2010_HGK_02832_3064_000(an_imperial_gilt-bronze_figure_of_amitayus_kangxi_period)

Lot 3064. An imperial gilt-bronze figure of Amitayus, Kangxi period (1662-1722); 16 3/4 in. (43 cm.) high. Estimate HKD 2,000,000 - HKD 3,000,000. Price Realized HKD 6,260,000. © Christie's Images Ltd 2010 

Finely and heavily cast seated in dhyanasana on a double-lotus pedestal with beaded rim, dressed in loose robes delicately incised with meandering lotus scrolls at the borders and wearing princely ornaments of the sambhogakya form inset with various hardstones, the serene face framed by pendulous ears and a five-peaked ornate tiara surrounding the coiled hair neatly arranged into a high usnisa.

Provenance: Acquired from a European private collection in the early 1990s.

Note: The elegance and fine quality of the figure of the Buddha Amitayus (in Chinese Wuliangshou) with its slightly angular, yet gentle, features, the very finely incised floral scrolling on the borders of the robes, and the intricate lotus throne base, over the edge of which flowing scarves trail, are all characteristic of the Buddhist bronzes of the Kangxi reign made in Tibetan style. This statue, and other figures of this type, were made in the Imperial workshops. The heavy casting of the figure is indicative of a generous use of metal, including copper, which was always at a premium in imperial China, while the lacquer and gilding applied to the surface of the figure adds to its extravagance. 

This beautiful and serene figure is both a reflection of the religious beliefs of the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722) and a reminder of the political importance of Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) in the early Qing dynasty. Since the Qing dynasty was one in which China was ruled by foreigners, the Manchus, these emperors had, on the one hand, to prove to their Chinese subjects that they held the Mandate of Heaven to rule, while, at the same time, dealing with China's frequently aggressive neighbours to the north and west. Most of the military challenges to the Manchus traditionally came from Inner Asia, with the Mongols being particularly troublesome. Much of the Manchus' success came from military supremacy, but, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, diplomacy was also employed to achieve the same ends. This was cemented by marriages between Manchus and the Mongol tribes: indeed the Kangxi emperor's grandmother was a Mongol princess. The Manchus, like the Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism. In 1642 the Mongol leader Gui Khan had made the Fifth Dalai Lama the secular as well as the religious ruler of Tibet. This power was expanded by the Fifth Dalai Lama and his influence became such that he could act as peace-maker between Mongol tribes and could even order the movements of Mongol armies outside Tibet. The Qing court's relationships with the Mongols and Tibet were therefore inexorably intertwined, and remained so even after the Kangxi emperor's assumption of a protectorate over Tibet.

The Qing emperors portrayed themselves as Bodhisattva-rulers, reincarnations of Manjusri (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom). In doing so they united the Tibetan view of the ruler as a living incarnation of a god with the Chinese Manjusri cult associated with the sacred Wutaishan in Shanxi province. This latter mountain, Wutaishan, was important in creating the image that the Qing emperors wanted to project to the Mongols and Tibetans. The emperors were patrons of temples in the area, and the Kangxi emperor made five pilgrimages to Wutaishan. Significantly the first Mongol-language guidebook to Wutaishan, published in 1667, refers to the Kangxi emperor as the 'reincarnation of Manjusri, sublime lord, who makes the world prosper'. The effectiveness of this propoganda can be seen in the frequent use in Tibetan texts of the name Manjusri, when referring to the Qing emperor (see Evelyn Rawski, The Last Emperors - A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions, Berkeley, 1998, p. 261).

Although it is often said that the Qing dynasty emperors patronised Tibetan Buddhism simply for political reasons, this does not seem to have been the case with the Kangxi emperor. He was largely brought up by his grandmother, to whom he was devoted. As noted above, she was a Mongol princess, and was an adherent of Tibetan Buddhism. It is probably due to her influence that the Kangxi emperor was the first Qing emperor to demonstrate a personal religious commitment to Lamaism. The Kangxi emperor and his son and grandson, the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors, built some thirty-two Tibetan Buddhist temples in the Beijing area alone.

One way to acquire merit in Buddhism was through the recitation of sutras, and during the Kangxi reign a Sutra Recitation Office was set up and housed within the palace in the Zhongzhengdian (Hall of Central Uprightness). This office was the first to be solely devoted to Tibetan Buddhist affairs, and was part of the inner court's Department of Ceremonial, supervised by imperial princes. The Zhongzhengdian was to become the centre of Tibetan Buddhist activities at court, and not only conducted the recitation of sutras but also supervised the casting of Buddhist images and religious ritual objects, and their storage.

It is significant that the present figure of Amitayus is stylistically very close to a figure of the four-armed Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara Sadaksari, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, which was cast on the orders of the Kangxi emperor for his grandmother, Dowager Empress Xiaozhuang, on the occasion of her birthday in 1686 (illustrated in Cultural Relics of Tibetan Buddhism Collected in the Qing Palace, Hong Kong and Beijing, 1992, no. 1-2). Interestingly this latter figure is believed to be the earliest dated sculpture to have been made in the Imperial palace workshops. The current Amitayus is also closely related to a similar-sized imperial figure of four-armed Manjusri from the Kangxi reign, which is now preserved in Qing dynasty Summer Palace at Chengde (illustrated in Buddhist Art from Rehol - Tibetan Buddhist images and ritual objects from the Qing dynasty Summer Palace at Chengde, Taipei, 1999, no. 19).

The Buddha Amitayus is the Buddha of Infinite Life, from 'amita' meaning infinite and 'ayus' meaning life. While the current figure's hands are joined in the dhyana mudra (a gesture of meditation), they would also have held a jar containing amrita, the elixir of immortality. Amitayus, who is closely linked to the Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, was an especially popular deity amongst Tibetans. This Buddha was depicted either in simple monk's robes without jewellery or crown, or as the crowned Amitayus, like the one discussed here, who was particularly revered by the Chinese and Mongols.

The figure of Amitayus, with his association with long life, would have been a perfect imperial birthday gift either for the emperor himself or for his grandmother. Indeed it is recorded that Kangxi's grandson, the Qianlong emperor, bestowed on his mother a set of nine Buddhas and a complete set of Amitayus figures on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday, while various figures, including Amitayus, in multiples of nine (a rebus for eternity) were presented by the Qianlong emperor on her seventieth birthday. For the Qianlong emperor's own sixtieth birthday ten thousand figures of Amitayus were made (see Rawski, op. cit., p. 273).

Compare two similar examples illustrated in U. von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, 1981, pl. 152A and B, p. 540. Several imperial Kangxi gilt-bronze figures similar to the Amitayus have been sold at auction, including an example sold at Christie's London, 13th May, 2008, lot 147. Two closely related examples were sold at Christie's New York, 29 November 1990, lot 48, and at Christie's Amsterdam, 2 May 2007, lot 344 and illustrated on the cover; another example was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 9 October 2007, lot 1547. The very close correspondence of these known examples would indicate that matrices were used for the fabrication of the wax models required for the castingThe elegance and fine quality of the figure of the Buddha Amitayus (in Chinese Wuliangshou) with its slightly angular, yet gentle, features, the very finely incised floral scrolling on the borders of the robes, and the intricate lotus throne base, over the edge of which flowing scarves trail, are all characteristic of the Buddhist bronzes of the Kangxi reign made in Tibetan style. This statue, and other figures of this type, were made in the Imperial workshops. The heavy casting of the figure is indicative of a generous use of metal, including copper, which was always at a premium in imperial China, while the lacquer and gilding applied to the surface of the figure adds to its extravagance. 

This beautiful and serene figure is both a reflection of the religious beliefs of the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722) and a reminder of the political importance of Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) in the early Qing dynasty. Since the Qing dynasty was one in which China was ruled by foreigners, the Manchus, these emperors had, on the one hand, to prove to their Chinese subjects that they held the Mandate of Heaven to rule, while, at the same time, dealing with China's frequently aggressive neighbours to the north and west. Most of the military challenges to the Manchus traditionally came from Inner Asia, with the Mongols being particularly troublesome. Much of the Manchus' success came from military supremacy, but, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, diplomacy was also employed to achieve the same ends. This was cemented by marriages between Manchus and the Mongol tribes: indeed the Kangxi emperor's grandmother was a Mongol princess. The Manchus, like the Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism. In 1642 the Mongol leader Gui Khan had made the Fifth Dalai Lama the secular as well as the religious ruler of Tibet. This power was expanded by the Fifth Dalai Lama and his influence became such that he could act as peace-maker between Mongol tribes and could even order the movements of Mongol armies outside Tibet. The Qing court's relationships with the Mongols and Tibet were therefore inexorably intertwined, and remained so even after the Kangxi emperor's assumption of a protectorate over Tibet.

The Qing emperors portrayed themselves as Bodhisattva-rulers, reincarnations of Manjusri (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom). In doing so they united the Tibetan view of the ruler as a living incarnation of a god with the Chinese Manjusri cult associated with the sacred Wutaishan in Shanxi province. This latter mountain, Wutaishan, was important in creating the image that the Qing emperors wanted to project to the Mongols and Tibetans. The emperors were patrons of temples in the area, and the Kangxi emperor made five pilgrimages to Wutaishan. Significantly the first Mongol-language guidebook to Wutaishan, published in 1667, refers to the Kangxi emperor as the 'reincarnation of Manjusri, sublime lord, who makes the world prosper'. The effectiveness of this propoganda can be seen in the frequent use in Tibetan texts of the name Manjusri, when referring to the Qing emperor (see Evelyn Rawski, The Last Emperors - A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions, Berkeley, 1998, p. 261).

Although it is often said that the Qing dynasty emperors patronised Tibetan Buddhism simply for political reasons, this does not seem to have been the case with the Kangxi emperor. He was largely brought up by his grandmother, to whom he was devoted. As noted above, she was a Mongol princess, and was an adherent of Tibetan Buddhism. It is probably due to her influence that the Kangxi emperor was the first Qing emperor to demonstrate a personal religious commitment to Lamaism. The Kangxi emperor and his son and grandson, the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors, built some thirty-two Tibetan Buddhist temples in the Beijing area alone.

One way to acquire merit in Buddhism was through the recitation of sutras, and during the Kangxi reign a Sutra Recitation Office was set up and housed within the palace in the Zhongzhengdian (Hall of Central Uprightness). This office was the first to be solely devoted to Tibetan Buddhist affairs, and was part of the inner court's Department of Ceremonial, supervised by imperial princes. The Zhongzhengdian was to become the centre of Tibetan Buddhist activities at court, and not only conducted the recitation of sutras but also supervised the casting of Buddhist images and religious ritual objects, and their storage.

It is significant that the present figure of Amitayus is stylistically very close to a figure of the four-armed Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara Sadaksari, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, which was cast on the orders of the Kangxi emperor for his grandmother, Dowager Empress Xiaozhuang, on the occasion of her birthday in 1686 (illustrated in Cultural Relics of Tibetan Buddhism Collected in the Qing Palace, Hong Kong and Beijing, 1992, no. 1-2). Interestingly this latter figure is believed to be the earliest dated sculpture to have been made in the Imperial palace workshops. The current Amitayus is also closely related to a similar-sized imperial figure of four-armed Manjusri from the Kangxi reign, which is now preserved in Qing dynasty Summer Palace at Chengde (illustrated in Buddhist Art from Rehol - Tibetan Buddhist images and ritual objects from the Qing dynasty Summer Palace at Chengde, Taipei, 1999, no. 19).

The Buddha Amitayus is the Buddha of Infinite Life, from 'amita' meaning infinite and 'ayus' meaning life. While the current figure's hands are joined in the dhyana mudra (a gesture of meditation), they would also have held a jar containing amrita, the elixir of immortality. Amitayus, who is closely linked to the Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, was an especially popular deity amongst Tibetans. This Buddha was depicted either in simple monk's robes without jewellery or crown, or as the crowned Amitayus, like the one discussed here, who was particularly revered by the Chinese and Mongols.

The figure of Amitayus, with his association with long life, would have been a perfect imperial birthday gift either for the emperor himself or for his grandmother. Indeed it is recorded that Kangxi's grandson, the Qianlong emperor, bestowed on his mother a set of nine Buddhas and a complete set of Amitayus figures on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday, while various figures, including Amitayus, in multiples of nine (a rebus for eternity) were presented by the Qianlong emperor on her seventieth birthday. For the Qianlong emperor's own sixtieth birthday ten thousand figures of Amitayus were made (see Rawski, op. cit., p. 273).

Compare two similar examples illustrated in U. von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, 1981, pl. 152A and B, p. 540. Several imperial Kangxi gilt-bronze figures similar to the Amitayus have been sold at auction, including an example sold at Christie's London, 13th May, 2008, lot 147. Two closely related examples were sold at Christie's New York, 29 November 1990, lot 48, and at Christie's Amsterdam, 2 May 2007, lot 344 and illustrated on the cover; another example was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 9 October 2007, lot 1547. The very close correspondence of these known examples would indicate that matrices were used for the fabrication of the wax models required for the casting.

Christie's. Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 1 December 2010, Hong Kong