Ming Lacquered Wood Sculpture of Guanyin

SKU X.0732

1368 AD to 1644 AD





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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 demonstrate male characteristics, but this tradition subsequently became less rigid. By the end of the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1367/8), the majority of these figures were depicted as young women, often bearing a vase of holy water to cleanse the souls of those she was 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 belif that the Guanyin would observe all the sounds in the world, particularly listening for requests from worshippers. The M’ing dynasty was one of the most important in China’s long history. It saw the toppling of the Y’uan Mongol empire under Hong Wu, the third of only three peasants ever to become emperor in China. The leader of the peasants’ revolt that ushered in the M’ing dynasty, Hong Wu was an extremely brutal, ruthless dictator, whose creed was one of rabid Neo-Confucianism combined with a militaristic sense of China’s destiny and organisation. The one aspect of Confucius’ learning that he ignored was that declaring military institutions to be inferior to intellectual elites, and that the former should be under the latter’s thrall. A great deal was therefore spent on expanding the army, consolidating defences against attack by the Mongols and neighbouring groups, and in major defensive architecture – notably the Great Wall. The economy also came under scrutiny. Perhaps reflecting Hong Wu’s own humble origins, the economy came to emphasise agriculture over trade (which was deemed to be vulgar and parasitical by Confucianism), and provided safeguards for peasants. Negative outcomes included enormous inflation and devaluation of money and resultant social unrest. However, this period also saw enormous cultural strides, including the development of the novel, the introduction of duotone blue/white ceramics and a plethora of artistic and religious developments that is excellently embodied by the current sculpture. This sculpture of a Guanyin is unusually posed, almost lounging back on the left arm against a low seat while casually resting the right arm on the right knee, The left leg is pressed down, parallel with the floor. This contrasts with the haughty facial expression and regal mien of the upper body. The Guanyin is dressed in long, flowing robes that hang in pleats below the level of the figure’s base, as well as an additional garment (possibly a dhoti) tied off around the waist. The hands protrude rather languidly from long sleeves, and are arranged in meditative positions. The figure is also wearing an ornate necklace. The face is exquisitely carved and conveys a decidedly aristocratic expression, with half-closed eyes beneath elevated eyebrows, a small, pursed mouth and rounded cheeks. This effect is heightened by the ornate rolled hair around the top of the forehead and down to the shoulders, and the high, extravagantly decorated crown of floral and other organic motifs that almost doubles the total height of the head. This is a highly accomplished and impressive piece of ancient art.

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