Water-Moon Guanyin, ink and colours on paper

From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Five Dynasties, mid-10th century AD

Devotional paintings at Dunhuang

Guanyin, the Chinese name for Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, was one of the most popular of the bodhisattvas, who would grant the wishes of the devotee. In this painting he is shown seated on a rock rising from the water 'in royal ease' (lalitasana), surrounded by a round moon-halo. This popular form of Avalokiteshvara is known in China as 'shuiyue Guanyin', or Water-Moon Guanyin. He is holding a willow branch and a perfume bottle. From behind a group is arriving on a cloud with two attendants and a male figure, who may represent the deceased person. On the top, a canopy shown from the side protects the holy image.

This painting, executed on paper, uses far fewer colours than was usual for some of the finer paintings done on silk, and was thus likely to have been cheaper and more easily available to pilgrims and worshippers at the cave temple site.

The donor figure is shown at the bottom right corner, standing on a prayer mat and holding a censer, commonly used in Buddhist ritual. Similar objects have been found at famous Buddhist temple sites, such as the Famensi temples near Xi'an. The square next to the donor is a cartouche for an inscription. On other paintings the cartouche often contains the name and wish of the donor. An altar table with an altar vessel is shown at the same height, as it was usually arranged in front of the devotional image in temples.

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More information


R. Whitfield, Art of Central Asia: The Ste-1, vol. 2 (Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982-85)

R. Whitfield and A. Farrer, Caves of the thousand Buddhas: (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)


Height: 82.900 cm
Width: 29.600 cm

Museum number

Asia OA 1919,1-1,0.15


Gift of Sir Marc Aurel Stein


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