This figure depicts Acuoye Guanyin, a manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara that is unique to Yunnan. The Nanzhao guoshi tuzhuan [Illustrated history of Nanzhao Kingdom] from 947, recounts the story of an Indian monk who in the mid-7th century, prophesized the rise of the Meng family and the establishment of the Nanzhao Kingdom. The monk, himself an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, bestowed the Meng family with a sculpture of Acuoye Guanyin, which had miraculous rain-making abilities. The legend is depicted in the famous handscroll A Long Scroll of Buddhist Images, painted by Zhang Shengwen (active 12th century) between 1172 and 1190, now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (acc. no. gu-hua 001003-00000). Symbolic of the monarchy’s sanctioned power, this manifestation of Guanyin was also appropriated by the succeeding Dali monarchy, which thus positioned itself as heir to the Nanzhao court.
The stylistic traits and distinct iconography of the Acuoye Guanyin were established as early as the 9th century, as testified by a gold figure with silver halo recovered from the Qianxun pagoda of the Chongsheng temple in Dali, illustrated in Denise Patry Leidy and Donna Strahan, Wisdom Embodied. Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Haven, 2010, fig. 99. The figure’s distinctive non-Chinese facial traits, its rigid frontal stance and the arrangement of its skirt tied at the waist, were replicated in sculptures in the successive Dali Kingdom. These features suggest a Southeast Asian influence, possibly from bodhisattva sculptures of Vietnam, as suggested in Angela F. Howard ed., Chinese Sculpture, New Haven, 2006, p. 347.
Figures of Acuoye Guanyin are held in important museums and private collections worldwide; a figure attributed by inscription to the reign of Emperor Duan Zhengxing (r. 1147-1172), in the San Diego Museum of Art, is illustrated in Sung Yu, Selections from the Chinese Collection, San Diego, 1999, p. 115; one in the British Museum, London, is illustrated in Wladimir Zwalf, Buddhism. Art and Faith, London, 1985, pl. 297; another in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is illustrated in Hai-Wai Yi-Chen/Chinese Art in Overseas Collections. Buddhist Sculpture II, Taipei, 1990, pl. 163, together with a figure in the Denver Art Museum, ibid., pl. 164; a slightly larger one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is published Leidy, op. cit., pl. 32; and another in the Sumitomo Collection, was included in the Sen-Oku Hakkokan exhibition Kindo Butsu, Kyoto, 2004, cat. no. 40. See also a smaller gilt-bronze figure of Acuoye Guanyin, in the Yunnan Provincial Museum, Kunming, illustrated in Gems of China’s Cultural Heritage, Beijing, 1990, pl. 160.
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