Willard Straight was a significant figure in the establishment of American business interests in China at the beginning of the 20th century. After graduating from Cornell in 1901, Straight began his career in East Asia when he accepted a position in Nanjing with the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service. In 1906, at age 26, Straight was appointed consul general at Mukden in Manchuria, China. When that appointment ended, he spent a number of years in Beijing and the United States working for various business interests, finally returning to the United States for good in 1912. It was during Straight's time in China that he acquired this fine figure of Zhenwu.
Zhenwu rose to the height of his popularity during the Ming dynasty. The third Ming emperor, Yongle, credited Zhenwu for helping him secure the throne and ordered a massive temple building campaign at Wudang Shan, the place where Zhenwu is believed to have attained immortality and ascended to heaven. According to a folk legend, Yongle summoned a sculptor to the palace to commission the first image of Zhenwu. When the sculptor arrived, Yongle had just finished a bath. The emperor commanded the sculptor to create a true likeness of Zhenwu. The sculptor replied that he had never seen the god, to which Yongle replied 'look at me'. The sculptor then literally created the image of Zhenwu in the likeness of Yongle, fresh from the bath, hair slicked back and barefoot. Another version is told in the hagiography of Zhenwu published in 1602 by Yu Xiangdou. According to Yu, Zhenwu was getting ready for the day combing his hair, when heavenly envoys arrived with the announcement of his appointment as a heavenly emperor. He accepted the appointment, and after bowing in thanks, continued to comb his hair. To his astonishment, he found that he could not put his hair up. He was then informed by the heavenly messenger that since he had already accepted his heavenly appointment, his appearance was fixed, and he could no longer change his form. Other legends tell of Zhenwu engaging in a fierce battle with demons and emerging victorious but having lost his footwear and his hair coming undone.
The loose hair and the bare feet are the two most salient indicators of Zhenwu's identity, the others being a tortoise and a snake. These are sometimes depicted underfoot, or entwined and placed in front of him.
In this particularly fine example, he sits in a formal position, barefoot, with his long hair neatly combed but hanging loose down his back. The slight asymmetry of his legs and hands add a relaxed air to his regal pose, and the position of his beard, and the asymmetry and wavy edges of the scarf give the static image a sense of motion. The five-clawed dragons on his robe hint that this may be an imperial commission. According to records, in the ninth year of the reign of Chenghua alone, ninety-three images where commissioned by the imperial household, fifty-three of them of gilded bronze. Incomplete Ming dynasty records show that the imperial household had at least 369 images consecrated, attesting to the popularity of Zhenwu during this period.
Further attesting to the popularity of Zhenwu during the Ming period are the large number of small ceramic shrines made for household veneration. These shrines were made with celadon and fahua glazes, as well as decorated with underglaze blue and white, such the example sold at Christie's, London, 17 June 2003, lot 17, dated to the Wanli period. Other bronze images of Zhenwu dating to the Ming dynasty are illustrated by S. Little in Taoism and the Arts of China, Chicago, 2000, pp. 294-95; and by P. Moss in The Second Bronze Age: Later Chinese Metalwork, London, 1991, no. 4. Another from the Guangdong Provincial Museum is illustrated in The Studio and the Altar: Daoist Art in China, Hong Kong, 2008, p. 60.