Buddhist Art|The Cult and the Iconography of the Water-moon Guanyin

A Study of a Water-moon Guanyin statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Guanyin, is the Chinese name for Avalokitesvara, the Buddhist deity of compassion, who was created by the end of the sixth century as independent figures because Guanyin became a deity to lead souls to afterlife, to give prosperity, and more importantly to give childbearing.  A set of Guanyins known as the Thirty-three Guanyins were represented widely cross China along with the popularity of the imagery. The water-moon Guanyin, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in the  “water-moon” form, is best known as one of the Thirty-three Guanyins favored by Chan and literati painters since the Song Dynasty (Yu 2001: 233). Examples in painting as well as sculptures are discovered from China, Korea, and Japan over centuries. This article is going to explore a statue of water-moon Guanyin of early Ming by examining its artistic characteristics, patronage, as well as the cult of water-moon Guanyin in late imperial China.

In 1971 Cornelius Chang published a dissertation on paintings of the water-moon Guanyin. He examined the cult of Guanyin by studying indigenous scriptures and miracle tales and specifically analyzing the iconography of the water-moon Guanyin through four earliest paintings at Dun Huang that had been discovered by Stein from 1906 to 1908. By approaching the issue of artistic domestication, Chang claimed that the simplicity of the expression of Guanyin had an appeal for the followers of the Chan sect of Buddhism in Asia, so an evolution in style happened.

Other exciting writings of Chinese Guanyin mainly explore the translation of Avalokitesvara from Indian and Central Asia to China as a compassionate deity, the popularity of Guanyin among all levels of society, the deity’s various manifestations, and the everyday worship of Bodhisattvas in China. However, a critical analysis of the water-moon Guanyin in late imperial china lacks. As a period when multiple religions flourished, a study of a popular deity is necessary.

The Imagery of the Water-moon

Although water-moon Guanyin is commonly seen in East Asia, there is not a scripture associated with the deity. That is to say, the deity is widely popular without a reference in Buddhist doctrines. Chunfang Yu suggested that the name of water-moon Guanyin might be taken as a variant name for Thousand-handed due to a close relationship between water-moon Guanyin and Thousand-handed Guanyin since an image of the former was painted within “a large painting of the Thousand-armed” Guanyin at Dun Huang and the Water-moon Guanyin is “intimately connected with the vows” of the Thousand-handed Guanyin (Yu 2001: 234). Moreover, the creation of water-moon might be another case of the Chinese domestication of the Tantric Thousand-handed Guanyin (Yu 2001: 242) to make the foreign rooted imagery Chinese. Another big influence in creating the Water-moon imagery was the creativity of the artists. Within the Buddhist context, the moon and water is one of the ten metaphors mentioned frequently in Buddhist sutras illustrating the emptiness of the world in the true nature. However, Guanyin and the metaphor had no connection with each other in scriptures. It was the Chinese artists and artisans linked the deity and the metaphoric idea together. John Kieschnick explained the bold creativity as Chinese Buddhist images were independent, living entities, rather than figures described in Buddhist scriptures (Kieschnick 2003: 69).Chinese artists then created an imagery heavily based on “indigenous concepts of sages, retired gentlemen and immortals” as well as Chinese landscapes (Yu 2001: 239).

Buddhism in Ming China

In the Ming Dynasty,  the reestablishment of the political and social institutions of the native past encouraged Confucianism to be the state ideology. Though a few emperors are in favor of Buddhism due to a continuing awareness of Indian artistic traditions of Pala-period given by the strong ties prior to Ming China between the Mongol Yuan court and Tibet (Leidy 2010:146) [1], the imperial patronage did not support Buddhist monuments on a national level (Karetzky 2002: 27). The enthusiasm of the court for religion in general and the funds in support of Buddhism and Daoism gained criticism from Confucians (Weidner 1994: 52). However, Buddhism continued to be important in the life of the Ming people and society as an everyday aid. The religion had become more utilitarian to the faithful who practiced it. The important rituals addressed the wishes for fortune, health, childbearing, and Buddhist temples held ceremonials for secular purposes.

watermoon1. Seated Avalokitesvara (Water-moon Guanyin), dated 1385. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Water-moon Guanyin statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan’ statue of Water-moon Avalokitesvara (fig. 1) presents a sculpture of Guanyin made of wood rarely yet very well preserved. Since the twelfth century in China, sculptures in stone declined with the rise of large-scale wood pieces. Wood sculptures were carved from a single block of wood, and the same wood species was used for the additional pieces such as arms, hands, toes, headdresses, and drapery (Leidy 2010: 38). This piece is 30.25 inches tall, with a soft and slightly oval face, triple rolls of flesh at the neck and delicate body proportions. The deity wears a tripartite crown with a high chignon exposed on the top of the crown. A niche with flower-petal shaped borders is in the headdress, which is common on the headpiece of a Water-moon Guanyin. Avalokitesvara is identified by the seated Buddha Amitabha at the front of the diadem. The long thin strokes are applied to delineate the eyebrows and eyes that often give the deity a meditated and peaceful appearance, but in this case the face shows a forbidding look, not womanly at all. The deity represents a sense of dignity through the thin lips and fleshy ear lobes. The seated statue’s chest, ears, and wrists are adorned with jewels. The bulky necklace, long garment, shawl over the shoulders, and the belt consisting of square plaques reflect the continuation of Chinese tradition. Abnormally, the figure does not have a nimbus resembling the moon corresponding to the name of water-moon.


2. Avalokitesvara. From Tapandighi, West Bengal, India. Pala period. State Archaeological Museum of Bengal, Calcutta.

Several features of this statue illustrate an awareness of Indian traditions of the northeastern Pala kingdom. Some people claimed that around the ninth century, the Buddhist-centered exchanges between China and India ended due to the deterioration of Buddhism in India. However, because of the patronage of Buddhist Pala rulers [3], the Buddhist interactions still remained. With the transmission to Tibet, Chinese Buddhist art gained much influence from Pala art. Foreign craftsmen and artists came to Yuan court and provided with imported styles and techniques in China. The most famous person is Anige (1243-1306), who was from Nepal serving as an important director at the court. A figure of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara of about late eleventh to early twelfth century demonstrates the various elaborated elements under the Palas (fig. 2). The stylized angular transitions between the sections of the body (Huntington 2006: 392), the oval face, high cheekbones, protruding chest, and the pursed mouth are considered Pala traditions. Many features of Indian sculptures are reflected on the Metropolitan’s Water-moon statue. It has a plump oval face that differs the piece from other works with a square face of Chinese tradition. The two portions of chest are slightly protruding and draw viewers’ attention as a manly characteristic. Moreover, the emphasis of the lines of the clothing belongs to Indian tradition since Chinese style often places focus on the linear body.

The deity is seated in rajalilasana royal ease with relaxed shoulders, a pose that was a new pose appropriated for Guanyin imported from Indian art. The posture was employed in India as early as the fourth century and popularized by the ninth and tenth (Karetzky 2004: 30). The royal ease posture shows the seated Guanyin with left leg bent horizontally and the right bent at the knee. The left hand is lost and the right hand lay on the right knee softly holding part of the deity’s cloth (scarf). The costume is not in contemporary fashion but a casual mode. The posture causes folds of cloth accumulating around the torso. In the lower portion of the sculpture, a couple of rocks like objects appear with pointed peaks. This representation is understood to depict Avalokitesvara’s Pure Land, Potalaka, not only a sacred place seen in scriptures but was associated with a specific geographic location (Chang 1971: 76) believed to be located somewhere in the Indian Ocean (Leidy 2010: 116). In China, Potalaka Mountain came to be identified with Mount Putuo, one of the islands off the coast of Zhejiang Province. The statue was painted originally (Leidy 2010: 148). What it looks like now is white skinned, with subtle red or orange dots spreading all over.


3. The inscription of the Water-moon Guanyin. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

An inscription (fig. 3) written on the inner surface of the wood cover used to close a small shallow consecratory chamber. The black-ink inscription on wood gives a date in the eighteenth year of the Hongwu era (1385), which makes the prominent rendering of the Bodhisattva securely dated. The chamber was used to store consecratory material to sanctify the statue and to enliven it. Another earlier piece of Yuan period from Hebei Province also has a cavity and a chamber with inscription for the same purpose, suggesting that the use of consecratory chambers may have been normal in Buddhist practice. Moreover, the inscription tells information regarding the creation, devotion, patron, and specific names of the water-moon piece. The inscription reads as follows:


Though a few characters could not be recognized, it provides with viewers useful information: the sculpture was carved in 1385 under the direction of a weina, a member of administration within the devotional society in lower status, or Karmadana[2] in Sanskrit, named Xin Zhongwen. The inhabitants of Dong’an village sponsored the establishment of this Water-moon sculpture for the duty of road guard. The inscription also mentions Feng Xiaozhong, the woodcarver-in-attendance, and his son work on sculpting the piece with great care. Also the Water-moon Guanyin is not a single installation but one of three deities. What the group of the three deities looks like keeps unknown.

An inscription containing the exact date of making attached to a statue is rarely found in China. However, due to the changed concept of time, it is not surprising to have such an information being found in late imperial China. In the Ming Dynasty, the reign title on many types of objects makes time manifest and visual (Clunas 2007: 21). “Objects associated with the culture of the court, with reign marks was a novelty of the Ming period …… only in the Ming reign marks came to be so widel and pervasively affixed to things, to material objects.” (Clunas 2007: 24) Recording the time of objects makes time could be handled and visible, which is meaningful to individuals. Not only the intellectuals, but everyone living in the Ming would be clear of the political time, the year of their emperor’s reign. The new sense of time was used by people to date objects and events, so it is reasonable to assume that this practice would have a prominent influence in Buddhist community when it comes to making images and art works. Thus, the buddhist statue having an inscription with detailed information represents a visual presence of imperial time in Ming China.

For the Buddhist laity, one of their sacred duties is to donate money and material to monastic community and gain good karma and better rebirth as compensation. Lay people always believe that an invisible moral order existed in the universe, and good deeds would lead to great rewards. In this case, in hope of having everyone safe on the road, villagers donated money and supported producing the sacred figures, the Water-moon Guanyin, the most compassionate deity. In addition, the Chinese lay groups believe the statues and other Buddhist objects are not merely symbols of the holy, but sacred themselves (Kieschnick 2003: 25). The Dong’an people built statues of deities and believed the objects bear sacred power so they would keep their roads and crossroads safe.

For the purpose of mentally and physically protecting the villagers, the faithful used the Water-moon Guanyin as a fierce, warrior-like deity which determined the visual appearance of the deity. The statue depicts Guanyin as a masculine and heroic deity rather than a female representation, which is against the trend of transformation of Guanyin to a feminine figure in China. Guanyin is widely known as a female in China, and the sexual transformation happened only in China as Chunfang Yu stated. The unique situation drew scholars to search for the reasons within Chinese religion and culture. First, some scholars such as Kobayashi Taichiro believe as a new, incoming religion, Buddhism must change for the indigenous culture, so the transformation of the deity was due to the mixture between Buddhism and Chinese goddess worship (Yu 2001: 408) that happened between Tang and Song Dynasty. Secondly, many scholars discuss what encouraged the transformation to a feminine Guanyin from different perspectives. Jean James has summarized that the first Chinese personal deity is a goddess, so it is natural for a foreign rooted god to transform to the very beginning of the culture. Nevertheless, Yu argued that the relationship between Guanyin and native Chinese goddesses is negative since there were no powerful and popular goddesses around as those in India and Tibet. In addition, the strong cult in China was the male imperial state cult, a female cult would survive precisely because female goddesses are not worshiped in territorial cults as male gods, and female deity was the savior of the society who could not be controlled by hierarchy. Besides the discussions above, an argument by Chinese scholars is that the quality of compassion is a maternal virtue in the Chinese culture context (Yu 2001: 414), an idea that the Buddhist tradition does not share.


4. Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin), dated 1282, Wood (wiillow) with traces of pigment; single woodblock construction. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


5. Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin), Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Qianlong period (1736–95), Leaded brass with pigment, lost-wax cast. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

On the basis of artistic style, many examples of Guanyin do not let me arrive at the conclusion that the deity has been completely transformed to a goddess. An Avalokitesvara sculpture in wood with a secure date of 1282 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 4) shows several features associated with Indian tradition. The rendering of the hair, higher cheekbones, subtle shift in his posture, and masculine hint in the exposed chest and arms can distinguish the sculpture from the typical feminine figure. A piece of Guanyin of the Qing Dynasty made of brass also at the Met gives no feminine features either (fig. 5). The deity stands in thrice-bent posture that is commonly seen in images from Pala period. The eyes and his hairs are in ferocious nature different from the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara images produced around the same period of time which carry a sense of tranquility and maternal virtue. Similarly, the Water-moon piece at the Met shows that the transformation of Guanyin from a male to a female had not completed by the time the early Ming. More precisely, according to Yu, the transformation was taken place separately and individually in various regions with distinctive identities of their own (Yu 2001: 447).

Apart from sculptures, the cult of water-moon Guanyin was reflected in the Ming paintings. Many literati were devout Buddhists while carefully pretending their Confucian personas (Weidner 1994: 69). Ding Yunpeng (1547-?) [4] devoted to Buddhism under his mother’s influence. His Buddhist paintings are characterized by fine, fluent, richly modulated contour strokes sometimes with archaic and beautiful colors. The album of sixteen forms of Guanyin (fig. 6) was created in 1618. The water-moon Guanyin is portrayed as a youthful female figure. What interesting is some other Guanyins in this album are identified to male figures with moustaches. Ding’s painting tends to show a vivid and expressive feeling adopted by literati painters. With an emphasis on heavy and coarser lines, the slender body and flowing cloth make the deity a heavenly spirit.


6. Sixteen Forms of Guanyin: album 16 leaves No.14.


7. The Twenty-five Great Deities of the Surangama Sutra: album 25 leaves (ca. 1617-1620).

A painting of Wu Bin[5] has the same sense of Ding Yunpeng’s piece. The painting of Guanyin is from an album of twenty-five great deities (fig. 7) finished around 1617-1620. Amid a fantastic landscape, with rushing water, bamboos and rocks, the water-moon Guanyin is sitting tranquilly and watching down.The figure is not worldly due to the long face, the long robes and the cloud pedal. The Guanyin, bamboos, rocks, and waves are painted in a fine-line contradicting the line Ding Yunpeng employed in his Guanyin album. On the other hand, Wu Bin’s Guanyin, with some eccentric features, is clearly from the artist’s imagination rather than the religious tradition.

Finally, I would like to say that as a favorite subject for Chinese art, Guanyin became a feminine deity in many ways and many regions, but the transformation was never complete. People of the late imperial China still worshipped male images of Guanyin as I have mentioned in previous paragraphs. Water-moon Guanyin was seen as an indigenous creation introduced and developed in China under the influence of Buddhism, Daosim, Confucianism, and other religions. Over the course of Chinese history, images of water-moon Guanyin would gradually undergo changes. The wood sculpture of 1385 I examined has typical Chinese emphasis as well as Indian or Indo-Himalayan traditions. In late imperial times, people worshipped Water-moon Guanyin for utilitarian purposes. There was no discrimination on wish or status, because they saw the deity as a savior help anyone in any difficulty.


[1] The only Ming emperor to reject the Buddhist religion completely was Zhu Houcong (r. 1521-1567) who was a Daoist.

[2] Karmadana is a Sanskrit word which means “to arrange events” or “to explain rules”. A Karmadana is a master whose duty it is to make certain that all affairs are done in accord with Dharma, in accord with the rules established by Sakyamuni Buddha. Affairs which are not performed in accordance with the Buddha’s rules, are not up to the standards of a Karmadana.

[3] From the eighth to the twelfth centuries, the eastern region of the South Asian subcontinent was under the rule of Pala dynasty notable for its flourish of Buddhist art.

[4] Ding’s birth and death dates are unclear. According to literary record, Ding was still alive in 1628.

[5] The details of Wu Bin’s early study of painting are still unclear, but it is possible that he had already begun his study when he was in hometown.


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