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Torso of a bodhisattva, approx. 700–750

Torso of a bodhisattva, approx. 700–750

Torso of a bodhisattva, approx. 700–750, by Wen Fong. China; cave XXI, Tianlongshan, Shanxi Province. Tang dynasty (618–906). Sandstone. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S6+.

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The body of this headless but still graceful stone figure of Guanyin is portrayed in tribhanga (“S-curve”) position, a style derived from Indian figural sculptures. It is also characterized by a modeled belly, a relaxed sensuous feel, detailed jewelry, and loosely hanging scarves. The figure's garment is an Indian-style dhoti, tied around the waist.

Guanyin is the Chinese form of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Bodhisattvas are enlightened, compassionate beings who assist the spiritual goals of others. They are often distinguished from Buddhas by their princely clothing and adornments, indicating their continued presence in the human world. The figure of Avalokiteshvara can be traced back to India. His name means “the lord who looks down with compassion.” In China, Guanyin is believed to hear the sorrows of humanity. The bodhisattva is strongly associated with a chapter of the Lotus Sutra, a popular Buddhist text that lists 33 forms that the deity can take in order to help people in their time of need. The worship of Guanyin in China began around the fifth or sixth century.

Guanyin eventually became one of the most popular Buddhist deities in China. Originally a foreign, male deity from India, this Buddhist deity was eventually transformed into many forms (often with feminine features) with pronounced Chinese characteristics. 

This figure is part of a triad of images once standing in a cave shrine at Tianlongshan, in Shanxi province, dating from the early 700s. The shrine suffered significant damage during the upheavals of the middle of the twentieth century, and only isolated pieces from this site now survive, some outside of China. The wooden image of Guanyin relaxes in a position of royal ease. It contains traces of the bright colors that once covered the statue.