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Wood Toaist on Horseback
Item No. 16148

19th Century, Taoist / Popular Religions, China
Wood with Gilt
8" x 5" x 2.75"
( 20.32 x 12.7 x 6.985 cm)
(H x W x D)

Images such as this one are extremely difficult to identify, as there is a paucity of literature in English on Taoism and little of what is published identifies figures other than in broad generalities. This charming diminutive carving probably represents a Taoist priest seated astride a horse in a very active position with his right hand held aloft holding what appears to be a teal, --- a gold bar that generally represents wealth -- and grasping the horse’s reins in his left hand.

Taoist personages are often depicted on horses, reflecting the belief that the Way of the Tao stresses oneness with nature. In his article “The Tao on Horsemanship,” Ritter quotes the Tao Te Chin (Ritter): “The Master keeps her mind always at one with the Tao; that is what gives her radiance.” He emphasizes the use of horses in symbolizing the harmony and elegance of nature stating, “It may not appear immediately obvious, but these two lines from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching describe the same mindset as the great European equestrian authors: “The dressage artist rides and trains in harmony with Nature - at one with the Tao -, which gives his horses and his work radiance and expressiveness. The converse is equally true. Where the laws of Nature are violated, beauty is lost, and horse and rider become caricatures.”
The official/priest is dressed in garments traditionally associated with Taoist images: a two part robe which extends to the tops his feet and is crossed at the neck and held at the chest or waist with a disk. Atop his head is the winged cap of a priest. The horse, with his head titled askance, stands square-footed with his tail extending below the plinth on which he stands. The hairs on the legs are arranged in triangular decorative patterns with the right leg slightly bent and held up. The rider sits on a large decorative blanket with a thin border that extends down each side of the horse.

This statue may have originally been placed on an altar containing a mix of Taoist, Buddhist and popular religion deities. Taoist officials are regarded as masters whose teachings can lead devotees to immortality through yoga, breathing, exercises, chemical and herbal mixtures and union with the Celestial world. Priests, such as this image, may specialize in divination, oracular interpretation, the pursuit of higher knowledge, the quest for immortality or a combination of these endeavors.

The image originally had a lacquer finish, with red and black on the robes and brownish mustard on the horse. Some of the coating has flaked over time, and some has faded due to the natural oxidation of lacquer over the years, and some has been covered by a black layer of smoke from incense which was burned in front of the image when it was on the altar. The back of the carving has a niche closed with a rectangular covering referred to as a “bung” The cavity contains documents – messages to ancestors, or selected sutras and prayers - which was placed there during an eye opening ceremony when the statue was consecrated.

Taoism requires one to maintain a good relationship with the deities who control human fate, and this requires observing certain popular and hallowed paths of conduct and leading a moral life. Part of its teachings entails proficiency in dealing with the supernatural. The gods of the Taoist pantheon are abstract, and are identified as the True Ones and the Heavenly Worthies. They are stellar beings who are members of the Celestial bureaucracy, who cannot be invoked by humans since they are separated from mere mortals by their extreme power and superior essence. 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 that Celestial world. These aims are referred to as transcendence and divine fervor. There is also a reverence for those who are believed to have gained immortal status such as historical folk heroes, famous generals and sages.


Dr. Thomas Ritter, “The Tao of Horsemanship - Chapter One,”, 2005

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