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7016

Image of Songze Guanyin
Item No. 7016

18th - 19th Century, Buddhist, China
Lacquer over Wood
41" x 23" x 19"
( 104.14 x 58.42 x 48.26 cm)
(H x W x D)

Representations of Guanyin originated in India, where the Bodhisattva was depicted as a male deity and known by the Sanskrit name Avalokitesvara. When Buddhism spread to China, it took on the Mahayana Buddhist form, and many of the original images were modified to become compatible with Chinese culture and beliefs. One of these transitions entailed changing the gender of Avalokitesvara from male to the female Guanyin. The Chinese population enthusiastically embraced the image of Guanyin; temples to this deity were created, and altars in most home shrines or temples were devoted to paying homage to her.

There are thirty-two manifestations of Guanyin. This wood and lacquer carving represents Songzi Guanyin, one of the more popular forms in which she is depicted as a female figure with a child in her arms that symbolizes the quality of "Giver of Children" and she who "Gifts Sons to Mothers". The Lotus Sutra states that a woman desirous of a male child need only to pray to Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) and her wish will be granted. Songzi Guanyin is said to be associated with Yaoji, the Taoist goddess daughter of Xiwangmu (Mother of the Western Heaven). The Songzi Guanyin, also known as the "Princess of Fairy Clouds" watches over women in their confinement while they are pregnant and cares for them during their childbirth. She is regarded as the "Dispenser of Fecundity."

The Songzi Guanyin is a form of the White Robed Guanyin, which is a uniquely Chinese creation, although the color white is probably derived from the Tantric tradition. In this form, she wears a white hood that covers her head and emphasizes her femininity. The hooded style of clothing harkens to women's clothing in the Sung Dynasty during which time women wore veils over their head very much like that on the White-robed Guanyin. According to Yu (1), the robe reflects the clothing of common people, and, thus, reinforces the identification of Guanyin with commoners and her accessibility to all who seek solace from her.

Guanyin was especially popular among women in China. In popular Chinese belief, the blood of both menstruation and childbirth is spiritually polluting, a belief that further isolated woman from the male population and demeaned their status. The deity Guanyin responds to women specifically because of their sex and is said to possess power to save women from sexual attacks and physical, emotional and social suffering.

This carved wood and lacquered seated figure was most likely placed on the main altar of a temple dedicated to Guanyin. She is portrayed wearing a hood that covers her hair, and her bare chest is adorned with ropes of jewels which symbolize her royal status as a bodhisattva. Her serene face is carved with a contemplative expression that is reinforced by the downcast eyes. Her forehead is portrayed with an indentation representing an urna, a Sanskrit term to describe the third eye found on the forehead of the Buddha and some other Enlightened Beings and meant to symbolize the fact that such Beings, especially the Buddha, are omniscient and see all that goes on in the universe.

Sources:

Bagyalkakshmi, "The Creation of Goddess of Mercy from Avalokitesvara" in Across the Himalayan Gap, New Deli, Gyan Publishing House, 1998.

Anthony Flanagan, "Buddhism, An Introduction: Buddhist Symbols," www.buddhism.about.com//library

Eloise Hart, "Kuan Yin: Goddess of Mercy, Friend of Mankind," Sunrise Magazine, December, 1984/January, 1985.

Chun-Fang Yu, "Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara," New York, Columbia University Press, 2001. (1)

Chun-Fang Yu, "Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara" in Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism 850-1850," Marsha Weidner, Ed. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1994, p.151-182.

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