Dynasty Lacquered Wood Sculpture of Guanyin

SKU X.0731

1368 AD to 1644 AD


39″ (99.1cm) high





Gallery Location



Upon leading a victorious rebellion against the foreign Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty, a peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang seized control of China and founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368. As emperor, he founded his capital at Nanjing and adopted the name Hongwu as his reign title. Hongwu, literally meaning “vast military,” reflects the increased prestige of the army during the Ming Dynasty. Due to the very real threat still posed by the Mongols, Hongwu realised that a strong military was essential to Chinese safety and prosperity. Thus, the orthodox Confucian view that the military was an inferior class to be ruled over by an elite class of scholars was reconsidered, and effectively polarised. During the Ming Dynasty, China was reunited after centuries of foreign incursion and occupation. Ming troops controlled Manchuria, and the Korean Joseon Dynasty respected the authority of the Ming rulers, at least nominally.

Like the founders of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. -220 A.D.), Hongwu was extremely suspicious of the educated courtiers who advised him and, fearful that they might attempt to overthrow him. To prevent this, he successfully consolidated control of all aspect of government. The strict authoritarian control Hongwu wielded over the affairs of the country was due in part to the centralised system of government he inherited from the Mongols, a system that was effectively perpetuated. This was to be an all-Chinese affair, however: Hongwu replaced all the high-ranking Mongol bureaucrats with native Chinese administrators. He also reinstituted the Confucian examination system that tested would-be civic officials on their knowledge of literature and philosophy. Unlike the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) which received most of its taxes from mercantile commerce, the Ming economy was based primarily on agriculture, reflecting both the peasant roots of its founder as well as the Confucian belief that trade was ignoble and parasitic.

Culturally, the greatest innovation of the Ming Dynasty was the introduction of the novel. Developed from the folk tales of traditional storytellers, these works were transcribed in the everyday vernacular language of the people. Advances in printmaking and the increasing population of urban dwellers largely contributed to the success of these books. Architecturally, the most famous monument of the Ming Dynasty is surely the complex of temples and palaces in Beijing. Known as the Forbidden City, this architectural behemoth was constructed after the third ruler of the Ming Dynasty (Emperor Yongle) moved the capital there in c.1421.

The current sculpture dates from this fascinating and turbulent period. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who have put off entering paradise in order to help others attain enlightenment. There are many different Bodhisattvas, but the most famous in China is Avalokitesvara, known in Chinese as Guanyin. Early depictions of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara displayed male characteristics, but this tradition subsequently became less rigid. By the end of the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1367/8), most Guanyin sculptures depicted the beings as young women, often bearing a vase of holy water to cleanse the souls of those they were bound to protect. According to legend, Guanyin was born on the nineteenth of the second lunar month, achieved enlightenment on the nineteenth of the sixth lunar month and achieved nirvana on the nineteenth of the ninth lunar month. It is said that s/he is the top Bodhisattva beside Shakyamuni Buddha, and an assistant Bodhisattva beside Amitabha Buddha in the Western World of Ultimate Bliss. It is believed that any sentient being who recites his/her name during a disaster would be heard and saved, which can explain why his/her importance to Chinese Buddhism. “Guanyin” literally means “observing the sounds”, which refers to the belief that the Guanyin would observe all the sounds in the world, particularly listening for requests from worshippers. The current example is female, and stands 39″ tall on an incorporated base. The pose is somewhat langurous, with the weight shifted onto the right leg while the left is slightly bent. The left hand hangs by the side, holding some implement or piece of drapery. The right hand is raised, and appears to be an object of contemplation by Guanyin. The head is carved in a mood of reflective serenity, and is inclined slightly to the right. The sculpture is topped with a tall, ornate crown of generally floral aspect, with plume-like eminences arranged in vertically-oriented bunches. The underlying hair has been gathered up underneath the crown, leaving a halo of hair around its perimeter. A loose tunic-like garment (dhoti) envelops the lower half of the body, and further drapery (scarves) is casually wrapped over the shoulders. The complexity of the drapery and the care with which it has been carved is stunning – the individual folds and creases are all cleanly and deftly rendered, and contrast with the smooth texture of the skin. The figure additionally wears two bracelets on the left wrist, as well as a necklace and pendant arrangement in the chest area. This is a superb and important sculpture that would grace any collection of Eastern art.

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