This article was first published on 2 March 2016 and has been updated with Kwun Yum’s birthday. Kwun Yum is celebrated on 19 February 2020.
In the Chinese spiritual cosmos there is one deity that stands above the rest. She is Buddhist, Taoist and part of the Chinese folk religion all at once. She is the most easily recognisable goddess, found in almost every Chinese temple in the world. In Hong Kong, she is known as Kwun Yum (gun1 yam1 觀音), the Goddess of Mercy. In around two weeks’ time, worshippers around the city will gather to offer her incense in exchange for red paper that offers them a financial boost in the coming year. But who is Kwun Yum, exactly?
Transcending all Chinese doctrines, she sits firmly in the centre of the Chinese spiritual tradition. Revered above the Buddha in many Chinese Buddhist homes and above other gods in Taoist ones, Kwun Yum is the quintessential Chinese deity. To understand Kwun Yum, or Guānyīn as she is known in Mandarin, is to understand the evolution of Chinese religion.
In the beginning: Bodhisattva
Mahāyāna Buddhism entered into China in the first century, bringing with it Avalokiteśvara, a male bodhisattva, or Buddhist saint. An emanation of the Buddha Amitābha, Avalokiteśvara is the bodhisattva of compassion. The monk Xuánzàng brought Buddhist scriptures back from India in the 7th century. The event was significant enough for the author Wu Cheng’en to immortalise the event in his novel about the Monkey King, Journey to the West, one of the four great classical Chinese novels. Xuánzàng translated the Sanskrit texts into Chinese, including the names of the bodhisattvas. Avalokiteśvara became Guānshìyīn, a direct translation of the meaning “Perceives the Sounds of the World.” This was soon changed to Guānyīn, in order not to offend Emperor Taizong of Tang, whose given name was Lǐ Shìmín, as the shì sound was phonetically the same in both names.
It was at this point that a gender transformation began to take place. Chinese traditional thought divides all things into yin (female, cool, damp) and yang (male, hot, dry). Traditional medicine tries to address an imbalance of these two, thereby prescribing yin medicine for yang problems. The name change had a huge impact and Guānyīn began to be associated with the feminine yin principle. Mahāyāna Buddhism from Northern India had a strong foothold in the Han Chinese heartland for several hundred years. In the 7th century an esoteric form of Buddhism from Tibet, known as Vajrayāna, began seeping into China, becoming a stronger force under the converted Mongol Khans of the 13th century Yuan dynasty. Their tantric female meditation deity, Tārā, an emanation of Avalokiteśvara, grew in popularity, before merging with the female Guānyīn. The new Guānyīn had the compassion of Avalokiteśvara, while taking on Tārā’s responsibilities for love, childbirth and children.
Transformation: Miao Shan
At the same time as Guānyīn was becoming a female, a Buddhist monk started having visions known as the Legend of Miào Shàn. The story, which may in fact have Taoist origins, was first written down by Jiǎng Zhīqí, an 11th century scholar of the Song dynasty in his work Precious Scroll of Fragrant Mountain. It starts with a wicked king who had three daughters. The youngest, Miào Shàn, refused to marry and sought self-perfection. The king committed her to a nunnery, giving her the hardest chores, hoping that she would submit to his wish for her to wed. With supernatural help, she easily finished her tasks and performed other miraculous deeds, an indication of her divine powers and heavenly protection. The angry king ordered the nunnery burned down and the occupants executed.
Miào Shàn escaped her fate and secretly flew away to Xiāng Shān Monastery. Later, the king was diagnosed with jaundice and told by a physician that the only cure was a medicine made with human eyes and arms. The king learned that the bodhisattva at Xiāng Shān Monastery may be able to help him. Miào Shàn gave up her eyes and arms to cure her wicked father. When the king learned that his recovery was due to the sacrifice of his own daughter, he converted to Buddhism and reformed his character. Miào Shàn’s eyes and arms were miraculously restored to her and it was revealed that she was in fact an incarnation of Guānyīn with a thousand eyes and arms. Xiāng Shān, meaning Fragrant Mountain, is believed to be on Putuoshan Island, off the coast of Zhejiang Province in China. The Buddhist cult of Guānyīn/Miào Shàn is centred there and the island is home to several monasteries dedicated to the bodhisattva.
Claiming the goddess: Taoism
The story of Miào Shàn was rapidly amalgamated with that of the female Guānyīn, or Kwun Yum. Soon, the white-robed and crowned lady became the most important bodhisattva in Chinese Buddhism. Buddhists and Taoists were vying for influence in the imperial courts from the Tang dynasty onwards, so the highly popular Kwun Yum became a vital figure for both sides. As the Miào Shàn legends may have come from a Taoist source, it was very easy to lay claim to Kwun Yum as a goddess of the Taoist pantheon. The Quanzhen Taoist sect of the 12th century combined elements of Buddhism into their philosophy and their reworking of the Kwun Yum story had her as a Taoist immortal who was adopted by the Buddhists as a bodhisattva.
Kwun Yum began rapidly to usurp the powers and status of other goddesses. Tin Hau, a sea goddess from South China, became associated with Kwun Yum to some extent, but managed to retain her independence. Less fortunate was Shing Mo, an ancient Chinese deity known as the Princess of the Motley Clouds. Her role as the goddess of childbirth was taken over by Kwun Yum and you would be hard pressed to find Shing Mo in a temple today, while Kwun Yum is ubiquitous.
The Kwun Yum temples in Hong Kong, usually called 水月宮 (seoi2 jyut6 gung1), are filled with imagery from Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese folklore. Kwun Yum’s child attendants, Yuk Neoi and Kam Tung, were originally servants of the Jade Emperor – a sign of the goddess’ status. She is the only deity who cannot be offered meat or alcohol, a tradition from Kwun Yum’s Buddhist roots. However, if she is given these by accident, she forgives the indiscretion. Kwun Yum is associated with the lotus, a Buddhist symbol of purity, that also carries a traditional Chinese meaning of fertility due to its many seeds. The goddess often holds a willow branch, which has a multitude of meanings. It symbolises beauty and meekness, but also has potent powers of exorcism; the reason a willow branch is used to sweep graves in Chinese culture. Her image is usually adorned with pearls, the physical manifestation of the moon, a purely yin element and symbol of perfection.
Kwun Yum is the ultimate Chinese goddess and bodhisattva. She crosses doctrinal divides and is loved by all. In some ways, her popularity opened the door to Christianity in China and Hong Kong, as she was easily transplanted into the figure of the Virgin Mary for early converts. The universal goddess is an enduring symbol of the adaptability and inclusiveness of the Chinese spirit.
When to visit Kwun Yum
19 February 2020 is the Kwun Yum Treasury Opening, a festival unique to Hong Kong. Four other Kwun Yum festivals celebrating her birth (lunar March), ordination (lunar July), deification (lunar October) and her sea deification (lunar December) are widespread festivals. Worshipers will start to queue long before the opening time to be the first to “borrow” money from the goddess. They will offer incense and draw lucky red paper that tells them how much Kwun Yum will loan them. If they get any income increase throughout the year, they will repay her the following one.
Although hundreds of temples worship Kwun Yum in Hong Kong, these are insightful places to discover her:
Lin Fa Kung: Lin Fa Kung Street and Lily street, Tai Hang. Home of the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Festival.
Hung Hom Kwun Yum Temple. 18-20 Station Lane, Hung Hom. A busy, popular temple.
Tsz Shan Monastery. 88 Universal Gate Road, Tai Po. Home to the second-largest bronze Kwun Yum Statue in the world, built by controversial businessman Li Ka-shing.