One of the deities most frequently seen on altars in China's temples is Quan Yin (also spelled Kwan Quan Yin, alone among Buddhist gods, is loved rather than feared and is the model of Chinese beauty. Regarded by the Chinese as the goddess of mercy, she was originally male until the early part of the 12th century and has evolved since that time from her prototype, Avalokiteshvara, "the merciful lord of utter enlightment," an Indian bodhisattva who chose to remain on earth to bring relief to the suffering rather than enjoy for himself the ecstasies of Nirvana.
Quan Yin is a shortened form of a name that means One Who Sees and Hears the Cry from the Human World. Her Chinese title signifies, "She who always observes or pays attention to sounds," i.e., she who hears prayers. Sometimes possessing eleven heads, she is surnamed Sung-Tzu-Niang-Niang, "lady who brings children." She is goddess of fecundity as well as of mercy. Worshipped especially by women, this goddess comforts the troubled, the sick, the lost, the senile and the unfortunate. Her popularity has grown such through the centuries that she is now also regarded as the protector of seafarers, farmers and travelers. She cares for souls in the underworld, and is invoked during post-burial rituals to free the soul of the deceased from the torments of purgatory. She can bring children (generally sons, but if the mother asks for a daughter she will be beautiful), protect in sorrow, guide seamen and fishermen (thus we see her "crossing the waves" in many poses), and render harmless the spears of an enemy in battle. Her principal temple on the island of Putuoshan, in the Chusan Archipelago off the Zhejiang coast near Ningbo, is a major pilgrimage site sacred to the Buddhists, the worship of Quan Yin being its most prominent feature on account of the fact that the Goddess is said to have resided there for nine years, reigning as the Queen of the Southern Seas.
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