White elephants were either seen as vehicles of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Ch. Puxian), usually grouped in Buddhist triads of Sakyamuni Buddha opposite the bodhisattva Manjusri riding a lion, or in their own right as symbols of strength, sagacity and moral purity.
Stone figures of elephants are extremely rare, although one other very similar beast in the collection of the Yangzhou City Museum, Yangzhou, is illustrated in S. Matsubara, Chugoku bukkyo chokokushi ron (The Path of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture), vol. 3, Tang, Five Dynasties, Sung and Taoism Sculpture, Tokyo, 1995, pl. 774C. Related figures of elephants of similar size occur slightly more frequently in white-glazed pottery, supporting foliate candelabra on their backs. One was exhibited by Eskenazi Ltd., Ceramic Sculpture from Han and Tang China, New York, 1997, cat. no. 11, and is now illustrated in R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. III (pt. I), London, 2006, pp. 174-5, no. 1184, together with a rare sancai-glazed elephant, p. 177, no. 1186. Two other white-glazed pottery examples, formerly in the Jakob Goldschmidt collection, were exhibited Ausstellung Chinesischer Künst, Gesellshaft für Ostasiatische Künst und Preussische Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 1929, cat. nos. 364 and 365; of which, no. 364 was sold Sotheby's New York, 17 October 2001, lot 96, and no. 365, with the unusual feature of a foreign bearer supporting a single foliate candle-holder, was sold Sotheby's New York, 24 March 1998, lot 571. Other less elaborate or more rudimentary published examples are in the Shanghai Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, and in Japan.
There is also the possibility that the present marble beast originally supported a bodhisattva figure. Compare a smaller gilt-bronze votive image of Samantabhadra riding an elephant, in the collection of the Hamamatsu Museum, illustrated in Matsubara, op. cit., pls. 801(b) and 802 (a and b), and recently included in the Special Exhibition of Buddhist Gilt-bronze Figures, Sen-Oku Hakukokan, Kyoto, 2004, cat. no. 38; as well as the larger marble example, formerly in the collection of General Munthe, Beijing, circa 1920, illustrated in O. Sirèn, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, vol. II, London, 1925, pl. 585A. Both the marble and the gilt-bronze versions are now ascribed to the Liao period, although over-life-size stone elephants are also known flanking 'spirit roads' of the tombs of Northern Song rulers. See Sirèn, ibid., pls. 554B and 556A which show the access routes to the tumuli of the Renzong emperor (d. 1063) and Yingzong emperor (d. 1067) respectively, in Gongxian, Henan province.
Technical examination report available upon request.