The Yokihi Kannon Statue

Yokihi Kannon. 19 Nov. 2012,
4/75/src_27347595.jpg?1354000758. Sennyu Ji. Accessed 10 Jan. 2019

When people in Japan’s cosmetics industry brainstorm for business ideas, some of them would visit a temple named Sennyu Ji in the south of Kyoto for divine inspirations from a statue of Yokihi Kannon (Tung 43). Believed to show Bodhisattva Guanyin in Yang Guifei’s form, the Song Dynasty willow wood statue is located in the Yokihi Palace Temple, a building separate from the main temple. Master monk Gachirindaishi Shunjyo, founder of Sennyu Ji, brought the holy statue from China to Japan in 1211 during the Kamakura Shogunate (Tung 40; Nishitani 1). Although legends suggest that Emperor Xuan of Tang ordered the statue to be made in his beloved consort’s image, the statue had not been associated with Yang until the mid-17th century during the Tokugawa Shogunate (Tung 42; Guo 18). Reflecting the acclaim of the Chinese beauty in Japan and evoking Buddhist, Shinto, and Daoist imaginations, the Yokihi Kannon statue exemplifies how Yang’s beauty is celebrated in different geographical areas and belief systems.

Yang is associated with the statue both because of its ornateness and because she has become part of Japanese culture after numerous retellings of her story recounting her escape to Japan. As shown through the black-and-white color scheme of the outside of the temple, Zen Buddhism values plainness and simplicity, making the embellished Yokihi Kannon statue from China a little out of place (Tung 41). Painted in gold, the statue features flowers both in Kannon’s hands and in the background, plus a flamboyant crown made of coral and jade (Tung 41). Therefore, connecting the statue to Yang’s “face of a flower,” “sparrow [head decorations] of gold,” and “jade pick for the hair,” as described in Bai Juyi’s “Song of Lasting Pain,” does not seem a stretch of imagination (Owen 442, 444).

Kyoto-Nara Dream Trips: Nehan-E in Tofukuji and Sennyu-ji Temples in Kyoto! &emdash; Yokihi Kannon-do hall at the Sennyu-ji Temple (泉涌寺) in Kyoto!
Yokihi Kannon-Do Hall at the Sennyu-Ji Temple (泉涌寺) in Kyoto! Kyoto Nara Dream Trips. Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

Understanding why Yang was chosen out of all Chinese aristocratic beauties, however, requires a closer look at the development of the Yang Guifei culture in Japan. Yang’s story had spread to Japan by the 9th century at the latest, mainly thanks to the popularity of Bai’s poetic masterpiece (Ng 118). Japanese literary artists inspired by Yang included Murasaki Shikibu, who mentions the Prized Consort in the opening lines of The Tale of Genji to describe the relationship between Emperor Kiritsubo and her consort. Referring to Yang as a woman not of the highest rank but winning all the favor from the Emperor and potentially causing social turmoil, Murasaki mostly echoes Bai’s poem, but later retellings of Yang’s story add new elements. In a major Tokugawa version of the tale, a Japanese diplomat-student called Abe no Nakamaro, later famous for transforming into an oni after death and aiding Ambassador Kibi no Makibi to return to Japan, rescues Yang and sends her to Japan, where she lands and soon dies in Kuzu (Ng 120). Apart from Kuzu, other Japanese regions also proclaim themselves as the landing port of the prized consort. One version has Yang arriving in Seto Nakai and assisting Empress Koken in subduing a rebellion, and another has Yang landing in Higo and helping the locals survive a plague (Ng 123). Diverse stories about Yang are presented in distinctively Japanese forms such as haikus, noh plays, monogatari tales, kabuki plays, kana prose, waka poems, joruri puppet shows, and koto music, and a sub-genre of paintings called “Chogonka” zu, or “Song of Lasting Pain” paintings, was also dedicated to Yang (Ng 119-120). Thus, the story of the Chinese beauty is transformed into a fertile ground of Japanese artistic creativity, and Yang becomes the obvious choice when people try to think of a rich Chinese woman to associate the statue with. Like Jing Ke whose assassination of Shihuangdi was retold in mythical colors in The Tales of the Heike, Yang becomes another Chinese figure whose stories came to be reinvented in Japan.

Sennyu Ji shows various signs of syncretism linking Buddhism, Shintoism, and Daoism, and Yang plays divine roles in all three traditions. Visitors to the temple pay homage to not only the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas but also the official tombs of Emperor Shijo and a number of ensuing emperors (Gilday 277). Since Japanese emperors were considered divine descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu, Sennyu-ji becomes arguably also a Shinto temple, and viewers of the Yokihi Kannon statue may end up recalling Yang’s place in Shintoism. According to another major Japanese retelling of Yang’s story, as recounted in Yokihi Monogatari, Yang does die in Maweipo in China but upon her death shapeshifts into a bird flying towards the east (Graham 15). Yang is then revealed as a reincarnation of the Shinto kami Atsuta Myojin, who transforms into a bewitchingly beautiful form to distract Emperor Xuan of Tang from invading Japan (Graham 20). Atsuta Myojin and Guanyin Bodhisattva are linked through not only their connections to Yang but also ambiguous gender. Atsuta Myojin is recognized as the reincarnation of both Yang and Yamato Brave, a legendary prince during the Yamato Period (Ng 125). Like what Atsuta Myojin does with Emperor Xuan, Yamato Brave in O no Yasumaro’s Kojiki changes into a beautiful girl to distract the braves of the Bear Folk, and like Yang in Yokihi Monogatari, the prince transforms into a bird after death (Ng 125; Graham 16). As for Guanyin, she originated as a male deity as depicted in the Lotus Sutra and only became feminine in Song China (Casey 1). Nevertheless, as demonstrate by the mustache on the statue, in Japan the figure remains more masculine, partly because of his samsaric association with chigo, a group of men attached to monks or aristocrats (Tung 41; Atkins 947). Echoing Yang’s story, tales of chigo, or chigo monogatari, typically tell stories of chigo entering romantic relationships with masters, distracting the masters from duties, and dying tragically, and unsurprisingly the chigo are sometimes also depicted as reincarnations of Yang (Atkins 962; Tung 23). Even though the two deities are never directly referred to as each other’s reincarnations, Guanyin Bodhisattva and Atsuta Myojin are nevertheless intricately related, with Yang playing an important intermediary role (Tung 84).

A visual summary of figures related to Yang Guifei in Japan, their genders, and relationship to Sennyu Ji.

Buddhist and Shinto deities are interrelated according to a theological theory called shinpon butsujaku, or “Shinto as substance, Buddhism as manifestation” (Ng 133). The same divine essence can be manifested in both a kami and a Buddha or Bodhisattva. The Great Sun Buddha, another Buddhist deity to whom Yang is connected, has been referred to as a reincarnation of two interconnected Shinto figures, Atsuta Myojin and Amaterasu (Ng 133; “Introduction”). Given such fluidity of the divine presence across beliefs and traditions, even the addition of a Chinese woman into the system becomes possible. The following remark by a monk on the Itsukushima deity in The Tales of the Heike hints at such a possibility: “Buddhas and bodhisattvas can assume many forms . . . . Sometimes they may appear as mortals, sometimes as goddesses” (“Heike” 171) This fusion of Buddhas, humans, and kami can be further extended with the addition of Daoist elements, to which Yang is already associated. Historically, she lived as a Daoist nun named Yang Taizhen during her transfer from King Shou’s household to his father Emperor Xuan’s palace, and in “Song of Lasting Pain” her spirit is found thanks to a Daoist priest among the “mountains of Undying”(Owen 446). This Daoist concept of the Undying is directly referred to in the very name of Sennyu Ji. Although currently written in kanji as 泉涌寺, Sennyu Ji was established on the basis of another temple whose name 仙遊寺 has a similar pronunciation and literally means “the temple that the Undying visits” (Nishitani 3). Therefore, Sennyu Ji provides a prime example of how Buddhism, Shintoism, and Daoism, all associated through translations with the Chinese character 道, can be understood as different paths to one universal Way, and Lady Yang’s statue stands at the crossroads of these different paths.

Considering that Yokihi Kannon is valued as part of Japanese culture and connected with Buddhism, Shintoism, and Daoism, one can conclude that Yang Guifei’s charm has transcended geographical and spiritual boundaries. Such syncretism proves conducive to the prosperity of institutions like Sennyu Ji. Even though Guanyin is traditionally associated with Buddhism and the removal of human desires, the statue attracts Shinto enthusiasts, Daoist practitioners, and people wishing for romantic love and physical beauty. Spiritually speaking, the statue serves as what The Lotus Sutra calls an “expedient means” allowing the Way of the Buddha to reach more people and deliver them from a painful world likened to a “burning house” (De Bary et al. 447-448) More superficially speaking, Sennyu Ji can receive donations from a larger population thanks to the statue, as observed by an 18th century writer called Amano Sadakage in his personal essay collection Shiojiri: “Most temples in my country own antiques. By claiming that they were once owned or used by a certain person, temples could receive a lot of money from the people who saw [these fakes]”(Ng 123). Because of these spiritual and economic reasons, the Yokihi Kannon statue unsurprisingly proves far from the only object in Japanese temples said to be related to Lady Yang. Other examples include a stone tomb in Chouju Ji, a bronze mirror in Houn Ji, a statue in Seiyro Ji, and a jade curtain in Shomyo Ji (Ng 123-124).

Works Cited:

Atkins, Paul. “Chigo in the Medieval Japanese Imagination.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 67, no. 03, Aug. 2008, pp. 947–70. Crossref, doi:10.1017/S0021911808001216.

Casey, Caitlin. “Kuan-Yin as Gender Neutral: Exploring the Significance of the Gendering of Kuan-Yin in Chan Buddhism.” Bowdoin Journal of Art, 2016, pp. 1–18.

De Bary, Wm. Theodore, Irene Bloom, Wing-tsit Chan, and Joseph Adler. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Gilday, Edmund. “Bodies of Evidence Imperial Funeral Rites and the Meiji Restoration.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 27, no. 3–4, 2000, pp. 273–96.

Graham, Masako. “The Consort and the Warrior. Yokihi Monogatari.” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 45, no. 1, 1990, pp. 1–26. JSTOR, JSTOR, doi:10.2307/2384495.

Guo, Wanping. Yang Guifei Guanyin Zuoxiang Dongchuan Riben Xinkao 杨贵妃观音坐像东传日本新考 [New Research on the Eastward Transmission of the Sitting Yokihi Kannon Statue to Japan]. Administration Commission of Putuoshan Scenery of Zhoushan Municipality, School of Japanese Language and Culture,Zhejiang Gongshang University, Institute for Japanese Religions and Cultural History, Waseda University, and Phoenix Television, 2009, pp. 18–19,

“Introduction.” Atsuta Jingu, 2009,

Ng, Wai-Ming. “The Images of Yang Guifei in Tokugawa Texts.” Journal of Asian History, vol. 50, no. 1, 2016, pp. 117–39. JSTOR, doi:10.13173/jasiahist.50.1.0117.

Nishitani, Isao. “「滄洲」と入宋僧:南宋代における一律院の所在とその宗教的空間.” プロジェクト研究, no. 8, 2013, pp. 57–72.

Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature : Beginnings to 1911. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

The Tales of the Heike. Trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Tung, Jasmine. The Japanese Fascination Towards the Legends of the Chinese Figure Yang Guifei. California State University, Northridge, Aug. 2018. Zotero,

Yokihi Kannon. 19 Nov. 2012, Sennyu Ji. Accessed 10 Jan. 2019.

Yokihi Kannon-Do Hall at the Sennyu-Ji Temple (泉涌寺) in Kyoto! Kyoto Nara Dream Trips. Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955)

A VHS cover for Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955). Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Even though Princess Yang Kwei-Fei was filmed in Japan and released in the year 1955, it stays true to the historical details of the Yang Guifei story in many ways. After a brief flash-forward showing the elderly Emperor Xuanzong mourning his lost Precious Consort, the action of the film opens with a younger Emperor coping with the death of his beloved Empress Wu-Hui (perhaps a conflation of the historical emperor’s former favored consort Wu Huifei and his wife Empress Wang, who both passed away before Yang Yuhuan became Yang Guifei, here pronounced in the Japanese fashion as Kwei-Fei). The film also later shows the gratuitous decadence of Yang Guifei’s three elder sisters and the corruption of Yang Guifei’s ambitious male uncles and cousins, which later would so anger the populace and drive the soldiers of the imperial guard to their murder. These details beyond the figure of Yang Guozhong were not emphasized in the earliest literary versions of the story, such as “Song of Lasting Pain,” though they were relevant to the actual history of the Yang Guifei tragedy. The film, though, also stresses the Emperor’s preference for pleasure in the form of music-making and admiring the beauty of nature over the suffocating formalities and rules of court life, the spirit of which is included in “Song of Lasting Pain.”

The emperor clearly prefers making music over the stuffy affairs and rules of court, as in this early scene. 6:06.
Yang Guifei emerges from her bath. The Emperor does not observe her during this scene, however, unlike other tellings of the story. 37:30.

The film also introduces elements unique to it, however. At least among fictional interpretations of the Yang Guifei story, the Emperor is usually depicted as uninterested in governance and foolish in his old age. Although the emperor is frustrated with the constraints of his royal world, the film instead depicts the Emperor as a good person, merely a romantic who craves sincere companionship, which is how the true-hearted Yang Yuhuan wins his heart (not by being seen naked while bathing). Even further and more unusually among fictional interpretations, though, the Emperor is shown to be a concerned and ethical ruler even during this era of his reign. When a concubine has been sentenced to death for the crime of meddling in politics, he argues against it, saying laws should serve the people and must be questioned if they are unfair. In addition, when Yang Guifei questions the power granted to her relatives, he replies that he has his reasons for his favor, and this is proven true when his former premier is shown to be old and sickly. Thus, he proves in a very Confucian way his suitability to rule. Although these scenes demonstrate that women should not be allowed to affect the political sphere, the Emperor’s sympathetic characterization contrasts with the chaos that prevails in the final scenes of the film, the events of which are more tragic than seemingly just.

Yang Yuhuan is discovered at her uncle’s restaurant by An Lushan. 13:25.
Yang Guifei talks alone with An Lushan, scandalizing the court. Far from engaging in an affair, though, she rejects his propositions out of hand. 58:17.

The beginning of the story, too, is injected with new elements, such as hints of Cinderella. Far from originally being a wife of Emperor Xuanzong’s son Li Mao, the Prince of Shou, Yang Yuhuan is first discovered by An Lushan working like a servant in her cousin’s restaurant after the death of her mother. An Lushan, in this version actually a rather dashing though ambitious lady-killer rather than a fat vulgarian, brings her to court, thinking her physical similarity to the late Empress Wu-Hui will be a useful tool to gain imperial favor if she is accepted as a prized concubine. When she refuses to either use her influence to promote him from provincial governor to a more central court position or run away with him (far from starting an affair with him, as in some versions of the story, or being involved in an artificial mother-son relationship, as in the history), he decides to make a move for the throne itself, stirring up the rebellion that would lead to her death.

In many ways, though, Yang Guifei’s ascent from peasant to the most beloved imperial concubine in the film feels not Disney, but very Japanese. It reminds us of the rainy-night conversation in Chapter 2 of the Tale of Genji, when Genji and his friends discuss the merits of a beautiful woman found in an out-of-the-way place; her sincere and earnest characterization, too, makes her seem like several of the maligned, heartsick women discussed in that scene. This change, though, serves to inject the story with a compelling arc that makes it feel like a modern film, even though it originated centuries ago.

Despite this, that this story was made into film even as Japan was beginning to enter a post-war period of Western-style modernity—Japan would join the United Nations just a year later, in 1956—is a testament to its lasting power. Just like in the original “Song of Lasting Pain,” the film ends on a mystical note, with Yang Guifei’s voice guiding the dying emperor into the afterlife, where they will be together for all time. As the Emperor says, laughing with joy, their “happiness shall know no end.”

The Emperor and Guifei escape together one night to enjoy a common festival. Here, the Emperor plays while Guifei twirls and dances in a scene reminiscent of “Feathered Coats, Rainbow Skirts,” a typical element of any Yang Guifei story. 46:46.

Here is a link to the full movie

Works Cited

Princess Yang Kwei-Fei. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, Daiei Film and Shaw Brothers Studio, 1955. Youtube, “Yôkihi – Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955) Kenji Mizoguchi,” Z plan, 12 December 2018,

Genso and Yokihi

Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art-NY

“Genso and Yokihi” is piece produced during Edo Period Japan by Yashima Gakutei. It is a woodblock print of ink and color on paper. The scene depicts a man and a woman, Yang Guifei and the Emperor, sharing a tender moment. This piece is explicit in the telling of the story.

Yang plays the flute whilst the emperor holds it and leans into her. Yang is facing forward, making her the focal point of the piece. Moreover, the flute in and of itself could symbolize the fact that Yang is incredibly skilled and cultured. This is similar to figures in Japanese literature such as Sei Shonogon. Furthermore, the couple is behind a foldable wall, implying that their love is hidden and somewhat forbidden.

The print is accompanied by an inscription that reads:

I know not how

Spring hours flow by.

I know that thou

Flutest; that I

Am tranced, am drowned

In golden sound.

        This poem is a verbal expression of the emperor’s infatuation with Yang. However, his attraction goes beyond simple physical attributes. He is drowned in her whole aura and grace, symbolized by her playing of the flute.

Within the context of Japanese society, the story of Yang is relatable: it ends in loss and grief, similar to in the Tale of Genji, as Genji and his father both lose loved ones.

Source: New York Metropolitan Museum of Art