Songzi Guanyin and Koyasu Kannon: Revisiting the Feminization of Avalokiteśvara in China and Japan

  • Author / Creator
    Huang, Ying
  • Avalokiteśvara, initially imagined as a male deity in India, began to transition into a female deity during the early period of the Song dynasty (960-1279) in China. Guanyin 觀音, Avalokiteśvara’s name in Chinese, received great popularity as the “Goddess of Mercy” in China. Influenced by both White-robed Guanyin and Water-moon Guanyin, Songzi 送子 (Child-giving) Guanyin, a form of Avalokiteśvara, is venerated as a female deity in Chinese popular religion, and widespread faith in Child-giving Guanyin is supported by indigenous sutras, miracle tales, myths, and legends.
    My research indicates that Child-giving Guanyin usually replaced other deities in popular religion that were traditionally associated with fertility. As such, after the cult of Child-giving Guanyin was established during the Song dynasty, Guanyin typically maintained the feminine characteristics of a goddess and, later, influenced the image of Maria Kannon マリア観音 in Japan.
    Conversely, Koyasu 子安 (Child-bearing) Kannon, a Japanese manifestation of Guanyin, coexists with other deities from Buddhism, Shinto, and Christianity. This phenomena can be explained by the Japanese religious concept of harmony in diversity (ta no wa 多の和), which recognizes the ability of individual religious practitioners to have faith in deities from different religious traditions concurrently. I suggest that Child-bearing Kannon did not undergo as thorough a transformation in gender presentation as did Child-giving Guanyin in China because of the strong acceptance of diversity and multiplicities in religious practices in Japan. Thus, Child-bearing Kannon’s gender has elements of ambiguity. Influenced by the doctrine of honji suijaku 本地垂迹 (“original ground and trace manifestation”), Nyoirin 如意輪 (Wish-fulfilling) Kannon appears to have recognizably female characteristics, which is believed to have only occurred in Japan for that form of Avalokiteśvara, while Jūichimen 十一面 (Eleven-faced) Kannon should be understood to be a local manifestation of Amaterasu 天照 (commonly referred to as the “Sun Goddess”) and Empress Kōmyō 光明 (701-760).

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2019
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Master of Arts
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