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Friday, May 13, 2016

A Painted Tibetan Cabinet with a Warrior Diety

Tibetan cabinets are always colorful. The quality of the painting is dependent on the ability of the artist, often a monk painter who earns merit as he paints religious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism on the cabinet's surfaces. The cabinet is in two parts. The top section has ample storage and can be converted for storing wine. The interior surfaces are lined with printed yellow paper of Tibetan prayers and religious symbols. The reason for this is simple. Many areas of Tibet are in high altitudes above tree lines. In the lower areas where trees grow, the lumber available for furniture making is mostly evergreen, such as pine which is not an attractive wood. So paper is used to beautify the interior surfaces.

This Tibetan cabinet is distinctively different for having recessed doors to highlight the image of an unusual looking warrior deity seated at royal ease with right leg bent and left leg pendant with a tiger at his back. His full beard and large ears made him fierce compounded with the fact that he holds a long drawn sword. A worshipper pays homage with a bent knee and holding a plate of offering. The figures are situated against a pastoral background with lush green trees and ground. The background is set with craggy rocks and vegetation. A tall tree with green leaves stands at a corner and Garuda, a bird deity appears at the left corner on the top. His beak holds a long snake and his claw hands hold it in place. According to a Tibetan expert, this bearded deity is probably a protector worshipped by people of a certain local, and he would not be found in the pantheon of Tibetan deities. He is acknowledged as a princely figure, seated in a princely pose.

The cabinet has good age and the restorations made it attractive. Details in the architectural elements that frame the header of the cabinet, and on the bottom section show everything was hand chiseled. It was said that a prayer went with every wood square as the carving was performed. These architectural elements are not unlike the ones in the temples. The paintings everywhere on this particular cabinet appear to be older than the painting of the pig face warrior on the doors. It is very possible that original door painting was defaced and needed a replacement. This cabinet is like a miniature temple, and the original purpose was storage for religious objects. It is very attractive and should be appreciated regardless of the alterations. The overall dimensions are 36 inches wide, 22 inches deep and 84 inches high.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Now for something entirely different:  thirty three years ago, I began graduate studies in the Division of Humanities at the University of Chicago.  My field of study was Chinese Art History.  For the five years that followed I wrote research papers on Chinese art history, literature and history.  Then a turn of events necessitated my departure from academia and plunged me into the world of business.  My ability to look at previously unknown objects and turn out pages of organized research went dormant. Sometime in 2006 we acquired this piece of Buddhist sculpture, its provenance unknown. I have looked at it for many years before I gathered enough courage and made this attempt at research using the same analytical methods that previously served me well.

Niche on an Ornamental Base with Guardian Lions

An unpublished research paper by Margaret Chung, AM University of Chicago

The niche with an assembly of Buddhist figures is carved from a block of micaceous marble.  It is placed on an elaborately carved square base, also made of the same material.  The form is unusual and can be viewed as a grotto in miniature. For ease of carving, the top slab appeared to have been removed and then restored upon completion.  n a symmetrical plane, the Buddha Sakyamuni emanates from the center and is flanked by his attendants in a semi-circle extending beyond the niche’s interior. He is seated cross-legged on a lotus throne, his right hand in abhaya mudra, and his left hand resting on his knee in the varada mudra. Behind him, around the circumference of the nimbus are four soaring apsarases with flying scarves.  



On his right and left are two monks, Ananda and Kasyapa,  Their faces are almost similar, though by tradition, Ananda the young monk stands on Sakyamuni’s right and Kasyapa the older on the left. The monks stand with their hands folded in their sleeves and next to them are two bodhisattvas.  They are plainly attired save a pectoral neck band and double strands of flowing scarves across the dhoti.  Their upheld right hands hold lotus buds antheir left hands hold a heart shaped fan.  Next to the bodhisattvas and behind the lokapalas are donor figures.  The one to the right of Buddha has been damaged in the face.

Seen only from the waist up, both donors wear the voluminous garments, their hands tucked in the sleeves and resting on the halos of the lokapalas.  The lokapala on the right holds a long sword and the other has his hands in tight fists across his chest. Two dvarapalas with bare chests stand on guard at the exterior of the niche under the hanging  strand of lotus blossoms framing each wall.  The musculature of their well toned body is clearly defined. With their right arms up and left arms tautly extended in a martial gesture, they are fine manifestations of powerful guardians. The assembly of figures is placed under an elaborately carved canopy with scallop edge plaited drapery.  Specks of mica are spotted here and there.

The niche’s exterior is left unfinished on the sides and backs.  Was that the intent or were the surfaces saved for inscription and more carving?  The niche is supported by a beautifully ornamented marble base, finished on all four sides with the same design.  At the top on which the niche rests is a band of repeat pattern of double upturn lotus petals.  Underneath are three dwarf caryatids or atlas figures.  Each dwarf strikes a different pose.  Like the dvarapalas, the musculature of each dwarf is well defined. Two lion dogs sitting on their haunches act as guardians at the upper corners.

In Buddhist sculptures, assemblies of multiple figures are common.  Each composition is an illustration of a particular sutra, done in accordance to a prescribed iconography.  In the case of the marble niche, the makeup of this particular pantheon of the Buddha figure accompanied by bodhisattvas, lokapalas, dvarapalas, lions and donors are rarely seen before the Tang Dynasty (CE 618-907.)  The best example of such a grouping is the assembly accompanying the colossal image of Vairocana at the Fengxian Temple of Longman, Henan Province.  The Fengxian Temple was constructed after the mid 7 century with support from Empress Wu Zetian (CE 625-705.) 

Lu She Na Buddha

(photo credit Wikipedia Fengxian Temple Longmen Grottoes)

Upon the review of the groups named above, the construction of the marble niche clearly predates the construction of the Fengxian Temple at Longman.  The serenely seated Buddha and the columnar forms of the standing dvarapala monks and bodhisattvas with square fleshy faces are more reminiscent of Northern Qi sculptures.  The canopy with the line of triangular forms superimposed on the plaited drapery is even more evocative of earlier times.  Inasmuch as the enlivened figures of thedvarapalas portrayed with upturned head ribbons and long flying scarves are more animated, it is not an exception but rather a rule for guardian figures. 

In the assignment of a date, the base should also be taken into consideration.  The marble base with the dwarf atlas figures bears a close resemblance to a pedestal base of a similar design and of the same material that was excavated and accessioned in 1954 to the Beilin Museum of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province.  This base without the two lion dogs was made to support a statue.  It is dated by inscription to 706 and measures 57cm in length, 53cm in width and 39cm high.  According to the inscription, the base was one of four commissioned by Fazang (CE 643-712,) a scholar who had great expertise on the Avatamsaka Sutra (Huayan Sutra) even before he became the founder of the Huayan School.  Under the patronage of Empress Wu, Huayan Buddhism flourished and temples were built in Luoyang as well as Chang’an. It is believed that these bases were made in veneration of the Huayan Patriarchs, of which Fazang was the third and their relics were housed in the five stupas built on the compound of the Huayan Temple outside of present day Xi’an. Today only the first and the fourth stupas are left standing.

Is it even plausible to link the the niche with the base together within the same time of manufacture?  The answer is no. Although they look the same, the depiction of the lions on the marble niche base predates the Tang period and the dwarf figures are often seen in Northern Qi sculptures.  It is possible that the aesthetics of the base is so pleasing that it has become a design for bases in Buddhist sculptures.  The reason why it is rarely seen is probably due to the time and labor required for its making. Besides, the Buddhist persecution that took place around 846 destroyed an immeasurable number of Buddhist images. In addition, it was really fortuitous that the marble niche fits exactly into the base and the visible chips and losses probably resulted when the niche was removed from the base after a long period of time.

            In the construction of the marble niche, the artisans made skillful use of the space.  In their efforts to preserve the accurate iconographic prescription, the artisans took liberty in the juxtaposition of the deities.  During the conversations with the late Harrie Vanderstappen, my mentor at the University of Chicago and other people in the field, I have gained some understanding of this object.  According to Father Vanderstappen, marble is a medium for use by those who enjoyed imperial patronage.  Could the donor figures be imperial personages?  They are even adorned with halos, and stand on the same level with the bodhisattvas, a highly unusual practice for donor figures who are portrayed in a small size and in kneeling in adoration. Others have suggested that it is the base of a reliquary to be placed within a cave tomb high on a hill, thus making it unnecessary to finish the niche’s side walls.  For what purpose did this marble niche and base serve, I may never know.  But based on the stylistic analysis of the figures compared with other marble sculptures of the same period, Northern Qi is a likely date.

This dating is further supported by a theory that I formulated based on the history of the Avatamsaka Sutra in China.  The first full translation was made in 420 CE.  The ruling house of the Northern Qi was very religious.  It is highly lightly that the members were reading the Avatamsaka sutra, where this particular iconography of Buddha flanked by two monks, two bodhisattvas, two lokapalas and two dvarapalas is associated with.  Therefore this marble niche would predate the the sculptures at Longmen.

The marble niche: 53cm x 36cm x 41cm high
Buddha: 24cm high (from lotus base to top of halo)
Monk: 20cm high
Bodhisattva: 24cm high
Donor: 14cm (from chest to top of halo)
Lokapala: 14cm high
Dvarapala: 25cm high

Marble base: 65cm square
Dwarf caryatid: 10cm high
Lion: 10cm high

Total height of niche on base: 65cm

The Marble Niche and Base is offered for sale through  in the following link:

Stylistic analysis was a methodology taught by my mentor the late Harrie Vanderstappen, In the absence of provenance, and supporting evidence based on archaeological finds of related materials, it appears to be a plausible method of dating.  Any other approach to dating is open for discussion.  Please feel free to leave remarks.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Flowers and Floral Patterns in Chinese Jade Carvings

Flowers and Floral Patterns in Chinese Jade Carvings

Sometimes unforeseen circumstances motivate the inspiration to write.  I was cleaning the portion of my book shelf containing research books on Chinese jades when, quite by chance I came upon a book Jade Flowers and Floral Patterns in Chinese Decorative Art by Cheng Te-k’un. Dusting was put aside and I spent the next hour refreshing my knowledge of jade flowers.   My love for jade flowers was instilled early in my childhood by my mother who loved jades.  When it was time to name her daughters, she selected the character hua (flower) for all her seven daughters, and identified each of us after a certain type of jade.  Dr. Cheng’s writing was thorough.  He discussed the earliest  form of jade flower was found during the Warring States period (475 – 221 BC.)  The popularity grew and by the Tang Dynasty (CE 618 – 907) jade flowers were in vogue.  Ladies wore them as personal ornaments.  The best examples of  flowers and floral patterns in jades still extant today are dated to the Yuan (CE 1279 – 1368) and Ming Dynasty (CE 1368 – 1644.) They are carved out of nephrite.  In the Qing Dynasty, jade flowers were carved in both nephrite and jadeite, the green color jade from Burma. The illustrations in the Jade Flowers book are plentiful but the common practice in the older scholarly books,  they are in black and white print.

However, it was not long that I came to a 1991 exhibition catalog from Spink & Son Ltd titled Chinese Jade. There are some really good photographs. The oldest flowers are No. 67 in the center and No. 69.  They are dated Song (CE 960-1279.) The rest are Song to Ming.

The five large jade plaques to the left are also from the Spink catalog. Each piece is a good illustration of how floral patterns flow smoothly in the background.They are dated to the Yuan to Ming.  The small flower at the center bottom is a very popular Ming design.

While browsing through Leslie Hindman Auctioneer's September Asian Sale, to my delight, I found more examples of the related topic.
Jade Flowers

Smaller Jade Flowers, very much like the one at Spink's

Jade Flower, very similar to Spink's No. 68

Jade Hairpins of the Ming Dynasty
The two end pieces are jadeite carvings and the center is a rust color jade
Not identified but this and the three pieces above are very similar to the Spink's jade flowers

Also at Sale 329 of Leslie Hindman's are good examples of how jade flowers are included in the background of pierce jade plaques.

Lastly this is a jade flower from my collection and my Chinese name Kunhua, really means agate, a type of stone that is even harder than jade, but still belongs to the Jade family.

Please note that these examples of jade flowers are randomly selected and further research at other auction and internet sites will yield more examples.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Return to Yunnan Part I

Autumn Woods near Lijiang, Yunnan Province

I was born on an autumn evening in the city of Kunming, Yunnan Province in Southwest China. Within a year WWII ended, my father, my sister and I in my mother’s arms boarded a transport plane and left Kunming. I never returned until another fine autumn evening more than half a century later. The city held no memory, except for a phrase from a children’s ditty that my mother and sister used to sing to me. It said something about a temple on East Street and a temple on West Lane.  To my surprise and disappointment, the temples still exist but impossible for me to reach.  The streets and lanes in the older section of town were too narrow for the tour bus and therefore not on the itinerary.

My tour began with a visit to Da Guan Lou Park – a beautiful garden with traditional architecture.  Any adjective to describe gardens in Yunnan is superfluous.  Yunnan Province is the mother garden of the world. In the period between late 19 to early 20 century, botanists from all over the world over came to  identify and collect specimens.  Many common flowers such as the Easter lily were propagated from the Yunnan originals.

A Pavilion at Da Guan Lou Park

A lake full of lotus plants

A solitary lotus flower standing
 Accustomed to small ponds of lotus in botanical gardens, this huge lake of green leaves as far as the eye could see was breath taking! But we were too late to see the lotus flowers in bloom. Many of the leaves already turned brown, but I was thrilled to find a solitary pink flower still standing.

Chrysanthemums of all varieties were on display

The next morning we boarded a plane for Lijiang, home of the Naxi, one of the ethnic minority people in China.  The Old Town, now a UNESCO Heritage site, was on the confluence of the horse and tea trade for over 800 years.  Most of the buildings around Old Town dated to the Ming Dynasty CE 1368 - 1644. 

Small horses are more tolerant of the cold temperature

 Architecture around the Old Town was restored after an earthquake.  Michael and I were enthralled with the colorful and peaceful surroundings.  The buildings were constructed with timber and rocks, and small waterways brought running water from the nearby rivers. We came to Lijiang for a personal reason.  My father the horticulturist, was a friend of Dr. Joseph Rock (1884-1962,) the famous botanist who studied ethnic minority languages, including the Naxi.  He was a local legend and his former home is now a shrine.       

Tower in the town square    

Restored buildings were interesting and pleasing to the eye, but I was glad to see a few of the more traditional houses built with bricks.

We left the city and headed for a higher altitude.  The tour brought us to a station where we boarded a ski lift for a ride to the forests above.  The trees - autumn colors in a mist, made for a good painting study.  And moss -  growing in mounds were everywhere! I was in heaven. My fascination with moss began by watching my grandfather trying to grow moss in his miniature grotto.  He knew he could not make moss grow, but that did not deter him. If he could only be with us, he would surely collect specimens out of the moss laden fallen logs.
A moss lover's dreamscape

A glimpse of snow covered mountains   

Snow capped mountain range - Jade Dragon Snow Mountain near Lijiang, Yunnan Province 2006

 After what seemed to be a long hike, we arrived at a scenic area where we could view the snow capped mountain range of the Yuelongxue Shan - the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.  It was a sight to behold!

(to be continued)