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 real threat still
posed by the Mongols, Hongwu realised that a
strong military was essential to Chinese safety
and 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, and effectively polarised. During
the Ming Dynasty, China was reunited after
centuries of foreign incursion and occupation.
Ming troops controlled Manchuria, and the
Korean Joseon Dynasty respected the authority
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 who advised him and,
fearful that they might attempt to overthrow him.
To prevent this, 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
centralised system of government he inherited
from the Mongols, a system that was effectively
perpetuated. This was to be an all-Chinese
however: Hongwu replaced all the high-ranking
Mongol bureaucrats 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 in
Beijing. Known as the Forbidden City, this
architectural behemoth was constructed after the
third ruler of the Ming Dynasty (Emperor Yongle)
moved the capital there in c.1421.
The current sculpture dates from this fascinating
and turbulent period. Bodhisattvas are
enlightened beings who have put off
entering paradise in order to help others attain
enlightenment. There are many different
but the most famous in China is Avalokitesvara,
in Chinese as Guanyin. Early depictions of
Avalokitesvara displayed male characteristics,
this tradition subsequently became less rigid. By
end of the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1367/8), most
sculptures depicted the beings as young women,
bearing a vase of holy water to cleanse the souls
those they were bound to protect.
According to legend, Guanyin was born on the
nineteenth of the second lunar month, achieved
enlightenment on the nineteenth of the sixth
month and achieved nirvana on the nineteenth of
ninth lunar month. It is said that s/he is the top
Bodhisattva beside Shakyamuni Buddha, and an
Bodhisattva beside Amitabha Buddha in the
World of Ultimate Bliss. It is believed that any
sentient being who recites his/her name during a
disaster would be heard and saved, which can
why his/her importance to Chinese Buddhism.
literally means "observing the sounds", which
to the belief that the Guanyin would observe all
sounds in the world, particularly listening for
requests from worshippers.
The current example is female, and stands 39"
an incorporated base. The pose is somewhat
with the weight shifted onto the right leg while
left is slightly bent. The left hand hangs by the
side, holding some implement or piece of
right hand is raised, and appears to be an object
contemplation by Guanyin. The head is carved in
of reflective serenity, and is inclined slightly to
the right. The sculpture is topped with a tall,
crown of generally floral aspect, with plume-like
eminences arranged in vertically-oriented
underlying hair has been gathered up
crown, leaving a halo of hair around its
loose tunic-like garment (dhoti) envelops the
half of the body, and further drapery (scarves) is
casually wrapped over the shoulders. The
the drapery and the care with which it has been
is stunning - the individual folds and creases are
cleanly and deftly rendered, and contrast with
smooth texture of the skin. The figure
wears two bracelets on the left wrist, as well as a
necklace and pendant arrangement in the chest
This is a superb and important sculpture that
grace any collection of Eastern art.