Guanyin, known as the deity of compassion or the Goddess of Mercy, comes in numerous representations in Buddhist Art. Guanyin is typically depicted as a woman in a white flowing robe with a willow branch in her left hand whereas in her right hand a water jar containing pure water. Yet, what we are going to introduce is a rather unconventional image of Guanyin – an image of Guanyin holding the Pearl of Light.
A gilt bronze figure of Guanyin from Tang dynasty that depicts Guanyin holding a spray of willow and a bottle containing sacred water
Here is a small figure of Guanyin skilfully carved from white jade, and has a double lotus stand in spinach green jade. Both her hands are in her lap, holding a sphere, which is an unusual object to be seen on Guanyin’s hands. When an object is held in two hands by seated figures depicting the Compassionate Guanyin, it is usually either a flask or an alms bowl. The rare figure of Guanyin holding a sphere – which is believed to be the ‘pearl of light’ – tells the story of how Guanyin saved the third son of the Dragon King and found the perfect keeper of the ‘pearl light’.
Avalokiteśvara is commonly known in China as ‘Guanyin’, which means ‘the one who perceives the sounds of the world’. It refers to the compassionate bodhisattva’s ability to hear the cries of all mankind, and to strive endlessly to help those who offer prayers.
According to one story in the 16th-century Chinese novel, Complete Tale of Avalokitesvara and the Southern Seas, the third son of the Dragon King was swimming one day in the form of a fish when he was caught in the net of some fishermen. He was being brought to the land and unable to regain his dragon form. His father was unable to help him since he was on land. He cried for help and his cries were heard by Guanyin, whose full name in Chinese is Guanshiyin - ‘the one who hears the cries of the world’. Guanyin sent one of her disciples, Sudhana (known as Shancai in Chinese), to try and save the Dragon King’s son.
The fact that the 'fish' had remained alive despite being out of water for so long had drawn a considerable crowd, who assumed that eating a ‘fish’ like that would give them immortality. So when the disciple tried to buy the Dragon King’s son with money given to him by Guanyin, he was outbid and thus pleaded with the fish monger to spare the life of the ‘fish’. But the potential buyers protested vociferously and tried to snatch it away.
A Dehua Porcelain Figure of Fish Basket Guanyin. Qing Dynasty, 17th century. Collection of Birmingham Museum of Art
Guanyin, who was able to project her voice over vast distances, rebuked the crowd saying: ‘A life belongs only to the one who tries to save it and not to the one who tries to take it’. Thus shamed, the people dispersed, and Guanyin’s disciple was able to buy the Dragon King’s son. Guanyin promptly returned him to the sea where he was able to regain his dragon form.
Guanyin (holding fish basket) by Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) at Christie’s Hong Kong in November 2014
The Dragon King was so grateful that he sent his granddaughter, Longnü, to present Guanyin with the ‘pearl of light’, a precious night-shining pearl which constantly emitted light, by which Guanyin would be able to read the sacred texts even in the darkest hours of the night.
Longnü herself was so in awe of Guanyin that she requested permission to become Guanyin’s disciple and study the Dharma. Guanyin agreed, but instructed Longnü to become the keeper of the ‘pearl of light’.
Figure of guanyin is flanked by two smaller bronze figures of the disciple Long Nu (right) holding aloft the pearl of light, and the attendant Sudhana (left)
Figure of Guanyin with her disciple Long Nu (left) holding aloft the pearl of light
The story inspired the representation of Guanyin with a basket containing the son of the Dragon King in fish form, which is more frequently seen in artworks. On the other hand, it is relatively rare to find seated figures of Guanyin holding the ‘pearl of light’. The jade figure will be featured at Christie's sale of Important Chinese Jades from the Dizang Studio in London and is expected to fetch between £35,000-45,000 (US$45,570 - 58,590).
A Rare and Finely Carved White Jade Figure of Guanyin and Spinach-green Jade 'Lotus' Stand
Qianlong Period (1736-1795)
Lot no.: 28
Height: 6.8cm (the figure); 8.8 cm (overall including stand)
The Dizang Studio Collection, Taipei, acquired between 1970 and 1990.
Estimate: £35,000-45,000 (US$45,570 - 58,590)
Auction house: Christie’s London
Sale: Important Chinese Jades from the Dizang Studio
Sale date: 14 May 2019