Guanyin: the Chinese Goddess of Mercy and Compassion
In this in-depth bio, you will learn who Guanyin is, her history, and the many myths and legends credited to her name.
You will also learn:
- Why Guanyin is worshipped as the goddess of compassion
- How Guanyin is depicted in artwork and literature
- The meaning of Guanyin’s name
- Who is Guanyin in Chinese mythology
- The origin of Guanyin from mortal to goddess
- How Guanyin came to be attended by Shancai and Longnu
- The legends of Guanyin
- How Guanyin is honored today
In Chinese mythology, Guanyin is the goddess of mercy who can hear all and see all. Followers of East Asian Buddhism believe Guanyin to be the Buddhist goddess of compassion and the bodhisattva Avolokitesvara. Still popularly worshipped throughout Southeast Asia, Lady Guanyin is revered by many for her unconditional love for those that call her name.
As the goddess of mercy, Guanyin is believed to be the protector of women and children. Guanyin is also worshipped as a fertility goddess and a number of superstitions revolve around her.
Guanyin is also worshipped as the protector of the sick, the infirm, the destitute, the poor, and those in serious trouble. She is regarded as the protector of seafarers – such as travelers, fishermen, and sailors, and many associate her with the goddess Mazu.
Scholars believe that Guanyin was originally based upon the Hindu god Avolokitesvara, and as Buddhism spread to China, stories of Avolokitesvara intermingled with Chinese folk tales to create the stories of Guanyin.
Throughout China, Avolokitesvara is exclusively named Guanshiyin Pusa and is known as the Buddhist goddess of mercy. And in Chinese translations of Buddhist sutras, the name Avolokitesvara has been replaced with Guanshiyin. Taoists refer to Guanyin as Guanyin Dashi or Guanyin Fozu.
Honored through all levels of society, Guanyin is often called on by her adherents whenever facing fear and despair. As she can see all and hear all, there are many historical government documents honoring Guanyin for her assistance.
For example, in the 14th century, a government official from the Ming Dynasty wrote of Guanyin:
“Like a speck of dust, ephemeral is the body,
So is the doctrine ephemeral, like a speck of dust.
Only when all sentient beings and the world attain emptiness
Will [Guanyin]’s all-compassionate heart rest.”
In artwork, Guanyin is depicted with long white robes and adorned with jade necklaces, as the colors white and jade are representative of Guanyin’s purity.
She is often pictured with a willow branch in one hand and a vase of water in the other and is sometimes seen sitting upon lotus flowers or clouds; or standing on the back of a dragon. Lady Guanyin is also attended by Shancai (one of her disciples), and Longnu (a granddaughter of the Dragon King).
– Name Meaning
The name Guanyin originated from the evolved translation of Avalokitesvara, which is the deity’s name in original Sanskrit. The name Avalokitesvara means he who hears the voices of the suffering, as Guanyin was originally a male deity. As tales of the Hindu god made their way into China, he became known as Guanshiyin, meaning the one who hears the sound of the world.
As the years passed and the deity took on more female characteristics, the name was shortened to Guanyin, representing the goddess’ compassion and ability to hear the suffering of the world.
Who is Guanyin in Chinese Mythology?
As the goddess of mercy and compassion that is both all-hearing and all-seeing, Guanyin is a popular figure in Chinese mythology. Guanyin is consistently portrayed as a loving deity who is motivated by benevolence and giving to those in need.
In Chinese folk belief, Guanyin takes on the role of protector of women and children, the needy, those that cannot help themselves, the sick, the crippled, and anyone who find themselves in troubled circumstances. Due to this, Guanyin is a wildly popular deity whose name has been invoked by millions.
– The origin of Guanyin
Before she was Guanyin, goddess of mercy, she was once a child named Miao Shan. Born into royalty as the daughter of King Zhuang and Lady Yin of Chu, Miao Shan lacked for nothing. However, there was something that set Miao Shan apart from other young children – as soon as she could speak as a toddler, Miao Shan would chant Buddhist sutras.
When she came of age, her father wished to marry her to a powerful lord to expand the kingdom. Miao Shan, however, told King Zhuang that she had no intention of marrying another man as she wished to become a Buddhist nun. She agreed that if the King could find an arrangement that would solve three problems, then she would agree to be married. The problems were the suffering of age, the suffering of sickness, and the suffering of death.
Although King Zhuang searched high and low to find a suitor that met the demands of his daughter, he could not. Acquiescing to her desires, he reluctantly allowed Miao Shan to join the Buddhist temple as a nun. Before releasing her to the temple’s care, however, King Zhuang ordered the monks of the temple to assign Miao Shan extremely difficult work to discourage her. Soon, Miao Shan found herself working day and night with no sleep.
Seeing her suffering, animals from the nearby forest which surrounded the temple came to her aid, helping her with her innumerable chores and duties. Soon, Miao Shan was able to find time for sleep and began to thrive in her role at the temple. When finding out that Miao Shan was receiving aid, however, King Zhuang was furious. Believing that the monks had disobeyed his commands, the king ordered the temple to be set on fire.
– The death of Miao Shan
As the flames grew along the temple walls, Miao Shan began to chant. Using power that emanated from her hands, she soon extinguished the fires, ending the inferno. Seeing the power that his daughter wielded, King Zhuang became fearful as he believed her possessed by a demon. Frightened of other powers she may release, the king sentenced his daughter to death.
On her day of execution, Miao Shan did not resist her judgment. She walked freely to the execution block and softly lay her head upon the cold stone. As the executioner brought his heavy axe down upon her neck, however, the metal of the axe broke into hundreds of pieces, leaving Miao Shan unharmed. Undeterred, the executioner pulled out his sword and struck Miao Shan.
His sword suffered the same fate as his axe and broke beyond repair. The executioner then lashed Miao Shan to a post to keep so that he could fire an arrow into her heart. His arrows, however, would not strike the mark and veered away from Miao Shan as he fired them.
Miao Shan felt terrible for the trouble she was causing as she knew that if the executioner could not do his job, then he would be held responsible and face death himself. Not wanting to wish death upon the man, Miao Shan forgave her executioner, gave herself over to death, and asked to receive the karma for his actions so the executioner would not have to pay for her death in this life or the next.
– The creation of Guanyin
After entering Diyu (Chinese hell), Miao Shan was surrounded by blossoming lotus flowers. As Miao Shan looked around, she saw the suffering of the many souls of hell and began to weep. Stilling herself, she released all of her positive karma into the mazes and levels of hell. The underworld shuddered as Miao Shan’s power and karma filled the kingdom.
As millions of souls began to escape, King Yama (the king of hell) began to fear that the underworld was on the verge of collapse. Having Miao Shan brought before him, he passed judgment upon her, allowing Miao Shan to return to earth as the bodhisattva Guanyin.
– The story of Shancai
After returning to the mortal realm as a bohisattva, Guanyin lived on an island of rock in the middle of the sea. A young, crippled boy named Shancai heard that there was an enlightened teacher on the island, and although he was born with a non-functioning leg, he made his way to the island and begged Guanyin to receive him as a disciple.
Guanyin looked Shancai over and admired him for his courage in making his way to the island. However, she was unsure if he would be able to handle the tasks in becoming her disciple. Guanyin focused and sent him a vision of three pirates chasing Guanyin off a cliff. With no fear for himself, Shancai leapt off the cliff to save her from the dark waters below.
Guanyin caught the crippled boy in mid-air and set him down upon the ground. As Shancai stood, he realized that he had the use of both of his legs. Shancai declared that from that point, he would always be by Guanyin’s side.
– The story of Longnu
The third son of the Dragon King often found himself in trouble. But one day, the Dragon King’s son found himself in more trouble than usual. While playing as a fish in the ocean he had not paid attention and found himself entangled in a fisherman’s net. Pulled out of his water habitat, he could not transform out of his fish form into that of his natural dragon form.
The Dragon King’s son cried out for help, but because he was a literal fish out of water, the Dragon King was powerless to help him. The Dragon King’s son begged and wept for help, as he knew there was little hope for him.
Hearing the cries of the Dragon King’s son, Guanyin gave Shancai money to purchase the fish from the fisherman. However, when Shancai arrived at the fisherman, he found that a large crowd had gathered about. People were amazed by the small fish that was still alive, as it had been out of water for hours but still thrashed about. The fisherman, believing that he had caught a magical fish, soon began taking bids to sell it to the highest bidder. And Shancai quickly found himself outbid.
Shancai pleaded with the fisherman to sell the fish to him or to let the fish go, but the fisherman refused. The fisherman believed that he was about to become a very wealthy man, and he had no intention of letting his magical fish go. Seeing that the Dragon King’s son would be killed if she did not intervene, Guanyin projected her spirit into the crowd and spoke “A life should belong to the one who tries to save it, not the one who tries to take it.”
The fisherman’s heart filled with shame as the crowd began to leave. The fisherman gave Shancai the fish, and Shancai released it into the ocean. As soon as the fish entered the water, it transformed into its dragon form and swam away. The fisherman, realizing that the fish was actually the son of the Dragon King, was struck with the weight of what he had almost done and begged forgiveness.
To thank Guanyin for saving his son, the Dragon King sent Longnu (his granddaughter) to give the bodhisattva the Pearl of Light, known as one of the most beautiful gems in the heavens. When Longnu met Guanyin, she was struck by her radiance and compassion and threw herself at Guanyin’s feet asking to be her disciple. Guanyin brought Longnu on as her disciple, but only if Longnu would become the owner of the pearl.
– Other legends and Guanyin stories
As Guanyin is one of the most popular deities in the Chinese pantheon, there are no shortages of superstitions, stories and legends featuring the goddess of compassion.
On particularly strong Chinese superstition comes from a Guanyin story – that of the borrowed shoe. As Guanyin is believed to be the protector of women and young children, she is also worshipped as a fertility goddess. In one of the stories of Guanyin, a barren woman offered her shoe to Guanyin as a gift. Guanyin, touched by the gift, made the woman able to conceive.
Superstition holds that when a child is desired or expected, a single shoe is given to the mother as a blessing. After the child is born, the shoe is given back to its original owner, along with a new pair of shoes to offer thanks.
In the Chinese classic, Journey to the West, Guanyin plays an important part in the story’s resolution. The character Tang Sanzang, a Chinese monk, has difficulty fighting the Monkey King. Guanyin, desiring to see the Monkey King defeated, gives Tang Sanzang a magic ring that subdues his enemy. Later in the story, whenever Tang faces difficult opponents, Guanyin appears and defeats Tang’s enemies for him.
How Guanyin is honored today
Taoists claim that Guanyin was originally a woman named Cihang Zhenren who lived during the Shang Dynasty. Regarding her as one of the Three Great Immortals, Taoists believe Guanyin can appear in 32 different forms, some female, others male.
In Zali belief, Guanyin is the primary deity and is called Ancient Buddha of Holy Religion.
In Caodaism, Guanyin is known by the name Quan Am Tathagata and is considered a Buddha. In Caodaism, along with representing compassion, mercy, and patience, Guanyin’s primary role is to teach the Tao to female disciples to help them reach godhood.
In Taiwan, Guanyin is known as the Ancient Buddha of the South Sea and is a primary deity of the Yiguandao.
Many compare Guanyin to Christianity’s Virgin Mary, as many artistic representations show Guanyin holding a small child. It is quite common for modern representations of Guanyin to be made by Catholic sculptors, such as the Guanyin statue in Gilsangsa, Seoul, South Korea, which was made by avowed Catholic Choi Jong-tae.
Due to her popularity, Guanyin is commonly featured in in works of literature, television, movies, and now even video games, most recently appearing as a character called Cigu Guanyin in the cult horror game, Devotion.
Guanyin, Chinese goddess of mercy and compassion
As the Chinese goddess of mercy and compassion, Guanyin is all-seeing and all-hearing, coming to the rescue of those that call her name. Admired and revered throughout Southeast Asia in different religions and beliefs, the tales of Guanyin’s love are innumerable.
- Guanyin is the goddess of mercy and compassion in Chinese folk religion, as well as in multiple forms of Southeast Asian Buddhism
- Guanyin is considered to be the protector of women and children and is also worshipped as a fertility goddess. She is also worshipped as the protector of the sick, the infirm, the destitute, the poor, and those in trouble. She is also regarded as a protector of seafarers and travelers
- Scholars believe that Guanyin was originally based upon the Hindu god Avolokitesvara, and as Buddhism spread to China, stories of Avolokitesvara intermingled with Chinese folk tales to form the stories of Guanyin
- The name Guanyin is a transliteration of Guanshiyin, the Chinese name for Avolokitesvara meaning the one who hears the sound of the world
- In artwork, Guanyin is usually shown with long white robes and adorned with jade necklaces. She is often pictured with a willow branch in one hand and a vase of water in the other and is sometimes seen sitting upon lotus flowers or clouds; or standing on the back of a dragon.
- Lady Guanyin is attended by Shancai (one of her disciples), and Longnu (a granddaughter of the Dragon King).
- In Chinese myth, before she was Guanyin, goddess of mercy, she was once a child named Miao Shan who was wrongly executed. Upon entering Diyu, she sent out her karmic force to help others, emptying hell. King Yama, fearing the destruction of his realm, sent Miao Shan back to the earthly realm as the bhodisavatta Guanyin
- Taoists believe Guanyin was originally born as Cihang Zhenren, and regard her as one of the Three Great Immortals
- Many Chinese fertility superstitions surround Guanyin, including the giving of a shoe to expectant mothers so that children may be carried to term
- Guanyin is a common fixture in artwork, literature, movies, television, and video games
Adored throughout Southeast Asia for her benevolence, mercy, and kindness, Guanyin is one of the most popular gods of ancient China. Coming to the rescue of those deserving of her attention, Guanyin’s legacy is that of a saint, even drawing comparisons to Christianity’s Virgin Mary. If you find yourself in dire straits, call out the Chinese goddess of mercy. She may hear your call.