ART FROM ANCIENT LANDS

Sculpture of the Thousand Arms Kwan-Yin - X.0730
Origin: China
Circa: 1368 AD to 1644 AD
Dimensions: 32" (81.3cm) high x 42.5" (108.0cm) wide
Collection: Chinese art
Style: Ming Dynasty
Medium: Lacquered Wood

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 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 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 affair, 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. Kwan-Yin is an ancient Boddhisattva, who was noted for her kindness. Boddhisattvas are beings who have attained enlightenment and therefore their right to enter Nirvana, but who choose to remain upon the mortal plane to assist others in their attainment of similarly elevated spiritual states. These benevolent Boddhisattvas minister eternally to relieve the sufferings of all creatures, rahter in the general mould of Christian archangels. The artist who created this sculpture captures a beautiful image of tender serenity, unmarred by the otherworldliness of her 'thousand arms'. Masterful woodworking has provided her with a superbly detailed garment and precisely- modelled arms and hands, which form a fluid yet cohesive whole. Each of her many hands contains a different cosmic symbol, or alternatively expresses a specific ritual position, or mudra. Her cupped hands often form the Yoni Mudra, symbolizing the womb as the door for entry to this world. Traces of paint still remain, serving to heighten the general impact that this exceptional sculpture posseses. This is a truly remarkable work of art, both aesthetically and spiritually. - (X.0730)

 

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