Guan Yin (or kwan-yin) is the Chinese goddess of compassion and mercy. Believed to have originally derived from the Sanskrit Avalokiteśvara, popular depictions of Guan Yin come from Chinese Taoist religion. Guan Yin was originally depicted as a male deity but, over time, the image evolved into a female deity associated with compassion, mercy, fertility and sometimes the sea.
Guan Yin is very often portrayed as a beautiful woman in long, flowing white robes. In her right hand, she holds a jar containing pure, clear water, while her left hand bears the branch of a willow tree. Sometimes, she is accompanied by either two children or two warriors, while other images show her with a bird or astride a dragon. Some Tang Dynasty depictions of Guan Yin show her dressed as a young maiden holding a fish basket, which has probably contributed to her association with fishermen and the sea in certain coastal areas of China.
Guan Yin was probably introduced into China as a deity sometime around the year 1 A.D. and was later spread to Korea, Japan and other areas of Southeast Asia. Variations of her image are now popular throughout Asia.
She is closely associated with Putuo Shan, a spiritual island located off the coast of Shanghai that is home to one of the most important Buddhist monasteries in all of China. Depictions of Guan Yin often show her meditating at Putuo Shan and some stories recount that she was born there. A massive statue of her stands atop one of the tallest hills on Putuo Shan overlooking the East China Sea. Many tourists and pilgrims visit the statue to pay respect to their beloved goddess of mercy.
Several myths also accompany the story of Guan Yin. One legend says that her head split into 11 pieces after she unsuccessfully tried to spare every human soul from reincarnation. Another recounts how she saved the son of the Dragon King, for which she was presented a precious stone known as the “Pearl of Light”.
Guan Yin is without a doubt one of the most beloved deities in both religious and folk beliefs in China. Because of her association with compassion, vegetarians often revere her and her image is present in many vegetarian restaurants. She is also fortuitous for expectant mothers, for which she serves as a provider of fertility and health. Many believe that Guan Yin is the mother of all mankind, an idea that has likened her to the Christian Virgin Mary.