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Chinese Mythology 101: Guanyin

By Enoch Ngan 4 January 2023

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Guanyin is a highly revered figure in Chinese culture and mythology, often considered the East Asian version of the Virgin Mary. For centuries, believers from all around the region have sought her comfort during periods of sorrow, anguish, and terror. Guanyin is known for being more protective of women and children, showing special attention to feeble ones not as fortunate as other individuals. It is even rumoured that her powers are so immense that parents who are unable to bear children can conceive after praying to Guanyin.

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Empress Dowager Cixi dressed as Guanyin, supported by court figures. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A story from the Silk Road

Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, is much more recognisable in Hong Kong as the mother goddess Kwun Yum (觀音). Although the figure had its origins in the Hindu bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the East Asian concept of Guanyin as an all-loving holy figure was morphed during the mass spread of Buddhism throughout the Chinese Ming dynasty when Avalokiteśvara passed onto Han Chinese religion through word of mouth.

Avalokiteśvara was translated into the East Asian version of Guanyin through the assimilation of traditional Chinese folklore and foreign Buddhist ideals. While India regarded Avalokiteśvara as a male deity, Guanyin has been seen form in either female or male shape. Her worship in Chinese mythology is by no means unique; for example, Guanyin is recognised as Kannon in Japan and fulfils a similar role as the deity of compassion.

Photo: 风之清扬 (via Wikimedia Commons)

A beauty among the Chinese deities

Flowing white robes and jaded necklaces are typically included in depictions of Guanyin, with the hues of white and jade symbolising purity within Chinese culture.

Additionally, Guanyin is frequently depicted standing on a lotus flower or flying on clouds through the air with a vase of water in one hand and a willow of branches in the other, used for the purification of earthly beings. She rides a dragon below the lotus flower as an ancient representation of having high spirituality, divine powers, and wisdom.

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“Guanyin Bestowing a Son.” Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art (via Wikimedia Commons)

Born to be a goddess

Although there are many variations of Guanyin’s mortal ascent to becoming a goddess, many in Chinese mythology follow a similar structure as the story below.

Born to King Miaozhuang Wang (妙庄王), Guanyin, who was at the time named Miaoshan (妙善), showed signs of being strikingly different from other children. At a young age, the child was able to chant Buddhist sutras as soon as she attained the ability to speak. Miaoshan aspired to become a Buddhist nun, with no desire to marry a powerful lord or gain hierarchal status. Her attitude angered her father, who reluctantly allowed her to join a Buddhist temple after hopelessly attempting to sway her opinion.

Following the demands of Miaoshan’s father, the monks at the Buddhist temple gave her tremendously tiring work in hopes of discouraging her pursuits of life in a monastery. However, similar to the story of Snow White, forest animals around the temple gathered together to aid Miaoshan during her wearisome chores. Infuriated by this unforeseen circumstance, her father set fire to the temple with the intention of burning Miaoshan’s dreams to the ground, but Miaoshan put out the fire with just her bare hands.

Alarmed by his daughter’s supernatural abilities, the father accused Miaoshan of being a demon, forcing her to the execution block to send her back to hell. However, even the executioner could not stop Guanyin’s divine capacity, failing to finish her off; his axe and sword both shattered, and his arrows went astray. Only by the forgiving grace of Guanyin was the executioner finally able to kill her, with his karma being absorbed by the kindness of Guanyin herself. After her death on the realm of Earth, her mortal soul burst with life, with blossoming flowers blooming all around her now-deceased body.

In death, Miaoshan was shocked to see the amount of suffering in hell, weeping in empathy for all the souls agonising around her. As she cried in compassion, she released her positive karma, helping countless souls to escape the realms of the underworld. Yanluo Wang (閻羅王), the ruler of the underworld, released Guanyin back to Earth in fear that her good karmic energy would destroy his entire kingdom. For the sake of her believers, Guanyin stayed on Earth to be an accessible gateway for all faithful followers.

Photo: Underwaterbuffalo (via Wikimedia Commons)

A hidden Hong Kong gem

If you are seeking the ultimate spot to pay your respects to Guanyin, you can do no better than the Tsz Shan Monastery. It is not commonly known as a publicly accessible site, yet for many visitors of these devoted grounds, the monastery’s museums and environs are one of Hong Kong’s most hidden treasures. Some claim that this monastery is equally breathtaking as its much more popular counterpart in Lantau Island, the Giant Buddha.

Completed in 2015, the 500,000-square-foot complex houses Buddhist statues, handwritten sutras, carvings, paintings, and many more religious artefacts for visitors to admire. A 76-metre-tall Guanyin in beautiful white garments overlooks the grounds. She can be seen from various points around the Pak Shek Kok Promenade and Science Park area. Surrounded by lush green forests that complement the natural beauty of this attraction, the pristine temples and statues are straight out of a fairytale.

Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing is no stranger to the religious worship of Buddhist deities such as Guanyin. As a benefactor of the Tsz Shan Monastery, his funds contributed a huge percentage of this project built for the support of Buddhist practitioners and monks.

Tsz Shan Monastery is open to the public but prior online registration is required.

Tsz Shan Monastery, 88 Universal Gate Road, Tai Po | (+852) 2123 8666

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Enoch Ngan

Writer

Enoch is an Asian-American born in California who studied in Hong Kong when he was younger. While in Hong Kong, he enjoys going on hikes with breathtaking scenery and catching up with old friends and family. If you ever see him around, he always has music playing in the background, whether that be exploring the city or simply relaxing at home.

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