It is generally accepted that Guanyin originated as the Sanskrit Avalokiteśvara (अवलोकितेश्वर), which is her male form. Commonly known in the West as the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin is also revered by Chinese Taoists as an Immortal. It should be noted that in Taoist mythology, Guan Yin has other origination stories which are not directly related to Avalokiteśvara.
Guanyin's origin is still debated among scholars. The official Buddhist view is that Guanyin originated with the male Avalokiteshvara. While it is certain that this is where the name "Guanshi'yin" originated, the image of the Chinese/Korean/Japanese/Vietnamese Bodhisattva (along with her femininity) may be partly derived from other sources. Indigenous to the region where Guanyin first appeared was a local Goddess: the Queen Mother of the West.
Guanshi'yin changed to Guanyin under the naming taboo of Emperor Taizong of Tang. In Japanese, Guanyin is pronounced Kannon (観音), occasionally Kan'on, or more formally Kanzeon (観世音); the spelling Kwannon, based on a pre-modern pronunciation, is sometimes seen. In Korean, the Bodhisattva is called Gwan-eum (관음) or Gwanse-eum (관세음), In Thai, the name is called Kuan Eim (กวนอิม) or Prah Mae Kuan Eim (พระแม่กวนอิม), and in Vietnamese, the name is Quan Âm or Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát. In Hong Kong where there are many temples to her the name is written as Kwun Yum. In Indonesian, the name is Kwan Im or Dewi Kwan Im referring the word Dewi as Devi or Goddess. In the same countries, especially Japan, the variant Kanjizai (Kanzejizai, 観世自在) is also well attested.
In China, Guanyin is usually shown in a white flowing robe, and usually wearing necklaces of Indian/Chinese royalty. In the right hand is a water jar containing pure water, and in the left, a willow branch. The crown usually depicts the image of Amitabha Buddha, Guan Yin's spiritual teacher before she became a Bodhisattva.
In some Buddhist temples and monasteries, Guanyin images are occasionally depicted as a young man dressed in Northern Song Buddhist robes sitting gracefully. He is usually depicted looking or glancing down, symbolising that Guanyin continues to watch over the world. There are also regional variations of Guan Yin depictions. In the Fukien region of China, for example, a popular depiction of Guan Yin is as a maiden dressed in Tang dynasty style clothing carrying a fish basket. A popular image of Guan Yin as both Guan Yin of the South Sea and Guan Yin With a Fish Basket can be seen in late 1500s Chinese encyclopedias and in prints that accompany the novel Golden Lotus.
In Chinese art, Guan Yin is often depicted either alone, standing atop a dragon, accompanied by a bird, flanked by two children, or flanked by two warriors. The two children are her acolytes who came to her when she was meditating at Mount Putuo. The girl is called Long Nü and the boy Shan Tsai. The two warriors are the historical character Guan Yu who comes from the Three Kingdoms period and the mythological character Wei Tuo who features in the Chinese classic Canonisation of the Gods. The Buddhist tradition also displays Guan Yin, or other buddhas and bodhisattvas, flanked with the two said warriors, but as bodhisattvas who protect the temple and the faith itself.
In Chinese Buddhist iconography, Guan Yin is often depicted as meditating or sitting alongside one of the Buddhas and usually accompanied by another bodhisattva. Which buddha or bodhisattva usually depends upon which school it represents. In the Pure Land school, for example, Guan Yin is frequently depicted as standing alongside Amitabha Buddha and bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta. Temples that revere the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha usually depict him meditating alongside the Buddha and Guan Yin.
Along with Buddhism, Guanyin's veneration was introduced into China as early as the 1st century CE, and reached Japan by way of Korea soon after Buddhism was first introduced into the country in the mid-7th century. Some Taoist records claim Guanyin was a Chinese female who became immortal during Shang Dynasty.
More recently in Europe and America, a new wave of believers have spread a devotional cult beyond Buddhism, Taoism and folk traditional beliefs. Guan Yin is not only a bodhisattva or a goddess but a focus of devotion by some Eastern New Age movements.
Representations of the bodhisattva in China prior to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) were masculine in appearance. Images which later displayed attributes of both genders are believed to be in accordance with the Lotus Sutra, where Avalokitesvara has the supernatural power of assuming any form required to relieve suffering, and also has the power to grant children (possibly relating to the fact that in this Sutra -unlike in others- both men and women are believed to have ability to achieve enlightenment). Because this bodhisattva is considered the personification of compassion and kindness, a mother-goddess and patron of mothers and seamen, the representation in China was further interpreted in an all-female form around the 12th century. In the modern period, Guan Yin is most often represented as a beautiful, white-robed woman, a depiction which derives from the earlier Pandaravasini form.
In China, it is said that fishermen used to pray to her to ensure safe voyages. The titles Guan Yin of the Southern Ocean (南海觀音) and 'Guan Yin (of/on) the Island' stem from this tradition.
Another story describes Guan Yin as the daughter of a cruel king who wanted her to marry a wealthy but uncaring man. The story is usually ascribed to the research of the Buddhist monk Chiang Chih-ch'i in 1100 AD. The story is likely to have a Taoist origin. Chiang Chih-ch'i, when he penned the work, believed that the Guan Yin we know today was actually a Buddhist princess called Miao Shan (妙善), who had a religious following on Fragrant Mountain. Despite this, however, there are many variants of the story in Chinese mythology.
According to the story, after the king asked his daughter Miao Shan to marry the wealthy man, she told him that she would obey his command, so long as the marriage eased three misfortunes.
The king asked his daughter what were the three misfortunes that the marriage should ease. Miao Shan explained that the first misfortune the marriage should ease was the suffering people endure as they age. The second misfortune it should ease was the suffering people endure when they fall ill. The third misfortune it should ease was the suffering caused by death. If the marriage could not ease any of the above, then she would rather retire to a life of religion forever.
When her father asked who could ease all the above, Miao Shan pointed out that a doctor was able to do all these.
Her father grew angry as he wanted her to marry a person of power and wealth, not a healer. He forced her into hard labor and reduced her food and drink but this did not cause her to yield.
Every day she begged to be able to enter a temple and become a nun instead of marrying. Her father eventually allowed her to work in the temple, but asked the monks to give her very hard chores in order to discourage her. The monks forced Miao Shan to work all day and all night, while others slept, in order to finish her work. However, she was such a good person that the animals living around the temple began to help her with her chores. Her father, seeing this, became so frustrated that he attempted to burn down the temple. Miao Shan put out the fire with her bare hands and suffered no burns. Now struck with fear, her father ordered her to be put to death.
In one version of this legend, when she was executed, a supernatural tiger took Guan Yin to one of the more hell-like realms of the dead. However, instead of being punished by demons like the other inmates, Guan Yin played music and flowers blossomed around her. This completely surprised the head demon. The story says that Guan Yin, by merely being in that hell, turned it into a paradise.
A variant of the legend says that Miao Shan allowed herself to die at the hand of the executioner. According to this legend, as the executioner tried to carry out her father's orders, his axe shattered into a thousand pieces. He then tried a sword which likewise shattered. He tried to shoot Miao Shan down with arrows but they all veered off.
Finally in desperation he used his hands. Miao Shan, realising the fate the executioner would meet at her father's hand should she fail to let herself die, forgave the executioner for attempting to kill her. It is said that she voluntarily took on the massive karmic guilt the executioner generated for killing her, thus leaving him guiltless. It is because of this that she descended into the Hell-like realms. While there she witnessed firsthand the suffering and horrors beings there must endure and was overwhelmed with grief. Filled with compassion, she released all the good karma she had accumulated through her many lifetimes, thus freeing many suffering souls back into Heaven and Earth. In the process that Hell-like realm became a paradise. It is said that Yanluo, King of Hell, sent her back to Earth to prevent the utter destruction of his realm, and that upon her return she appeared on Fragrant Mountain.
Another tale says that Miao Shan never died but was in fact transported by a supernatural tiger, believed to be the Deity of the Place, to Fragrant Mountain.
The Legend of Miao Shan usually ends with Miao Chuang Yen, Miao Shan's father, falling ill with jaundice. No physician was able to cure him. Then a monk appeared saying that the jaundice could be cured by making a medicine out of the arm and eye of one without anger. The monk further suggested that such a person could be found on Fragrant Mountain. When asked, Miao Shan willingly offered up her eyes and arms. Miao Chuang Yen was cured of his illness and went to the Fragrant Mountain to give thanks to the person. When he discovered that his own daughter had made the sacrifice, he begged for forgiveness. The story concludes with Miao Shan being transformed into the Thousand Armed Guan Yin, and the king, queen and her two sisters building a temple on the mountain for her. She began her journey to heaven and was about to cross over into heaven when she heard a cry of suffering from the world below. She turned around and saw the massive suffering endured by the people of the world. Filled with compassion, she returned to earth, vowing never to leave till such time as all suffering has ended.
After her return to Earth, Guan Yin was said to have stayed for a few years on the island of Mount Putuo where she practised meditation and helped the sailors and fishermen who got stranded. Guan Yin is frequently worshipped as patron of sailors and fishermen due to this. She is said to frequently becalm the sea when boats are threatened with rocks. After some decades Guan Yin returned to Fragrant Mountain to continue her meditation.
Guan Yin, after having a discussion with Shan Tsai, decided to test the boy's resolve to fully study the Buddhist teachings. She conjured the illusion of three sword-wielding pirates running up the hill to attack her. Guan Yin took off and dashed off to the edge of a cliff, the three illusions still chasing her.
Shan Tsai, seeing that his teacher was in danger, hobbled uphill. Guan Yin then jumped over the edge of the cliff, and soon after this the three bandits followed. Shan Tsai, still wanting to save his teacher, managed to crawl his way over the cliff edge.
Shan Tsai fell down the cliff but was halted in midair by Guan Yin, who now asked him to walk. Shan Tsai found that he could walk normally and that he was no longer crippled. When he looked into a pool of water he also discovered that he now had a very handsome face. From that day forth, Guan Yin taught Shan Tsai the entire Buddha Dharma.
Many years after Shan Tsai became a disciple of Guan Yin, a distressing event happened in the South Sea. The sons of one of the Dragon Kings (a ruler-god of the sea) was caught by a fisherman while taking the form of a fish. Being stuck on land, he was unable to transform back into his dragon form. His father, despite being a mighty Dragon King, was unable to do anything while his son was on land. Distressed, the son called out to all of Heaven and Earth.
Hearing this cry, Guan Yin quickly sent Shan Tsai to recover the fish and gave him all the money she had. The fish at this point was about to be sold in the market. It was causing quite a stir as it was alive hours after being caught. This drew a much larger crowd than usual at the market. Many people decided that this prodigious situation meant that eating the fish would grant them immortality, and so all present wanted to buy the fish. Soon a bidding war started, and Shan Tsai was easily outbid.
Shan Tsai begged the fish seller to spare the life of the fish. The crowd, now angry at someone so daring, was about to prise him away from the fish when Guan Yin projected her voice from far away, saying "A life should definitely belong to one who tries to save it, not one who tries to take it."
The crowd realising their shameful actions and desire, dispersed. Shan Tsai brought the fish back to Guan Yin, who promptly returned it to the sea. There the fish transformed back to a dragon and returned home. Paintings of Guan Yin today sometimes portray her holding a fish basket, which represents the aforementioned tale.
But the story does not end here. As a reward for Guan Yin saving his son, the Dragon King sent his granddaughter, a girl called Lung Nü ("dragon girl"), to present to Guan Yin with the Pearl of Light. The Pearl of Light was a precious jewel owned by the Dragon King that constantly shone. Lung Nü, overwhelmed by the presence of Guan Yin, asked to be her disciple so that she might study the Buddha Dharma. Guan Yin accepted her offer with just one request: that Lung Nü be the new owner of the Pearl of Light.
In popular iconography, Lung Nü and Shan Tsai are often seen alongside Guan Yin as two children. Lung Nü is seen either holding a bowl or an ingot, which represents the Pearl of Light, whereas Shan Tsai is seen with palms joined and knees slightly bent to show that he was once crippled.
In Chinese Buddhism, the popular myth and worship of Guan Yin as a goddess by the populace is generally not viewed to be in conflict with the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara's nature. In fact the widespread worship of Guan Yin as a "Goddess of Mercy and Compassion" is seen as the boundless salvific nature of bodhisattva Avalokitesvara at work. The Buddhist canon states that bodhisattvas can assume whatsoever gender and form is needed to liberate beings from ignorance and dukkha. With specific reference to Avalokitesvara, he is stated both in the Lotus Sutra and the Surangama Sutra to have appeared before as a woman or a goddess to save beings from suffering and ignorance. Some Buddhist schools refer to Guan Yin both as male and female interchangeably.
Also in Mahayana Buddhism, to which Chinese Buddhism belongs, gender is no obstacle to Enlightenment. The Buddhist concept of non-duality applies here. The Vimalakirti Sutra in the Goddess chapter clearly illustrates an Enlightened being who is also a female and deity. In the Lotus Sutra a maiden became Enlightened in a very short time span. That bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is also the goddess Guan Yin is not seen as contradictory.
Given that bodhisattvas are known to incarnate at will as living people according to the sutras, the princess Miao Shan is generally viewed as an incarnation of Avalokitesvara.
Guanyin is immensely popular among Chinese Buddhists, especially those from devotional schools. She is generally seen as a source of unconditional love and more importantly as a savior. In her bodhisattva vows, Guan Yin promises to answer the cries and pleas of all beings and to liberate all beings from their own karmic woes. Based upon the Lotus Sutra and the Shurangama sutra, Avalokitesvara is generally seen as a savior, both spiritually and physically. The sutras state that through his saving grace even those who have no chance of being Enlightened can be Enlightened, and those deep in negative karma can still find salvation through his compassion.
In Pure Land Buddhism, Guan Yin is described as the "Bark of Salvation". Along with Amitabha Buddha and the bodhisattva Mahastamaprata, She temporarily liberates beings out of the Wheel of Samsara into the Pure Land, where they will have the chance to accrue the necessary merit so as to be a Buddha in one lifetime.
Even among Chinese Buddhist schools that are non-devotional, Guan Yin is still highly venerated. Instead of being seen as an active external force of unconditional love and salvation, the personage of Guan Yin is highly revered as the principle of compassion, mercy and love. The act, thought and feeling of compassion and love is viewed as Guan Yin. A merciful, compassionate, loving individual is said to be Guan Yin. A meditative or contemplative state of being at peace with oneself and others is seen as Guan Yin. In the Mahayana canon, the Heart Sutra is ascribed entirely to the bodhisattva Kuan Yin/Kwannon. This is unique, as most Mahayana Sutras are usually ascribed to Shakyamuni Buddha and the teachings, deeds or vows of the bodhisattvas are described by Shakyamuni Buddha. In the Heart Sutra, Guan Yin/Avalokitesvara describes to the Arhat Sariputra the nature of reality and the essence of the Buddhist teachings. The famous Buddhist saying "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form" comes from this sutra.
Some syncretic Christian observers have commented on the similarity between Guan Yin and the Blessed Virgin Mary of Christianity, the mother of Jesus Christ. The Tzu-Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese Buddhist organization, also noticing the similarity, commissioned a portrait of Guan Yin and a baby that resembles the typical Roman Catholic Madonna and Child painting.
Some Chinese of the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Philippines, in an act of syncretism, have identified Guan Yin with the Virgin Mary. During the Edo Period in Japan, when Christianity was banned and punishable by death, some underground Christian groups venerated the Virgin Mary disguised as a statue of Kannon; such statues are known as Maria Kannon. Many had a cross hidden in an inconspicuous location.