Two Guanyins

David LeffmanUncategorized Leave a Comment

Another print from early 1930s Shanghai courtesy of Reverend Hallock, this time of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Guanyin. She’s shown in two simultaneous incarnations: the Bringer of Children, and riding the Aoyu, that fish-like sea monster at the bottom of the print.

Hallock’s accompanying letter is dated 19 February 1930; Chinese New Year – when the bulk of these woodblock prints were sold – was on 30 January that year. Alternatively, it might have been made for Guanyin’s Birthday on the 19th day of the second lunar month, which would have been mid-March in 1930.

Although the Aoyu aspect represents Guanyin subduing evil in general terms, at Shanghai and coastal eastern China this depiction was also considered to protect seafarers from harm, and replaced the equivalent southern maritime deity, Tian Hou/Mazu.

Guanyin is accompanied by her filial parrot and two child attendants, named Longnu and Shancai; also shown are her vase of water and willow twig sprinkler with which she calms concerns of the world. The “bringer of children” incarnation is emphasised by the locket Guanyin wears round her neck, of the kind widely given to Chinese infants to protect them from harm.

The Chinese text 普門大士 refers to the Universal Gate, the twenty-fifth chapter of the Buddhist Lotus Sutra, which describes the different ways that Guanyin can relieve followers of suffering and guide them towards enlightenment. The other red symbols are protective talismanic charms from popular Chinese religion.

I can’t help feel that with the halo, hooded robes and carrying a child, this depiction of Guanyin draws on Christian imagery of the Virgin Mary. If so, foreign influence would be nothing new: Guanyin derives from Avalokitesvera of Indian Buddhism, and her Chinese representations over the centuries have reflected at various times Indian, Central Asian and even Greek sculpture.

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