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.
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