Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China
- ISBN: 9780231190121
- Published By: Columbia University Press
- Published: February 2020
Yuhang Li is an associate professor of Chinese art, specializing in gender and (material) practice in late imperial China. Her first book, Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China, brings all her interests and expertise together, focusing on the material religious practices of laywomen in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1358-1911).
The object of devotion for the women Li described is Guanyin, China’s most popular bodhisattva. Li’s interest in this bodhisattva came from reading Chün-fang Yü’s book (Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara, Columbia University Press, 2001) on the feminization of Guanyin. While not glossing over Guanyin’s gender transformation (the deity is the Chinese version of the Indian male deity Avalokitesvara), Li instead focuses on what Guanyin has meant for individual believers. She does this by highlighting how Guanyin, through various practices, is presented in the lives of ordinary lay women. This is done in four chapters, each covering one mode of presenting Guanyin: drawing, embroidering (using one’s own hair), adornments (with a focus on hairpins), and dancing. These modes are divided into two categories: painted or embroidered icons as representations of Guanyin, and accessories intended for mimicry. Taking these together, the practices show women’s intention in approaching Guanyin, mimicking her, creating her presence, and producing bodily connection with her—in a way, becoming Guanyin.
With Becoming Guanyin, Li contributes to scholarly debates surrounding this bodhisattva (and Buddhism in general) by drawing from three interrelated, contemporary discussions in religious studies and other social sciences (including the anthropology of religion): lived religion, material religion, and religion and gender. First, as mentioned, Li does not necessarily focus on who Guanyin was or is, or how she became represented as female in Chinese Buddhism (although she does give a succinct summary of this in the introduction). Instead, she focuses on what women have done with this deity, focusing on their everyday, domesticated lives. Li asks: “What did Buddhist laywomen in late imperial China actually do to forge a connection with the subject of their devotion, the bodhisattva Guanyin?” (1, original emphasis). With this focus, Li shows how women in late imperial China navigated between their traditional Confucian gendered roles and their Buddhist beliefs, arguing “that although women’s lives were shaped by Confucian patriarchal expectations, Buddhism provided a space in which women could express themselves in alternative ways” (3).
The focus on laywomen’s material practices and objects, instead of on practices often related to the male clergy (such as sutra chanting or meditating), perfectly fits with the book’s emphasis on the mundane and feminine, as materiality was often the only way for these women to make sense of their world and beliefs. In addition, it fits well with the material turn in social sciences, showing how religion is not merely something of the head, but of the entire body; that belief is expressed through (embodied) practices; and that the transcendent and immanent (or sacred and profane) are not distinct, but interrelated categories.
Lastly, new insights into the cult surrounding Guanyin are surfaced by Li’s emphasis on women: actors (daughters, wives, concubines, mothers, and lovers) often undocumented in history, which has classically prioritized textual sources written by man. Focusing on women from the late imperial context is especially interesting, as this is an era of great economic boom, in which women attained increasing levels of literary and artistic accomplishments, but in which women’s chastity was still widely promoted and they remained subjected to their domestic spaces. Focusing on specific gender identities during this period leads Li to observe that “Buddhism provided a space for female agency, and this space could either challenge or reproduce existing power structures” (195).
In offering a historical account of practices, Li of course is faced with the challenge—and risk—inherent to every historical study, namely the challenge of reading things into existence. She acknowledges that we cannot know with certainty the definite meaning of the items and practices presented in the book. However, the fact that they existed, and were as manifold as Li shows us, should be enough indication that Guanyin played a significant role in women’s life, a significance which warrants such vast documentation.
In a word, the book is rich—in illustrations, narratives, descriptions, and details, some public and some private and even intimate. The many historical illustrations (over seventy-five of them) are printed on high-quality paper, making the book not only heavy in content, but also as a physical object. The many different narratives of the book, described in much detail, make it at times hard to get through, and occasionally it reads almost like a handbook of women’s devotion, listing every manifestation. In spite of this very minor critical note, the book is a tribute to the many lay mothers, daughters, wives, concubines, and lovers described in the book, one to put on a nice place on your bookshelf and browse through every so often, to again and again get intoxicated by the power of Guanyin—almost an of mimicry itself.
Mariske Westendorp is an associate professor in the Department of Cultural Anthropology, Utrecht University (Netherlands)Mariske WestendorpDate Of Review:September 7, 2022