Ming Stone Sculpture of the Bodhisattva Guanyin

SKU AM.0146
Circa

1368 AD to 1644 AD

Dimensions

31.4″ (79.8cm) high x 19″ (48.3cm) wide

Medium

Stone

Origin

China

Gallery Location

UK


 

This beautiful and ornate Bodhisattva Guanyin has been painstakingly carved and ground from a block of solid stone, and is an outstanding example of M’ing religious art. The M’ing Dynasty ruled China between the mid 14th and mid 17th centuries AD, and is widely believed to be one of the most definitive and important in China’s long history. This is partially due to the fact that it was the last indigenous (Han) dynasty before the country fell into the hands of the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty, and partly because it was led by one of only three peasants ever to rise to Chinese imperial pre-eminence. Hong Wu, the leader of the peasant revolt, founded the dynasty on the destruction of the Y’uan Mongol Empire. His background and the manner in which he seized power made him almost pathologically cautious and even paranoid. His intention, influenced by Confucianism, was to create a bureaucracy-free set of agriculturally-based communities that eschewed commercial trade – which was abhorred by Confucius. Confucian perspectives on the avoidance of military development went unheeded, however. In addition to accelerating agricultural production – again, perhaps a reflection of his own experience – he increased the standing army to over one million, imposed what approximated to martial law on his people and spent a fortune building defences, notably the Great Wall of China. He also founded the Forbidden City, from which he governed China’s burgeoning populations of around 200 million.

Because of economic spin-offs of his agricultural policy (which provided major surpluses) untold wealth started to appear, and with it a new elite of merchant families who went on to constitute China’s first Middle Class. The arts and sciences also benefited from this largesse, as did political and – inevitably – bureaucratic policy. In many respects it was the strongest period in Chinese history, and it only collapsed because of a series of natural and economic disasters – namely undermining of the economy by Japanese trade withdrawal, a series of crop failures, and the appearance of the “Little Ice Age” and the epidemics and other calamities it brought with it. The eventual collapse of the M’ing Dynasty was brought about by ultra-conservative Manchurian nomads (Manchu) who founded the Q’ing dynasty in 1644.

Art in M’ing China is notably distinguishable from the rest of the Chinese repertoire, as a result of the martial focus and conservative social atmosphere. However, Buddhist iconography flourished at this time, and while innovation was somewhat less than in other periods, the skill and mastery of the execution of religious artworks has rarely been exceeded since. The current piece represents a Bodhisattva Guanyin – an enlightened being who chooses not to enter Nirvana, preferring to help others attain the necessary enlightenment to do so. Indeed, she is known to the West as the Goddess of Compassion. She is extremely ornately dressed in assorted jewels, ropes, a tiara, chains, belts and bracelets. Her ears have long lobes and are probably pierced. In this sense all the Bodhisattvas differ from representations of Buddhas, who eschew such worldly displays in favour of ascetic simplicity. Her hand positions are non-specific; in all buddhas and most bodhisattvas the position of the hands reflects something about the personage depicted. In the current case, the Guanyin is in a relaxed pose, her right leg drawn up rather casually onto the stump upon which she is sitting, the left resting on a (lotus?) flower, her left hand supporting her weight and the right resting on her knee. This is a remarkably harmonious composition, and a well-conceived and well-executed piece.

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