Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Guan Yin/Kuan Yin Statue

Catalog Number: O010


30.5 x 14.0 x 11.0 cm


12.0 x 5.5 x 4.3 in


Religion and Denomination: Buddhism
Transatlantic Family of Religion: Orisha
Country of Origin: China
Ethnographic Origin: Chinese
Materials: Ceramic
Usage: Ritual (non-yet-used)
Detailed Description of Significance:

Cubans of Chinese ancestry have lived on the island for more than a century, and since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cubans, Chinese–Cubans, and new Chinese immigrants have come into increasing contact, allowing them to share their material and visual cultures.

This figure, known to Chinese Buddhists as the merciful bodhisattva Kwan Yin, or Guan Yin, entered Santería by way of 19th century Chinese immigration to Cuba.  Afro-Cuban priests of Santería/Regla de Ocha (santeros and santeras) borrowed the Chinese divinity from Chinese Buddhists on the island for their own practices. Over time, the Chinese figure became identified as an aspect or avatar of Ochún, the Afro–Cuban oricha, or divinity, of love and fresh waters. Her preferred colors of gold and yellow are represented in the figure’s resplendent regalia and halo. Conversely, Chinese immigrants, their descendants on the island, and Chinese Americans have also adopted Santería/Regla de Ocha as their own religion.

The adoption of a Chinese form to represent an African spirit is an example of the extreme innovation and creativity shown by practitioners of Santería in Cuba, as well as an index of the power of global forces to impact and transform African and Afro-Atlantic religions.  Many Afro-Cubans regard Chinese medicine and magic as powerful.

Catalogued by Annabelle Yang:

Commonly hailed as the goddess of mercy, whose name literally translates as “the one who listens to the cries of the world,” Guan Yin numbers among the most popular bodhisattvas in China – in fact, her popularity extends across east Asia, where she is known as Kannon in Japan and Gwaneum in Korea. She derives from the Indian Avalokitesvara, a male bodhisattva whose iconography shifted to the female Guan Yin in China. As a mortal, before achieving her status as a bodhisattva, Guan Yin was persecuted by her father for refusing marriage in favor of her Buddhist austerities. However, when her father fell ill, Guan Yin in her compassion sacrificed her own eyes and arms for him.

It comes as no surprise, then, that many look to Guan Yin for healing. In Asia, her Mantra of Great Compassion is recited to ward off dangers and ensure rebirth in the paradisiacal Pure Land after this life, and she grants sons to those who call upon her name. Furthermore, the “sweet dew” from her fingertips is said to confer healing. In Buddhist temples, supplicants light incense for bodhisattvas like Guan Yin, and approach with ceremonial motions before kneeling upon cushions to salute the devotional statues and ask for blessings.

In Cuba, Guan Yin is identified with La Caridad, or the Catholic Lady of Charity, and the mighty river orixá Oshún. Sacred light emanates from all around her, and she carries an emblematic willow branch and vessel of water as she sits cross-legged on a lotus. She wields this willow branch to scatter drops of water, banishing evil. An incense holder in front of her appears to contain a red tablecloth spilling forth. The characters around Guan Yin’s head read “Fo guang pu zhao,” meaning “Buddhism’s light shines everywhere.” The characters at the front, below the incense holder, read “Ji xiang ruyi,” meaning “Lucky and everything goes as wished.” Such a statue, mass produced from China, would be found in US American shops known as botánicas, which specialize in religious goods for Latinos, as well as Asian American grocery stores.