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).
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).
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).
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