The iconography of this gilt-bronze figure of Guanyin is extremely unusual and intriguing. The stylization of the drapery and the double lotus base are characteristic of gilt-bronze figures of the early- to mid-Qing, 17th-18th century, such as the gilt-bronze figure of Buddha Dipankara, dated by inscription to 1662, in the collection of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (accession no. 1989.110.62; illustrated by D. P. Leidy, D. Strahan, et al., Wisdom Embodied, Chinese Buddhist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, p. 23). (Fig. 1) The head, however, with its elaborate, tall coiffure and twisted cords of hair falling in loops behind the pendulous ears, is based on that of a distinctive group of figures produced for the Duan royal family of the kingdom of Dali (AD 937–1253), an independent state in southwestern China that was coeval with China’s Song dynasty (AD 907–1279) and more or less congruent with present-day Yunnan province. See, for example, the 12th-century, Dali Kingdom figure of this type in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, illustrated ibid., pp. 136-38, and another example, also from the collection of Florence and Herbert Irving, sold at Christie’s New York, 20 March 2019, lot 813. (Fig. 2) These Dali Kingdom figures, which feature images of seated Buddha Amitabha at the base of the high topknot of hair, are identified as Acuoye Guanyin, a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, and are thought to have been made as icons for members of the ruling Duan Family signifying their legitimacy to rule. Images of Acuoye Guanyin do not appear to continue beyond the 12th to early 13th century. Following the invasion by the Mongols in 1253, the members of the Duan royal family were enfeoffed by Kublai Khan and served as vassals to the Mongols until the Ming conquest of Yunnan in 1381.
By the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the geographical area of the ancient Dali Kingdom was under the control of Beijing. As a newly established dynasty, the Qing, who were themselves Manchus and not of Han Chinese descent, relied on the discipline and support of other foreign ethnic groups for their dominance of China proper. In the pursuit of this goal, the Manchus propagated and heavily patronized Tibetan-style Buddhism, which appealed directly to the peoples of Tibet and Mongolia, and many gilt-bronze figures attest to the adoption of Tibetan-style Buddhism at the Qing Court. Tibetan-style Buddhism also appears to have found at least some favor in Yunnan, as evidenced by an unpublished gilt-bronze figure of Amitayus dated to the 18th century in the Potala Palace, Tibet, which is inscribed Lijiang tu si zao (Made for the Chiefdom of Lijiang), Lijiang being a city in northwest Yunnan.
While the present figure appears to possibly be unique in its combination of Dali-Kingdom imagery and early- to mid-Qing, Tibeto-Chinese Buddhist style, two further gilt-bronze figures of Acuoye Guanyin dating to the 17th-18th century -- one dated to the Qianlong period, from the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, now in the Luoyang Museum, and the very similar figure in the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (accession no. 18.266), dated 10th-13th century or later, but likely contemporaneous with the Beijing Palace example -- speak to a revival of this particular Buddhist deity in the early Qing period. (Fig. 3) Both of these figures depict Acouye Guanyin seated in rajalilasana (royal ease) wearing a jeweled necklace and arm bands and a dhoti secured by a knotted sash, in keeping with the style of the 10th-13th century prototypes. The interest in the arts of the past during the early Qing period is well known in many categories of Chinese art, including the area of Buddhist sculpture. For another example of such archaism in Buddhist sculpture, see the 7th-8th century Kashmiri bronze figure of Buddha in the Qing Court Collection, illustrated in Classics of the Forbidden City: Tibetan Buddhist Sculptures, Beijing, 2009, p. 118, no. 53, and an almost identical 18th-century Chinese imitation of the same work, illustrated ibid., p. 128, no. 63.