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Spring, spring, spring! Today is the first day that has actually felt like spring. Soon the forsythias will be up and then, suddenly all sorts of spring blossoms will appear in a riot of beautiful color. Forsythias are such a familiar blossoming shrubs that I have never thought to find out where they are from, and how they got here. The instantly familiar yellow flowers grow on long whiplike shoots and appear everywhere in early spring. They are the introductory notes from which the rest of the symphony swells (and yet they are always there beneath the rest of the music). Wasn’t it always that way?

Forsythia in a formal garden

Forsythia in a formal garden

Actually, forsythias are native to East Asia. Out of eleven wild species, only one obscure species had spread from Asia to southeastern Europe prior to the age of exploration. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that western gardeners and botanists found out about them as traders and diplomats visited the great gardens of China, Korea, and Japan.


Forsythias are extremely easy to cultivate from cuttings. Low hanging boughs frequently already have rootlets. Europeans wasted no time in bringing the lovely yellow shrubs back home where they fed the public’s insatiable appetite for novelty. Indeed they were part of the 18th century Chinoiserie fad, which also gave us the monstrous invasive tree of heaven [spits on ground and curses]. Soon forsythias were in temperate gardens everywhere. They are coincidentally named for William Forsyth (1737–1804), a Scottish botanist who was the king’s head gardener and a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society.


Ironically, despite the fact that forsythias have been omnipresent in American and European gardens since the late eighteenth century, they have not permeated very far into western culture. They are a beautiful shrub which is everywhere, but they do not have the same mythical and herbal associations for us as myrtles, redbuds, crocuses or such. Of course forsythias do have such associations in China, Korea, and Japan. They are one of the fundamental herbs of Chinese medicine and their sticks are used to manufacture a classical Korean stringed instrument. The myths and art of East Asia likewise favor the beautiful golden shrubs. The flower exemplify nature’s promise of rebirth.


One of my personal all-time favorite moments with flora and fauna involved forsythia…and my favorite animal—the mighty elephant. I was at the Bronx Zoo in early spring and their (then) adolescent female Asian elephant was outside appreciating the first nice day. Elephants eat lots of vegetation of all sorts and a thoughtful zookeeper had put a bunch of flowering forsythia fronds in the enclosure as a treat.

Elephants are arguably the most intelligent land animals except for certain problematic primates. They love to play and show off. The little elephant grabbed the beautiful yellow forsythias in her trunk and ran back and forth holding them aloft like a girl with a bouquet. Then, in a moment of pure exuberance, she threw them all high up in the air and raced back and forth in the resultant shower of bright yellow blossoms.

Adolescent elephant with Forsythias (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Adolescent elephant with Forsythias (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Since she was such a young elephant, she was still covered with fine downy hairs and the forsythia flowers got all caught up in these. So she became dotted with little golden flowers. She was beaming in delight and had one of the happiest expressions I have ever seen on anyone. The memory is enshrined in my heart as an enduring exemplar of joy.  Although the internet had plenty of other sorts of images, I couldn’t find any happy elephants with forsythias–so I sketched one for you just now above,


Dear Reader, this is Ferrebeekeeper’s 500th post!  We have gone to some crazy places on this blog and I wanted to thank you so much for joining me.  Together we braved the Scythian steppes and walked among ruthless mounted warriors. We went back in time to the Ordovician, when the oceans were ruled by giant tentacle monsters.  Fearlessly you have gone with me down to the black mansion—the ghastly hell of Chinese mythology where brutal torture spans across lifetimes.  We have even stared into the ever-hungry black hole which lies at the center of the spinning galaxy.

Contemporary Chinese Portrayal of Guanyin

For our 100th post we celebrated with Oshun, the beautiful Afro-Caribbean love goddess. For the 500th post, however, I wanted to write about a goddess even more transcendent and inspiring–Guanyin, the goddess of mercy and compassion.  East Asian deities can be a stern and pitiless group, but Guanyin is the counterbalance to that.  As the bodhisattva associated with kindness, she is uniquely venerated in China, Japan, and the other Buddhist nations of East Asia.  Guanyin protects the unfortunate, the sick, the disabled, the poor, and those in trouble. She has vowed never to rest until all sentient beings are free from samsara—the endless painful cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. Long ago Guanyin obtained Buddhahood—she apotheosized beyond this world to Nirvana—but then she turned back from absolute tranquility and bliss in order to help all other knowing entities transcend suffering.

Avalokiteshvara statue (8th century, Sri Vijayan period, Thailand)

As a principle goddess of the most populated region of Earth, Guanyin has many names and attributes. In South Asia, where Buddhism originates, Guanyin was Avalokiteśvara a male bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of Buddha.  As a fundamental force of existence Avalokiteśvara could actually be male, or female, human or animal, or none of the above.  In the Tang and Song dynasties, as Buddhism became the dominant religion of China, Guanyin gradually became associated with the motherly goddess of kindness and her form changed into what we know today.  In Chinese Guanyin was originally called “Guanshiyin”, which means, “Attending to the cries of the world” however her name was shortened during the Tang dynasty (because it violated the naming taboo of Emperor Taizong–who was born Lǐ Shìmín).  Taoists worship Guanyin as well, but they believe she was a Chinese woman from the Shang dynasty who found a path to immortality and now looks after the weak.

In Vietnam she is revered as “Quán Âm”

Guanyin is almost always portrayed standing or sitting on a water lotus as an allusion to the Lotus Sutra texts (additionally, adherents to Pure Land Buddhism believe that she sequesters the souls of fallen believers in a lotus and wafts the flowers to Western Paradise).  She is usually portrayed in a flowing white dress holding an object in both hands.  In some traditions she bears a vase of perfectly pure water and a willow branch, while in other iconography she holds rice, tea, or a pearl.  Guanyin is traditionally portrayed with a Chinese crown and an Indian royal necklace. Sometimes she is accompanied by two warriors or by two children.  Occasionally she is shown with a dragon or a parrot (the little parrot’s story is touchingly sad and merits its own post).


In some statues and paintings of Guanyin she is pictured with 11 heads and a multitude of arms.   The story behind this highlights the overwhelmingly merciful nature of Guanyin.  Despite her utmost divine efforts, Guanyin realized that there were countless unhappy beings still in need of her aid. Her struggles to comprehend the problems and suffering of so many caused her head to burst into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha (who rules the paradise of the Pure Land) caused each of these fragments to reform into a complete head, with which Guanyin was able to hear the cries of the innumerable suffering souls. She tried to reach out and help the beings who needed her aid, but her two arms also shattered into fragments. Once more, Buddha came to her aid and magically granted her a thousand arms with which to relieve suffering.

Giant Guanlin statue at Wat Plai Laem in Thailand

Divinities reflect the deepest aspirations and emotions of their believers.  The fact that Guanyin, goddess of love and compassion, is one of the most popular divinities in China, reflects a happy truth concerning human nature.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

February 2023