The many faces of the Goddess of Mercy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 May, 2011, 12:00am


Guan Yin descends from the heavens on a lotus flower. In a white robe, the Goddess of Mercy is surrounded by a soft, golden light. She dips a sprig of willow in a vase and sprinkles holy water from home to home.

That's how the story goes on television, at least. Figurines dating back 1,000 years paint a different picture. According to these relics, her name was not Guan Yin - and she wasn't even female.

In the second century, it wasn't just goods being brought from India into China along the Silk Road. The horses and wagons also brought Buddhism. And Guan Yin was the second most popular deity for people to unload their troubles on, after the Buddha.

In her home country of India, Guan Yin is known as Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, which means the one who hears the cries of the world.

In China, her name changed. 'People transliterated her name to make her more approachable,' says antiques collector Chiu Tai-loi. 'She's known as Guan Shi Yin, Guan Yin Pusa or simply Guan Yin.'

The beautiful woman in a white robe is nowhere to be seen in the early figurines. Instead, a well-built, bare-chested man is depicted, sometimes with a moustache. This transformation took place in the seventh-century Tang dynasty, when Empress Wu Zetian ordered statues of the deity be made more feminine.

'When Empress Wu took the highest seat of power, she challenged Confucian norms and elevated women's social status,' Chiu says, pointing to a Tang dynasty Guan Yin with a soft, feminine head on a man's body. 'It was practical - she just wanted to make it easier for her princesses to worship the patron in court.'

Guan Yin became more feminine, and her features also changed along with the culture and norms at the time. The goddess was presented differently in every dynasty.

Guan Yin figurines carved in the Song dynasty, for example, are depicted in modest, plain clothing. In the Ming dynasty, 400 years later, the goddess stands tall on a floating lotus flower, wearing jewellery and elaborate floral dresses.

'These statues reflect the culture and economy at the time. Song emperors promoted a humble and unpretentious lifestyle. But, in the Ming dynasty, it was a prosperous and lavish society,' Chiu says.

No other Buddhist figure has as many faces as Guan Yin. In southern China, she appears not on a lotus flower but on a dragon's head, which she rides across the ocean. 'Sailors and fishermen seek Guan Yin's blessing before they set off on a voyage. When they return home, they offer her gifts,' Chiu says.

And she's not always alone. The goddess is sometimes depicted with two children on either side - Lung Nu and Shan Tsai, their palms together and knees slightly bent.

If Guan Yin holds anything, it is usually a jar of holy water and a twig. Sceptres and rosary beads are also seen. 'Turning the beads symbolises leading humans from misery, and the sceptre is used to grant wishes,' Chiu says.

Guan Yin's change from male to female deity makes a great social study, Chiu says. 'It gives great insight into both Chinese cultural history and religion.'

More than 30 Guan Yin statues and Tibetan silk paintings are on show at Plaza Hollywood, Diamond Hill, until Thursday next week.