Carved figures of elephants are known since the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). The oldest discovered example is a stone boulder fashioned in a low-relief elephant shape, from the Western Han (206 BC-AD 9) tomb of general Huo Qubing (140-117 BC) near Xianyang, Shaanxi province. Considered an exotic animal, the sculpture represented one of the distant regions the general had conquered. Fulfilling a more protective role, is a stone elephant figure standing close to the Eastern Han (AD 25-220) imperial tombs at Luoyang, Henan Province. Although not directly appearing on the spirit road leading towards the tomb complex, it is thought, nevertheless, to have been part of the entrance to the mausoleum area, see Ann Paludan, The Chinese Spirit Road, New Haven and London, 1991, fig. 40. From the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279) onwards, we see elephants more frequently included in spirit roads, see for example, a figure along the spirit way leading to the Northern Song (960-1127) mausoleum of Emperor Zhezong (personal name Zhao Xu, 1076-1100), in Henan province, illustrated in Shi Yan, Zhongguo diaosu shi tulu [Illustrated history of Chinese sculpture] vol. 4, Shanghai, 1990, pl. 1597.
Contrary to the solemn bearing of tomb and spirit road sculptures, the present example’s lively pose points to a different nature. The figure recalls the elephant depictions found in temples and in cave complexes. There, it represents the White Elephant, who occupies a prominent place in Buddhism. Revered as a symbol of strength and wisdom, it functions as guardian of the Temple of Buddha. Featuring in the Lotus Sutra as the mount of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (‘Universal Virtue’) or Puxian in China, the White Elephant is as well a symbolic image of integrity.
Both in paintings and in stone relief carvings, the White Elephant is portrayed with the Bodhisattva seated on a lotus base on its back, striding amidst a holy entourage, see for example, a relief carving in cave 6 of the Yungang caves at Datong, Shanxi province, illustrated in Zhongguo shiku. Yungang shiku [Rock caves in China. Yungang caves], Beijing, 1991, pl. 74; and another in the Longxing temple near the town of Zhengding, Hebei province, dated to the second year of Emperor Duanzong’s reign (equivalent to 989) in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), published in Shi Yan, op. cit., pl. 1779. A free-standing sculpture of a six-tusked White Elephant, can be viewed, for example, in the Wannian temple at Mount Emei, Sichuan province, dated to the fifth year of the Taiping Xingguo era (equivalent to 980) of the Northern Song dynasty, illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji. Diaosu bian. 5: Wudai Song diaosu [The complete series of Chinese art. Sculpture section, vol. 5: Five Dynasties and Song sculpture], Beijing, 1988, pl. 41; another sculpture in the round, in cave 136 of the Dazu grottoes in Sichuan, attributed to the Shaoxing period (1131-1162) of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) is published in Shi Yan, op. cit., pl. 1716.
Elephant figures unearthed at Tang period (618-907) sites, appear to differ from those encountered in caves and temples. They usually stand four square in a static, rather docile pose. With a lotus base or remnants of it still on their back, they have been found together with or close to Buddhist deities, see for example, one of marble, attributed to the mid-eighth century, discovered in the northern suburbs of Xi’an, included in the exhibition The Glory of the Silk Road. Art from Ancient China, The Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio, 2003, cat. no. 78, from the Xi’an Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology; and another of stone, datable to the late 9th century, found in a pit at Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, housed in the Yangzhou Museum and illustrated in Li Wancai, ‘Yangzhou chutu de Tangdai shizaoxiang’ [Tang period stone statues unearthed at Yangzhou], Wenwu, 1980, vol. 4, p. 65.
Compare a related earthenware example of the Tang period, included in the exhibition Tang Ceramic Sculpture, Eskenazi, New York, 2001, cat. no. 13 and two Tang period representations in marble: a head fragment, sold in our New York rooms, 12th September 2018, lot 2 and a small figure standing four square on a lotus base, sold at Christie’s New York, 19th March 2008, lot 392.
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