Kuan-yin Devotion in China



by Chün-fang Yü


Kuan-yin, or Kuan-shih-yin, is the Chinese name for Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who has long been worshiped throughout the Buddhist world. A Chinese saying aptly describes the great popularity of this savior bodhisattva: "Everybody knows how to chant Omituofo (Amida-butsu), and every household worships Kuan-yin." Under Chinese influence, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese have also used the same names (Kannon or Kanzeon in Japanese, Kwanse'um in Korean, and Quan-am in Vietnamese). However, the cult of Avalokitesvara is, of course, not limited to East Asia but exists throughout Asia. Called Lokesvara (Lord of the World) in Cambodia and Java, Lokanatha (Protector of the World) in Burma, Natha Deviyo in Sri Lanka, and Chenrezig (spyan-ras-gzigs, "One Who Sees with Eyes") in Tibet, Avalokitesvara might not be identified by the same name, but all the South, Southeast, and East Asian Buddhist cultures have known and worshiped this bodhisattva.

The bodhisattva has also become well known in the United States and Europe, the combined result of feminism and the immigration of Buddhist teachers to the West. Although Buddhism was introduced to the United States in the nineteenth century, political events in Asia since World War II have greatly facilitated the religion's westward movement. When China became Communist in 1949, many Chinese monks escaped to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and the United States. Similarly, while most Tibetan lamas escaped to India, some came to the United States when Tibet was occupied by China in 1959. With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the arrival of new immigrants from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries since the 1980s, people in America have been exposed to many forms of Buddhism as well as the different names and identities of the bodhisattva. Avalokitesvara is present in all of these Buddhist traditions. In addition, American feminist scholars have become interested in uncovering a goddess tradition--either in the West prior to the rise of patriarchal Christianity or in the deities of non-Western religious traditions. In the latter case, Kuan-yin, together with Tara, Kali, and Durga, is the favorite candidate for such citations. The contemporary focus on Kuan-yin as a great goddess is understandable, for this is how most East Asians see her. I myself was first introduced to this deity as such by my maternal grandmother. Many blanc de chine porcelain statues of Kuan-yin made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on display in museums (where many Westerners first encounter the deity) are also decidedly feminine. However, Avalokitesvara has never been worshiped as a goddess in India, Tibet, Sri Lanka, or Southeast Asia. Nor, indeed, was Kuan-yin perceived to be feminine by the Chinese at first, for many paintings from Tun-huang dating to the tenth century clearly show him with a mustache. The sexual transformation from the masculine Avalokitesvara to the feminine Kuan-yin seems to be a unique Chinese phenomenon that has fascinated many scholars.

Prior to the translation of the Lotus Sutra in the third century, there was no Chinese deity to compare with Kuan-yin, who was not only a universal and compassionate savior but also easily accessible. The teaching of the "Universal Gateway" preached a new and democratic way of salvation. There was no specific thing a person had to do to be saved. One did not need to become a scholar learned in scripture or a paragon of virtue or a master proficient in meditation. One did not have to follow a special way of life, take up a strange diet, or practice any ritual. The only requirement was to call Avalokitesvara's name with a sincere and believing heart. This was a new deity who would help anyone in difficulty. There was no discrimination on the basis of status or gender. And the benefits of worshiping him were both spiritual and worldly. Although there were goddesses in China before the appearance of Kuan-yin, none of them seem to have enjoyed lasting and continuously active cults. There was thus a religious vacuum in China that Kuan-yin could conveniently and comfortably fill.

One of the characteristics of Buddhism as a universal religion is that it has always supplied the necessary symbols and ideals to the host countries. In accommodating itself to the different religious and cultural traditions in the various Asian countries, new and different forms of Buddhism developed. In the case of Sino-Japanese Buddhism, the creation of the T'ien-t'ai (Tendai), Hua-yen (Kegon), Pure Land (Jodo), and Ch'an (Zen) schools is a prominent example. Although the Chinese based their main teachings and practices on some scriptures translated from Indic languages, the specific emphases and formulations reflected the native modes of thought and cultural values. This process of domestication created diversity in the pan-Asian Buddhist tradition. I would like to use the case of Kuan-yin's transformation into the compassionate Goddess of Mercy in China as another example of this process.

There are numerous Buddhist scriptures connected with Kuan-yin. The bodhisattva appears in more than eighty sutras. This is by no means an exhaustive list, for the esoteric sutras connected with Kuan-yin alone amount to eighty-eight and occupy 509 pages of the Taisho canon (volume 20), the modern edition of the Chinese Buddhist Tripitaka printed in 1922-33 in Japan. Avalokitesvara's roles vary widely in these sutras translated from Indic languages into Chinese, ranging from a walk-on bit player of the attending entourage surrounding Sakyamuni Buddha to the leading star of his own grand dramas of universal salvation. The faces of the bodhisattva in canonical scriptures, just as in art and other media, are thus highly multivocal, multivalent, and multifaceted. The different roles Avalokitesvara assumes in the scriptures might reflect the increasing importance of his stature in India. On the other hand, they might also reflect different cultic traditions about the bodhisattva. At least three separate and distinct cults can be identified: that of a compassionate savior not bound to a specific place as represented by the Lotus Sutra, that of the chief helper of Amitabha Buddha found in the Pure Land sutras, and that of a sage connected with the holy island Potalaka, as seen in the Avatamsaka Sutra. The three cultic traditions developed independently. In the esoteric scriptures, Avalokitesvara is usually identified as living on Potalaka.

Anyone who visits a temple in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or mainland China can find posters, pamphlets, brochures, and books on the side tables or stacked on bookshelves along the walls of the main hall. They are printed by lay devotees and are placed there for visitors to browse through or take home for later reading. This is one way to generate merit. I believe the indigenous sutras helped to promote and disseminate the belief in Kuan-yin in China, just as the translated sutras, miracle stories, new images of Kuan-yin, pilgrimages, and rituals devoted to the bodhisattva did in their different ways. In recent decades, scholars have begun to reevaluate the traditional distinction between the sutras translated from Indic languages and those composed in China. Attitudes toward i-ching (suspicious scriptures) or wei-ching (spurious scriptures) have undergone revision. They see these scriptures as creative attempts to synthesize Buddhist teachings and adapt them to the Chinese cultural milieu.

Indigenous sutras are closely connected with miracle stories. Compilation of miracle stories began in the fourth century, not long after the first translation of the Lotus Sutra by Dharmaraksha in 286 CE. Miracle tales about Kuan-yin are an important and enduring genre in Chinese Buddhism. They have been collected down the ages and are still being produced and collected today. Miracle tales served as a powerful medium for transforming and domesticating Kuan-yin. Because the stories relate real people's encounters with the bodhisattva in specific times and places and under critical circumstances, Kuan-yin was no longer the mythical figure mentioned in the sutras but, rather, became a "real presence." Miracles happen that vouch for Kuan-yin's efficacy (ling). They work because there is the relationship of kan-ying (sympathetic resonance) between the sincere devotee and the bodhisattva. Both concepts have deep cultural roots in China.

Many miracle tales mention images of Kuan-yin. Devotees worshiped the images, which often served as talismans. New forms of Kuan-yin appearing in devotees' visions of the bodhisattva as contained in some later miracle tales served as effective media for the domestication and transformation of Kuan-yin. While most early miracle tales refer to Kuan-yin as a monk when he appears in the dreams or visions of the devotee, the bodhisattva gradually appears as either a "person in white" (bai-i-jen), indicating perhaps his lay status, or a "woman in white" (bai-i fu-jen), indicating her female gender. There is clearly a dialectic relationship between the changing forms of the bodhisattva appearing in the devotees' visions and dreams and the development of new iconographic representations. Changing visions of Kuan-yin led to new artistic representations of the bodhisattva. But conversely, an image of Kuan-yin depicted with a new iconography could also predispose the devotees to see him/her in this way in their visions and dreams.

Miracle tales about Kuan-yin provide strong evidence that Kuan-yin has been worshiped in China by both monastics and laypeople. In fact, the cult cuts across all social classes. Miracle tale collections were compiled by both monks and literati. The collections included stories about people from diverse walks of life who, for a brief moment, experienced a salvific encounter with Kuan-yin, and their lives were changed forever. Buddhist sutras glorifying Kuan-yin received verification from such tales. Scriptural teachings were no longer doctrinal and abstract but became practical and concrete through the living testimonies of real men and women. At the same time, through their tales about their dreams or visions of Kuan-yin, the devotees helped to make the bodhisattva take on increasingly Chinese manifestations. The foreign Avalokitesvara was, in the process, gradually changed into the Chinese Kuan-yin.

The intimate and dialectical relationship between visions, media, and iconography highlights the role that art has played in the cult of Kuan-yin. Art has indeed been one of the most powerful and effective media through which the Chinese people have come to know Kuan-yin. It is also through art that one can most clearly detect the bodhisattva's gradual yet undeniable sexual transformation. Buddhist scriptures always present the bodhisattva as either masculine or asexual. Not only does Kuan-yin usually appear as a monk in early miracle stories and in the dreams and visions of the faithful, but wonder-working monks such as Bao-chi and Seng-jie are also regarded as incarnations of the bodhisattva. But the deity underwent a profound and startling transformation beginning sometime during the tenth century, and by the sixteenth century, Kuan-yin had become not only completely Chinese but also the most beloved Goddess of Mercy, a nickname coined by the Jesuit missionaries who were much impressed by the similarities between her iconography and that of the Madonna. Of all the imported Buddhist deities, Kuan-yin is the only one who has succeeded in becoming a genuine Chinese goddess. So much so that many Chinese, if they are not familiar with Buddhism, are not even aware of her Buddhist origin.

Chinese created indigenous forms of Kuan-yin, just as they composed indigenous sutras. In time, several distinctive Chinese forms of Kuan-yin emerged from the tenth century onward. They are the Water-Moon Kuan-yin, White-Robed Kuan-yin, Child-Giving Kuan-yin, Kuan-yin of the South Sea, Fish-Basket Kuan-yin, and Old Mother Kuan-yin (Yü 2001). Canonical and indigenous scriptures, miracle stories, rituals, and pilgrimages, as well as art and literature, have all contributed to the process. While each medium promoted Kuan-yin, it transformed the bodhisattva at the same time. Thus, while Kuan-yin was represented and perceived as a monk prior to and during the T'ang dynasty (618-907), the bodhisattva was increasingly feminized and eventually turned into Venerable Mother Kuan-yin. These media, moreover, never existed and functioned in isolation but constantly interacted and influenced one another. I have been much impressed, for instance, by the fact that visions of devotees and pilgrims were both reflected in and inspired by the contemporary iconography. And it is interesting to see how closely indigenous scriptures, miracle accounts, ritual practices, and popular precious volumes reinforced each other. I now believe that the development and evolution of the cult was fueled by such dialectical interactions among these media.

Since Avalokitesvara became a feminine deity only in China and, furthermore, this happened only after the T'ang dynasty, it is necessary to offer some hypothetical explanations in closing. I think it has to be examined in the context of new developments in Chinese religions, including Buddhism, since the Sung dynasty (960-1279). The emergence of the feminine Kuan-yin must also be studied in the context of new cults of other goddesses, which, not coincidentally, also developed after the Sung era. The appearance of the feminine Kuan-yin in indigenous sutras, art, and miracle stories occurred from the tenth to the twelfth centuries. It was also during these centuries that Neo-Confucianism was established as the official ideology, functioning very much like a state religion. I do not think these events happened by coincidence or independent of each other.

I would venture to say that the appearance of the feminine Kuan-yin and other new goddesses at this particular time might be connected with the antifeminist stance of established religions, chief of which was undoubtedly Neo-Confucianism. This was the hegemonic discourse and ruling ideology of China during the last millennium. Neo-Confucianism was a philosophy and a system of political thought, but it was also an ideology sustaining the lineage and family system. In one sense, then, the new goddesses' cults can be seen as similar responses to this totalistic system of belief and praxis, but in another way, the feminine Kuan-yin might be viewed as the model and inspiration for the other goddesses. Organized Buddhism and Taoism do not fare much better. Despite the Ch'an rhetoric of nonduality and the Taoist elevation of the feminine principle, these did not translate into actual institutional support for women. We cannot name any woman who became a prominent Ch'an master or Taoist priestess.

Having said that the birth of goddesses might have been in response to the overwhelmingly masculine character of the three religions, I must also point out that some of these new goddesses did reflect the belief in universal sagehood and enlightenment espoused by Neo-Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Just as the emperors Yao and Shun were not born sages but became so, this was apparently also the case for gods and goddesses. Wang Ken (1483-1540) could salute everyone he met as sages because they were potential sages if not actual ones. Can we also say that the street was full of bodhisattvas and goddesses?

Finally, we may ask: Did the female Kuan-yin offer more options to Chinese women? It is often assumed that when a religion provides goddesses to worship, it can empower women. When Avalokitesvara was transformed into Kuan-yin, the Goddess of Mercy, new forms and expressions of religiosity became available to women and men in China. But as long as the traditional stereotypical views about women's pollution or inferiority remained unchallenged, the feminine images of Kuan-yin had to be either more or less than real women. They were not and could not be endowed with a real woman's characteristics. It is for this reason that the White-Robed Kuan-yin, though a fertility goddess, is devoid of sexuality. Real women, in the meantime, together with their male countrymen, worshiped Kuan-yin as the "child-giving" Kuan-yin who saw to it that the family religion would never be disrupted by the lack of a male heir. Chinese women never really left the patriarchal home.

But on further reflection, one may ask, what kind of home was it? Clearly, something close to a sea change occurred after the Sung dynasty in both Chinese religion and the Chinese family system. There was an increasing emphasis from the Southern Sung period and following on the lineage ideal, particularly on genealogies and generation markers (Ebrey 1986, 32-39, 44-50). By the mid-Ming dynasty, around the fifteenth century, with fierce competitiveness in the civil examinations on the rise, lineage became even more important, for it supported individuals in surviving as successful degree candidates (ter Haar 1992, 113). The desperate need to secure a male heir, the frantic effort to keep the head of the household alive, and the fanatical adherence to the ideal of chaste widowhood--all the disparate elements of a "domesticated religiosity" began to take on a new significance. The cult of Kuan-yin did indeed serve Confucian family values, and in this sense we can speak of a Confucianization of Buddhism. While it is true that because of the diffused character of Chinese religion, the family was never a completely secular institution, separated from the transcendent and devoid of religious status, it was still primarily Confucian in its orientation (Yang 1961, 28-57, 294-340). In the end, the influence went both ways. As the common saying familiar to many Chinese people goes, "Kuan-yin is enshrined in every household"; thus, it was ultimately a home where Kuan-yin was very much present. Kuan-yin had indeed found a home in China.


Sources cited:

Ebrey, Patricia. 1986. "The Early Stages in the Development of Descent Group Organization." In Kinship Organization in Late Imperial China, edited by Patricia Ebrey and James Watson, 16-61. Berkeley: University of California Press.

ter Haar, Barend J. 1992. The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

Yang, C. K. 1961. Religion in Chinese Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Yü, Chün-fang. 1991. "Der Guanyin-Kult in Yunan." In Der Goldschatz der Drei Pagoden, edited by Albert Lutz, 28-29. Zurich: Museum Rietberg.

------. 2001. Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara. New York: Columbia University Press.


Chün-fang Yü is Sheng Yen Professor in Chinese Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, New York. She also taught at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, from 1972 to 2004, serving as chair of the Religion Department beginning in 2000. Dr. Yü is the author of The Renewal of Buddhism in China: Chu-hung and the Late Ming Synthesis, and Kuan-yin: the Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara, and is the coeditor of Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China.


This article was originally published in the April-June 2008 issue of Dharma World.


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