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Eminent Nuns

Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China

Beata Grant

Publication Year: 2009

The seventeenth century is generally acknowledged as one of the most politically tumultuous but culturally creative periods of late imperial Chinese history. Scholars have noted the profound effect on, and literary responses to, the fall of the Ming on the male literati elite. Also of great interest is the remarkable emergence beginning in the late Ming of educated women as readers and, more importantly, writers. Only recently beginning to be explored, however, are such seventeenth-century religious phenomena as "the reinvention" of Chan Buddhism—a concerted effort to revive what were believed to be the traditional teachings, texts, and practices of "classical" Chan. And, until now, the role played by women in these religious developments has hardly been noted at all. Eminent Nuns is an innovative interdisciplinary work that brings together several of these important seventeenth-century trends. Although Buddhist nuns have been a continuous presence in Chinese culture since early medieval times and the subject of numerous scholarly studies, this book is one of the first not only to provide a detailed view of their activities at one particular moment in time, but also to be based largely on the writings and self-representations of Buddhist nuns themselves. This perspective is made possible by the preservation of collections of "discourse records" (yulu) of seven officially designated female Chan masters in a seventeenth-century printing of the Chinese Buddhist Canon rarely used in English-language scholarship. The collections contain records of religious sermons and exchanges, letters, prose pieces, and poems, as well as biographical and autobiographical accounts of various kinds. Supplemental sources by Chan monks and male literati from the same region and period make a detailed re-creation of the lives of these eminent nuns possible. Beata Grant brings to her study background in Chinese literature, Chinese Buddhism, and Chinese women’s studies. She is able to place the seven women, all of whom were active in Jiangnan, in their historical, religious, and cultural contexts, while allowing them, through her skillful translations, to speak in their own voices. Together these women offer an important, but until now virtually unexplored, perspective on seventeenth-century China, the history of female monasticism in China, and the contributionof Buddhist nuns to the history of Chinese women’s writing.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. v

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A Brief Preface

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pp. vii-ix

Caroline Walker Bynum, referring to religious women of medieval Europe, remarks that “the stories men liked to tell about women reflected not so much what women did as what men admired or abhorred. . . . It is crucial not to take as women’s own self-image the sentimentalizing or the castigating of the female in which . . . men indulged.” 1 The only way...

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pp. xi

This study has been a number of years in the making, and I am greatly indebted to the many who so generously offered their encouragement, friendship, and support along the way. My greatest debt of gratitude goes to Wilt L. Idema of Harvard University for his vast knowledge, collegial advice, and unflagging encouragement. Although I am sure he thinks...


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pp. xiii

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1. Setting the Stage: Seventeenth-Century Texts and Contexts

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pp. 1-16

Every reader of premodern Chinese fiction, and indeed of medieval and early modern Western fiction as well, is probably familiar with the image of nuns (usually depicted as being both young and beautiful) who, left unsupervised by male kin behind surprisingly permeable convent walls, become either hapless sexual prey or seductive vampires.1

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2. Images of Nuns in the Writings of Seventeenth-Century Monks

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pp. 17-36

This study is primarily concerned with the perspectives and representations of religious women as articulated by religious women themselves—since it is precisely these that have been so conspicuously lacking from previous studies of Chinese nuns. However, a brief look at the descriptions and images of nuns found in the writings of seventeenth-...

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3. The Making of a Woman Chan Master: Qiyuan Xinggang

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pp. 37-57

Qiyuan Xinggang (1597–1654) can be considered the grande dame or, perhaps more appropriately, the matriarch of seventeenth-century women Chan masters, not only because she was the one of the first to set foot on the stage in that century but also because she left seven women Dharma successors, one of whom wrote a relatively detailed biographical...

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4. Qiyuan Xinggang as Abbess, Dharma Teacher, and Religious Exemplar

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pp. 58-76

The composite description of Qiyuan Xinggang provided by Yikui Chao chen’s vita and Wu Zhu’s stupa inscription give some indication of her energy and determination, qualities that are conveyed as well by the woodcut portrait of Qiyuan Xinggang that is reprinted along with her yulu in the Jiaxing canon.1 In this portrait, Qiyuan Xinggang is depicted...

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5. Passing on the Lamp: The Dharma Successors of Qiyuan Xinggang

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pp. 77-106

Qiyuan Xinggang had seven officially designated Dharma heirs, although many more disciples either lived at the Lion-Subduing Chan Cloister or spent time with her on retreat. Of these seven, we know the most about Yikui Chaochen (1625 –1679), who was the author of the biography of Qiyuan Xinggang that was quoted extensively in the previous...

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6. From Hengzhou to Hangzhou: Jizong Xingche

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pp. 107-129

Qiyuan Xinggang and her seven Dharma successors were all born and raised in the Zhejiang-Jiangsu area, the heartland of seventeenthcentury Buddhist and literary culture. Two of the women Chan masters whose yulu are preserved in the Jiaxing canon, however, were originally from outside of this area, although both ended up traveling to the southeast...

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7. From Wise Mother to Chan Master: Baochi Jizong

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pp. 130-145

Baochi Jizong and Zukui Jifu (whom we will meet in Chapter Eight) were both Dharma heirs of Jiqi Hongchu (1605 –1672)—the same Jiqi Hongchu who, when Yigong Chaoke visited him at his monastery on Mount Lingyan in Suzhou, declared her to be a true “Dharma vessel.” Jiqi Hongchu was a Jiangsu native who received Dharma transmission...

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8. Reviving the Worlds of Literary Chan: Zukui Jifu

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pp. 146-164

Of all of the woman Chan masters discussed in this study, Zukui Jifu would seem to show the most profound, original, and certainly wideranging engagement with the classical Chan textual tradition. This perception is no doubt due, at least in part, to our having considerably more of her Dharma talks and writings than we have of any of the others. Aside...

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9. From Beijing to Jiangnan: Ziyong Chengru

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pp. 165-184

By the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the social and political transition was pretty much over, and the Manchu dynasty was firmly established. As we have seen, even Baochi Jizong’s son Xu Jiayan had, perhaps reluctantly, traveled to Beijing in 1679 to take up an important office in the Qing court. Linji Chan monks in Miyun Yuanwu’s lineage...

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A Brief Epilogue

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pp. 185-189

By the early eighteenth century, the Manchu Qing dynasty was firmly in place, and many of the cultural and social boundaries and borders that had been loosened or blurred by the traumatic contingencies of the transition began to snap back into place. Starting as early as the famous special examination of 1679, literati men began to be lured back into government...


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pp. 191-224

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 225-235

Index and About the Author

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pp. 237-242

E-ISBN-13: 9780824862350
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832025

Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Zen Buddhism -- China -- History -- 17th century.
  • Buddhist nuns -- China -- Biography.
  • Monastic and religious life (Zen Buddhism) -- China.
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