The Buddha, the War God and the Pirate King

4 minute read

By Ashleigh Griffin

While re-cataloguing the Asian collections at MAA, I came across a number of historic inaccuracies as well as stories of warfare and plunder hinted at in the documentation around the objects. This is the tale of an artefact that brought both of these together, which highlights important issues facing collections of ethnography, archaeologies, and world cultures today.

Head and torso close-up of a figure of Guan Yu. It is made from wood and lacquer with some inlaid glass and mirror decorations, with a red laquered face and gold hardwear on all his armour, which is resplendent. He has a long bear and moustache which looks like it has never been cut, made from black animal hair, and a breastplate/amulet with Chinese symbols on it. See the link for details of this inscription.
Image 1: Detail of the figure of Guan Yu. MAA 1890.9 M

When I first began working at MAA, I set out to catalogue and document all of the objects associated with or catalogued as ‘Buddha’. Initially this numbered 574 objects, prints, or textiles depicting the Buddha. But on closer inspection, all was not as it seemed with Buddha at MAA.

One of the first objects I came across was a figure catalogued with the accession number 1890.9 M. The description on MAA’s collections database read:

‘Four wooden figures [1890.9 M – P] depicting Buddha’.

However, the Accession Register entry for this object reads:

‘Three alabaster images, four metal, and eight wooden Oriental images. Burmah, China’.

Open book laid to a double page spread with scribbles of writing, in an accession book format. Handwritten in a typical 19th century scrawl. There are four entries on the left, spaced out, and one on the right, with a slanted note beneath it too.
Image 2: Page from MAA’s accession register for 1890 with the group of alabaster metal and wooden images entered at the bottom.

It was unclear when and how this object was attributed to Buddha in its history. A printed paper label pasted to the front of the figure’s plinth provides an alternative description:

‘Chinese Idols. A Pirate King and his Wife. Presented by Isaac Bernard, Esq. Officer in the Merchant Service, 1851’.

A printed paper label stuck to the plinth of the statue, reading 'Chinese Idols. A Pirate King and his Wife. Pre-sented by Isaac Bernard, Esq. Officer in the Merchant Service, 1851.'
Image 3: Printed paper label from the Fitzwilliam Museum on the plinth of the statue. MAA 1890.9 M

There is a metal inscription on a badge attached to the figure with black thread in Chinese text. This had not been translated in the 120 years that the object had been in the Museum.

Close up showing the medallion, a muted bronze colour, in a circular format. It is detailed with indents around the edge. The inscription is visible in three vertical rows, the two on the outsides much smaller than the central inscription.
Image 4: Detail of the statue showing medallion with Chinese inscription. MAA 1890.9 M.

What was going on with this object? Why, and how, had it been defined as a figure of the Buddha? Where had the identification with a ‘Pirate King’ come from, and why had it not been recorded when it entered MAA in 1890? What did the Chinese inscription say?

With these questions whirling in my mind, I first went to the Museum’s historic documentation, checking the Accession Register and the Card Catalogue (the working finding-aid museums used before there were electronic databases). There was little additional information there, except the clarification that this collection of figures had been transferred from the Fitzwilliam Museum.

So I took photographs of the object, and posted an image of the metal inscription on social media, in the hope of getting a translation into English. The hive mind came through. The inscription is in fact another label, of sorts: 

道光壬寅年孟春 – “Year Ren-yin (1842) of Daoguang Emperor, First Month”
感应 – “Efficacious”
酧 – same as 酬; “(Wish/prayer) answered”
信士 敬奉 – “Offered by believer”

Year Ren-Yin is the year of the Water Tiger. The Chinese lunar calendar identifies each year in a repeating sixty-year cycle. 2022 is a Ren-Yin year. The Ren-Yin year of the Daoguang Emperor (1820-1840) was 1842. The first month of the Chinese year is in February. So this plaque dates the consecration of the statue to February 1842.

But who is this a statue of? Clearly, with a full beard and red face, it is not the Buddha. It probably isn’t a Pirate King either.

Full length image of the figure/statue, showing the statue and the label on the base. Photograph taken against a grey studio background.
Image 5: The figure of Guan Yu. MAA 1890.9 M

This is Guan Yu, also known as Guan Di. A famous military general, he was deified as early as the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and revered as a Taoist war god and guardian. In Buddhism he was revered as the Bodhisattva Sangharama. Not the Buddha, but a learned man who put off enlightenment so that he could remain on earth as a teacher and help others on their path: an important figure, therefore, in Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

The inscription tells us that it was offered by a devotee at the height of the First Opium War: a conflict between Britain and China that lasted from 1839 to August 1942. Hungry for Chinese goods, particularly tea, but also silks and porcelain, Britain and the East India Company had struggled to find any European products that the Chinese wanted in exchange. Only silver (much of it sourced in the colonies of South America) was accepted, emptying British reserves and threatening the stability of the British economy. The East India Company found an answer in opium, for which they held the monopoly in India, and which they forced farmers in Bihar to produce. The opium was then trafficked into China, demanding silver in exchange. By 1839 opium sales in China paid for the entire tea trade.

Opium was valued in China as medicine, but by 1840 there were millions of addicts in the country. Chinese efforts to end the trade had, by May 1939, compelled British traders to hand over opium stocks at Canton (Guangzhou) for destruction. This sparked military conflict between the two nations. The war ended on 17 August 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing), which gave British traders greater freedom to trade in China, including opium. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain, a series of Treaty Ports were opened up to all traders, and China was forced to pay reparations.

Was this statue of a well-known and revered military general, a god of war, dedicated to a shrine in the hope of strengthening the arm of Chinese forces in their conflict with the British? How long did it remain there? The answer seems to be not long. The printed label records the presentation of the statue to the Fitzwilliam Museum, by Isaac Bernard in 1851, less than a decade after it was dedicated. Caroline Kesseler points out that Bernard was a captain in the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), which entered the opium trade in 1847. How did it come into his possession? Was it taken from the shrine in which it was installed? Or purchased from a market after it had been removed? In any case, Bernard’s apparent identification of the statue as being of a Pirate King suggests that he did not recognise what or who the figure represented, or indeed the tragic irony of a protective deity dedicated during the opium war falling into the hands of a captain in an international opium trading company. 

Over more than 170 years, in two museums in the University of Cambridge, the statue has not only changed ownership and location, but has had its history gradually concealed as it has changed hands, leaving part of its identity behind, and eventually misidentified as a ‘Buddha’. Traces are left behind though, and through detective work and lateral thinking we can sketch out stories that truly span continents, bringing in religion, war, drugs, trade, colonialism, and piracy. 

We know not to believe everything we read in museums. Learning to pick at the edges and identify the clues is one of the greatest challenges and privileges of working with collections like these.

Author bio

Ashleigh was Collections Assistant at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (MAA), working with the Cambridge Rivers Project to document and research artefacts in the MAA collections from East Asia, and in particular China.

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