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HOME : Chinese Art : Masterpieces of Chinese Art : Ming Glazed Terracotta Tile From a Temple Roof
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Ming Glazed Terracotta Tile From a Temple Roof - H.1004
Origin: China
Circa: 1368 AD to 1644 AD
Dimensions: 17" (43.2cm) high
Collection: Chinese
Medium: Glazed Terracotta


Location: United States
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Description
Upon leading a victorious rebellion against the foreign Mongul 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 Monguls and largely kept intact. However, Hongwu replaced the Mongul 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 Forbidded Palace remains one of the hallmarks of traditional Chinese architecture and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the vast nation.

Glazed sculptural tile are today considered one of the hallmarks of classical Chinese architecture. However, despite their popularity in modern times, they were relatively scarce until after the end of the T’ang Dynasty. Even then, during the Song and Yuan Dynasties, they were still infrequently used. It was not until the rise of the Ming Dynasty that glazed sculptural tiles became a popular decorative devise extensively employed in temples, altars, imperial palaces, and gardens. Beijing became the center of glazed architectural tile production during the Ming period, and colorfully decorated pagodas began to sprout up around this region. Eaves and entryways were decorated with vibrant sculptures that served both decorative and sometimes religious purposes.

Chinese architecture is one of the more distinct styles of building throughout the world. Perhaps the most characteristic element is the pagoda roofs that end in dramatic curves. This sculptural tile would have been situated on that curved edge of a Ming Dynasty temple. Depicting a figure lunging forward on the tile, this work was placed on the roof in order to frighten away any evil spirits that might attempt to infiltrate the sacred space. The exposed flesh of the bald man is covered in an ochre glaze; otherwise, he is covered in a blue and white skirt that gathers in undulating folds in between his spread legs. He has his fists clenched together, held in front of his body as if a boxer. Holes in his hands reveal that he would have once held objects likely made out of wood that have deteriorated over the centuries. Who does this figure represent? A fighter? A spiritual leader? A deity? While we may never know his true identity, we can assume that he was an important individual to be memorialized in such a way. When one considers that this remarkable architectural sculpture is just the tip of the temple, the beauty of the completed temple must be truly astounding. - (H.1004)

 

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