This large wood sculpture represents the head of a Buddhist figure named Guanyin, a deity who was popular in China as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-960) in connection with beliefs in the Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha (the Ruler of Paradise). Painted or sculpted images of the figures associated with the Western Paradise were often grouped together in temples or placed alone outdoors at pilgrimage sites. This fragment was part of a full statue probably made in the thirteenth century during a resurgence of Buddhism in the Yuan Dynasty. Its large size suggests that it was made for use outdoors.
Guanyin is a bodhisattva, one who has attained enlightenment but has chosen to remain in this world as a disciple to aid the needy. Guanyin's most important and most appealing trait was responsiveness to believers. This deity could rescue the faithful from distress and could escort their souls to Amitabha's Paradise. One had only to call the name of Guanyin to be offered salvation. In the guise of the Chinese folk deity, Guanyin is commonly petitioned for such earthly blessings as children, good luck, and wealth.
A combination of religious and secular beliefs characterizes the Chinese version of this Buddhist deity and is evident, for example, in the way this Guanyin is sculpted with an aristocratic Chinese woman's coiffure. By the date of this figure, most if not all Chinese representations of Guanyin were female. The bright polychrome paint that originally covered the figure would have enlivened it. Even so, her divinity is underscored by her solemn, contemplative gaze and downcast eyes. Her popularity is still evident today in Chinese Buddhist communities around the world.