Learning Cantonese: The Story of Gun Yam

In this “Story of Gun Yam”, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, we are told of the fate of Princess Miu Sin who, in order to cure her father of some terrible disease, offered up her own eyes and hands as necessary ingredients of the only medicine that would make him better. It is an extraordinary story, but one constantly being re-enacted daily in our own times by ordinary men and women, many of them persecuted and unheralded.

This is a scripted video, so the Cantonese is fairly formal and, of course, much of the vocabulary is of a religious nature, but at the same time very usual in terms of heightened cultural understanding. As for the grammar, there is one use of 使到 sí2 dou3 to express causation [使到眾生得到解脫], perhaps in place of the usual colloquial 令到 lihng6 dou3, as well as the refreshingly idiomatic 無論邊個化身, meaning “regardless of which incarnation it happens to be”!

You can view the video here. Since it is a YouTube video, you can slow down the playback speed if you wish: at 0.75 and 0.5, the sound quality is still good. And remember, if you want the standard jyutping romanization or to check any of the Chinese in the text, please consult the Sheik Cantonese on-line dictionary.

You might also like to make use the Ekho Text to Speech Converter if you have trouble matching any part of the transcribed Chinese text to the spoken version. Just make sure you select “Cantonese” under the language menu before you paste cut and text into the relevant box.


經典中曾經提到 | 人受到種種苦難 | 只要心中默唸 | 觀世音菩薩尊名 | 觀世音菩薩就能夠 | 觀其音聲 | 使到眾生得到解脫

● 經典 gīng1 dín2 = 1. classics 2. scriptures | ● 苦難 fú2 naahn6 = suffering; misery; distress | ● 默唸 mahk6 nihm6 = to read (or say) silently | ● 尊名 jyūn1 mìhng4 = (?) venerable name | ● 菩薩 pòuh4 saat3 = Bodhisattva | ● 眾生 jung3 sāng1 = all living creatures | ● 解脫 gáai2 tyut3 = to free/extricate oneself

Note: The character 其 kèih4 is frequently used in formal written Chinese as a possessive pronoun meaning “her, his, its”, etc. Observe too that 觀 gūn1 means “to hear” in this context rather than “to see”, although sight is strongly suggested by the presence of 見 gin3 in the written form.

In the scriptures, it is mentioned that if any person finds themselves in distress, all they have to do is to say silently to themselves the venerable name of the Gun Sai Yam Bodhisattva [觀世音菩薩] and Gun Yam will hear that person’s [其] voice and enable any living creature [眾生] to gain liberation.

觀音嘅信仰千百年 | 深深植根於中國民間 | 而道教就尊稱觀音為 | 慈航大士 | 係一位通過修行 | 而證道成仙嘅仙真 | 能夠救人於苦難

● 信仰 seun3 yéuhng5 = faith; belief; conviction | ● 植根於 jihk6 gān1 yū1 = (?) to establish its roots in| ● 尊稱 jyūn1 chīng1 = a respectful form of address; an honorific title | ● 慈航大士 chìh4 hòhng4 daaih6 6*2 = (?) Master of the Barge of Mercy| ● 修行 sāu1 hàhng4 = to practise Buddhism or Taoism | ● 證道成仙 jing3 douh6 sìhng4 sīn1 = (?) to witness the Tao and become an enlightened being | ● 仙真 sīn1 jān1 = an immortal; a Taoist god

Over hundreds and thousands of years [千百年嚟], faith in Gun Yam has sent its roots deep into [the lives of] ordinary Chinese people. Taoism uses the respectful term of address “Master of the Barge of Mercy” to refer to Gun Yam, an immortal [仙真] who, through religious practice [修行], witnessed the Tao and became an enlightened being able to save people from distress.

據宋代民間人士 | 對觀音嘅理解 | 觀音係古時北闕國 | 妙莊王嘅三公主 | 叫做妙善 | 妙善曾經入香山修道 | 然後證道成仙,成爲觀音 | 妙善用自己嘅雙眼同雙手 | 為自己嘅父王入藥醫病 | 父王知道之後 | 非常傷痛,【1:00】衷心發願 | 希望聖靈可以令佢嘅女兒手眼重生 | 忽然妙善消失,天上顯現 | 千手千眼大悲菩薩嘅法相

● 北闕國 Bāk1 Kyut3 Gwok3 = the name of some ancient country | ● 修道 sāu1 douh6 = to cultivate oneself according to a religious doctrine | ● 入藥 yahp6 yeuhk6 = to be used as medicine | ● 醫病 yī1 behng6 = to give medical treatment | 傷痛 sēung1 tung3 = to mourn; grief; pain | ● 衷心發願 chūng1 sam1 = heartfelt; wholehearted; cordial + 發願 faat3 yuhn6 = to vow to achieve an objective | ● 聖靈 sing3 lìhng4  = usually “the Holy Spirit”; the saintly spirits (of the dead) (Soothill) | ● 重生 chùhng4 sāang1 = a rebirth; to be reborn | ● 顯現 hín2 yihn6 = to manifest/reveal oneself; to appear; to show | ● 大悲daih6 bēi1 = (Buddhism) the great deliverance of Buddha from sufferings & afflictions; the great mercy | ● 法相 faat3 sēung1 = usually “(Buddhism) the aspects or characteristics of things”; in this context, perhaps “dharma appearance”

In the minds of ordinary people [民間人士] living in the Song dynasty, Gun Yam was the third daughter of King Miu Jong of the ancient kingdom [called] Bak Kyut, Princess Miu Sin. She had once spent time at Incense Mountain (or Gandhamādana), cultivating herself spiritually. She later achieved realization [證道成仙] and became Gun Yam. She gave her own two eyes and her hands to be used as medicine for the cure of the illness of her father, the king. When her father found out, he was deeply grieved and made a heartfelt wish, hoping that the saintly spirits could enable his daughter’s eyes and hands to be restored [重生]. Suddenly, Miu Sin vanished and there in the sky appeared the dharma appearance [法相] of the Bodhisattva of Great Mercy with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes.

根據記載觀音有唔同嘅化身 | 不過無論邊個化身 | 佢聞聲救苦嘅形象都深入民間 | 唔少善信都會向觀音 | 禮拜祈求心願 | 不過對觀音禮拜嘅同時 | 我亦都要學習 | 觀音為衆生嘅慈悲心 | 日常生活中多行善業 | 先可以得到觀音嘅庇佑

● 記載 gei3 joi3 = 1. to put down in writing 2. a record; an account | ● 化身 faa3 sān1 = an incarnation; an embodiment | ● 聞聲 màhn4 sīng1 = (?) to hear [the call of] a voice | ● 形象 yìhng4 jeuhng6 = an image; a form; a figure | ● 善信 sihn6 seun3 = (?) the faithful; true believers| ● 禮拜 láih5 baai3 = to attend a religious service; perhaps also “to worship” | ● 祈求 kèih4 kàuh4 = to earnestly hope; to pray for | ● 心願 sām1 yuhn6 = a cherished desire; an aspiration; a wish | ● 慈悲心 chìh4 bēi1 sām1 = compassion | ● 行善業 hàhng4 sihn6 yihp6 = to perform good deeds | ● 庇佑 bei3 yauh6 = to bless; to prosper

According to written accounts, Gun Yam has various different incarnations, but whichever the incarnation, the image of her responding to calls for help has penetrated deeply into the life of the people, and not a few of the faithful turn to Gun Yam, both to worship her and to beseech her to grant them their wishes. However, while worshipping Gun Yam, we must try to learn the compassion she has for all living creatures, and to perform good deeds in our daily lives. Only then can we be blessed by Gun Yam.

“Kwan Yin” by Ainslie Meares (1969)

Tai Tseng Wai Koon Yam

香港横洲大井圍天后古廟 Tin Hau Temple in Tai Tseng Wai, Wang Chau, Hong Kong

Ainslie Meares (1910-1986) was a well-known Australian psychologist with a particular interest in the use of meditation to relieve pain. Among his many books, there is an unusual work with the title Strange Places, Simple Truths, a collection of short prose pieces about his travels to various parts of the world in search of knowledge about alternative approaches to pain. Although Hong Kong is not one of his destinations, the book ends with a short text about the author’s very personal connection with the place.

Ainslie Meares (1910年至1986年)係一名知名嘅澳洲心理學家,對於以靜修達致舒緩痛楚嘅方法特別感到興趣。喺佢眾多著作當中,有一本頗為獨特,名為《陌生國度,簡單真相》,係一本小品集,講述佢遊歴世界各地,尋找處理痛楚嘅另類方法。雖然香港並唔係其中嘅目的地,但係該書最後一篇寫到作者同香港擁有十分獨特嘅聯繫。


Since I first started to write about these experiences, I have wanted to say something about Kwan Yin. But somehow it has seemed too difficult. I think I have fallen in love with her, and that of course makes it hard.

It must have been on my first visit to Hong Kong. In a curio shop I found a beautiful stone figure. This was some time ago, and then I did not even know the name of the lady who has come to steal my fancy so completely. She was standing at ease, about two feet high, clad in the flowing drapes of the classical Chinese, and with that mystique of expression which communicates the indefinable. I knew I had to have her. I bargained and bought her. And since then she has stood on the bookshelves in my study.

When one falls for a girl, a single picture is never enough. On my next visit to Hong Kong I spent the whole of my time in search of another. Do not be mistaken. Do not think of the hundreds of factory made figures of Kwan Yin with which the shops abound. No. My lady is not like those. The fact remains that each time I have been to Hong Kong I have come home with a stone figure of my lady. It has become a family joke.

One of the strange things about her is that she was originally a man. He was a Bodisatva, one who has attained Buddhahood, a kind of saint; and his saintliness was concerned with the depth of his compassion. Bodisatvas are always rather sexless. Perhaps all that is spiritual within them leads to something beyond sex. Then with the spread of Buddhism from India to China, Kwan Yin became worshipped as a female deity. It may be that compassion is an attribute of woman rather than of man. People think of her as the taking-away-fear Buddha. To Europeans she is known as the Goddess of Mercy. I know nothing of China, but I have seen her worshipped widely by Mahayana Buddhists in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.

Ainslie Meares c.1974_8 MAY 2019

Ainslie Meares, Melbourne, 1974 (?)

I have found my stone image brings with it a sense of beauty and repose. But more than this, there is such a sense of mystique that it seems to have captivated me. So I continue my search for another. I have searched around the dust of old shops in narrow streets where such things are sometimes found. I have sought her from lush curio shops of the great hotels, where the Rolls-Royce and the rickshaw wait outside. One very hot day there was an old rickshaw man squatting on the foot-board of his rickshaw as is their custom while waiting for a passenger. He was very old. He was half asleep, half in a stupor. He was a worn-out man; his body almost gone, his mind insensitive to the noise and bustle that was all about him. I had just bought half a dozen mandarins to take to my hotel room. I quietly put one by his side, but he awoke from his stupor, and his eyes looked at me. Then arms stretched out from all directions, and I had to be off. Then, by strange coincidence, twice in the next few days I saw an old rickshaw-man wave to me. It was he again, not asking for more, but still bowing his thanks. And he seemed stronger. Strength that could not have come from my miserable mandarin.

In my search I have passed women in the briefest mini skirts I have ever seen, women in the traditional garb of the Chinese, women in rags, women like Chinese film stars with neat dresses and trim figures. And women with chubby babies strapped to their backs, and women with emaciated children begging for a few cents. I have been to shops where they would discuss nothing until I was seated on a china stool, and had had a cup of green tea. In others they cared little if I came or went, and in some their anxiety to sell me something spoke of their need of basic necessities. A thousand times I have asked ‘Kwan Yin, Kwan Yin’. But they could not understand my pronunciation. ‘Goddess of Mercy’. But they could speak no English. So I have rummaged  around their shops. I have examined hundreds of stone figures of Kwan Yin, but none has had the strange quality of the first one which I so happily stumbled on.
喺我尋覓嘅過程中,我經過身穿短到冇得再短嘅迷你裙嘅女人。我亦都見過穿著傳統服裝嘅女人,衣衫襤褸嘅女人,穿著稱身衣裳、身材苗條像中國明星般嘅女人。另外我又曾經見到孭住肥嘟嘟啤啤仔嘅女人,同埋抱住瘦蜢蜢細路仔嚟乞錢嘅女人。而且,我去過好多間舖頭:有啲要等我坐低瓷櫈仔上飲完一杯綠茶先至問我想買乜嘢;有啲服務員對我都漠然不關,愛理不理;而有啲,好似要賺錢養家過活,所以急於賣嘢俾我。我到而家已經喺舖頭講過「觀音,觀音」過千次,但係佢哋無法聽明我嘅發音。用「Goddess of Mercy」亦都唔得,因為佢哋唔識英文。攪到收尾我喺佢哋舖頭裏面揾嚟揾去,曾經仔細咁觀察過好多好多嘅石制觀音雕像,但係都揾唔返好似第一次偶爾揾到嗰座咁、擁有特有嘅氣質——遇到第一座嘅運氣未曾重複。

I have sought her through all the turmoil that makes Hong Kong one of the most fascinating cities of the world. Through the bustle of it all; but no jostling, no pushing, that is not the way of the Chinese. Through the smell of narrow streets, where the stench of it would be enough to stop my breathing. Passed beggars who made worse their deformities, and those who sat in the gutter quietly awaiting death to take them. Passed old men who looked as if they knew what it was all about; passed women whose gaunt eyes told that they had learned to accept what it was. Stepping over gutters of filth and children. Passed police whose impassive calm and efficiency makes them some of the finest in the world. Groups of jabbering tourists on their world cruise bent on buying junk from the Kowloon factories. Children playing in the streets whose widest horizon is the gutter of the next alley. And through all this nobody interferes. And it goes on late into the night. Women and girls come who would lead me to another love, but my desire is elsewhere.
香港嘅凌亂令佢成為世界上最為吸引嘅城市之一,而我正正喺係呢種凌亂之中去尋找觀音。雖然人多混亂, 但係當中冇人擠湧,冇人撞你――推撞唔係香港華人嘅風土習慣。我又經過氣味難聞嘅狹窄巷仔,要忍著唔透氣。我又行過急於討吃嘅乞兒,其中有啲故意將身上殘缺畸形嘅部分整得更加嚇人,又見過另一種乞兒,佢哋粒聲唔出坐喺坑渠旁邊,好似等待死亡嘅來臨。另外,我又經過洞悉世故嘅老伯,經過眼神空洞且呆滯嘅婦女,見到呢啲眼神就知道佢哋已經接受現狀,聽天由命。我亦大步跨過污糟邋遢嘅坑渠及其週圍嘅細路仔。又經過冷靜無情嘅警員,佢哋嘅高效水平令佢哋成為世界優秀之列。又經過一班班嘰里咕嚕嘅外國遊客,佢哋坐郵輪嚟香港,一心想買到九龍工廠粗制濫造嘅產品。又經過喺度玩緊嘅細蚊仔,佢哋嘅生活範圍唔可以離開呢度至下一條橫街窄巷嘅坑渠位置。冇任何人會企圖改變呢啲狀況,種種嘅凌亂會一直繼續到夜闌人靜。呢個時候,女人同埋少女們會出現喺我面前,佢哋想將我帶進另一種愛情,不過我所渴望嘅係喺別處。

And now I have several stone figures of my lady-love. They are all different, each reflecting the craftsman’s own idea of the nebulous quality which finds expression in the concept of Kwan Yin. But as in life, none has the same mystique as the one which first so captivated my fancy.