The present lacquer figure of the bodhisattva Guanyin is an artistic and technical marvel of the late Qing period (1644-1911). It bears the signature of master carver Lu Kuisheng (1779-1850), one of China’s most distinguished and prominent craftsmen, whose name is well documented. The figure’s religious, artistic and technical importance in China’s artistic tradition is significant and warrants our attention.
Popularly known as Guanyin or Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit, we are looking at one of the most favoured deities in the Buddhist world. Recorded as the bodhisattva protagonist in the chapter titled ‘Perceiver of the World’s Sounds (Guanshiyin Pusa)’ in the Lotus Sutra (Miao Fa Lianhua Jing), Guanyin is described by Buddha as the one who perceives the sounds and voices of all those suffering and is the one who compassionately provides release and deliverance from their trials. In the sutra Buddha says, ‘Suppose there are immeasurable hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of living beings who are undergoing various trials and suffering. If they hear of this bodhisattva, Perceiver of the World’s Sounds, and single-mindedly call his name, then at once he will perceive the sound of their voices and they will all gain deliverance from their trials.’1
Lu Kuisheng’s Guanyin sits in a pose of tranquil ease, known as the rājalīlāsana or the ‘royal relaxed pose’. In this asana or seat, the right hand rests on the raised right knee while the left leg is in the usual position of Buddha and the left hand gently placed on the base. Although the pose appears relaxed, the figure’s upright torso belies this and reveals a strength and ease of posture which expresses the complete tranquility of spiritual peace and perfection. The facial expression is one of calm serenity and compassion, with eyes that are slightly lowered as if perceiving an inner reality that is beyond ordinary vision. Guanyin, who came to be represented as an androgynous or female being, is shown here with a graceful feminine body and long, slender fingers and toes. Wearing a headdress over her hair, she is covered in a silk-like garment that drapes down in a fluid cascade around her seat. She is adorned with a single necklace and arm bracelets. Except for the hair which was painted with azurite, the entire figure was originally pasted with gold foil, traces of which remain visible in the folds of her clothes. Lu’s visual representation of Guanyin is notable for its feminine beauty and etherial appeal. He represents her as the embodiment of compassion and as such the sculpture is a votive masterpiece.
Before turning to the technical details of the making of the present figure, let us say a few words about its maker, Lu Kuisheng. Lu was born into a family of master lacquer craftsmen in Yangzhou, a city situated on the north bank of the Yangtze river in Jiangsu province. Historically, Yangzhou became one of the most affluent commercial towns and a leading, vibrant cultural centre from the time of the Ming dynasty. It was the home of many great merchant families, famous artists and accomplished and eccentric scholars. Its reputation as a place for a leisurely life and refined tastes was well established by the time Lu’s forefathers settled down and opened their lacquer workshop in the city. Lu’s grandfather, Lu Yingzhi (fl. ca. 1717), made his name as a renowned lacquer artisan. He is recorded to have excelled in making utensils of all shapes and his carvings were praised for their fineness. The Hualin xinyong, compiled by the eminent critique Chen Wenshu (1771-1843), mentions the Lu family as one of Yangzhou’s most prominent producers of lacquerware and in particular commends Lu Kuisheng as one whose work was of exceedingly high quality.2 We are told that he not only inherited his grandfather’s technical and artistic skills, but elevated lacquerware production to new heights.3 He perfected the sand-lacquer or qisha technique, an effect comparable to the Japanese makie, which was revived by his grandfather having been lost since the Song dynasty (960-1279), but become even more remarkable in Lu’s hands. Apart from carving in various media, Lu was also a talented painter, as evident from a landscape scroll painted by him in 1808, now in the collection of the Nanjing Museum.4 His painterly skills are reflected in his compositions, especially on his ink-slab boxes, many of which bear his signature. Carvings made for the scholar’s studio reflect Lu’s own interest in learning and scholarly pursuits. He was also highly esteemed by the Qing poet and scholar Yuan Mei (1716-1797), who mentions him being well versed in antiquity and one who enjoyed moving in scholarly circles.5
An understanding of the process used to make the present figure enhances our appreciation. Firstly, although a number of works have been attributed to Lu Kuisheng (see below), it is important to note that sculptures bearing his signature are extremely rare. Wang Shixiang and Yuan Quanyou in their study of Lu Kuisheng mention that figure carvings by him represent his unique artistry.6 Made of wood covered in multiple thin layers of cinnabar lacquer, it has an air of extreme delicacy while being solid at the same time. Lacquer fluid was derived from the sap of the Rhus verliciflua tree, a relative of the poison oak plant, primarily found in southern China. Working with the lacquer sap is extremely laborious and time consuming. It can also be hazardous to one’s health as the liquid fluid and its vapours can cause dermatitis and respiratory problems. The material’s toxicity was an occupational hazard for lacquer workers throughout history and remains so to this day. A further occupational idiosyncrasy is mentioned by the 18th century French Jesuit missionary Père d’Incarville who observed how Chinese lacquer artisans were required to strip off nearly all their clothes while working with the material to prevent dust and fibres from settling on the wet lacquer and ruining the coating. The chemical process of polymerisation of the lacquer coating required a constant heat of around 30°C with a humidity of 85%, conditions that prevailed in southern China naturally but were re-created in the north by pouring water over hot rocks like in a Western sauna today.7 The lacquering process itself required several days, weeks or even months to complete because each of the micron thin layers of the lacquer would take many days to cure. Its fashioning demanded patience, precision, a high level of technical know-how, as well as creativity and artistry. Historically, lacquer workshops operated under a system of division of labour, with the Master Artisan (zaogong) overlooking the work of the core carver (sugong), the lacquerer (xiugong), the topcoat lacquerer (shanggong), the touch-up artisan (qinggong), the design painter (huagong) and the gilder (tong’er huangtu gong).8 We have no details of how the Lu family workshop operated but it must have been along the above mentioned principles.
The fashioning of lacquer figures, such as the present Guanyin, employed the technique known as jiazhu, whereby layers of fine cloth strips wet with lacquer are applied to a wood core in order to help create a detailed three-dimensional form. The sculpture is then painted and gilded. Jiazhu was used for wood-core dry-lacquer sculptures as well as for hollow-core dry-lacquer figures, by which the core was removed just after the sculpture was completed. A famous example of the former is the 6th century seated Buddha figure in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, examined in Donna K. Strahan, ‘The Walters Chinese Wood-and-Lacquer Buddha: a Technical Study’, The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, vol. 51, 1993, p. 106. Strahan notes that the jiazhu method was added to the lacquer carver’s repertoire during the second century when Buddhism was introduced to China. Buddhist images began to be made using this lacquering technique. Early texts record a master sculptor called Dai Kui (d. 395 CE) who was known for his great skill at fashioning lacquer Buddhist sculptures. Thus, the jiazhu technique is recognised to be very difficult, time consuming and expensive, and historically has been associated with the best lacquer artists in China.9
For examples of works by Lu Kuisheng see a large red and black lacquer folding screen decorated with the scene of birthday celebration for General Guo Ziyi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, included in the museum’s recent exhibition Cinnabar: The Chinese Art of Carved Lacquer, 14th to 19th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2017. The Palace Museum in Beijing possesses ten pieces by Lu in its collection with two brown-lacquer ink-slab boxes illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Lacquer Wares of the Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong 2006, nos 188 and 189 (fig. 1), the latter made in the qisha technique; and three further examples of boxes are included in the Zhongguo Qiqi Quanji [Complete series on Chinese lacquer], vol. 6: Qing, Fuzhou, 1995, pls 199-201. Seven objects, including the present figure of Guanyin, two sand-lacquer ink-slab boxes, a black lacquer inlay decorated pipa and three lacquered teapots, are discussed in Wang Shixiang and Yuan Quanyou, ‘Yangzhou ming qigong Lu Kuisheng he ta de yixie zuopin [On the famous lacquer craftsman Lu Kuisheng from Yangzhou and some of his works]’, Wenwu / Cultural Relics, 1957, no. 7, pp. 9-13. For further examples see Zhang Yan, ‘Wan Qing Yangzhou qiqi yiren Lu Kuisheng zuopin wenjian lu [Records of Works by the Late Qing Lacquer Artist Lu Kuisheng from Yangzhou], Gugong Bowuyuan yuankan, 1992, no. 1, pp. 44-8; and Zhuang Heng, ‘Jiexiao Qing Lu Kuisheng liangjian you jinian de qigong zuoping [Introducing two recorded lacquer works by the Qing dynasty Lu Kuisheng], Wenwu / Cultural Relics, 1989, no. 12, pp. 88-9.
1 See William Theodore de Bary, Sources of East Asian Tradition: Premodern Asia, vol. 1, New York, 2008, p. 255. For a comprehensive study of Guanyin see Chun-fang Yu, Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteshvara, New York, 2001.
2 See Wang Shixiang and Yuan Quanyou, ‘Yangzhou ming qigong Lu Kuisheng he ta de yixie zuopin [On the famous lacquer craftsman Lu Kuisheng from Yangzhou and some of his works]’, Wenwu / Cultural Relics, 1957, no. 7, p. 11.
3 See Gerard Tsang and Hugh Moss, Arts from the Scholar’s Studio, Hong Kong, 1986, p. 102.
4 Shi Zhilian, ‘Tan Qing Lu Kuisheng zhi qi wenju xia [A discussion of a stationery box by the Qing dynasty Lu Kuisheng], Wenwu / Cultural Relics, 1989, no. 12, p. 87.
5 See Gerard Tsang and Hugh Moss, op.cit., p. 102.
6 See Wang and Yuan Quanyou, op.cit., p. 13.
7 On the health hazards of Chinese artisans working with lacquer see Antony Barbieri-Low, Artisans in Early Imperial China, Seattle and London, 2007, pp. 100-1.
8 Ibid., p. 79.
9 Donna K. Strahan, ‘The Walters Chinese Wood-and-Lacquer Buddha: a Technical Study’, The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, vol. 51, 1993, p. 107.
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