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HOME : Chinese Art : Ming Dynasty : Jade Carving of a Deer
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Jade Carving of a Deer - CB.2758
Origin: China
Circa: 1500 AD to 1600 AD
Dimensions: 7.5" (19.1cm) high
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.

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 known as the Forbidden City that was constructed in Beijing after the third ruler of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Yongle, moved the capital there. Today, the Forbidden Palace remains one of the hallmarks of traditional Chinese architecture and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the vast nation.

The current sculpture dates from this highly changeable and dynamic time. This imposing jade carving of a stylized deer is both a testament to Ming cultural sophistication and the period’s penchant for hidden symbolism. The tools and resources necessary to craft such a detailed and realistic form are cutting- edge. Being carved as early as the Neolithic cultures, the Chinese jade reached its pinnacle during the Qing dynasty – the dynasty that succeeded the Ming. This deer is not just a deer though. It carries important symbolism in the Chinese culture, particularly within its Buddhist roots.

There is a Buddhist Jataka, or teaching, that tells of a bodhisattva being reborn as a Ruru, or golden deer, deep in the forest. The Ruru Jataka, as seen on the walls of the Mogao Caves from the Northern Wei, tells of a king and queen who have all worldly pleasures at their disposal. Yet one day, the queen falls sick, and a man of medicine tells her that she can only recover if she eats the flesh of a golden deer. Meanwhile, the vagabond son of the king and queen hears the prescription and confronts the deer, who, as the bodhisattva, sacrifices himself for the ultimate reunification of the family. He returns, like the prodigal son, with the fabled golden deer. The family is thus reunited, and the deer has since become a symbol for forgiveness, unification, sacrifice, and family. - (CB.2758)


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