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HOME : Chinese Art : Masterpieces of Chinese Art : Ming Gilt and Painted Head of a Celestial Guardian
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Ming Gilt and Painted Head of a Celestial Guardian - H.647
Origin: China
Circa: 1368 AD to 1644 AD
Dimensions: 17.25" (43.8cm) high
Collection: Chinese
Medium: Stucco

Location: United States
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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.

Large sculptures of celestial guardians usually line the entrance of tomb complexes, offering halls, and temples to remove forces of evil and ensure harmonious ties between the spiritual and material worlds. This bust of a guardian, called a Heavenly King, exemplifies the traditional aesthetic tastes for realistically represented sculptures. The religious and ceremonial significance of this work is reflected by the luxurious decorations that adorn it. The entire face of the figure has been gilt. Over the ages, the vibrant luster of the gold has faded into dark hues of brown; however, upon close inspection, one can still discern remnants of the former luminosity. The guardian is crowned with a headdress, painted blue and white, featuring two decorative panels depicting red and white flowers, perhaps orchids, on either side of his stern face.

The forceful expression of this guardian surely intimidated and commanded reverence from followers although it was meant to scare away evil spirits. Perhaps he would have discouraged non-believers from entering the hallowed ground he protected. The energy of his expression and the naturalism of the sculpture are both equally heightened by the inlaid glass pupils. The eyes appear eerily realistic, as the guardian almost seems to gaze back out at us. Surely, this guard would be pleased by what he sees. Although he has been transplanted from the temple or shrine he once protected, this statue continues to be revered and adored. Once he was appreciated for his spiritual and religious powers; yet now he is revered for his tremendous cultural, historical, and artistic significance. - (H.647)


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