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Legend of Guanyin in China

In Chinese folk legend, Guanyin(Chinese: 观音; pinyin: Guānyīn) literally means "observing the sounds" (Guanyin, commonly known in English as the Goddess of Mercy, would always observe all the sounds of the earth; boast great mercy and compassion to the ordinary persons; help the needy and relieve the distressed), who was born on the nineteenth of the second lunar month, achieved enlightenment on the nineteenth of the sixth lunar month and achieved nirvana on the nineteenth of the ninth lunar month.

It is generally accepted that Guanyin originated as the Sanskrit Avalokiteśvara from India, which is her male form, whose image has remolded according to people’s own understanding and wishes around China. Guanyin was originally male and dwelled on an Indian Mountain. When he came to China, he gradually became a female and was called “Goddess Guanyin”. In Buddhist scriptures, Guanyin has vast magic powers and is capable of saving people by listening to their voices and liberating them from sufferings. As a result, people contribute their piety to Guanyin. However, most of them are concerned with their practical benefits and expect Guanyin, whose image precisely meets such psychology, to assist solving their present problems instead of waiting to get salvation after death, which can be considered as the common characteristics of religious beliefs among the Chinese. 

Image of Children-Sending Guanyin
Thousand Armed Guanyin Performance

Image of Children-Sending Guanyin

Thousand Armed Guanyin Performance



Representation of Guanyin in China
The images of Guanyin are diversified in different regions of China. She has been often depicted as a beautiful lady, including Thousand Armed Guanyin(千手观音), Children-Sending Guanyin(送子观音Guanyin appears as an image of holding a child on one of her arms), and so on. Another frequent image of Guanyin is that she usually holds a lotus blossom or a willow twig.

Famous Guanyin in China
Guanyin is enshrined from the Potala Palace (布达拉宫, Budala Gong) of Tibet in the West to Putuo Mountain(普陀山, Pu Tuo Shan) of Zhejiang Province in the East Sea (Potala and Putuo are all named after the pronunciation of the dwelling of Guanyin). 

Guanyin statue in Potala PalaceGuanyin statue in Putuo Mountain

Guanyin Statue in Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

Guanyin Statue in Putuo Mountain, Zhoushan, Zhejiang



Story of Guanyin
One famous story about the show-up of Guanyin(观音现身)dates back to Tang Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Wenzong(唐文宗, 827~840A.D.). It is known that the capital of Tang Dynasty is Chang’an(Xi’an nowadays), a great city in the west of China, a city that turns its face to the empires of Inner Asia. Emperor Wenzong has a special hobby of eating clams, ordered clams for three of his five meals, each and every day. However, based on the geographic position of Xian, it was a great barrier to bring clams from the sea to the imperial palace. Such a delicacy the emperor ate was through the bitter labors of thousands. To ensure the freshness of the clams, every day in the dim light before dawn, clams would be gathered by the ocean fishermen of Zhejiang and then packed by porters in cold seaweed, wet sand and ice, then rapidly loaded on relay mounts that sped the Imperial highway. Obviously, it is a great sacrifice of the labors only to please the emperor’s eating preference.

Day after day, the laborers suffered a lot from the process of hard work; many of them are living in misery, until one incident shocked the entire palace. One day, the Royal chef discovered an unusual clam in grand size. The clam was enormous-twenty times the usual shell,-surely an imperial clam meant for the Imperial Palate. As the Clam Shell Opener stepped up to pry the shell apart, however, he found the shell sealed like iron; the clam was as tight as a rock crevice on the slope of Mount Tai.

Emperor Wenzong heard about this and commanded the opener to let him take a closer look. All of a sudden, as if by signal, the clam began to open automatically. The emperor gasped at what he saw. There, standing inside, was a finely detailed, miniature, astonishingly sweet statue of the Goddess of Mercy, the Bodhisattva Guanyin, exquisitely carved. What surprised him most is what Guanyin said by her lovely expression, “The laborers have to make great efforts for your own pleasure; both harass the people and waste money”. Then the Emperor realized that Guanyin –the Buddhist Goddess-who hears even the smallest call for mercy from even the tiniest voice in the empire-had taken pity on the boat men, the fisher folk, the portage men and relay riders, even the royal cooks-all who served his royal taste and royal whim. He realized that the purpose that Guanyin show up in the grand clam is to warn him; she would watch over mankind in times of fear and danger. (Partly Refer to "In the Realm of the Gods: Lands, Myths, and Legends of China" )
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