- Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China by Yuhang Li
Yuhang Li’s Becoming Guanyin is a welcome addition examining the religious life of lay Buddhist women in late imperial China. Since its introduction to China in the early centuries of the Common Era, Buddhism had become fully integrated into the Chinese society by the middle period as one of three traditions, alongside Confucianism and Daoism, which informed thoughts and practices. Given the restrictive role Confucianism defined for women since Han times, scholars have noted how Buddhism has provided alternatives for women to participate in religious activities and created space for engagements in the public domain. With the exception of Wu Zetian 武則天 (624–705), the only female sovereign in Chinese history, who largely relied on Buddhist ideology and the support of Buddhist clerics, lay Buddhist women’s social participation in Buddhism was largely confined to their roles as benefactors and patronesses of the religion, from making donations to Buddhist institutions, to copying of sūtras, sponsoring Buddhist rituals, and the dedication of monuments and images. Non-canonical literature also gives accounts of their piety and how they resolved conflicts to justify their Buddhist devotion in the Confucian framework that advocated abiding notions of virtues such as filial piety and purity as daughters, obedience to husbands and duty in procreation to continue the family line as wives, and chastity as widows.
Avalokiteśvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, better known in Chinese as Guanyin 觀音, remains one of the most popular deities among Buddhist worshippers. In China in the later periods, Guanyin’s transformation into a female deity is a phenomenon unique in and of itself; however, Guanyin, like other great bodhisattvas, began as an androgynous [End Page 155] deity, above gender, and not as a male deity, as Li claims (p. 1).1 That said, Guanyin in the female form offered additional avenues for female worshippers’ engagement with the deity and to achieve their religious goals or even identification with the bodhisattva. The book covers a broad social spectrum of Buddhist women, from empresses and imperial consorts to elite, educated women with talents (gentry women who were unmarried, married, or widowed), as well as courtesans outside the conventional framework of the family. Li explores how these women, through material artifacts, performances, as well as through their own bodies, expressed not only their devotion to Guanyin, but also achieved mergence and identification with the deity. At times the strategies involved imitation of the deity, in bodily dance or in attire, in what Li calls “devotional mimesis,” acts that allow the fusion of the worshipper and the worshipped, and hence the book’s title, Becoming Guanyin.
The innovative approach in Li’s book is the extensive use of evidence from material objects and performances to delve into the Buddhist women’s practices and how they constructed meanings for themselves. The knowledge gained, Li maintains, cannot be obtained relying on textual sources alone. The book is divided into four chapters, with each focusing on a type of performative or material practice: dance, painting, embroidery, and jewelry.
Chapter 1, “Dancing Guanyin: The Transformative Body and Buddhist Courtesans,” explores the experience of becoming Guanyin through dance. The bodhisattva manifesting as a prostitute, a skillful device (upāya), to teach the doctrine of emptiness and illusion is a well-known trope in Buddhist literature, especially in the Chan tradition. Li argues that the late Ming male literati were involved in initiating the practice of having courtesans perform a dance mimicking the movements of Guanyin, called Guanyin dance. Presented as a religious ritual dance with the pretext of using sex to lead men toward enlightenment, Li adroitly explores the impact of the feminization of Guanyin on religious practice, and notions of gender and desire inscribed in the female body. She maintains that that dance led to transcendence for both courtesan performers, who mimicked Guanyin in bodily movements, and the predominantly male viewers. Noting the rich adornments of the dancers and...