The gods of northern Buddhism

their history, iconography and progressive evolution through the northern Buddhist countries

by Alice Getty | 1914 | 98,662 words

Indispensable reference for art historians, scholars of Eastern philosophy and religion. Wealth of detailed scholarly information on names, attributes, symbolism, pictorial representations of virtually every major and minor divinity in Mahayana pantheon, as worshipped in Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia, and Japan. 185 black-and-white illustrat...

Chapter VII - Forms Of Kwan-Shi-Yin

Table VII
  I. Two arms. I. Holds child.
With or without acolytes.
With or without dragon.
Sung-tse (feminine).
  II. On lotus holding willow branch or kalasa.
Or rolls of prayers.
Or hands making dhyana mudra.
Kwan-yin (feminine).
  III. a. Represented on the sea.
b. Represented on a cloud
Kwo-hai (feminine).
IV. Seated on a lion. Kwan-yin Simhanada
V. Group of eight Kwan-yin (masculine or feminine). Pa-nan.
VI. Group of thirthy-two Kwan-yin (masculine) San-sh'i-ri'-siang.
VII. Kwan-yin with crown of eight heads called 'eight-faced' (masculine).
II. More than
two arms.
I. Kwan-yin with ten arms (feminine).
II. Kwan-yin with eighteen arms (masculine).
III. 1,000 armed Kwan-yin (masculine or feminine).
III. Japanese form : Kwan-non.
IV. Legend of Miao Chen.
V. Legend of Haritl.


(S.) Avalokitesvara.
(J.) Kwan-non.

Kwan-shi-yin, god (or goddess) of Mercy, is confounded, in some of the Chinese texts, with Maitreya, whose title is 'family of Mercy', and with Purna Maitrayaniputra (disciple of Sakya-muni), whose title is 'son of full Mercy'; but European, as well as most Chinese scholars, look upon the god as a manifestation of Avalokitesvara, although they do not agree as to the meaning of the name itself, Kwan-sh'iryin.

The word was used for the first time by Kumarajiva, who, in the fifth century a. d., translated a chapter of the Saddharmapundarika [1] into Chinese. There is a divergence of opinion in regard to his use of the word 'Kwan-shi-yin' in his translation of the title of this chapter, which is: 'Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva samantamukha'. Some claim that 'Kwan-shi-yin' is a Chinese version of 'Avalokitesvara', while others are of the opinion that it is a translation of samantamukha, his title, which may mean 'universally manifested voices'. [2] According to Edkins [3] the literal translation may be thus interpreted: kwan (looks on), shi ('the region' of sufferers), yin (whose 'voices' of many tones, all acknowledging misery and asking salvation, touch the heart of the pitiful Bodhisattva).

The worship of Avalokitesvara was introduced into China during the Han dynasty [4] towards the end of the first century a.d., and by the sixth century the god of Mercy was worshipped in all the Buddhist temples. In the seventh century he was still popular, for Hiuen-tsang speaks of him with enthusiasm; and by the twelfth he was practically forgotten, except in monasteries and temples where precedence demanded his presence.

But in spite of his popularity in China during several centuries, the Indian Buddhist priests were unable to impose the Sanskrit name of their god on the Chinese, and Avalokitesvara was exclusively worshipped as 'Kwin-yin', god of Mercy.

The quality of 'mercy', however, seems to have appealed to the Chinese as feminine rather than masculine, for a goddess of Mercy, believed to be the feminine manifestation of Avalokitesvara, made her appearance and drew many worshippers.

When later, the title ' Giver of Sons (Sung-tse) was added to that of 'mercy' the goddess Kwan-yin acquired a popularity that defied all Indian Buddhist influence and has lasted up to the present day, in China as well as in Japan.

There are no records by which one can determine the earliest appearance of the female form of Kwan-yin in China, and hence much divergence of opinion in regard to her origin.

It is admitted by Eitel [5] that the goddess of Mercy may have been a divinity worshipped in China long before the introduction of Buddhism. [6] She may even have been a Taoist goddess, for Hackmann writes that deities peculiar to Taoism have been 'found under another guise in Buddhism'. Edkins confirms the above quotation when he says that Taoist idols were often employed in Buddhist temples. He also refers to a sutra found by a Japanese priest, Tan-wu, in India in the fourteenth century, the subject of which was the 'admission of Kwan-shi-yin to a Buddhist life'. [7]

Lillie, [8] in referring to the goddess Kwan-yin, quotes from the Abbe Proveze and says:

'The Abbe Proveze is aware, however, that the Kwan-yin is much earlier historically than the Virgin Mary, [9] for he starts a second theory that the idea was plagiarized from an Old Testament in a synagogue that the Jews had in China two hundred years before Christ'.

If we accept the hypothesis that a goddess of Mercy was worshipped in China earlier than Avalokitesvara, the divinity could have been none other than the Chinese princess and saint, Miao-Chen, [10] who, according to Chinese legend, lived 2587 B.C. Chinese historical accounts, however, identify her father with King Chanwang of the Chow dynasty 696 B.C., which date is probably more nearly correct.

According to her legend, Miao-Chen became a goddess and retired to an island in the Chusan Archipelago called P'u-to. The name Pu-to is believed to be a corruption of 'Potala', home of Avalokitesvara, and probably only dates from the tenth century, when the Buddhist priests took possession of the island.

It is not known whether or not the Buddhist priests found the worship of a goddess' already established on the island when they took possession of it; but such would seem the case since, although the island was dedicated to Padmapani, it became the most popular shrine of the goddess Kwan-yin.

In one of the temples on the island there is a seated figure of the goddess of Mercy, while behind her, standing, is a figure of Padmapani, and around the walls, also standing, is the group of thirty-two masculine Kwan-yin. This fact alone shows that the feminine form took precedence.

Unfortunately, no documents have been found to prove that the goddess Kwanyin was a development of the saint Miao-Chen, or that Miao-Chen was worshipped as goddess of Mercy before the introduction of Buddhism into China. Only by inference and deduction, and by comparing the different manifestations of the goddess Kwan-yin, can one piece together a hypothetical story of the development of her various forms.

The first idols were brought from India by King Mingti's mission when they returned to China in the first century a.d. Up to that time, the Chinese had not 'imaged' their gods.

It was not until the fourth century that the Chinese were admitted to the Buddhist priesthood, and, as the making of the idols had been entirely in the hands of the Indian Buddhist priests, the character of the representations of the gods remained Indian, with the long-lobed ears and Indian features. The Chinese Buddhists seem never to have entirely freed themselves from the Indian influence.

The Mahayana school of Buddhism was introduced into China in the fifth century a.d. If at that time the Northern Buddhist priests found a goddess of Mercy already popular in China, it is not improbable that, in order to make converts, they claimed her as a feminine manifestation of their god of Mercy. It was done a few centuries later by Padmasambhava in Tibet and by Kobo Daishi in Japan.

Edkins, however, claims that the feminine form did not appear in China until the twelfth century. [11] If such is the case, one cannot explain the presence of certain female forms of Avalokitesvara in the temples and museums of Japan which date back several centuries before that time. [12] As the feminine form came into Japan from China, it must then have existed in China long before the twelfth century.

There were two distinct manifestations of the goddess Kwan-yin in China. One shows Northern Buddhist influence, while the other can be traced back through Chinese Turkestan and Kashmir into India, and originates in the Indian goddess Hariti. [13]

This latter form might easily have been brought into China by the celebrated Buddhist pilgrims, Fa-hian in the fifth century, Hiuen-tsang in the beginning, and Yi-tsing towards the end of the seventh century, when they returned from India.

Both Hiuen-tsang and Yi-tsing, in the accounts of their travels, mention seeing in India the representation of a goddess holding a child, called 'Giver of Children' (). They must also have come upon this form of the goddess on their return through Central Asia, for both Sir Marc-Aurel Stein and Herr von Le Coq, in their excavations in Chinese Turkestan, found representations of the 'Giver of Children' in Buddhist temples, placed opposite Kuvera.

A small painting [14] of the goddess with a head drapery, holding the child (the form adopted by the Chinese to represent the Kwan-yin, 'Giver of Sons' or Sung-tse), which was discovered by Herr von Le Coq at Turfan, dates from the fifth century. It is therefore possible that Fa-hian was also acquainted with this form; and it seems more probable that this important representation of Kwan-yin should have been brought into China by one of these celebrated Buddhist travellers rather than by an obscure Buddhist pilgrim.

The most ancient form of the female Kwan-yin is probably the feminine manifestation of Padmapani, non-Tantra form of Avalokitesvara (that is to say, with only two arms), which was his earliest representation in China.

The goddess is represented as a Bodhisattva, wearing many ornaments and the five-leaved crown in which is usually the image of the Dhyani-Buddha, Amitabha. She is either seated with the legs locked, or is sitting sideways on a lion (simhanada) nth. the right or left leg pendent (PI. xxxiv, fig. d). One of her hands is in ira (charity) mudra, while the other is in the 'dogmatic' pose (vitarka). Her hands may also be in dhydna (meditation) mudra, but in that case she is holding the luminous pearl (or is it the pomegranate?). On a lotus-flower at her right shoulder is the symbol of Padmapani, a vase (kala&a). At her left shoulder, also supported by a lotus, is a symbol which is purely Chinese, and her special emblem, a dove, symbol of fecundity (PI. xxvn, fig. d). This form of Kwan-yin seldom holds the child (PI. xxvil, fig. c).

The form of the goddess which entered China from Chinese Turkestan is represented with a child on her knee and is called 'Sung-tse' (giver of sons). In China the group does not represent the mother and child. The child [15] is purely a symbol and is stiffly held by the goddess (v. PI. xxvi and PI. xxix, fig. c). In this form she is represented with flowing garments, and usually a drapery falling from her high headdress over her shoulders (v. PI. xxvn, fig. a, and PI. xxix, fig. b). Later, the Sungtse Kwan-yin adopted the two symbols of the Northern Buddhist form, the vase and the dove, thus merging the two manifestations into one.

The form of the goddess, which is inexplicable if one does not accept the legend of Miao-Chen as its origin, is represented seated, her hands in 'meditation' mudra holding the flaming pearl or with the hands in 'prayer' mudra. She is accompanied by two acolytes, which are surely Chen Tsai and Loung Nu. Underneath her lotusthrone is the dragon (v. Legend of Miao-Chen; v. PI. xxvn, fig. c).

In this group she may have three different representations:

1. She takes the form of Padmapani, non-Tantra form of Avalokitesvara (two arms), and holds the flaming pearl.

2. She is represented in the Tantra form of Avalokitesvara with many arms. [16] Her normal hands are in 'prayer' mudra, while two hands may be lying on her lap in 'meditation' mudra. In this form she is always seated, while the masculine form of Kwan-yin with a thousand arms is always standing. All the other arms are outstretched, holding various Buddhist symbols, and she is either represented with the head drapery or wearing the five-leaved crown (PI. xx vn, figs, b and d).

3. She is represented in flowing garments with the drapery over her high head-dress, against which may be a small image of her Dhyani-Buddha, Amitabha, or she may wear a crown. She holds the flaming pearl in her hands, lying on her lap in 'meditation' mudra (v. PI. xxvn, fig. b).

In this group she may hold the child instead of the flaming pearl, in which case her disciple, Loung Nu, holds the pearl, while Chen Tsai stands on the opposite side in attitude of prayer (PI. xxvn, fig. a).

She is sometimes represented either holding a roll of prayers or a willow branch, [17] with which she is believed to sprinkle around her the divine nectar (San. amrita), called by the Chinese 'sweet dew'. On her right is the ambrosia vase, and on her left the dove, symbol of fecundity (PI. xxix, fig. d). She is sometimes accompanied by the two acolytes, Loung Nu and Chen Tsai. Other forms represent her in deep meditation, sitting or standing on a cloud [18] or a lotus-flower, or on the sea (called Kwo-Hai). In the temples she is sometimes represented as a goddess of the sea, with rocks and crudely carved waves about her.

All these different representations seem to indicate the legend of Miao-Chen. Monier Williams claims that the Chinese looked upon the goddess of Mercy as the Tibetans look upon the Sakti, or female energy of their gods. This is surely erroneous, although there is a Chinese temple picture in the British Museum which seems to support this theory. The goddess Kwan-yin is seated in the pose of the iakti of Avalokitesvara, the green Tara, and is accompanied by two acolytes, Loung Nu and Chen Tsai.

It is evident, at all events, that the Tibetans did not understand the female manifestation of Avalokitesvara in China from the following fact: The Mongolian Emperor Kang-hsi, in the fourteenth century, sent to Tibet for images of the goddess Kwan-yin, which he presented to the monasteries on the island of Pu-to. They represent the goddess seated with locked legs, the upper part of the body bare, but with a skirt of leaves [19] and with many jewels; and the Buddhist Chinese priests were evidently shocked by this representation of the goddess, for they covered all these statues with yellow mantles. [20]

In China, as well as in Japan, there seems to have been a confusion in regard to the sex of Kwan-yin, for there is a Chinese temple painting [21] representing the god dressed like the female Kwan-yin, seated in the attitude called 'royal ease' (knee raised). The left hand holds a vase in which is a willow branch, the special emblem of the goddess, but the head outlined against a white glory is that of a man with a moustache and beard. There is only one acolyte, Loung Nu, carrying the pearl. This painting is claimed to be Taoist, dating between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The first masculine form of Avalokitesvara in China was the Padmapani type, standing, dressed in princely garments and wearing many ornaments. His face is Indian in aspect, with long-lobed ears. In his left hand is a lotus — generally a bud, while the Tibetan Padmapani holds a full-blown lotus-flower; but he may also hold a vase (PI. xxv, figs, a, c, d).

Kwan-yin, in his Padmapani form, may wear a crown of heads, generally eight in number, which are disposed in two tiers of four, which possibly indicates the group of eight Bodhisattva called the Pa-nan Kwan-yin. The Chinese seldom adopted the Tantra form of Avalokitesvara with eleven heads disposed in the Tibetan manner; but there is an example of a Chinese bronze with four tiers of three heads — the thirteenth is missing.

He has a Tantra form called 'thousand-armed', which is very popular in China, and resembles the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara in Tibet. In this form he is always standing.

There are two groups of the masculine Kwan-yin. One is composed of thirty-two metamorphoses [22] called the 'Kwan-yin san-shi-ri-siang'. They are all modelled on the Padmapani form and differ little from each other.

The other group is called the 'Pa-nan' or 'Kwan-yin of the eight sufferings'. It is composed of eight metamorphoses which he (or she) assumes for the purpose of saving mankind from the eight kinds of sufferings.


The Legend of Miao-Chen. [23]

'In the eleventh year of the Epoch of the Heaven of Gold, 2587 B.C., lived a king called Miao Tohoang.' ... He had three daughters and no sons and when they were old enough to marry, he found them suitable husbands so that he might have an heir to the throne. But Miao-Chen, the youngest, refused to marry, saying that she preferred to pass her life in seclusion in order to perfect herself by meditation and contemplation, and thus arrive at the state of Buddha. [24] She retired to the monastery of the White Sparrows [25] in order to live in perfect seclusion.

The king made every attempt to persuade her to return, and when every kindly tentative failed he resorted to cruelty, each trial being more horrible than the last, but she came out unscathed from them all. Then he ordered her to be decapitated. During the execution there sprung up suddenly a great wind storm, the heavens were obscured, and light breaking forth, surrounded Miao-Chen. [26] Then the tutelary god of the place, having taken the form of a tiger, bounded out of the forest and carried her inanimate form into the mountains.

She visited Yama in Hell and by her magic power liberated the damned souls. Upon her return, Buddha appeared to her on a cloud, and counselled her to retire to the island of P'u-to some three thousand miles away, and give herself up to meditation. He gave her a peach [27] from the garden of Heaven to preserve her for a year from hunger and thirst, and to assure her eternal life. A local god of the island took the form of a tiger and carried her there with the rapidity of the wind. [28] For nine years she remained on the island practising meditation and performing acts of merit, after which she was raised to the rank of Buddha and took her first acolyte, Hoan Chen Tsai (he who prays in order that he may have virtue and talent).

Later, she acquired another acolyte in the following manner: The third son of a Dragon King of the Sea was wandering one day upon the waves in the form of a fish, when he found himself entangled in a fisherman's net and was offered for sale in the market. [29] Miao-Chen, whose eyes see all things, discovered the danger and sent ChenTsai in human form to buy the fish and set it at liberty. The Dragon King was much touched by her kindness and sent her, by his granddaughter, Loung Nu, a pearl that gave light in the dark, so that she might read the sacred books during the night. Loung Nu was so entranced with Miao-Chen that she conceived the idea of herself acquiring the state of Buddha, and asked to be permitted to remain with her and become her acolyte, to which Miao-Chen readily consented.

Miao-Chen converted her parents and became a 'Saviour of Men', and was able to remove all obstacles to their attaining Amitabha's paradise. She herself refused to enter it as long as any human being was excluded.



(C.) Sung-tse Kwan-yin, or Kouei-tseu-mon-chen.
(J.) Koyasu-Kwannon, or Ki-shi-mo-jin.

The Hindu goddess Hariti, protectress of children, worshipped in Northern India by bereaved parents, and believed, in Nepal, to prevent small-pox, was originally a YakshinI, an ogress, a cannibal demon, who had made a vow to devour all the children in Rajagriha.

According to Buddhist accounts, of which there are many variations, she had 500 children, of whom she devoured 499; and the last one, Pindola, was taken away from her by Gautama Buddha, who hid him under his begging-bowl. Hariti forthwith repented of her evil ways and, becoming a BhikshunI (Buddhist nun), was assured of her daily food by Buddhist priests.

This latter fact may possibly account for the presence of the statues of Hariti in the refectories of the monasteries of Northern India, where, according to Yi-tsing (the Chinese pilgrim who visited India in the seventh century), she was adored as 'Giver of Children'. When the worship of Hariti reached China and she became confounded with the goddess Kwan-yin, she was called ' Giver of Sons ' (Sung-tse).

Yi-tsing mentions the fact that her statues were always found either in the porches or refectories of the Buddhist monasteries, opposite the god of Wealth, Kuvera. In Java Hariti was likewise placed opposite the god of Wealth. Herr von Le Coq also found the fresco-paintings of Hariti opposite those of Kuvera in the temples that he discovered at Turfan, in Chinese Turkestan; but in neither China nor Japan was the custom followed. Waddell, [30] in speaking of the persistence with which the Buddhist artists and sculptors coupled Hariti and Kuvera, comes to the conclusion that Hariti is none other than a form of Vasudhara, goddess of Abundance, and consort of Kuvera, god of Wealth. [31]

Hiuen-tsang, who also visited India in the seventh century, mentions her worship in North-western India, where the Gandhara school represented Hariti in flowing garments, holding a child and with several children climbing about her. She was also sometimes represented holding a pomegranate, for Gautama Buddha is believed to have cured her of cannibalism by giving her a diet of pomegranates, the red fruit being supposed to resemble human flesh. The symbol is still used in Japan but was never adopted in China.

Hariti was always represented with flowing garments, which varied slightly according to the country. In the Gandhara representations she has no head-covering.

In Java, on the contrary, she was given an ornate mitre-shaped head-dress. In the frescoes discovered by Sir Aurel Stein at Domoko, in Central Asia, she has a string of pearls wound in her elaborately dressed hair.

A small painting of Hariti [32] was found by Herr von Le Coq in a temple at Turfan, which resembles the representations in China of the form of the feminine Kwan-yin, called 'Sung-tse'.

She is seated, offering her breast to the child in her arms. A drapery falls over her shoulders from the high head-dress and her garments are flowing. [33]

This form in China holds the child but does not offer the breast. In Japan it does not always hold the child, but corresponds, nevertheless, with the Chinese goddess Kwan-yin, feminine form of Avalokitesvara.

The goddess HaritI, as such, does not exist in China, while in Japan she has both the form of saint and ogress, holding the child, and is worshipped under the name of Koyasu Kwan-non as saint, and Kishi-mo-jin as ogress. [34]


a. Kwan-yin (Sung-tse) b. Kwan-yin
c. Kwan-yin d. Kwan-yin


Sho Kwan-non (Padmapani)

Footnotes and references:


Lotus of the Good Law.


M. de la Vallee Poussin gives as translation 'The All-sided One'.


Chinese Buddhism, p. 382.




Handbook of Chinese Buddhism.


Edkins says in his Chinese Buddhism, p. 415: 'Eitel, in his account of Kwan-yin, goes too far when he supposes there was a Chinese divinity of this name (goddess of Mercy) before the introduction of the Mahayana into China'.


Chinese Buddhism, p. 247. On one of the Tsok-chin, Kwan-yin (feminine form) is represented with Avalokitesvara in the place usually occupied by a feminine divinity.


Buddhism in Christianity, p. 205.


Dumoutier in his Cultes annamites speaks of a goddess in Annam called 'Quanam', who is represented seated on a rock, draped in a gown of many pleats, holding a child in her arms. When the 'troupiers' first saw this image they called it the Virgin Mary.


v. Legend of the Miao-Chen.


Chinese Buddhism, p. 382.


v. Kwan-non.


v. Hariti.


Now in the Museum fur Volkerkunde, Berlin; v. also illus., La Madone bouddhique, A. Foucher.


According to certain accounts, the child is Chen Tsai, the first disciple of Miao-Chen.


In the legend of Miao-Chen, there is an incident which seems to explain the thousand arms of the female Kwan-yin. The father of Miao-Chen falling ill,

'she cut the flesh off her arms and made it into medicine which saved his life. To show his gratitude, he ordered a statue to be erected in her honour, saying

"with completely formed (ts'en) arms and eyes";

but the sculptor mistook the order for

"with a thousand (ts'ien) arms and eyes",

whence it happened that a statue with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes perpetuated her memory'

(Eitel). PI. lxiv.


The first of the thirty-three Kwan-non in the Butsuzo Zui (Japanese Pantheon) is called 'Yorin' or 'willow', from the branch she holds in her hand, as does also the eleventh. The seventeenth has a willow branch in her vase.


The second of the thirty-three Kwan-non is seated on a cloud and a dragon. The fifth is seated on a cloud. The twenty-fourth standing on a cloud. The thirtieth is sitting on a lotus on a cloud.


In the Butsuzo Zui, the twenty-second of the thirty-three Kwan-non is called 'Haye', or 'clothed in leaves'.


Edkins, Chinese Buddhism, p. 261.


Belonging to Madame Langweil.


The group corresponds to the thirty-three Kwan-non iu Japan.


Extracts taken from the legend of Miao-Chen in the Annates du Musee Guimet.


It is not surprising to find Buddhibt influence in some of the versions of the legend of Miao-Chen. There are records of Buddhist missionaries in China as early as 225 b. c. and again 217 B.C., according to Max Mtiller in his Buddhism and Buddhist Pilgrims, p. 24. The fact, however, is not accepted by more recent writers.


One of the Chinese titles of Kwan-yin is the 'White-Bohed Great Scholar' (Eitel). In the Butsuzo Zui, the Japanese manual of the Buddhist Pantheon, the fourth of the group of thirty-three Kwan-non is 'Byaku-ye-no' (clothed in white).


The fifth of the thirty-three Kwan-non is called 'Yen-kwo' (sitting in bright rays).


The twenty-third of the thirty-three Kwan-non, the 'Ruri', holds a round object in her hand. According to an ancient Chinese (Taoist) legend, there was once a fairy queen called Hsi-wang-mu who held her court in the K'unlun mountains; she had a garden of miraculous peach-trees which conferred the gift of immortality, but only bore fruit every three thousand years.


Other versions say that she was 'carried over the water on a lotus' (Eitel). In the Butsuzo Zui the twelfth Kwan-nou is represented standing on a lotus-petal on the sea, the seventh is seated on a lotus-flower on the sea.


The tenth of the thirty-three Kwan-non is called gyo (fish), ran (basket),


'Evolution of the Buddhist cult; its gods, images, and art', The Imperial and Asiatic Quarterly Review, Jan. 1912.


Sir Aurel Stein in his Annual Report of the Archaeological Society of India.


Now in the Volkerkunde Museum, Berlin.


v. illustration, A. Foucher, La Madone bouddhique, Monuments et Memoires publics par l'Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, tome 1 7 a.


She is believed in Japan to have had 10,000 children; v. Koyasu Kwan-non.

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