Taoist Figure on Horseback
Item No. 16513
18th Century, Taoist / Popular Religions, China
Lacquer over Wood and Polychrome
21.5" x 10" x 5.5"
( 54.61 x 25.4 x 13.97 cm)
(H x W x D)
Taoism, which originated in China at the end of the Han dynasty in 200 A.D. with the writings of Lao Tzu, has been described as a unique combination of philosophy and religion combined with proto-science and magic. From earliest times the goals of Taoist devotees were the union of human spirits with the Celestial world in pursuit of immortality and the ability to communicate with the Celestial world. These aims are referred to as transcendence and divine fervor. At the core of Taoism is a belief that achieving a balance of yin and yang is the key to spiritual peace and that immortality can be achieved through living in harmony with nature. Folk heroes, famous generals and sages are among the individuals who are believed to have gained immortal status, and images of these immortals grace the insides of Taoist temples and shrines in residences of devotees.
Taoism requires one to maintain a good relationship with the deities who control human fate, which requires the observance of certain popular hallowed paths of conduct and leading a moral life. Taoists pay obeisance to deities who are regarded as masters whose teachings can lead them to immortality through yoga, breathing and exercises or chemical and herbal mixtures. Priests and masters can specialize in divination or oracular interpretation, or pursuit of higher knowledge and the quest for immortality. Other immortals can provide a model of morality or protect followers by casting out demonic spirits.
Even experts concur that it is difficult or sometimes not possible to determine the exact identification of the Taoist deities and immortals in Taoist temples or in home shrines. That said, an educated guess based on the writings of Keith Sevens, a well respected authority on Chinese deities, indicates that these images may be two of the Thirty-Six Generals (San-shih Liu Kuan-chiang). whose carved and painted images line the side walls of main halls of Chinese temples, particularly in Taiwan and South-East Asia. They represent heroes and heroines from ancient and often mythological periods of Chinese history. They are now regarded as the commanders of armies consisting of tamed demonic spirits under the overall command of the main deity in each temple. Although many of the generals have specific attributes, the great majority do not and are thus not identifiable.
The immortals are seated on horses in official’s garments with official “winged” hats with lateral extensions traditionally associated with Taoist images. The robes are emphasized by the deep red lacquer tones in contrast to the natural stain of the horses. The masterfully carved faces reflect their status as sages, with high cheekbones and elongated ears. One has his hand with his mid finger and thumb touching, an essentially Buddhist mudra of teaching, and the other figure has his hand raised with the pointing and pinky fingers raised in an “anger fist” mudra, symbolizing the casting out of demons.
This extremely rare pair of images is dated circa 1800 and was probably placed in a temple or on the home altar in a wealthy residence. In the latter case, it may have shared its hallowed location with Buddhist images, ancestor figures, and Confucian artifacts, as Chinese families often adhered to many spiritual belief systems.
Stevens, Keith, "Cinese Gods, The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons,"Collins and Brown Limited, London, 199