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Sanctity and Self-inflicted Violence in Chinese Religions, 1500–1700 by Jimmy Yu (review)
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The most prevalent, well-known instances of violence in China between 1500 and 1700 were the bloody uprisings, battles, and executions that punctuated the fall of the Ming and the Manchu conquest. These acts of violence, however brutal, are sadly predictable in the context of sweeping military and political upheaval. The types of violence addressed in Jimmy Yu’s book, in contrast, are more puzzling. These violent acts people carried out on themselves, ostensibly at least, for religious reasons. Specifically, Yu devotes chapters to the practice of copying texts in blood, the slicing off of pieces of one’s own flesh to feed to one’s parents, female suicide as a mark of chastity, and the ritual exposure and immolation of the body to bring rain.

Yu’s central thesis is that “self-inflicted violence in the form of socially sanctioned and routinized bodily mutilations was a widespread and highly visible part of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cultural life that transcended religious boundaries” (p. 3). The first part of the argument—that these acts were widespread and well known—is well supported by the wealth of evidence Yu culls from a variety of sources. Each of these forms of bodily mutilations took on set patterns, which took place in different social milieu according to different standards. Eminent monks copied sutras in their own blood, drawing on descriptions of the practice in Buddhist scriptures and inspired in part by the conviction that religious merit accrued from the act. The curious belief that in some instances a filial child’s best hope of saving an ailing parent was to slip some of his own flesh into his parent’s medicine was widespread throughout the period and supported by medical texts of the day. The state itself praised widows who killed themselves rather than risk being unfaithful to their dead husbands, their acts recorded in accounts read as much for entertainment as for edification. Even the emperor engaged in ritual exposure in an attempt to end drought.

Yu carefully documents each of these practices with extensive, critical references to the now considerable scholarship on most of them, and he also provides lucid analyses of the origins of and rhetoric surrounding each form of self-mutilation. His decision to juxtapose self-mutilation among very different types of people—monks, sons, wives, and rulers—is bold and thought provoking. Beyond demonstrating the existence of self-inflicted violence, though, ready answers to basic questions are more elusive.

Yu argues that the number of cases of self-inflicted violence in the Ming “seems to have grown” (p. 23). But measuring the degree of violence—particularly self-inflicted violence—over time is as difficult as measuring, say, creativity. Blood writing is attested in medieval sources, as is “filial slicing,” and self-exposure goes back to distant antiquity. Moreover, an increase in accounts of self-inflicted violence does not necessarily indicate an increase in instances of self-inflicted violence. Perhaps it is only the prevalence of printing and the consequent wealth of extant texts that give the impression of a rise of self-inflicted violence during the period.

If we set aside the problem of measuring the amount of self-inflicted violence and grant that self-inflicted violence did increase in the Ming, how then might we explain its rise? Yu writes, “The prevalence of these practices can be attributed to the economic prosperity, the increase in literacy, the production of numerous works that explored human passion and subjectivity, and the repercussion of progressive and changing intellectual and moral discourses that began in the fifteenth century and peaked in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (p. 3). Chapter 1, devoted to the historical background, provides a concise and useful summary of all of these important trends in the Ming, but there is no evidence in the accounts of self-inflicted violence that links self-mutilation and suicide to the broader trends of economic prosperity, rising literacy, and moral profligacy. Whether or not economic prosperity and an increase in literacy led to an increase in self-inflicted violence remains an open question. In short, the book leaves unresolved the question of whether self-inflicted violence during this period was more...



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