Guanyin seated in royal-ease pose

Anonymous, Chinese
Guanyin seated in royal-ease pose
China, Southern Song
ca. 1250
Wood sculpture
Wood with traces of blue-green, red, and gold pigments on white clay underlayer with relief designs
h. 110 cm.
Museum purchase, Carl Otto von Kienbusch, Jr., Memorial Collection

Chinese, Southern Song dynasty, ca

The Chinese Buddhist deity Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, is the same as Avalokitesvara in Indian Buddhism. A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who rejects salvation in nirvana to remain in the world to allay suffering and help others to attain enlightenment. The earliest known mention of Guanyin in China was contained in a translation of the Indian sacred text the Lotus Sutra into Chinese in 286, which recorded that deity's vow to save those in danger of murder, shipwreck, murder, and other forms of suffering. Guanyin could take on the form of more than thirty different manifestations in its quest to aid victims, and the deity became a one of the most beloved deities throughout China. The deity became well known to the West in its female form, and its full name Guanshiyin means "Regarder of the cries of the world." A cult devoted to the deity emerged between the third and sixth centuries, and with the rise of the Pure Land School of Buddhism in the seventh-century, the deity became a prominent figure in the Buddhist pantheon.

This sculpture can be read as being either male or female, which may speak to the deity's universal and inclusive nature. The figure is identified as Guanyin by the image of Amitabha Buddha in the crown. This flexible pose of rājalilasana, or royal ease, with a raised leg and casually draped arm, did not become associated with the deity until late in the ninth century. Despite the languid posture, the torso retains a sense of unmoving solidness, disturbed neither by much movement nor by dramatic distortion. The paridhana skirt, draping the lower portion with beautiful ease, is confidently natural, but still conforms to the shape of the body underneath. Temple sculptures were periodically redecorated and the addition of relief designs on the surface of the skirt and scarves were probably added some time in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

Published References & Reproductions

Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 10, no. 1 (1951), p. 19 (noted as recent acquisition).

Robert B. Hawkins, "A Statue of Kuan-yin: A Problem in Sung Sculpture," Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 7, no. 1 (1953), pp. 3-36.

The Carl Otto von Kienbusch, Jr., Memorial Collection (Princeton: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1956), no. 76, illus. 

The Art of Southern Sung China (Asia House, 1962), no. 31, p. 68 illus.

Shirley Glubok, The Art of China (1973), p. 41.

Sculpture Review, "Asian Art in American Museums" (Fall 1984), p. 19.

Selections from The Art Museum, Princeton University (Princeton: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1986), p. 206, illus.