Paper effigy of the King of Ghosts being given a fiery send off in Penang, Malaysia.

NEW YORK - The Hungry Ghosts Festival reached its peak during the recent full moon, and Chinese communities the world over are bidding farewell to the souls of the departed after their month-long visit to the world of the living. Leading the sendoff is the King of Ghosts. Paper effigies of the King of Ghosts that have presided over the festivities are set ablaze in a fiery sendoff.


Paintings of the King of Ghosts. A small figure of Guanyin hovers above, indicating that the fearsome form is really an emanation of the compassionate Guanyin.

Although the King of Ghosts has a very fearsome appearance, he is actually an emanation of the bodhisattva Guanyin. Guanyin is the personification of compassion, and is the most popular deity in the Chinese pantheon.  In early Chinese art, Guanyin is shown as an attendant of Amitabha, but by later periods, the bodhisattva was often depicted alone.


A stele of Guanyin as an attendant to Amitabha offer in the upcoming Images of Enlightenment auction, New York, 17th September 2014, Lot 421,  A Polychromed Limestone ‘Buddhist Triad’ Stele, China, Tang dynasty, 8th / 9th Century, Estimate: US$250,000-350,000.

The form of Guanyin most familiar today depicts the bodhisattva in a feminine form, dressed in long loose robes with the head covered by a cowl.


Two figures of Guanyin offered in the upcoming Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art auction, New York, 16th and 17th September 2014, (Left) Lot 269, A Pale Celadon Jade Figure Of Guanyin, Qing Dynasty, 19th Century, Estimate: US$5,000-7,000. (Right) Lot 506, A Bronze Figure Of Guanyin, Ming Dynasty, Estimate US$5,000-7,000.

Guanyin is first mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, the most important and influential of the Mahayana sutras. In chapter 25 of that sutra a Bodhisattva called Inexhaustible Intention, Wujinyi, asks the Buddha how Guanyin transverses the material world to deliver the teachings of Buddha to sentient beings. Buddha replies that Guanyin will take whatever form necessary to bring salvation to those listening.


Two different forms of Guanyin offered in the upcoming Images of Enlightenment auction, New York, 17th September 2014. (Left) Lot 440, A Carved wood figure of Guanyin, China, Song / Yuan Dynasty, Estimate: US$15,000-25,000. (Right) Lot 436, A Gilt-Lacquered Bronze Six-Armed Figure of Guanyin, China, Dated Chenghua 22nd Year, Corresponding to 1486, Estimate: US$50,000-70,000.

Buddha elaborates that if those requiring salvation are to be saved by someone in the body of a heavenly dragon, yaksha, gandharva, asura, garuda, kinnara, mahoraga, human, or nonhuman, Guanyin will manifest in any of those forms to deliver the message of salvation to them. 


Another figure of Guanyin offered in the upcoming Images of Enlightenment auction, New York, 17th September 2014, Lot 419, A Stone Head of Guanyin, China, Sui Dynasty, Estimate: US$25,000-35,000.

It stands to reason then, that during the lunar seventh month, when according to Chinese tradition, the gates of hell are opened to allow departed souls to roam the earth, Guanyin will take the form of a wrathful, powerful ghost to deliver the message of salvation to those wandering spirits in need.


Two paper effigies of the King of Ghosts from Hong Kong, crowned with small Guanyin figures.

Guanyin in the form of the King of Ghosts, is also called the Bodhisattva with the Flaming Face, Mianran Dashi, or Master Bodhisattva, Dashiye. Portrayals of the King of Ghosts usually have a small image of Guanyin in her more usual form close by to remind devotees of who the King of Ghosts really is.


While Ananda was meditating, the King of Ghosts appeared to him.  A figure of Ananda in the upcoming Images of Enlightenment auction, New York, 17th September 2014, Lot 430, A Rare and Massive Parcel-Gilt Bronze figure of Ananda, China, Ming dynasty, Estimate: US$700,000-900,000.

The King of Ghosts appears in the ‘Dharani Sutra for Bringing Salvation to the Hungry Ghosts with Burning Mouths’, translated into Chinese by Amoghavajra (705-774) during the Tang dynasty. In this scripture, Ananda, one of Buddha’s principle disciples, was meditating in the woods, when the King of Ghosts appeared before him with fire burning in his mouth. The King of Ghosts told Ananda that he would soon die and be reborn as a hungry ghost. Horrified, Ananda went to the Buddha to ask how he could avert this fate.


A figure of Buddha offer in the upcoming Images of Enlightenment auction, New York, 17th September 2014, Lot 437 A Large Gilt-Lacquered Wood Figure of Buddha, China, Qing Dynasty, 18th Century, Estimate: US$200,000-300,000.

Buddha told Ananda that the recitation of the ‘Sutra for Bringing Salvation to the Hungry Ghosts’ would ease the suffering of hungry ghosts, and merit could be gained by disseminating this sutra among the public.  Ananda organized services for the recitation of this sutra, which still forms part of the hungry ghosts services today.  The merit Ananda gained from this act saved him from his fate.


Figures of the King of Ghosts in Vietnamese Temples in Danang, Vietnam.

While the King of Ghosts is usually seen in Chinese communities during the Hungry Ghost Festival, in Vietnam the form of Guanyin as King of Ghosts is seen year round. The King of Ghosts is paired with Buddhist guardian Weituo.  Weituo is venerated as the 'Protector of the Buddhist Faith', and as such, his image is enshrined in the first hall of Chinese Buddhist monasteries with his back to the statue of Maitreya Buddha so that he faces the Main or Grand Hall where the principal deities of the temple are enshrined. His image also appears at the beginning of Chinese Buddhist sutras.


A figure of guardian Weituo offered in the upcoming Images of Enlightenment auction, New York, 17th September 2014, Lot 441, A Large Gilt-Lacquered Wood figure of Weituo, China, Ming Dynasty, 17th Century, Estimate: US$25,000-35,000.

In Vietnamese Buddhist temples and monasteries, the innate human desire for symmetry takes over, and Weituo and the King of Ghosts are situated on either side of the main entrance to keep evil spirits at bay.


Figures of Weituo and the King of Ghosts standing guard on either side of the entrance of a Buddhist Temple in Danang, Vietnam.

No matter what form Guanyin takes, however, the bodhisattva’s main principle is compassion. The bodhisattva takes the fearsome guise of the King of Ghosts, as it is believed that this is the form that will most appeal to restless souls, who are most likely to take advice and obey a more powerful member of their own kind. Being flexible and tailoring the message to suit the capabilities and inclinations of those receiving the message is the principle behind the Buddhist teaching of skillful means.


A figure of Guanyin riding a lion offered in the upcoming Images of Enlightenment auction, New York, 17th September 2014, Lot 435, A Cold-Gilded Bronze Figure of Guanyin, China, Yuan / Ming Dynasty, Estimate: US$20,000-30,000.