Avalokitesvara Iconography

Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Avalokiteshvara



This is a brief inquiry into the origins of Guanyin worship and iconography in China. Because the Avalokitesvara deity cults in China and Tibet were both wildly popular, it may perhaps be of interest to use the worship of Guanyin in China as a foil to study the worship of Avalokitesvara in Tibet. Alternatively, the Avalokitesvara deity cult in Tibet can be used as a foil to understand why exactly Guanyin came to be depicted as a woman in Chinese art.

History of Guanyin iconography and worship in China

Despite that Buddhism was introduced into China as early as the second century CE, the worship of Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) was a relatively late phenomenon. For several centuries after the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220, China was a politically fragmented country, and this was reflected in the eclectic nature of style and subject in the Buddhist artwork of this period.

In 589, China was unified by the Sui dynasty, and Buddhism was declared the state religion. It was during the Sui dynasty that Buddhism truly came of age, developing a distinctly Chinese flavour. The Tang succeeded the Sui Dynasty in 618, and thus began perhaps one of the most prosperous dynasties in Chinese history. It was during the Tang that abundant iconography of Guanyin, and other deities, can be found. With the flourishing of international trade routes, Chinese artists were subject to external influences, resulting in a period of great artistic creativity. Popular themes in art included depicting the 9 perils from which Guanyin saves sentient beings. This period also marked the beginnings of the feminization of this Buddhist deity; it was part of a general trend in Tang art to make images of bodhisattvas “more beautiful.” During the Tang dynasty, Guanyin became a particularly appealing deity to female devotees.

By the Song dynasty (established 960), Buddhism had come to permeate all levels of society. Although the Song was a Confucian dynasty as opposed to a Buddhist one, Buddhist art nevertheless flourished due to the support of aristocrats, merchants and common people; these people frequently sponsored the building of temples or creation of artwork. It was also during the Song dynasty that Guanyin was first fully depicted as a woman. In the Song dynasty we also see the emergence of the portrayal of Guanyin in white robes. Other popular themes of Guanyin art that emerged during his period were the Watermoon Guanyin, the Guanyin in his verdant island home of Potalaka, and Guanyin as the leader of souls. Incarnations of Guanyin also became a popular way of explaining the virtuous religious conduct of young females who refused to marry.

During the following dynasties, the Yuan (1260-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing, Chinese culture became greatly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. The Yuan emperors were of Mongol descent and were Tibetan Buddhist by religion, the Ming emporesr were Chinese, but were very interested in Tibetan Buddhism, and the Qing emperor Qianlong was renowned as a Tibetan Buddhist. During these three dynasties, the esoteric image of the thousand-armed thousand-eyed Guanyin became a very popular way of depicting the deity despite the persistence of other popular forms (such as the white-robed female deity). Yet, it is also fascinating to note that the esoteric image of Guanyin had been present long before the arrival of the Mongols; esoteric Buddhism had long been popular among upper class circles since the Tang dynasty, and esoteric iconography were popular amongst them.

Interesting Questions

Why was the esoteric iconography of Avalokitesvara popular exclusively in the upper classes in China? What exactly was the appeal? Why was the depiction of Avalokitesvara as a woman more popular in China than Tibet?


Karetzky, Patricia Eichenbaum. Guanyin. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004.

Neville, Tove. Eleven-headed Avalokitesvara : Chenresigs, Kuan-yin or Kannon Bodhisattva : its origin and iconography. New Delhi : Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1999.