The Collector’s Minute: The Laughing Buddha Figure

A modern Chinese example of a laughing Buddha.

A modern Chinese example of a laughing Buddha.

“Laughing Buddha” is the common English name for the Buddhist figure variously known as Budai or Hotei. He is the interpretation of the Bodhisattva Maitreya (translated as Mílè Fó in Chinese), the predicted Buddha who would succeed Gautama Buddha in the future. This Buddha is based on a wandering Chinese Chan monk who lived in the time of the Liang Dynasty (502-557), but he has become incorporated into Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto culture.

The Budai’s image can be found in many temples, in the form of paintings, carvings or statuary. Figurines of the happy Buddha have also been made in virtually every material from gold to bone. He is almost always shown smiling or laughing, hence his nickname. This happy Budai has become a deity of contentment and abundance, a patron of the weak, poor and children; in more modern times he has become the patron saint of bartenders and restaurateurs.

The Hotei is generally depicted carrying a cloth or linen sack which is filled with many precious items—including rice plants (indicating abundance), candy for children, food—that never empties. In Japanese folklore, the Hotei is one of the Seven Lucky Gods (Shichi Fukujin). The Laughing Buddha is also used as a symbol of good fortune in the highly popular Feng Shui method of decorating.

The pressed seal mark on the laughing Buddha.

The pressed seal mark on the laughing Buddha.

The Laughing Buddha figures have been made for a considerable period of time. The first European copies were made by the world famous Meissen porcelain works in the mid-1700s.The example pictured here is more modern Chinese example, made during the Republic period (1912-1949). The marking on this one is a pressed seal mark often found on figures of this type and period. Values for these smiling Buddha’s vary depending on size and quality, with examples like this one selling in the $200 to $350 range at auction.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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  • carolyn

    I have a largish laughing buddha very similar to this porcelain one, but it is made from grey/green Jade. it has been in my family for many years, firstly given to my Grandmother. I first contacted worthpoint over a year ago to try to get infor and rough price on this buddha but nobody gave me a value. I couldnt find and similar buddhas on the internet until now with this one. Does anyone have any idea of the value of a Jade buddha like the one above?????

  • A wOndering buddha, indeed. I expect you meant wAndering, but I do believe your spelling is correct in the first place. The journey isn’t necessarily done on the road. How wonderful. Was it a mistake or did Freud tell you about it?

    • Gregory Watkins

      After checking with Mike, he says he meant “wandering” with an “a” as opposed to “wondering” with an “o”. Meandering vs. considering.

      I would like to say it was a literary fastball, only to be caught by the most clever of readers, but, alas, it was an editing mistake and it has now been corrected.

      For those of you who are wondering exactly what we’re discussing, here is the sentence as it originally appeared:

      “This Buddha is based on a wondering Chinese Chan monk who lived in the time of the Liang Dynasty (502-557), but he has become incorporated into Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto culture.”

  • It was meant to be “wandering”, but I suppose in the case of a Buddhist monk both would apply ;~)

    “Things are not what they appear to be: nor are they otherwise”

    Surangama Sutra

  • To Carolyn: Some items are really not good candidates for the online appraisal format and require a physical examination by a specialist appraiser to determine the origin and period made.
    Value is also determined by other factors, such as the item’s size, quality of carving and current condition, all of which
    are difficult to determine from images.

  • mike wilcox

    Hi Mike, i have a similar porcelain laughing buddha with the same pressed seal mark. Would you be able to interpret the chinese characters on the seal?

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