Ming Stone Head of the Buddha - H.527
Origin: China
Circa: 1368 AD to 1644 AD
Dimensions: 17.25" (43.8cm) high
Catalogue: V17
Collection: Chinese
Style: Ming Dynasty
Medium: Stone

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 Yi 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.

Buddhist iconography of the Ming period is characterized by an attempt to syncretize elements of movement associated with Tibetan iconography and simplistic sculptural styles of China. It is likely that its body assumed a gentle pose or maintained the thematic simplicity apparent in the facial features. His hair is combed tightly over a square shaped head, dramatizing the length of his characteristically elongated ears. The eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, and chin are carved with as little detail as possible to convey the transcendental nature of the Buddha from different stages of absorption. The creation of images, both large and small, highlights the devotional intent of Buddhist art. The pious hoped to gain merit into the next world by making an offering image of the Buddha and of Bodhisattvas, beings who have attained enlightenment but have elected to remain in the world in order to assist mankind. Images were also didactic, conveying aspects of doctrine and belief. In the Ming period imposing representations of many different Buddhist deities were made. The strong shape and bold face of this Buddha head give an impression of inward contemplation, and the power of the image lies in its static form. Slightly smiling, the Buddha reveals his inner disposition of benevolence and kindness, a trait the Buddha cherished in its full capacity. - (H.527)