A Shiwan ‘Laughing Buddha’

By Ng Seng Leong, SEACS member, and author of Culture in Clay: Symbolism & Iconography in Chinese Ceramics

“During the Ming and early Qing Dynasties, the Shiwen kilns were better known for their architectural and utilitarian wares”

Chinese ceramics (old and new) are known for their wide repertoire of figurines relating to important historical statesmen, warriors, scholars, characters from folklore, mythology and last but not least, religious deities selected mainly from Daoist and Buddhist iconography. 

One of my favourite characters is the popular ‘Laughing Buddha’ sometimes known also as the ‘ Calico bag monk ‘ a euphemism for Maitreya or the Buddha of the Future. Essentially, the Maitreya was a devoted disciple of Buddha who had attained the revered status of a bodhisattva, in Sanskrit literally an ‘enlightened being’ or one destined to become a buddha. In the Buddhist hierarchy there are many. Another example of a bodhisattva is the popular goddess Guanyin.

The popular name of the “laughing Buddha’ has its origin from China. It was said that towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, there was a Buddhist monk called QiCi often seen carrying a cloth bag filled with gifts of candy and fruits.  At the market place he would distribute these items to children who would gather around him. He would also bring fortune and hope to people during difficult times and offer advice on how to help themselves. His deeds so impressed the people that they believed him to be the reincarnation of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. His constant smiling demeanour earned him the popular name of the ‘Laughing Buddha’. Partly for this reason, as well as his stature of Maitreya, he has earned a place in the homes of many Chinese and collectors.

The above figurine is one of my favourites among the twenty-odd Laughing Buddhas in my collection. This is an 18th century Shiwan figurine. The most important attraction to me is the beautiful glaze known as the Shiwan blue jun glaze. As usual with Shiwan figurines, the head and part of the torso is unglazed. This unglazed biscuit enabled the potter to make the facial expression as realistic as possible. Thus the smiling face with his typical rotund belly and a pair of drooping ear lobes fully reflect the unmistakable character of the ‘Laughing Buddha’. You may note, too, that while the sitting position is the most popular posture, you will also see the ‘Laughing Buddha’ in a standing position. In both cases, you will note that the calico bag is always there, usually next to him.

The second reason for my pick of this figurine is the unforgettable memory it brings to me. I was in London on a business trip some twenty years ago. It was love at first sight when I first spotted it in an antique shop. It was sitting pretty on a shelf behind the elderly Chinese boss lady from whom I had bought some pieces before. Excited, I asked without hesitation the price of this ‘Laughing Buddha’. To my surprise and dismay, she promptly said it was not for sale. As if to discourage me further, she added quickly that she had brought this figurine from her home for her own viewing pleasure. Like a rejected suitor, I was not going to just sulk and accept ‘no’ for an answer. I persisted like a pest and refused to go away. After much persuasion (and I guess, having failed to drive me away), she relented and gave me a price. I accepted without hesitation–quite unlike my usual practice of striking a bargain first. I reckoned I couldn’t risk being rejected a second time. I was a happy man when I finally walked away. This figurine is still with me, giving me immense pleasure quite apart from the happy experience and memory that it brings me each time I look at it.

Copies of the author’s 393-page richly illustrated guide Culture in Clay: Symbolism & Iconography in Chinese Ceramics ((ISBN 978-981-09-0092-2, Singapore, 2014) may be purchased directly from the author. Contact SEACS for the relevant contact information.