Monks in Glaze, Patronage, Kiln Origin and Iconography of the Yixian Luohans
Eileen Hsian-ling Hsu Brill, Leiden/Boston
270pp, 14 illustrations
Hardback, £119/$139

The sculptor of the Yixian Luohans has been called 'China's Michelangelo' (though some consider him a greater artist). In fact no such individual existed: these slightly larger than life-size statues, probably numbering 16 originally, came from a traditional family-run workshop. Discovered in 1912, they were first thought to have come from the Tang dynasty (8th–9th centuries). Later, and for the last 60 years, scholarly opinion settled on the Liao (10th–11th centuries). Dr Eileen Hsian-Ling Hsu now demonstrates that they were produced between 1511 and 1519 in the early Ming period.

Monks in Glaze is a comprehensive study, drawing on social and economic issues of religious patronage, imperial workshop practice, and style nuances of post-Yuan Buddhist art. Hsu writes well, simply and clearly, while her scholarship is immaculate: methodical, balanced and, beyond question, convincing. The path she takes us on is quite long, somewhat narrow, because she never strays from the facts, and, as in the chapter on the history of liuli glazing, sometimes labyrinthine, at least for the non-specialist.

She presents us with the data as she finds it, accumulated item by item and assembled with painstaking care until the case is unassailable. Much of the material is gleaned from studies in the history of glazing techniques and on archaeological evidence, particularly the historical inscriptions in stone commemorating cultural events. Previous scholars did not connect the iconography with Tibetan Buddhism, introduced to China by the Mongols during the Yuan dynasty. The scrutiny in Chapter 5 makes the case of post-Yuan production date for the group more strongly, corroborating the dates in stele records. Also, studies made before this mostly compared the Yixian group with Buddhist sculptures in materials other than glazed ceramic, overlooking the technological impact on style.

This book should have a wide appeal, well beyond the specialist world of academics and historians of Asian art, partly because of the unsurpassed power and beauty of Luohans, themselves, and partly because it is an extraordinary story of discovery, adventure and skullduggery taking place against a background of war and the social and economic breakdown that was China in 1912.

It begins with the art dealer and adventurer Friedrich Perzynski, on a tip-off from dubious characters, making a hazardous climb in the mountains of Yizhou (today Yixian) 100 miles from Beijing where he found inaccessible caves out of which local peasants were smuggling, and in come cases smashing, statues that today we see as ranking among the greatest art ever produced by man. Of the original group, probably 16 in number, 10 survive. They can be seen today in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the British Museum, Musée Guimet in Paris, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Sezon Museum in Nagano, Japan, and the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Each one has its story: one 'appeared' only recently; another, thought to have been destroyed in the bombing of Berlin in 1943, was recently 'discovered' in Russia. All have suffered varying degrees of damage – in the case of four of them requiring replacement heads. However, except for the Boston figure, these are not modern and seem to be ancient.

The Yixian Luohans are generally regarded as a supreme statement of Buddhist sacred art and their appeal,
like Buddhism, itself ,and like all great art, transcends barriers of culture and religion so that they now have something of a cult status for people interested in meditation and the 'mindfulness' movement. Certainly you don't have to know anything about art or history or religion to be profoundly affected by the experience of seeing them.

Such art, combining spirituality and beauty, and coming from a high level of human intelligence can awaken our own deeper sensitivities. It is a call from another world enabling us to glimpse the order and meaning of the cosmos.

Unlike the idealised perfection of Buddha and Bodhisattva images, Luohans (Buddhist disciples who achieved enlightenment) are endearingly and recognisably human, displaying individuality and even idiosyncrasy, yet they too are dwellers in Eternity. Nothing could be more encouraging.
Dr Richard Temple

 

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