Kuan Yin, Chinese (Ming Dynasty), c.1595, porcelain, gift of John Van Gilder, 1956.1.38.
When Buddhism spread out of India and to the rest of southern, central, and eastern Asia, its form did not stay consistent. One prime example is the Chinese veneration of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy. In original Indian Buddhism, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, was considered the most merciful and compassionate to humankind. By repeating his name multiple times, believers could be reincarnated into Avalokitesvara’s paradise realm that was conducive to enlightenment. Avalokitesvara was never depicted as either male or female to show its divine transcendence beyond gender. However, in the Chinese tradition Kuan Yin is almost strictly female. No one knows exactly why, but one prominent idea is that the worship of Avalokitesvara was extremely popular with early Chinese Buddhist nuns. Kuan Yin then took on the feminine appearance of her believers.