Thursday, January 14, 2016

Two Especially Appealing Chinese Statuettes

Budai wishes everyone a Happy 2016!

Often the objects I collect have a strange or outlandish quality to them, an edge that greatly appeals to me. Chinese antiques fall naturally into this category, with their numerous dragons, bats, demons, and intricate carvings that age has dimmed and transformed.  

For the first post in 2016, I decided to present two small statuettes that are outstanding instead for their visual charm. Chinese statues form a large field, and while museums feature those made of bronze, stone or polished hardwoods, I am most attracted to those made from painted wood.

The slightly muted colors of red, orange, yellow and green, often accented with gold, are familiar on these statues, the colors becoming even more subdued as the figures stand on altars and are exposed to the smoke of burning incense. The two statues below are small, about three or four inches high, and carved from fragrant softwood, perhaps some form of cedar.

(As always, click on images to enlarge.)
Above is a diminutive figure of Budai, often known as the Laughing Buddha. This fat, bald, smiling character is often shown with many small children upon him, and as such is one of the mainstays of Chinese decoration. Because of his name and appearance he is often confused or combined with a number of Buddhist deities. 

The carving in this piece has a naïve, folk-like style. His back is straight, but he is also leaning at an odd angle, making him difficult to photograph effectively. Chinese statues often have decorated bases, but the simple band, as seen from the side, evokes the tree branch from which it is carved, and is appropriate for the simple monk's life led by the original Budai.

The name Budai literally means Cloth Bag, and this bag containing his few possessions is typically shown at his side, as it is here, highlighted in swirled red and yellow.

The back of the figurine features Budai’s bald head and yellow robe.

The bottom of the statuette, showing the texture of the soft wood.

The appeal of the following statue of a child derives from the skill and sophistication of its carving. Children are common subjects in Chinese art, although it is unusual to find a free-standing figure of a baby or toddler. Children are often represented as attendants for various deities, especially for Guan Yin, the goddess of compassion and mercy. 
This child is depicted with a forward stance, wearing only an apron-like garment. If you look closely, he has little hair, except for a circular tuft in the middle. This was the traditional style for small children, and even today this haircut can occasionally be seen, especially as Chinese New Year approaches. The simplicity of the gilded apron contrasts strongly with the elaborate patterns and embroidery on most of the clothing found in Chinese art.

Child attendants are often depicted with various offerings, such as food, drink, yuan bao (gold ingots), or other lucky objects, but here the gesturing hands are empty and not intended to hold anything. The side view emphasizes the plumpness of the young child, in his limbs, his stomach—even the creases where the apron is tied at the middle. The base is a simple black band, very similar to the Budai, although it is dressed up a bit by the offset red platform on which the child stands.

The back of the figure features very little in the way of clothing, reminding us of the extreme youth of this attendant. The plainness also emphasizes the expert carving of the tied bows. These are the only intricate details on this piece, serving to remind us of its overall simplicity and gentle curves.

I hope you have enjoyed these two statuettes, which while probably not of great significance in the broader sense, I feel are two of the highlights of my collection. Accurate depictions of babies or toddlers are rare, and this one is suffused with a special personality and charm. The Budai, likewise, has a happy, simple aura which reminds us in an increasingly complex world that enlightenment and contentment come from within.

(All photographs and original objects property of the author.)