The present figure, portrayed with a full beard and a distinctive hat, holding a fan in his right hand, while his left arm rests on a three-legged armrest, appears to depict Laojun or Daode Tianzun (Celestial Worthy of the Way and Its Virtue), one of the three highest Gods in the Daoist pantheon, together with Yuanshi Tianjun (Celestial Venerable of the Primordial Beginning) and Lingbao Tianzun (Celestial Lord of the Spiritual Treasures), forming the Three Purities.
In Daoist beliefs, Laojun incarnated as the renowned Chinese philosopher Laozi to advocate Daoism. While the first mention of Laozi is found in the Shiji (Records of Historians) by Sima Qian, depictions of the deity in sculptural form did not appear until the 2nd and 3rd century AD. It is also in this period that Laozi began to be regarded as the central deity of the cosmos. The collapse of the Han dynasty had a great impact on the development of Daoism, as it turned from a philosophical current into a religion with a specific set of beliefs and practices. The transformation is attributed in part to the spiritual leader Zhang Daoling, who lived during the Eastern Han dynasty, and claimed to have had a revelation of the deified Laozi who ordered him to organize his devotees into a movement, which later came to be known as the Tianshi Dao (The Way of the Celestial Masters).
Compare two similar gilt-bronze Daoist figures from the Tang dynasty, each modeled with the same full beard, hat and three-legged armrest, illustrated in Saburo Matsubara, Chinese Buddhist Sculpture. A Study Based on Bronze and Stone Statues other than from Cave Temples, Tokyo, 1966, p. 312, figs. c and d. See also a stone figure of Laozi, similarly depicted and also holding a fan, attributed to the Tang dynasty, in the Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne, exhibited in Taoism and the Arts of China, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 2000, cat. no. 39; and two stone steles, each carved with Tianzun portrayed in a similar manner in the middle flanked by two attendants, one dated by inscription to the 2nd year of Linde, corresponding to 665, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the other dated either to 694 or 703, in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., published in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, vol. III, New York, 1925, pls. 386A and B.