Guanyin is first mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, the most important and influential of the Mahayana sutras, where it states that Guanyin can take whatever form necessary, male or female, to bring salvation. The Lotus Sutra started gaining popularity during the Sui dynasty (581-618), but even before that, images of Guanyin were already being produced.
The thirty-three forms of Guanyin mentioned in the Lotus Sutra formed the basis of the bodhisattva’s iconography. Some of these forms, such as Brahmin and Shakra had Hindu origins. Other forms based on Chinese indigenous sutras and folk legends were later added to give the bodhisattva a Chinese genesis. These iconographic forms include the Fish Basket Guanyin, the White-robed Guanyin, and the Son-bestowing Guanyin. All these forms were popularized by wood-block printed books during the Ming dynasty.
Along with the different manifestations of Guanyin, the Lotus Sutra provides a long list of dangers and sufferings that can be remedied by calling upon the bodhisattva. These include being attacked by bandits, being lost at sea, falling from a mountain, threatened by fire, harmed by black magic, tormented by demons, imprisonment, surrounded by vicious beasts, illness, and lack of children. This list reflects the real fears of people living at that time, and positioned Guanyin as being able to offer salvation to all.
In addition to being a universal savior, Guanyin was also venerated by art and antique dealers in traditional China as their patron deity. These professions choose Guanyin as their patron because images of Guanyin could be found in all materials of value to those trades, such as wood, bronze, stone, jade, porcelain, and even paper and textiles.
Because there are so many images of Guanyin in jade, and she is often depicted wearing elaborate jewelry, she is also venerated by jade carvers and jewelers as their patron deity.