Ming Wooden Sculpture of the Laughing Buddha

SKU AM.0322

1368 AD to 1644 AD


15.5″ (39.4cm) high x 14.5″ (36.8cm) wide





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This rotund Buddha has considerable religious and historical significance to Buddhists and historians alike, as it is based upon a series of genuine and mythical personages from Chinese and Buddhist history. It dates to the M’ing Dynasty, which 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 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 policies resulted in economic spin-offs that led to untold wealth and 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. 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. Arts and sciences flourished in the Ming Dynasty. Painters proliferated, and were very well-paid for their works. Several written dramatic works, poems and musical works have come down to us, in addition to notable wood/ivory carving, jade-working, lacquerwork, and duotone (blue- white) ceramic design and decoration. It was also a high-point in the development of Buddhist art, as can be seen from the current piece.

The Laughing Buddha has been connected with a historical figure, a Zen monk known as Pu-Tai (Chinese) or Hotei (Japanese) who lived in the tenth century A.D. Pu-Tai literally means cloth or hemp sack, a common attribute of this Buddha and a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The sack is visible here clutched in the Buddha’s left hand. According to tradition it was filled with rice plants (an indication of wealth), sweets for children and – more notably – the woes of the world. He is the patron of children, the poor and those unable to defend themselves against the rigours of life. In Chinese art the Laughing Buddha is often depicted surrounded by children, attesting both to his benevolence and Chinese family ideals. In Japanese versions he is depicted sitting in a cart, often carries a fan (ogi), which is associated with the granting of wishes. He is always depicted as a jolly, fat man; the stomach is considered to be the seat of the soul in Chinese mythology, so a large displacement of this sort implies a generous and giving personality. He is often accompanied by children, and also by a begging bowl; charity is associated with his form of existence, although he is also said to take away the cares of the worried. His appearance is also calculated to ease concern; it has become customary to rub the belly of these figures to attract good fortune, although this is a secular – not a religious – tradition. Pu-Tai is also believed to be a manifestation of the Future Buddha, Maitreya, in the form of a bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas, despite their ability to achieve enlightenment, deliberately delayed their own entry to Nirvana to help others end the cycle of birth and rebirth.

The large, rotund belly, cheerful smile and general sense of bonhomie that characterises these figures is very much at odds with representations of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, who was characterised by asceticism and the denial of worldly pleasures. This particular specimen is a classical example of the genre, with a chaotically-tied robe slipping from round shoulders, a protuberant belly and chest and elongated ear lobes, surmounted by a rounded, bald head split by a carefree smile and eyes half-closed in merriment. A set of prayer beads are held in the right hand which rests on the figure’s knee. The size indicates that this was probably a domestically-owned piece, which was presumably displayed in a wealthy household. Carved from wood which was once polychromed, the sculptor has expertly captured Pu-Tai’s relaxed posture and sense of contentment. This is a striking and confidently-carved masterpiece from a dynamic and important time in Chinese history.

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