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HOME : Chinese Art : Ming Dynasty : Gilded Wooden Head of Buddha
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Gilded Wooden Head of Buddha - LA.514
Origin: China
Circa: 1368 AD to 1644 AD
Dimensions: 13.25" (33.7cm) high
Collection: Chinese Art
Medium: Wood

Location: Great Britain
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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.

Here, the Buddha is portrayed as a youthful prince with a round, full face, suggestive of his spiritual fullness and inner self-satisfaction. An inner calm and complacency is visible on his face and in his sweet smile. The hair is twisted into tight curls incised with spirals forming an usnisa, a swelling on the top of the head signifying the Buddha's enlightenment. The swelling is usually covered with hair, as it is here, but there is another smaller bump at the base of the larger protrusion that is bare, as if the artist opted to utilize both types of ushnishas. His elongated earlobes droop down, the sagging caused by wearing heavy earrings as an infant, reflecting his royal origins. The urna, or “third eye,” is represented by a small bump in between his eyebrows, is also symbolic of his nobility and enlightenment. This fragment of a head was most likely originally part of a full-figured sculpture that once revered inside a temple or shrine. The mystical energy and divine wisdom of the Buddha radiates from within this sculpture. The contemplative wisdom of the Buddha shines through the stucco and warms our spirits. - (LA.514)


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