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Why is the Buddhist Goddess Guan Yin – Not Wearing Chanel?

By Guan Tan

A Song dynasty goddess of mercy stone statue at the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, also known as Bright Hill Monastery in Singapore.
 
Felicia Yap
A Song dynasty goddess of mercy stone statue at the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, also known as Bright Hill Monastery in Singapore.

Singaporean anthropologist, Chan Chow Wah recently listed a talk on Facebook. It boasts a very arresting title, "Why is Guan Yin not wearing Chanel?" This question also fronts an academic paper he wrote. 

On several occasions, Chan has posed this question to fellow scholars. It seems like an absurd question to us, but to academics, this is a logical one. "Most people who studied Dharma will just laugh and say 'Okay'," Chan laughs. 

The goddess of mercy, or Guan Yin in Chinese, is a boddhisatva – a stage below Buddha, the enlightened being. In the scriptures, Chan recounts, "Guan Yin will change herself to reach out to the people." In some folklore passed down history, "she appeared as a fisherwoman to sell fish, to try to tell people not to kill the fishes." 

"That's why it is interesting. Theoretically, there is nothing to stop Guan Yin from dressing up!"

While the majority of Buddhist icons are commonly draped in robes, "Guan Yin is [stylistically] the most versatile boddhisatva". Her clothes change from dynasty to dynasty, dictated by the political figures of the high court. 

She is in fact, genderless. This account dates back to the first-century BC, in the Han dynasty. Back then, she was reportedly male. "Guanyin is very flexible... is the only bodhisattva to have undergone a sex change!"

A Gandhara bodhisattva dressed in Western, or Roman outfits, dating back to 1 to 2 AD.
A Gandhara bodhisattva dressed in Western, or Roman outfits, dating back to 1 to 2 AD.

In the Han dynasty, between 206 BC and 220 AD, then-male Guan Yin was heavily influenced by Gandhara, an ancient Buddhist civilisation located in the land now known as northern Pakistan. Typical of reigning fashions, he was dressed in flowy, draped fabrics and curly hair, much like the ancient Roman or Grecian dress. 

The Gandhara trend followed through in the Three Kingdoms dynasty and the Northern and Southern dynasties.

From the Han dynasty till date, Guan Yin was merely one of the two bodhisattvas accompanying buddha. "Guanyin was not so popular yet," Chan adds. Yet when the Tang dynasty came round (AD 618 to 907), things changed dramatically. 

A Tang dynasty goddess of mercy depicted as a female, in an embellished crown and cape with strong, jutted shoulder – bearing much semblance to the dress of an emperor.
A Tang dynasty goddess of mercy depicted as a female, in an embellished crown and cape with strong, jutted shoulder – bearing much semblance to the dress of an emperor.

In this dynasty, Guan Yin found a place in every temple and home and was cemented as a female icon. "The founding empress of Tang... she really knew how to play around with imagery. She used Buddhist scripture to justify her political ascendancy." 

The empress commissioned numerous religious statues for local temples. And they were clad in the fashionable dress that Empress Wu wore for court. "One as glamorous, fashionable, high-class," Chan quips. Guanyin's clothes were decorative and liberal – emperor's headdress, elaborate hair accessories, low decolletages. "The Tang bodhisattvas tend to be a bit plumper – full bodies." Guanyin would also be seen in dark eye makeup – mostly in shades of greens, blues and whites.

Later in the Song dynasty, AD 960 to 1279, beauty ideals changed. "Guanyin has transformed to the slim, white-robed lady."

Felicia YapA visibly plumper Tang dynasty goddess of mercy as seen in the Foo Hai Chan Monastery, Singapore.
A visibly plumper Tang dynasty goddess of mercy as seen in the Foo Hai Chan Monastery, Singapore.

Compared to the Tang dynasty, Chan describes the white robes as "minimalist" and "conservative". He stresses that the change was due to political turmoil and the onset of sexual violence toward women. "Dresses [were] more conservative – covering up and social restrictions... These practices were a response to sexual violence... It's no longer flamboyant." 

Felicia YapIn contrast, a slimmer, less decorative Song dynasty goddess of mercy, pictured in the Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, Singapore.
In contrast, a slimmer, less decorative Song dynasty goddess of mercy, pictured in the Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, Singapore.

"The form has remained since," Chan considers. It leads to Chan's initial question, 'Why is Guanyin not dressed in Chanel today?' 

"That will happen if there is a big transformation in the belief system," he answers. 

To Chan and his fellow academics. This is not a presumptuous possibility. Buddhism is witnessing a popularisation in the Western world. "Today, there is a new Buddhism in the West, even in Australia. I know that in the United Kingdom, they have a caucasian-looking Buddha." Yet, like what Chan said at the start, the looks and physical manifestation of the goddess is "irrelevant". She can take on any form. "Guanyin was willing to transform to any gender," Chan adds. 

"I won't be surprised if they produce a Guanyin in Chanel, maybe in pants as well," he laughs. 

If humans could manipulate a goddess like Guanyin to dress and act the way humans want it to, isn't society, therefore, their own gods? Chan smiles and candidly snaps back, explaining that believers and theorists view Buddhism very differently. Practitioners do not question trivial matters like clothes, for instance, while academics do. Yet, at the end of the day, he injects, "Religion is society worshipping itself. You have this notion of choice."