Chinese Guanyin Figures

Image for Chinese Guanyin Figures

By Richard Busch.

The Museum houses one of the leading teaching collections in North America. The Education Collections features artifacts and specimens that are used for public programs, so that children and adults can get up close to the wonders of the natural world. A recent donation of 23 Guanyin figures by Rita Bass Coors and William Coors will help visitors learn more about the Chinese Buddhist religion. Some of the figures will be used in Education Collections programs, and others will be preserved in the Anthropology Department’s world ethnology collection. The Guanyin figures, in addition to being remarkable pieces of art, represent Chinese history and culture.

Research shows that learning experiences are retained more accurately for a greater period of time when hands-on objects are incorporated into the curriculum. The Education Collections staff and volunteers care for nearly 22,000 objects while continually finding innovative ways to make the collections accessible to visitors. Each year, the Education Collections is used by Museum educators and trained volunteers for more than 3,700 programs. Objects are also loaned to local education organizations.

Guanyin, shortened from Guanshiyin, is a bodhisattva associated with compassion. A bodhisattva, translated from Sanskrit, is an “enlightenment-being,” someone on the journey of awakening but who has not yet reached enlightenment. Guanyin, whose name means “observing the sounds (or cries) of the world,” is said to have turned away from the gates of nirvana in order to save others, no matter how small or large they may be, from reincarnation.

A Buddhist story tells of how Amitabha Buddha saw Guanyin struggle to comprehend the needs of the world and gave her 11 heads to better hear and understand. Guanyin soon found that she did not have enough hands to help all those who requested her assistance, so Amitabha Buddha once again came to her aid and gave her a thousand arms and hands. Among Chinese Buddhists, Guanyin is immensely popular and is seen as a bringer of unconditional love; some literature uses “savior” to describe her.

The newly donated Guanyin figures are mostly jadeite and nephrite, but there are ivory and quartz pieces as well. All of these pieces were hand carved with incredible attention to detail, in some cases down to fingernails and the braids in Guanyin’s hair. The figures are representative of China during a rather interesting transition period in its history when, under the Manchu Dynasty (1644 to 1912), China was largely divided into “spheres of influence” by European nations. Jade was of interest to many of these Western influencers.

The semiprecious stone that we refer to as jade is actually one of two different metamorphic minerals, formed deep in Earth’s crust under heat and pressure. Jadeite, or imperial jade, is usually dark green and is primarily found in Myanmar (Burma) and is a pyroxene rich in sodium and aluminum. Nephrite is typically lighter and made up of interlocking calcium and magnesiumiron fibers. It is a little softer than jadeite, which has a hardness similar to quartz.

Both forms of jade have been artificially enhanced throughout history. The apple-green Guanyin pictured left has most likely been enhanced. This is usually done using a color-enhancing dye, similar to what is used on the purple and pink geodes you see in rock shops. To verify this, we would have to either break off a piece and examine the interior since the dyes are only superficial, or use an infrared spectroscopy test to analyze the surface of the figure.

Some of the figures from this donation will be added to the broad collection of Asian materials in the Anthropology Department’s world ethnology collection. This collection houses small groups of Asian objects, illustrating the indigenous cultures of China, Taiwan, Japan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines. These beautiful cultural objects will help us continue to connect our community to the world in which we live.

Richard Busch is the manager of the Education Collections. Find out more @


The Museum is responsible for preserving collections that are timeless in origin and value. To fulfill this responsibility, the Museum is currently constructing the new Rocky Mountain Science Collections Center.


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