Thanks to Ruben Habito, founder of the Maria Kannon Zen Center, I was able to see special meaning in Chinese statuary. Eight years ago I learned of his remarkable scholarship through his wife that was attending a conference at Great Vow Monastery in Oregon. I learned that he is a Jesuit trained priest. He is also a professor in Dallas and we began to correspond. He sent me a few of his books that deeply influenced me and has guided my search for inter-religious connections in China.
Guan Yin first appears to enter China in the region of Dunhuang in northwest China at a nexus point on the Silk Road. She is clearly the most popular of all the figures among both the texts and murals. Over 1100 scrolls mention her and 128 sutras are specific to her alone. The Silk Road was a dangerous path filled with thieves, dangerous weather, and wild animals. The Mogao Caves as Dunhuang was a places where weary travelors could thank Guan Yin for her protection. Her name means “One who hears the cries of the Lost.” She protects the traveler from danger. She was the talisman of the Silk Road as evidenced by this famous site on the Silk Road as depicted in paintings and scrolls. She is mentioned in the Lotus Sutra in the 24th chapter.
Once she entered China during the Tang Dynasty she continues to undergo transformation. There are at least four stages of transformation.
In the first and early feminization phase (early Tang period, 7th-8th c.) she is an androgenous character often depicted as a women with a mustache. She takes on a clearly Chinese form with a nimbus moon in the background seated near water. Bambo leaves surround her. Her pose is in the manner of Chinese intellectuals and scholars. This process of indigenization is enhanced as we see the lotus replaced with a willow stick and a bottle of pure water is often placed in her hand
As she penetrates deeper into central and southern China in the second stage (Late Tang period), she becomes a spiritual savior and saves her father from illness and in some stories she saves him from hell by giving him her eyes and arms even though her father once tried to murder her. She is called “Dabei” the Great Compassionate One. This seems to parallel the introduction of the Christian ideas of a savior God who acts from love for humanity. The origin of this transformation seems rooted in the Miao Shan legends of Henan in East-central China.
In the third phase (Song Dynasty, 9th-11th c.) she adopts many more Chinese characteristics. She a has a form that appears in this period that forms perhaps earlier and to the west of Henan in the Shaanxi district. She is depicted with a fish basket and dressed as a fishmonger and prostitute. She conducts secular business with men and uses her power of sex as a didactic tool to teach people about virtue and to free them from lust. In the end she remains pure and a virgin. This is remarkably similar to the fused legends of Mary Magdalen (the prostitute) and the Virgin Mary stories especially valued by Asian Christians (Nestorians) who came across the Silk Road out of Central Asia. There are other stories of Mary of Qidun and Mary of Egypt who were Holy Prostitutes who appear in the Asian Christian calendars that certainly were brought to China.
Finally, Guan Yin merges many of these characteristics into the White Guan Yin cult near Fujian on the east coast of China and the Potao island. This was near a port of entry for Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries from the 12-17th centuries. It is known that Jesuit missions in the later period influenced the cult of Guan Yin by paying artists in Fujian to carve images of the Virgin Mary in Guan Yin style. She is often depicted with a child in her arms in the fashion of a Madonna. This was nothing new. Syriac speaking Persian Christians had promoted the idea of praying to Guan Yin for fertility and children since Tang Dynasty times.
Careful observation of this form of Guan Yin bears distinctive Christian influences. As noted earlier, she has central asian characteristics. Upon her head is a peacock crown further suggesting Persian/Christian influence. She is dressed in western clothing perhaps characteristic of Catholic influence. Traces of blue coloring on her shoulder cape add further suggestion to Catholic influence that entered China during the Ming period and perhaps before. The posture is in the form of a Madonna with a male child seated on her lap. He points to her hand which is in the shape of a Christian mudra using the thumb, forefinger and middle finger touching at the tips in a sign of blessing. This mudra is not found in either Buddhist or Taoist figures. The fingers are broken but it can be determined what direction the fingers are pointing.
Next to her are two attendants. One appears to be holding a bible/codex of some sort. Further study will have to be made. Of all the statuary in the private family cave this one has suffered serious damage. I was told it was done during the Cultural Revolution of the 20th century.
Five other children surround her and one other women with a sixth child grabbing at her exposed breast. In Christian iconography of this period in the west this women would be Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus. Again, further study will have to be made of this figure.
This is a unique set of statuary and and may be a very important discovery and evidence of fusion of Christian iconography with Buddhist and Taoist art.