The complex machine that was the imperial court of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) employed a diverse group of individuals to keep its bureaucratic system in motion. The center of this activity was the Forbidden City in Beijing, the impressive physical and administrative capital of the empire. From its heavily guarded confines, legions of governmental officials, military officers, servants, artists, and eunuchs went about running the kingdom of the Son of Heaven.
This standing court figure of a youthful male is a representation—either human or Daoist divine—of one such official. Depicted in the flowing robes and high hat of the imperial Ming court, this figure is unlikely to be the portrait of a specific individual. Rather, the weighty presence of this image in shining cast bronze would stand as a moral lesson that any young man, through strict adherence to the proper educational preparation for the state’s civil service exam, could succeed as an administrative official. The central administration of the Ming dynasty was handled by a civilian organization with the primary responsibility of following an intellectual code rooted in Confucian morals, ever respectful of the superiority of the imperial ruler. To attain a position in the imperial administration involved years of rigorous training, especially in the Confucian classics, and a lengthy series of exami-nations. Only those who passed the final court examination were eligible for government service. The difficulty of the process meant that only the most determined of individuals could join the upper ranks and reap the rewards of privileged position.