Published Sep 19 2013, by

Deified Laozi


During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), large-scale religious sculptures in wood, stone, and bronze were commonly placed in both public and private settings. Fueling this practice were the major religions of China at the time—Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism—each of which drew upon a rich repertoire of symbolism that was used in the creation of ornate images readily identifiable to their followers. Of the three, Daoism held perhaps the most special place in Chinese society as the oldest native religion in practice. The images of its many popular deities—ranging from the wrathful Guandi, god of war, to the tranquil Bixia Yuanjun, Lady of the Azure Clouds—were routinely provided with offerings by believers and nonbelievers alike.

This seated Daoist deity is more than lifesized and is crafted entirely of cast bronze. Dressed in a priestly hat and ornate robes with deeply rendered folds, the deity raises his hands above his waist and clasps them, palm against the back of the hand, in a composed gesture of meditation. His peaceful disposition is highlighted by his serene facial features. An ornately knotted sash hangs from the neck to the feet, which are clad in upturned, pointed shoes. The lack of dedicatory inscriptions, and the tendency for many of the deities in the Daoist pantheon to share attributes, makes a positive identification of a specific deity difficult. Even so, the scale, quality, and craftsmanship of this sculpture are indicative of the strong influence that the Daoist doctrine had on the arts of the Ming dynasty.