Goddess on the Frontier

Religion, Ethnicity, and Gender in Southwest China

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Megan Bryson
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , November
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The only local deity to survive the long and complex history of Dali (Yunnan Province), Baijie Shengfei 白姐聖妃, provides a unique window into the region’s historical development. She does this through her four distinct identities: a Buddhist dragon goddess; an eighth century widow and martyr; the mother of the founder of the Dali kingdom; and a contemporary village deity.

In Goddes on the Frontier: Religion, Ethnicity, and Gender in Southwest China, Megan Bryson explores Baijie’s different roles and her gendered symbolism to argue that local and universal forces are continually interconnected. Baijie in fact represents an attempt by the Dali elite to create its own religious traditions. Beyond the confines of Dali, the Baijie cult reveals how the Dali elite positioned themselves between China and India, how they crafted their own identity by selecting specific cultural and religious elements, and how this identity changed over time.

In search of Baijie’s meaning, Bryson employs sophisticated theories of semiotics, gender, and ethnicity, as well as textual studies, art, history, and ethnography, drawing on a range of sources from canonical and non-canonical texts as well as visual representations spanning from the late ninth century to the present day. Bryson combines this historical work with her own ethnography, conducted in Yunnan between 2006 and 2009.

The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the Nanzhao kingdom (649-903) and ending in contemporary China. Each chapter starts with a historical overview aimed at understanding how Baijie’s identity changed over time.

Chapter 1 is dedicated to the history of the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms, in particular examining religion, elite self-representations, and relations with the Tang and Song dynasties. Bryson employs textual and visual materials to illustrate where Buddhist elements came from, and why the Dali elite chose to use them to exercise their political and religious agency (22). In this chapter she argues that the local elite did not claim Chinese identity but nonetheless mastered certain aspects of Chinese culture. Bryson also makes the important claim that Dali Buddhism should not be studied under “the Song umbrella,” and that Baijie provides an opportunity to understand Dali Buddhism’s unique and distinctive aspects (50).

Chapter 2 is devoted to the study of Baijie Shengfei’s Buddhist identity, and her relationship with her consort Mahākāla. Bryson focuses on four sources composed in the Dali kingdom to shed light on Baijie’s representation, and to explain how her hybrid iconography mirrors the politico-religious situation in Nanzhao and Dali, divided between India, the surrounding regions of central and southeast Asia (Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Laos, etc.), and the Chinese empire. Baijie embodies both local and universal forces: she is a regional deity whose presence is only found in Yunnan. Yet she is associated with Mahākāla, a well-known Buddhist deity, and borrows elements from translocal deities and Chinese traditional ideas, such as her serpent-like nature, her association with abundance, her chastity, and her propriety.

A new form of Baijie appeared in the fifteenth century: Baijie Amei 白姐阿妹 (Little White Sister), who is believed to be the mother of the founder of the Dali kingdom, Duan Siping. Chapter 3 explores Baijie Amei’s polysemic nature: on a local level, she can be related to the Buddhist Baijie Shengfei; on a translocal level, Baijie Amei’s legend shares many similarities with other Yunnan and Chinese stories of dragon mothers giving birth to great men. After providing an overview of Dali during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, Bryson dives into the analysis of three sources from the fifteenth century that recount Baijie Amei’s legend. Bryson notes that Baijie Amei’s popularity was limited to the Yang family and probably other clans, but this figure, being tied to the formation of Bai ethnicity, played a fundamental part in Dali history.

Chapter 4 centers on Baijie Furen 白姐夫人, Lady of Cypress Chastity (also called Cishan 慈善, Kindness), an eighth century widow who committed suicide rather than marrying the man who killed her husband. According to Bryson, Baijie Furen emerged in relation to the chastity cult and the Ming and Qing civilizing projects aimed at educating non-Han groups (115). Once her legend expanded, it became entangled with local and translocal stories of other chaste women and Chinese martyrs. As a result, Baijie Furen represents a feminine Confucian moral exemplar. But at the same time her local identity makes her a barbarian tied to the Nanzhao kingdom. Bryson concludes that as a polysemic figure, Baijie Furen embodies gendered and ethnocultural representations.

The final chapter focuses on Baijie’s role in contemporary Dali, where she assumes two main identities. Bryson draws from Post-Reform Era (1978-present) sources, published works, tourism materials, internet posts, dramatic performances, as well as her own fieldwork in the Dali region. On the one hand, urban male intellectuals and authors employ the goddess to create their own ethnic discourse and establish Bai identity. On the other hand, village worshippers, mostly women, see Baijie as a benzhu (本主, local lord, village deity) tied to the locality and embodying traditional Chinese feminine virtues, principally chastity. As a complex deity who does not clearly fit existing regional, cultural, and religious categories (173), Baijie reflects the dynamic interactions that take place in frontier zones, as well as the tensions between localizing and universalizing forces.

Goddess on the Frontier contributes to the fields of Buddhist studies and Chinese religions in various ways: First, the book, focused on a minor, relatively obscure regional deity, is an analysis of Yunnan religious and cultural traditions, a topic that has received little scholarly attention. Second, Bryson has demonstrated that in China there are female deities other than Guanyin and Xiwangmu that are worth studying, among other reasons for the light they shed on issues of gender and ethnicity. Finally, her methodology is a combination of textual analysis, art, history, and ethnography, a hybrid approach with great potential in Buddhist studies, particularly in contemporary China, where it is practiced only rarely.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Simona Lazzerini is a doctoral student in Chinese Buddhism at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
March 13, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Megan Bryson is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.