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Luohan – Yixian Glazed Ceramic Sculpture (British Museum)

Luohan - Yixian Glazed Ceramic Sculpture - British Museum - Joy of Museums

Luohan – Yixian Glazed Ceramic Sculpture

This life-size, glazed terracotta sculpture of a seated figure represents a Luohan. A Luóhàn is a Chinese term for an arhat, one of the historical disciples of the Buddha. As Buddhist tradition developed, the most important were regarded as almost bodhisattvas or fully enlightened beings, with a range of supernatural powers. The understanding of these Buddhist concepts has changed over the centuries and varies between different schools of Buddhism and different regions

This sculpture of Luohan shows him seated with his hands on his lap, wearing a monk’s robes of green and brown is one of a set of 8 to 10 life-size Luohans made during the Liao dynasty (907–1125) which were discovered near caves, south of Beijing, in 1912. They reached the international art market and were bought for Western collections. The circumstances of the find and the details of how these figures entered the global art market have not been clarified.

The surviving Lohans from this discovery are so individually and uniquely modeled that they are considered as portraits of different eminent monks. Each of the Lohans has long ears, with variances in earlobe piercing and stretching. The green hair of this figure is a departure from naturalism, as is the openwork base, which is intended to suggest a mountain retreat of the ascetic monk. This significant glazed ceramic figure shows how the modeling traditions developed for Chinese pottery tomb figures were extended to Buddhism. In the Ming and Qing periods imposing representations of many deities were made, and the brilliant glazing of this figure resembles that of figures decorating traditional Chinese temple buildings.

Earlobe Piercing and Stretching

Piercing the earlobes is a commonplace activity in many cultures in many historical eras. Some cultures practice earlobe stretching, using piercing ornaments to extend and enlarge the earlobes to accommodate plugs. Ear stretching is a ritual that has been practiced by people all over the world from ancient times. Bone, horn, wood, and stone were generally carved for ear stretching, but other organic materials from shells to teeth and claws, have also been used.

Historically, the practice has been used to achieve social status, to scare enemies in war, and for beauty purposes. It has been and still is a common practice for people in many parts of the world, for religious or other cultural purposes.

In Buddist tradition, Gautama Buddha was an aristocratic and wealthy prince who had long stretched ears. He wore heavy gold earrings or precious stones as a status symbol, and the weight stretched his earlobes dramatically. When he finally renounced his wealth and discarded his jewelry, his earlobes were permanently stretched. As a way of remembering Buddha’s act of personal self-sacrifice in walking away from his wealth, thus all images of Buddha show his stretched earlobes without jewelry.

Luohan – Yixian Glazed Ceramic Sculpture

  • Title:                Luohan – Yixian Glazed Ceramic Sculpture
  • Date:                907-1125
  • Found:             Yizhou caves, Yi Xian,  Hebei, China
  • Materials:        Lead-glazed terracotta
  • Culture:           Liao dynasty
  • Dimensions:   H: 103 cm; W: 120 kg (Figure) W: 106 kg (Base)
  • Museum:        The British Museum

A Tour of the British Museum

Ancient Egypt and Sudan Collection

Middle East Collection

Ancient Greece and Rome Collection

Britain, Europe, and Prehistory Collection

Asian Collection

Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection

The Prints and Drawings Collection

Information on The British Museum


  • What secrets does this 1,000-year-old sculpture hold?
  • In what fundamental ways does Buddhist art vary between different schools of Buddhism and different regions?
  • Would the secret story of the discovery and journey of this sculpture make a fascinating story?
  • If this statue had not been secured in a museum, would that have survived?
  • What do you think when you see people with extreme earlobe piercing or stretching?


“You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.”
– Buddha


Photo Credit: 1) JOM 

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