Bodhisattva of Compassion (Guanyin)
Wood (linden) with traces of painted and gilt decoration
49 x 32 x 20 inches (124.5 x 81.3 x 50.8 cm)
Gift of Charles H. Ludington from the George Crofts Collection, 1925
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About This Sculpture
This wooden sculpture depicts the Buddhist figure Guanyin
(KWAN–in), an enlightened being called a bodhisattva
(bo–dee–SAHT–vah). Bodhisattvas put off entering paradise in
order to help mortals attain enlightenment. A tiny sculpture of the
Amitabha (ah–mee–TAH–bah) Buddha—the Buddha of the
Western Paradise—in the figure's headdress identifies it as Guanyin.
In a Buddhist temple, a sculpture like this one often sits to the side
of a central sculpture of Buddha, usually with another bodhisattva
flanking the other side.
Guanyin, the most beloved bodhisattva in China, is the embodiment
of compassion. Guanyin can appear in many different forms,
taking whichever one a devotee might especially need at the
moment: male or female, gentle or wrathful, rich or poor. Local
tales about the enlightened being inspired imaginative figures such
as Water-Moon Guanyin, White-Robed Guanyin, Child-Giving
Guanyin, Fish Basket Guanyin, and Thousand-Armed and
This sculpture portrays the "Guanyin of the South Sea" seated on
a rocky cliff overlooking the sea in a posture known as "royal ease."
One leg hangs down while the other is drawn to the body, the
bent knee supporting the right arm.The full-moon face, downcast
eyes, perfectly arched eyebrows, delicate nose, and small mouth
reflect a sense of calm and elegance.A long scarf drapes over the
shoulders, and intricate jewelry, including a headdress, necklaces,
and arm bracelets, decorates the figure.The hole in the forehead,
which once held a precious jewel (now missing), symbolizes
Guanyin's ray of light that illuminates the world. Traces of pigment
and gold leaf testify that this sculpture was once vibrantly painted.
Worship of Guanyin
Buddhism was introduced to China from central Asia and India
during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). Based on the life and
teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the historic Buddha, the religion
expanded to include other revered beings to whom worshipers
offered prayers. Chief among these in China was the figure of
Guanyin, who was first introduced to China through the Lotus
Sutra, one of the most popular sacred texts in Buddhism. The sutra
(teaching), which was translated into Chinese in 286 CE, includes a
chapter that tells of Guanyin's miraculous deeds, such as freeing
people from lust, hatred, and ignorance, and granting children to
infertile women. Guanyin, whose name means "Beholder of the
World's Sounds," answers the cries of the world's suffering.
Since the tenth century, Putuo Shan, an island off the eastern coast
of China, has been a major pilgrimage site for Guanyin worshipers.
There, legend tells, Guanyin of the South Sea quelled and banished
a terrible snake monster. When the snake monster asked if he must
be banished forever, Guanyin relented and said, "The island will be
yours again when no more beating of the wooden fish is heard on
it." (The beating of the wooden fish is a reference to the fish-shaped
wood gong that calls Buddhists to worship.) Today thousands
of devout Buddhists and tourists visit this rugged island to
see the one-hundred-foot statue of the Guanyin of the South Sea
and the beautiful temples and grottoes, and to hear the beating of
the gong that keeps the snake monster at bay.
This object is included in Learning from Asian Art: China
, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont.