Rare Sichuan Lama Chest


19th C, Pine, Sichuan.  Full-figure lama image on furniture is rare; not many antique furniture came out of Sichuan; original.
61” W x 19.5” D x 36” H

This Lama Chest is quite rare because not many furniture came from Sichuan due to its geographical isolation, relative inaccessibility, and its virtual self-sufficiency as the region is historically known as the ”Province of Abundance”. A little background of the region serves to illustrate why so few historical relics came out of this area.

Sichuan literally means “Four Rivers”. Geographically, it is a province that consists of two very distinct parts. The eastern part is mostly within the fertile Sichuan basin. The western part consists of the numerous mountain ranges (including the Himalayas), forming the easternmost part of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, which China has claimed part of it as the Tibetan Autonomous Region in the 20th century. The Sichuan Basin and adjacent areas of the Yangtze watershed was a cradle of indigenous civilization dating back to at least the 15th century BC. The province is rich in agriculture, mineral, and textile products. The region thus formed a stage on the trade route connecting the Yellow River watershed with India and the west, the primary means of Eurasian trade before the establishment of the Silk Road under the Han. Buddhism probably came from India to the area even back then.

The majority of the population is Han Chinese who lives scattered throughout the region, but significant minorities of Tibetan, Yi and other ethnic groups reside in the western portion with their own distinct religious beliefs. They practiced Mahayana Buddhism (concept of meritorious deeds such as gives alms and help build monasteries as path to enlightenment), Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese folk religion. This Lama Chest is a good example of the importance of religious influence in the life of these ethnic groups, especially the large amount of Tibetans who migrated to the region due to political and economic reasons. This chest is probably from a Buddhist or Taoist temple, or the residence of a lama.

This Lama Chest is solidly constructed with pine and strengthened with wooden nails. The wide top panel is made from one piece of wood. The side panels are recessed. The thick coat of dark lacquer applied on the surface is now crazed with age and appear leathery, adding character to the piece. There are four panels in front, with the two wider ones in the middle forming doors to a spacious interior divided by a shelf. Each front panel has the image of a lama, all painted with natural mineral colors. Each lama carries an auspicious sign, representing emblems of Buddhism and Taoism. When ribbons are entwined with sacred symbols, they represent the halo radiating from the gods.

A chest with tall lama images as pivotal point is unique, and as with most furniture influenced by Tibet, the value is in the painting and not in the method of construction.