Laozi, Tang dynasty (618–907) or Northern Song dynasty, 8th–11th century
Bronze; H. 9 1/2 in. (24.1 cm), W. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm)
Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1942 (42.25.19)
Seated on a pedestal with his left hand on his knee and his right hand raised and turned outward, this figure may be identified as the deified Laozi, the purported author of the Daodejing, the Scripture of the Way and Virtue. The Daodejing, a short text (about 5,000 characters) written in stylized prose verses, was originally a secular work (often interpreted as a manual on virtuous rulership), but was canonized by the Celestial Masters, who were the first to practice Daoism as an organized religion beginning in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.– 220 A.D.). Representations of the deified Laozi date as early as the sixth century, a time when Daoist iconography developed in response to imported Buddhist images. This sculpture is datable to the Tang (618–906) or early Song (960–1279) dynasty, when Daoism received significant imperial patronage. The Tang rulers even adopted the family name Li, the same name that Laozi is said to have borne when he was still an official at the Zhou (770–256 B.C.) court before he left China for the Western lands.