A Glimpse Into History of the Dali Kingdom in China Through Buddhist Sculptures

Dali Kingdom (937-1253) was an independent state in the region covering present-day Yunnan province, Guizhou Province, southwestern Sichuan Province in China, and northern Burma, Laos and Vietnam. It coexisted with the Song Dynasty (907–1279) with a similar life span. After the Nanzhao Kingdom (738-902) was overthrown, three short-lived dynasties succeeded before Duan Siping established the Dali Kingdom.

Dali Old Town, Yunnan

Chongsheng Temple in Dali Old Town, Yunnan

Three Pagodas in Dali Old Town, Yunnan

Azhaliism, a Vajrayana Buddhist religion, was introduced to the Nanzhao Kingdom in the 9th century. The last king of Nanzhao established Buddhism as a state religion and the tradition continued in the Dali Kingdom. Buddhism was a major religion that many temples were built around Dali and on Shibaoshan Mountain as centers for Buddhist teaching. Of the 22 kings who ruled the Dali Kingdom, nearly half of them abdicated throne to become a monk.

Gilt Bronze Figure of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Dali Kingdom. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Slender body, elongated proportions, and distinctive facial features are typical of Dali-Kingdom sculptures. This figure’s slender body, elongated proportions, and distinctive facial features are typical of Dali-Kingdom sculptures. Those features not only distinguish such images from sculptures produced in Song-dynasty China but closely link them to sculptures created in India and Southeast Asia.

These features can be found in a gilt-bronze standing figure of an Acuoye Guanyin from the Dali Kingdom, which will be offered at Christie’s Asia Week this March. Acuoye Guanyin, one of the key deities in Azhaliism, is a classic Buddhist image in Dali sculptures.

“Acuoye Guanyin” first appeared in the Nanzhao tuzhuan (南詔圖傳), a long, illustrated handscroll depicting the history of the Nanzhao Kingdom. The scroll, dated by inscription to AD 898, represents the prophecy made by an Indian monk, which predicted the rise to power of the Meng family and the casting of a bronze Acuoye Guanyin modelled on the monk’s mental vision. The Indian monk was actually a manifestation of Acuoye Guanyin. This leads to one theory that the name “Acuoye” is a transliteration of the Sanskrit term acharya, which means “preceptor”. Other scholars have suggested that the name “Acuoye” may be a transliteration of the Sanskrit term ajaya, which means “all victorious”.

The Acuoye Guanyin is represented in this sculpture as a tall, slender figure standing with his right hand raised in vitarkamudra, gesture that emblemises both intellectual discussion and the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings, and left hand in varadamudra, gift-giving gesture.

With the long hair is drawn up into a tall coiffure (jatamukuta) bound by a band, the Acuoye Guanyin features a central seated image of Amitabha Buddha at the base of his high topknot of hair. Considered a spiritual emanation of Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara is the only bodhisattva in whose crown or headdress Amitabha appears.

A gilt-bronze figure of a multi-armed Guanyin. Dali Kingdom

Due to the short history of the Dali Kingdom, which lasted for 315 years only, Dali sculptures are rare. Many of them are now lost due to the invasion in the Dali Kingdom by the Mongols whereas some were yet to be unearthed after being buried by the Dali people during the conquest. Some figures were excavated after a thousand year when construction projects dug underground around the Yunnan region. It is therefore extremely rare to find Dali sculptures in a well-preserved condition. A number of examples are now kept in the collection of major museums around the world or in private hands.

A Highly Important and Extremely Rare Gilt-bronze Figure of a Multi-Armed Guanyin
China, Yunnan, Dali Kingdom, 11th-12th Century

Lot no.: 814
Height: 38cm

  • The Pan-Asian Collection (Christian Humann, d. 1981), New York, by 1972.
  • Alice Boney, New York, 1983.
  • The Irving Collection, no. 871.

Estimate: US$4,000,000 - 6,000,000

A Rare Gilt-bronze Standing Figure of an Acuoye Guanyin
China, Yunnan, Dali Kingdom, 12th Century

Lot no.: 813
Height: 45.7cm

  • Private Collection, United States, acquired in Tokyo in 1946.
  • The property of a gentleman; Christie’s New York, 6 November 1980, lot 209.
  • Robert H. Ellsworth, New York.
  • The Irving Collection, no. 1949.

Estimate: US$2,000,000 - 3,000,000

Auction details
Auction house: Christie’s New York
Address: 20 Rockefeller Center, New York
Sale: Lacquer, Jade, Bronze, Ink: The Irving Collection Evening Sale
Auction date: 20 March 2019|7pm
14 - 16 March 2019|10am - 5pm
17 March 2019|1pm - 5pm
18 - 19 March 2019|10am - 5pm
20 March 2019|10am - 2pm