Antique Chinese Porcelain collector's expert page, Ming, dynasty, Chinese porcelain marks

Glossary Search Gotheborg.com site for:

Guanyin

Chinese Godess of Compassion and Mercy. Originated in India as Avalokitesvara, the mortal Buddha (Bodhisattva) of Compassion. Also called Guanshiyin where Guan means "Contemplate", shi means "world" and yin means "sounds" the name thus means "Contemplating the Sounds of the World".

While Buddhism probably entered China in the first century BC by monks traveling along the Silk Road - to be widely accepted in China by the fifth and sixth centuries - the concept of compassion was not transformed into the Chinese deity Guanyin before the Song Dynasty. While originally a male figure, the Guanyin image underwent much evolution in China while the Chinese remolded the concept of compassion according to their own understanding, needs and wishes. The Guanyin cult was then also embraced by Daoism where it further underwent a number of changes during its spread among the common people. (This section is to be revised where the importance of the Pure Land Sutra during the Tang Dynasty will be detailed.)

Paintings and statues of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara/ Guanyin vary throughout the history. The idols of Guanyin in Chinese Buddhist temples were molded after the Yuan Dynasty, almost all of them with female appearances. In the more active version she stands while carrying a vial containing holy water or tears, as a symbol for her compassion. In a more passive variation, Guanyin sits, often with a bowl of lotus leaves symbolizing Guanyin's ability to provide male children for the believers. A typical feature is a cowl over her head beneath which she often wears a diadem with an icon of her patron, the Buddha Amitabha. As the worship of Guanyin developed, the images of Guanyin also developed into Guanyin in the Sea, Guanyin in White, Guanyin with a Fish Basket and Guanyin with a Thousand Hands and Eyes, etc.

Guan Daosheng (Zhao Mengfu's wife) in the Yuan Dynasty wrote a brief biography, in which she said that Guanyin was the third daughter of the Miao-zhuang-yan kingdom, and that her name was Miaoshan. The Comprehensive Collection of Investigations into the Divinities of the Three Doctrines since their Origin, published in the Yuan Dynasty, recorded that Guanyin was the third princess of the Miao-zhuang kingdom in Beique. Her name was Miaoshan and it was the Jade Emperor which conferred on her the title of the "Most Merciful and Most Compassionate Bodhisattva Guanyin Who Helps the Needy and Relieves the Distressed". This was evidently an expression of Chinese thinking. In Indian Buddhism, the Celestial Emperor is a guardian of the Buddha while in China the Worldly Emperor's power were superior to the religious. In fact many Immortals' and monks' titles were conferred by the emperors.

From a Buddhist point of view "Compassion" appears according to what kind of body is needed and manifests in whatever physical form is appropriate; thus his identity is flexible. In Buddhism Guanshiyin will appear as a Bodhisattva; In Christianity, he appears as the Holy Mother; in other religions he often appears clad in white robes. "These are the endless miraculous functions and inconceivable states of Guanshiyin Bodhisattva".

On many figures a hand is found missing or removable. One explanation for this originates with an early Chinese story of a fisherman who dragged a wooden statue of Guanyin aboard his boat. She was missing the left arm. During the course of several nights he had visions of Guanyin coming to him and asking for her arm to be replaced, promising him great benefits if he did so. Finally he went to a woodcarver and had an arm made for her, which he attached. He then received his wishes. So the statues with a removable arm are known as "Wish fulfilling Guanyin" The owner removes the arm and makes a wish. When the wish is granted the arm is replaced.

HOME

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

I

J

K

L

M

N

O

P

Q

R

S

T

U

V

W

X

Y

Z