Buddhist figures from the Jiajing period are rare, and inscribed examples are exceptionally rare. The present piece is also notable for its large size, which provided the craftsman a greater surface on which to successfully capture the jovial nature of Budai. The inscription on this figure, dated to the fourth year of Jiajing (corresponding to 1525), suggests it was created by the high-ranking Liang Ji before the widespread persecution of Buddhism.
The inscription reveals that Liang Ji was from Neiguanjian, the Directorate of Palace Servants and one of the twenty-four departments in the Ming Imperial Household (Neifu) which was run by eunuchs. Located just inside the northern palace wall near the Beian Gate, Neiguanjian was the largest of all the eunuch departments in terms of personnel and office space, with this directorate taking charge of palace construction of all kinds, and responsible for providing household articles of all sorts. It is considered the second most important eunuch department after Jingshifang, which was responsible for the activities of the bedchamber. Under a zhangyin (grand eunuch) various numbers of positions, including managers, deputies, assistants, accountants and recorders were placed. The personnel of this office was divided into three shifts, each taking turns to stay overnight inside the Imperial City. Each shift had a foreman and an artisan, who specialized in various aspects of construction and decoration. This office also kept numerous warehouses and depots where rice, salt and ice, as well as platforms for temporary use and other building materials were stored. In addition, its personnel had access to metals such as copper, tin, bronze and iron. Its many workshops and factories set up in the country were under the supervision of high ranking intendant eunuchs who, by custom, could serve only four years in one station (see Shih-shsh Henry Tsai, Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty, Albany, N.Y., 1996, pp 43-44). It is possible that Liang Ji was one of these high-ranking zhangyin when he commissioned this piece.
Budai, the God of Happiness, and also called ‘the laughing Buddha’, was popular in Chinese culture for his association with happiness, plenitude and wisdom of contentment. He is often depicted with a joyful expression and wide smile whilst wearing loosely-fitted robes that reveal his large stomach. In Buddhism the role of Budai is to remind people of the ever-presence of the Buddha and to protect his laws. His name means ‘cloth sack’ and comes from the bag that he is conventionally depicted as carrying. A smaller figure of Budai, attributed to the sixteenth century, cast in a similar robust manner, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 31st May 2010, lot 1964. See also a smaller lacquered bronze figure of Buddha, dated to the 12th (1534) or 22nd (1544) year of Jiajing, sold at Christie’s South Kensington, 14th November 2002, lot 17.
As a devoted follower of Daoism, the Jiajing emperor attempted to suppress Buddhism and thus Buddhist figures from his era are comparably few in number. It is recorded that as early as the fifth month of the sixth year of the emperor’s reign (1527), the emperor ordered the Western Mountain ordination platform in Beijing and the one at Tianning monastery to be closed. Ordination ceremonies that had taken place every three years since 1391, to regulate the monastic population, were prohibited and a number of dedicated Confucian officials took advantage of their emperor’s undisguised anti-Buddhist feelings to persecute many Buddhist followers and undermine establishments that dotted the Chinese physical and social landscape. As a result, bronze figures of Daoist immortals were more commonly produced; see a large lacquered-bronze sculpture of Guanyu, inscribed and dated to the 43rd year of Jiajing, in the Avery Brundage Collection and held in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, published in Rene-Yvon Lefebvre d’Argence, Chinese, Korea and Japanese Sculpture in the Avery Brundage Collection, San Francisco, 1974, pl. 169, where it is noted that ‘the round and robust qualities of this piece, notably in the belly area, are typical of the middle Ming period’ (p. 316). A figure of the Sovereign of the Clouds of Dawn (Bixia Yuanjun), with an inscription dating it to the first year of Jiajing (1522), was sold in our London rooms, 16th May 2012, lot 227.