Water and Moon Guanyi(水月觀音圖), late 13th – early 14th century, Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). Hanging scroll, ink, slight color and gold on silk, 43 ¾ x 30 inches (111.1 x 76.2 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 49-60. Photo: Jamison Miller

Guanyin (觀音), known in Sanskrit as अवलोकितेश्वर, Avalokiteśvara, is an East Asian bodhisattva* (菩薩) associated with mercy and compassion. She is commonly known as the ‘Goddess of Mercy and Compassion’. The Chinese name Guanyin is short for Guanshiyin (觀世音), meaning ‘[The One Who] Perceives the Sounds of the World’, ie the lamentation and sufferings of every living thing in the world.

* A Bodhisattva is a person who has achieved Enlightenment or Buddhahood, but has vowed to return to the samsara world to aid all sentient beings on their paths to Buddhahood.

Avalokiteśvara was originally depicted as a male bodhisattva, wearing chest-revealing clothing and may even have a light moustache. Guanyin is more often depicted as a woman in modern times. Additionally, it is believed that Guanyin appeared in a total of 33 different manifestations (形象的法身) including Indra or Brahma gods, kings, heavenly guardians, adults of male and female, child and non-human being in order to teach the Dharma to sentient beings. Guanyin is generally seen as a source of unconditional love and, more importantly, as a saviour.

In China, Guanyin is generally portrayed as a woman dressed in a modest flowing white robe and usually wearing necklaces symbolic of Indian or Chinese royalty. In her left hand is a jar containing an immortality potion, and the right holds a willow branch. The hair is often partially covered by a headscarf. The headdress contains a tiny image of the Buddha of the Western Paradise-Amitabha (阿彌陀佛).

As Guanyin’s popularity rose throughout China, she became associated in the people’s mind with some of the ancient sea goddesses standing in swirling waters amid leaping fish and frothing waves.

The painting depicts Guanyin as a gracious, mature lady of fair complexion sitting relaxingly on a rock. She has an elegant face and features, serene in beauty and manner. She dressed in modest, flowing white to pale grey robes instead of white robes. Guanyin has a large halo or radiance on her head and upper torso. The halo also looks like the Moon. This Guanyin painting can be called Water Moon Guanyin (水月觀音圖).


The vase containing the dew of immortality and a willow branch is one of the defining characteristics by which people identify her. The vase is by her side and not in her hand.

The vase of Guanyin

On the left of the painting is a swift waterfall that leads to frothing waves of the water. The dynamic background portrays Guanyin as a protector in adverse situations.

Some scholars think that the waterfall stirs up frothing waves. The waves depicts troubles and obstacles in life. Guanyin would come to their rescue. On the other hand, some scholars depicts the waterfalls as the endless bestow of mercy and compassion.
The pine tree is a symbol of longevity and resilience.

A small image of the Buddha of the Western Paradise sits in her headdress.

Headdress of Guanyin


The painting was unsigned and undated and some scholars think that the painting may be a work of Yan Hui  (顏輝).

Yan Hui (顏輝) was a late 13th-century painter who lived during the Southern Song and early Yuan dynasties. His specific dates of birth and death are not known.

Yan Hui was born in Ji’an (吉安), Jiangzi (江西) province. His courtesy name was Qiuyue (秋月; lit. ‘autumn moon’). Yan was well-known for painting human figures, Taoists, Buddhists and ghost figures. He incorporated vivid and profound brush strokes with special composition. Many of his works are now kept in Japanese museums and art galleries.

The mounting of the painting seems to be in Japanese style.  This painting might have been kept in Japan.

The mounting looks like Japanese style


Importance of Guanyin to the Buddhist culture

In the Mahayana canon, the Heart Sutra (心經) is ascribed entirely to Guanyin. Guanyin describes to the Arhat Sariputta (舍利弗) the nature of reality and the essence of the Buddhist teachings. The famous Buddhist saying ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. (色即是空,空即是色)’ comes from this sutra.

Some Buddhists believe that when one of their believers departs from this world, they are placed by Guanyin in the heart of a lotus and then sent to the Western Pure Land or Paradise. According to the Lotus Sutra (妙法蓮華經) and Karandavyuha Sutra (佛說大乘莊嚴寶王經) Guanyin with her miraculous power can assist all those who pray to her.



I would like to thank the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri for giving me the image of the painting and permitting me to use it in my webpage.

I would like to thank Stacey Sherman of Media Services – Rights and Reproductions of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for her kind support.