July 02 2022

Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China

Interview with Yuhang Li

Yuhang Li joins Kristian Petersen to discuss her award-winning book, Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China (Columbia University Press, 2021). Li's book provides anglophone readers with an unparalleled and badly needed authoritative study on one of the most important figures in Chinese myth and religious practice, particularly with respect to women's experience in late imperial China. 

Li won AAR's 2021 Religion and the Arts Book Award. She is an associate professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Transcript

Kristian Petersen:
Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host, Kristian Peterson, and today I'm here with Yuhang Li, associate professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the winner of the AAR Book Award in Religion and the Arts. She's here to speak to us about her book, Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China, published with Columbia University Press. Congratulations, Yuhang. Thanks for joining me.

Yuhang Li:
Hello, Kristian. Thank you for having me.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah. I'm excited to talk to you about your book. It's really wonderful. You covered material practices of lay Buddhist women and focused on their relationship with the Bodhisattva Guanyin in Late Imperial China. For some listeners, this might be a subject that they know little about. So can you start us off with: what are some of the general things that we need to know about Guanyin and women's Buddhist practice during this period?

Yuhang Li:
Yes. Yeah. This wonderful question. Fiirst, among all the deities in the Buddhist Pantheons, Guanyin really translate as Perceiver of Sounds, also known as Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, so precisely, the distinctive secret powers of self-transformation. In Buddhist doctrinal text, such as the Lotus Sutra, Guanyin can transform into a wide range of forms, from the celestial world to the secular world, from a human being to non-human being and from male to female, from adult to child and so on. By transforming himself into roles that encompass all hierarchical and gender differences, Guanyin is a universal savior. He can appear in the forms as the worshippers wish. However, on the representational level, Guanyin was usually represented as a female deity in India, but was gradually indigenized as a female deity in China during a span of nearly 1000 years.

So when we say Guanyin's feminization in China, it also means that some indigenous Guanyin manifestations were created, such as White-Robed Guanyin, Guanyin of the South Sea, Fish-Basket Guanyin, in which Guanyin is usually represented as a woman. To provide more context on this deity, Guanyin was not only visualized as a female deity, but also portrayed as a female deity in various narratives, appearing in miraculous dreams and testimonies and typified as a female figure on stage, for instance.

During this Late Imperial China, which we roughly call it, from the Ming and Qing period of the14th century to the beginning of the 20th century... Guanyin became the most popular female deity. And of course, it's a really complicated issue talking about this feminization of Guanyin in the Chinese context. Various forms such as feminization or gender transformation or sexual transformation or even sex change has been suggested to categorize Guanyin's womanly appearance.

Kristian Petersen:
Can you tell us a little bit about the women that were doing practices related to Guanyin?

Yuhang Li:
Mm-hmm.

Kristian Petersen:
Who were the types of women that you were looking at in your study?

Yuhang Li:
This a really parallel phenomenon. So when we talk about when the feminization of Guanyin took place, this so-called Late Imperial China, it's also understood as a time when many women attained advanced levels of literary and artistic accomplishment. The women discussed in my books, they're mainly educated women, whether the gentry women, Imperial women; or courtesans. Women's training in writing, painting, embroidery, sewing, dance and many other skills enabled them to express devotions by creating Guanyin's icons.

So that's the background of women's general education in this time period. Women's literacy was highly promoted. And then simultaneously under the influence of new Confucianist discourse, women's chastity and purity were also widely promoted throughout China during this time period. In other words, the domestic space was the central site for women to practice filial piety, participate in the code of purity ,and pursue religious practice such as Guanyin worship.

There's one more factor. Along with feminization of Guanyin and woman's devotional practice, over the course of the Ming, from 14th century to 17th century, major transformation occurred in the political economy, including the rise of booming market. The wealth this market generated supported an increase in literacy, which in turn fueled a major booming in publishing and book culture. The growth of economy also gave rise to an expansion of material practice, which came to include circulations of printed painting and embroidery menus, elaborate hairpins and [inaudible 00:07:25]. So, this all came together to create the historical condition for the material practice that I discussed in my book.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah. And they're fascinating examples. And you use this phrase devotional mimesis as a way of understanding lay women's relationship to Guanyin through these kind of material and artistic practices. Can you unwrap this phrase for us a little bit? How does it help understand the intersections of Buddhist piety and gendered religious practice?

Yuhang Li:
Yes. The concept of devotional mimesis helps to explain lay women's relationship to Guanyin. This term brings together devotion and mimesis. It suggests that devotees' physical likeness to a deity can facilitate her transcendence of the finite world. So, I tried to find the power of imitation, a means of practice that can be observed in many religious traditions facilitates the imitation assuming some powers of the original.

I was actually inspired by one of my advisors, Professor Paul Cobb's discussion on the Dharani scriptures hidden inside of an armband on a skeleton as a way to imitate a Buddhist deity. In the context of the cult of Guanyin, after Guanyin became feminized in China, this new mode of mimetic devotion emerged with this feminization of Guanyin. The ultimate goal of devotional mimesis is still through this marriage-making to reach religious salvation.

In this Buddhist, especially Mahayana Buddhist context, this generosity is understood to be one of the excellencies performed by the Bodhisattva on their path to Buddhahood. So then, both lay and monastic devotees can achieve this path. Unlike Buddhism's usual devotional practice in which practitioners donate money to the temple, repetitively chanting sutras to fulfill their worldly wishes, such as having a child, laywomen found new ways to use their bodies to express their generosity through various ways of making and using things to getting married. By merging the body of the worshiped and the worshipper, woman devotees are not only create a resemblance of Guanyin's presence, but thereby become the very agent by which to secure their own wishes. Yeah. And so... [inaudible 00:10:52] topic.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah. It's a really interesting framing. And I think others might be able to use this kind of theoretical framework as well. One of the case studies that you look at, or kind of sets of materials, is through dance, which is both certainly material, but also ephemeral in many ways. And I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how dance fit into women's engagement with Guanyin, and how were you able to tackle the sources for understanding this performance?

Yuhang Li:
The dance chapter wasn't originally the first chapter in my book, but when I revised it I moved it to the beginning because I think in order to understand the dance as a form of devotional practice, we also need to understand the dancers of Guanyin dance. The dancers usually are the courtesans. So that's actually very much part of this phenomenon of gender transformation of Guanyin.

The Guanyin's manifestation as a courtesan, such as this woman of Yanzhou or a beautiful woman, such as the Fish-Basket Guanyin, are related to how sexual appeal was viewed as the skillful teaching device to help the laity reach goodness. It's not just a courtesan performing Guanyin dance. Guanyin dance was actually performed in religious processions or plays, and then usually used costumes, props, the body and gestures to draw visual reference onto Guanyin iconography. However, when courtesans perform Guanyin dance, creating physical likeness to Guanyin, iconography was not really important.

Instead, the dancer became the Guanyin through the dance. As you said, the dance, although it's ephemeral, is definitely a material practice, because all the costume, the body gesture, the music, and the props that are all essentially a material practice. Now, those material practices were rarely preserved, except for in a few texts that describe women's dance, especially the courtesans' Guanyin dance.

I use this chapter to first include the discussion of courtesans, especially Buddhist courtesans, as the subaltern categories in the religious practice, because when we discuss religious practice, the courtesans were often excluded from the discussions. But in the Chinese context, the courtesan as both, basically a sexual worker and also a devoted Buddhist, is not contradictory at all. They can pursue both their profession as a courtesan and their passion as Buddhist devotees.

I think it's important to first include these categories. And then by the courtesans' nature, they also help us to understand the complicated images of Guanyin itself, because courtesan is also considered as one of the manifestations of Guanyin. So that's the second point.

And then for a third one, the Guanyin and the dance is also essentially a part of this practice. So staging Guanyin as part of the courtesans' religious practice. At the same time, when we think about Guanyin dance, there always audience, right? People who watch the Guanyin dance is also a part of this daily kind of religious practice. 

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah. That's great. And in part of the book you deal with images of Guanyin. In one chapter you focus on certain types of painting, but in a later chapter you look at hair embroidery, which I had not really been familiar with before, and I'm sure our listeners aren't either. So can you tell us what this process was all about and what were the goals of embroidery and needlework practices for these women?

Yuhang Li:
Mm-hmm. Yeah. So, embroidery... in this chapter I kind of concentrate on the hair embroidery, but in the first half of this chapter, I also discuss Buddhist embroidery in general, especially the discourse associated with needlework, why needlework was selected as a medium to create devotional objects. But then the main focus shifted onto this particularly peculiar practice using hair to stitch the icon of Guanyin. Women first plucked out their hair and then cleaned their hair. Then, for people who have exceptional skills, they split one hair into multiple strands, usually four strands, and then use the split hairs to stitch icons of Guanyin. Of course, before they use their hair to stitch, especially for women who also have had painting skills, they also need to draw an outline of Guanyin.

That's the basic process of making the hair embroidery. I try to discuss every stage of preparing to make a hair embroidery as part of devotional practice. For instance, this hair must be plucked or pulled out from its root instead of being cut with scissors, which certainly caused physical pain to the practitioners. Although the precise process of extracting hairs from the embroiderer's own head is unclear.

Whether the hairs were gradually accumulated during the making of the embroidery or pulled out all at once before the first stitch was made is not known. Either way, plucking hair means that women devotees have to endure substantial pain to accumulate sufficient strands to embroider an image. In my book, I discuss this kind of ritualized experience of pain. And then I also try to discuss how hair embroidery is considered as a womanly practice versus, for instance, blood writing scriptures, which is quite common in China. 

Kristian Petersen:
The other really interesting case is you look at the role of hairpins, and you look at this through some archeological case studies of burial practices. So can you tell us a little bit about these examples? How was mimicking Guanyin carried out in these cases you explore?

Yuhang Li:
Hairpin is another mode of this devotional mimesis that I discussed earlier. For people who are not familiar with the iconography of Guanyin, I just want to point out that, on the Guanyin image, in the middle of Guanyin's hair, he or she is usually decorated with Amitabha Buddha icons in the middle of his or her hairs. In my book, I discuss this doctrinal text, which helps us to understand why Guanyin has these symbols. For people who are interested in this text, you can read my book.

When Guanyin became feminized, we're still in the period that both men and women have long hair, right? But only women wear similar hairpins to Guanyin's as a way to partially mimic Guanyin's image. And this also related to other issues. For instance, in China, there was a protocol about the dress code. Women cannot wear the garment completely freely. But it's interesting how this head part or hair part became more kind of a flexible, like a free land or field for women to have experience with these new designs of hairpins. So, there's a larger kind of historical background of material practice.

But then we see this phenomenon, especially in the tomb context, on this one woman who passed away and her body was adorned with these hairpins very similar to Guanyin's hairpins. So that means the women's devotion is measured in terms of the material values of these treasures, these materials. So we know that women's devotional practice can be discussed in various ways.

For instance, in this embroidery chapter I just mentioned. In that chapter, I discuss this differently, like time and labor consumed in the making of the icons. In this hairpin chapter, I actually use the material objects, expensive hair accessories and their own bodies, as part of devotion. So probably present their bodies for transcendence. This is a different type of devotion. The transcendence here is kind of realized through this direct connection with the female bodies of the deity. So mimicking Guanyin's appearance by wearing a hairpins so similar to Guanyin's signifies this kind of internal transformations that took place inside of woman's body.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah. It's a really fascinating book and I hope listeners will check it out. Before I let you go, I was hoping just real quick, maybe if you could help us think through, how do you imagine other scholars in the study of religion might benefit from your work that aren't working in Buddhist studies or on Late Imperial China?

Yuhang Li:
That's a great question. My works deals generally with the intersection of gender and religion. So it's not a merely Chinese problem, but one that pervades various societies. Most, if not all, religions deals with transcendence and yet gender distinctions are usually inscribed within most religious visions of transcendence.

So my book helps in the Chinese context. The relationship between transcendence and immanence is not simply one of oppositions. I believe that although it is important to not use the Western concept uncritically, it is equally important, if not more important, to avoid a simplistic opposition between China and the West, where China signifies the non-transcendent and the West implies transcendence. So any scholars who have studied religion in either of these societies will know that there's a range, way that practitioners and theorists combines immanence and transcendence in both the so-called West and China.

My work therefore starts from the material and from this practice and writings. I tease out historically specific articulations of gender transcendence and immanence through material practice, such as hair embroidery, jewelry, dance, and painting. By focusing on lay women's restaging and reproducing Guanyin image, we go beyond the dichotomy between transcendence and immanence in visual representation. Going beyond transcendence and immanence does not mean that neither of these concepts exists, but their differences are reconceptualized as in the case of women who seek salvations in various concrete practice.

Throughout this book, I have argued that Chinese laywomen's various material practices locate a liminal space between this transcendence and immanence, and their very bodies become the medium by which they manifest immanent transcendence. That's one thing to could think about, but I also want to add a second issue about the subalterns.

Gayatri Spivak famously asked whether the subaltern could speak, and to some extent my book turns the question into one about how one listens and to what one listens. Here, the limits of textual sources is crucial. I started my discussion with textual sources in every chapter. They're either operatic, text, historical documents or vernacular stories, or even an anecdote. So I wanted to destabilize on the text to allow us to listen to voices that were previously silenced. Religion is often studied as something abstract and intangible. However, my work shows the importance of concrete things and practices in religion. In general, people have a lot of faith in text, but when we encounter unknown objects, we don't know how to read or how to listen to it. And so in this case, the muting of the subaltern lies in our inability to look beyond textual sources.

That's why in this book, I try to find a way to read the thematic meaning embedded in objects. Objects are also mediated by meaning, subjectivity, and religious practice. But of course, texts are very valuable, but they're not enough, especially since most of the texts were produced by male authors. A lot of the accounts of women's religious practices are oversimplified or omitted. My book helps people to understand religious practice beyond religious situations, institutions, and doctrines. I think we can address these questions through only the material studies. I mean, that's really, if you think about how my work might be useful for other people-

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah. Certainly.

Yuhang Li:
... so that's what I'm thinking. Let's go beyond institutional religious or doctrinal religious discussions. Yeah.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah.  Yuhang, I hope people will take up this approach more creatively in other ways and other domains and other traditions. And thanks again for making time to talk about this great book and congratulations on your award.

Yuhang Li:
Thank you again for having me. It's great to chat with you. Yeah. Thank you.

 

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