Object: Porcelain Figure

Object: Porcelain Figure

Accession Number: E/1955/18/029

Object: 8 ⅝” porcelain statue of Kuan Yin, goddess of compassion

Location: China, Qing Dynasty

Date: 1736-1795

Materials: Porcelain

Keywords: China, porcelain, figure, statue

   

The woman in the figure is Kuan Yin, goddess of compassion and perseverance whose name literally means “She Who Hears the Cries of the World.” The statue was created during the Qing Dynasty in China anywhere from 1736-1795 [2]. It is only 8 ⅝ inches tall, and the coloring is an off-white shade of cream that is made of molded porcelain. The figure depicts her with a soft facial expression, flowers in her hair, and an extravagant dress with long, curly accents and intricate beading that connects a series of medallions. She is also barefoot and standing on a fish with very long whiskers. The artifact seems to have been used to display and honor the bodhisattva, Kuan Yin, and summon her powers of compassion, perseverance, focus, and inspiration into their daily lives.

During the 18th century China when the porcelain figure was made, the Chinese were trying to embrace a new dynasty under the Qing-long emperor. Qing was determined to separate himself from the previous rule and undertook many reconstruction projects to build Tibetan-style temples and wanted citizens to embrace a new capital city other than Beijing [3]. He even went as far as persecuting those who spoke against him [3]. He wanted to be a Buddhist ruler, and perhaps his extra push and his new way of ruling inspired people to delve deeper into their Buddhist practices and utilize idols like Kuan Yin. Her use in modern culture is present in the LGBTQ community in the United States where members find her qualities of compassion and perseverance just as incredible and inspiring as people did in the 1700s [1].

The story and transformation of Kuan Yin throughout the course of history helps express why she means so much to so many people. Kuan Yin is known as a bodhisattva. “The bodhisattva is often described as a kind of Buddha-to-be, one who postpones ultimate nirvana in order to work tirelessly to eliminate the suffering of all living beings,” [1]. Kuan Yin was believed to have originated in India during the Common Era as a male spirit named Avalokitesvara. The spirit’s presence in China became female around the 12th century. The transformation between genders can perhaps be attributed to the Chinese association between wisdom and femininity and compassion and masculinity as these are two qualities central to Kuan Yin’s existence [1]. Furthermore, the version of Kuan Yin that seems most relevant to the porcelain figure in the Sam Noble collections is that of “the Chinese princess Miao-shan, a common fisherwoman, a goddess springing from a clam, and thousand-armed and thousand-eyed deity whose multiple arms and eyes symbolize the infinite powers of her saving compassion,” [1]. The aspect of being a fisherwoman may explain why the creator of this statue displayed her standing on a fish with long whiskers.

fosterbrooke_85809_9610732_IMG_4986

I also found another image of Kuan Yin where she is surrounded by the sea and confirms that this was a common view of her in Chinese culture.

fosterbrooke_85809_9610733_GuanYinPuSa58      [4]

The gender fluidity of Kuan Yin’s story as well as her essence of compassion, perseverance, and wisdom clearly explains why she is a modern day inspiration the LGBTQ community.

The discovery that statues of Kuan Yin are being used for the same purpose by a variety of different people expresses how significant Buddhism and other religions have been all around the world. Idols and statues like this one of the bodhisattva, Kuan Yin, reinforce the importance of divination and guidance across cultures and throughout the passage of time.

 

((Brooke Foster)) Written as part of the ANTH1253 2018 Spring Semester Class Project

Works Cited

[1] Bailey, Cathryn. 2009. “Embracing the Icon: The Feminist Potential of the Trans Bodhisattva,

Kuan Yin.” Hypatia. 24(3): 178-196.

[2] Ethnology. 1956. “Porcelain Statue.” Museum of the University of Oklahoma. E/55-56/18/29.

[3] Hay, Jonathan. 1999. “Culture, Ethnicity, and Empire in the Work of Two Eighteenth-Century

‘Eccentric’ Artists.”Anthropology and Aesthetics 35: 201-223.

[4] Raven, Shikoba. “I Am Creation.” My Kuan Yin, Shikoba Raven, 14 June 2011,

mykuanyin.blogspot.com/2011/06/i-am-creation.html.

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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