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HOME : Chinese Art : Masterpieces of Chinese Art : Ming Jade Guan Yin Head
Ming Jade Guan Yin Head - LM.71
Origin: China
Circa: 1500 AD to 1600 AD

Collection: Chinese Art
Style: Buddhist
Medium: Jade

Location: Great Britain
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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 realistic threat still posed by the Mongols, Hongwu realized that a strong military was essential to Chinese 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. During the Ming Dynasty, China proper 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 that advised him and, fearful that they might attempt to overthrow him, 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 centralized system of government he inherited from the Mongols and largely kept intact. However, Hongwu replaced the Mongol bureaucrats who had ruled the country for nearly a century 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.

A representation of Ming ideals but not necessarily its cultural austerity, this graceful and serene jade sculpture depicts Guanyin, one of the most popular of all bodhisattvas, whose name literally means 'the one who always hears sounds'. In the Buddhist religion, bodhisattvas are souls who have attained enlightenment and no longer need to reincarnate, but forsake nirvana and choose to remain on earth to alleviate the suffering of others. Known in China as 'the compassionate Bodhisattva', who listens to every prayer, Guanyin was often placed behind the main Buddha image in a temple or flanking a figure of the Buddha himself. However, as this jade sculpture is just a bust, we may inquire about its origins and function.

The ability to render such a sophisticated design in jade demonstrates the technological prowess of the Ming dynasty. Rendering the free-flowing, curling headdress-cum-crown in medium-relief would have required a tremendous amount of skill, not to mention achieving the softness of the facial features that live up to the Guanyin’s status in the Buddhist pantheon as the deity of mercy. At the front of the crown headdress, small impressions suggest the absence of the Amitabha Buddha that would have likely once adorned the central lotus in the jade crown, which is surrounded by a sikhara-shaped aureole. A finely protruding urna is placed in the middle of the reduced forehead just above the halfway point between the two eyes. Though the bodhisattva has no eyebrows, we gain a sense of character and demeanour from the deep impressions above the eyes. Low-hanging earlobes – a symbol of divinity and the renunciation of worldly desires – further demonstrate devotion as well as artistic accomplishment. In all, a softening of features achieved by the smoothness and plumpness of the jade medium render this bust a magnificent example of Guanyin’s compassion. - (LM.71)


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