A Pottery Statue of a Lo-han

By: C. W. B.

Originally Published in 1914

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One of the most striking characters in Chinese history, ancient or modern, is Shih Huang Ti, of the Ch’in dynasty—the Napoleon of China, as he has been called—who reigned from 246 to 209 B. C. and was therefore contemporary with Hannibal and Scipio Africanus. He it was who transformed the heterogeneous group of feudal principalities constituting the ancient kingdom of China—a mere patch, comprising but a small part of the northern half of the modern China proper—into a true centralized empire. It was he who beat back the terrible Hiung-nu1 and then, as a safeguard against their further attacks, built the Great Wall, one of the most gigantic tasks ever carried out by man. He extended his power over many of the “barbarian” tribes then living in what we today call South China, strengthening his influence over them by the construction of numerous roads. That China is today what she is, is due in no small measure to this extraordinary man.

In all his great undertakings, however, it was Shih Huang Ti’s fate to be bitterly opposed by the class of the literati, intensely conservative and hide-bound, and prejudiced in favor of the old feudal , separatism and anarchy, which the emperor, with immense efforts, had brought to an end. At length, wearied, apparently, by this continual harping on the “good old times,” Shih Huang Ti determined upon a radical step. He ordered the destruction of all records of the past—the famous “Burning of the Books.”*2 The great emperor died B. C. 209, and with him were buried many of his wives and servants, as well as much treasure.

Figure of a luohan seated cross legged in meditation wearing a jiasha
Fig. 69. — Chinese Statue of the Seventh Century representing a Lo-Han or Disciple of Buddha.
Museum Object Number: C66A

With the next dynasty, that of the Han (B. C. 206 to A. D. 221), one of the most illustrious periods of Chinese history, came the era when direct and regular communication with the peoples of western Asia and India was opened up. Buddhism, though probably known long before, was only officially introduced in A. D. 67, not without strenuous opposition on the part of the Confucianists.†1 The new doctrine was not, however, very actively propagated until the time of the T’ang dynasty (A. D. 618-907). Some time before the establishment of that dynasty, conditions in India having changed, the headquarters of Buddhism were transferred to China, the twenty-eighth patriarch, Bôdhidharma, coming to Canton in 520 A. D. Large numbers of Indian monks, exiled from their native land, emigrated to the new home of their faith, carrying with them their sacred images and pictures, as well as the traditional canons of style and the wonderfully rich symbolism which characterize Buddhistic art.

There followed close upon the heels of this stimulus a wonderfully rich development of culture, which manifested itself in many ways, but in none to a greater degree than in art, which was carried to such a lofty plane that the period has received the well-deserved title of the “Augustan Age of China.”

The University Museum was fortunate enough to secure, in Paris, last June, one of the finest of surviving art treasures of this epoch of the T’angs, in the shape of a pottery statue of a Lo-han,‡1or disciple of the Buddha.
Four of these statues, as well as one torso, are known to have come to Europe recently, all of them, apparently, found in a cave in the hills near Ichou, in the Province of Chihli. Of these the two best went to the British Museum and the University Museum respectively.

Mr. F. Perzynski was first among Europeans to visit the grotto, and a delightful account of his adventures was printed in Die neue Rundschau for October of last year.

Mr. Perzynski tells us that he first saw one of the statues at an art dealer’s in Peking, and—to quote his own words—” Its owners, as they showed it to me, gloated over my deep astonishment. Never had I seen the like.” He goes on to say that at first, in spite of the long-lobed ears, *3 he felt sure it was an actual portrait statue of some priest. Later developments showed, it is true, that it was undoubtedly a representation, from the Chinese standpoint, of a Lo-han; but even so it is impossible to resist the impression that it, together with its companion statues, was modeled from the life.

The cave in which the statues were found, says Mr. Perzynski, is so inaccessible that it would have been too much even for Chinese piety to use it for devotional purposes. Therefore he considers that it must have been a hiding-place, where the statues were placed during some period of great danger—such, for example, as the persecutions of the ninth century, when ten thousand Buddhist temples, †2 as well as vast quantities of priceless treasures of sacred art, were destroyed by Confucian and Taoist rivals of the ” foreign ” faith. Or the Lo-han may have been concealed at the time of the great Mongol invasion, in the thirteenth century, when hordes of savage horse-riding nomads from Inner Asia were rushing over the country like an avalanche, perpetrating those awful massacres which everywhere accompanied their conquests, from Korea to Hungary and eastern Germany.‡2 At all events, a stone tablet, found in the cave, on an altar, stated that the said altar had been restored during the period of Cheng Te (A. D. 1506-1522), which, as Mr. Perzynski justly remarks, would imply that the altar was already old.

The statues are real works of genius, and in all probability were all made by one hand. From the standpoint of technique alone it would tax modern artists to duplicate them. The one now in the University Museum shows in many ways a striking resemblance to that in the British Museum.*4 It is somewhat above life-size, and the Lo-han is represented as sitting cross-legged, in the conventional attitude of meditation. It is modeled in a rather soft white pottery, with a polychrome surface covered by a transparent glaze; or possibly the colors are embodied in the glaze itself. They comprise a warm orange-yellow, a leaf-green, and a white, the latter covered here and there with a brownish incrustation, deposited during the time that the statue lay concealed in the cave; this is noticeable especially on the hands and chest, and in places on the lower portions of the figure.

The Lo-han is shown wearing two garments, an inner one of white (now turned a light brown by the incrustation mentioned above) and an outer, rich green in color, with long pendant sleeves. The handling of the drapery is past praise—as natural and unaffected as could possibly be imagined. Each of the two garments is folded “right over left” upon the breast. Besides these garments, and more important than either, from the standpoint of religious symbolism, is the scarf, sometimes spoken of as the “plaited wrapper.” It is shown worn over the two other garments, but leaving the right shoulder and sleeve uncovered. This robe is inseparable from the true Indian concept of the Buddha and his followers, and in the art of India is usually shown as the only garment worn. This point is exceedingly well brought out in the statue shown in Fig. 33 of the June issue of this JOURNAL. This figure also shows clearly the rectangular pattern, or ” plaiting,” which in the case of the Lo-han is indicated by broad orange-colored bands.

It seems probable, too, that the artist wished to indicate the diaphanous, semi-transparent character of this scarf, to judge by the clouded effect, in green, orange, and white, seen in the spaces between the bands just mentioned. The suggestion has been made that these represent the different colors of the garment itself. There is, it is true, a legend to the effect that a certain Indian king, Prasênadjit by name,†3 once mistook Buddha’s followers for ordinary doctors, on account of the similarity of their garb; in consequence of which, the Master directed that in future they should wear, as a distinguishing mark, cloaks composed of various hued pieces of cloth sewn together. If this feature is represented at all, however, in the costume of the Lo-han, it seems more likely that the rectangular banded pattern already described has been intended to do duty for it; for the mottling is so extremely irregular that it seems impossible it can be meant for anything else than the green outer garment, dimly seen through the semi-transparent orange-yellow scarf.

The modeling of the hands and the right foot (the left is hidden under the robe) is full of strength, and affords another proof of the ability of the artist. The graceful taper of the fingers, like the exaggerated ear-lobes already mentioned, is one of the thirty-two “signs of auspiciousness.” Unfortunately the right thumb is lost; but the position in which the hand is held is such as to render the lack almost imperceptible, save on very close inspection. Aside from this relatively trifling injury, the statue is in perfect preservation.

The head, of course, is shaven, the area denuded of hair being indicated by green coloring. The rule of shaving the head and beard appears to have been in force since the earliest times, although, as is well known, the Buddha himself is usually represented with his head covered with little tufts or curls of hair, supposed always to twist to the right.

The pupils of the eyes are a deep velvety brown—almost a black —while the edges of the lids are faintly touched with green, doubtless to suggest the lashes. Rather curiously, considering the general realism of the statue, the lips are quite untinted, being of the same colorless white as the face.*5

The brows are slightly contracted, to indicate the intensity and concentration of thought needful to that complete mastery of the Four Noble Truths essential to the attainment of the degree of Lo-han. In the presence of this calm and dignified attitude of abstraction, one cannot help recalling the lines of Matthew Arnold:

The East bowed low before the blast
In patient deep disdain,
She let the legions thunder past
And plunged in thought again.”

Whether viewed from the front or from the side, the strength and power suggested by the features are really tremendous. The best traditions of Buddhistic art insist upon the expression of the eternal reality of the spirit, rather than the portrayal of the ephemeral and transitory material aspect. This the unknown genius to whom we owe the conception of this Lo-han was beyond doubt striving to do; and, as a result of his success, we have in this masterpiece an object of art quite as worthy of admiration and study as the works of the great masters of classical antiquity.

C. W. B.

*1 There is little doubt, in the light of the most recent investigations, that these Central Asian horse-archers were the ancestors of those Huns who, under Attila, the “Scourge of God,” so nearly wrecked European civilization several centuries after the time of Shih Huang Ti.

*2Early Chinese books, such as those which Shill Huang Ti ordered destroyed, were not of paper, which was not then invented. They were composed of thin slips, or tablets, either of wood or of bamboo, “on which characters were written by means of a pencil of wood or bamboo, slightly frayed at the end, so as to take up a colored liquid.”

†1Rather curiously, Buddha and Confucius seem to have been almost exactly contemporaries; the accepted dates are, for the former B. C. 568-488, and for the latter B. C. 551-478.

‡1The Lo-han (or Arhats, to give them their Indian name; the corresponding Japanese term is Rakan) form in many ways an interesting parallel to the Twelve Apostles of Christianity. Properly speaking, the term ” Arhat ” is applied to anyone who has passed the various degrees of saintship; it is that stage of spiritual development which is succeeded either by Buddhaship itself, or by immediate entrance into Nirvana. In its narrowest sense the title is restricted to the personal disciples of Shâkyamuni (the historical Buddha), reckoned in India as being sixteen in number, in China as eighteen.

*3One of the thirty-two lakshanas, or “signs of auspiciousness,” found on the persons of all true Buddhas and Bôdhisats; for a list of the more important of these, see THE MUSEUM JOURNAL for June of the current year (p. 69).

†2 This, of course, is one of those round numbers which Chinese writers are so fond of using.

‡2Careful historians have computed that between twenty and thirty millions of people perished in this way. More than once the Mongol hosts, though anything but squeamish, were forced to leave a district on account of the unbearable odor of countless corpses decaying in surrounding regions. This wholesale slaughter seems to have been inspired by a definite policy of terrorizing the enemy, as well as by sheer blood-lust and innate cruelty.

*4For an excellent account of this latter, see The Burlington Magazine for May of the current year.

†3He was an early convert and patron of Shâkyamuni; since he had a statue of the latter made, he is considered one of the originators of Buddhist idolatry.

*5This, as well as the use of green to indicate the eyelashes and the shaven portion of the scalp, were possibly necessitated by limitations in the pigments available.

Cite This Article

B., C. W.. "A Pottery Statue of a Lo-han." The Museum Journal V, no. 3 (September, 1914): 129-135. Accessed April 24, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/364/

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