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Reviewed by:
  • Eminent Nuns: Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China by Beata Grant
  • Michael Saso (bio)
Beata Grant. Eminent Nuns: Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009. xi, 242 pp. Epilogue, notes, selected bibliography, index. Hardcover $46.00, isbn 978-0-8248-3202-5.

This eminently readable and thoroughly researched work of Beata Grant, a wellknown and acclaimed scholar of literature, Buddhism, and women’s studies in China, presents one of the most valuable, unique insights into the role of female Chan (Zen) masters in seventeenth-century China. One of the most compelling aspects of the work is the faultless series of translations of texts left behind by female Chan masters themselves, or their female disciples, who recorded their literary works. Grant allows the women Linji (Japanese: Rinzai) Chan masters to speak for themselves, in faultless prose, or Chan-style verse, which, indeed, makes Eminent Nuns a treasury of citations to be cherished for their own intrinsic worth.

The first and foremost eminent nun, Qiyuan Xinggang (1597–1654), the subject of chapters 3 and 4, laid the groundwork for the disciples and dharma heirs who succeeded her or were inspired to follow in her footsteps. Qiyuan Xinggang’s reasons for becoming a nun—the death of her espoused fiancé, her own personal desire to seek a life of Buddhist practice, and the inspiration of a Linji Chan monk who accepted her as a disciple—were closely related to the social and cultural upheaval of the seventeenth-century transition between the Han Chinese in origin Ming dynasty and the Altaic Manchu in origin Qing rulers. The introduction and chapters 1 and 2 explain the texts and contexts and the sociopolitical factors that influenced the flourishing of Buddhism as part of a sometimes bloody transition between two quite different dynasties.

Among more important factors, as seen in Qiyuan Xinggang’s life as well as in the lives of many of her followers, were (1) a high level of classical education among the daughters of traditional literary families; (2) an acceptable recourse for high-ranking, devout women whose husbands were executed or died during the wars preceding and following the first years of the Qing dynasty Manchu rule; and (3) the rebirth of the Linji or huatou (first phrase of a Gongan koan poetic quote) used to inspire sudden Chan insights.

The social-spiritual milieu in which the Chan revival occurred, during the early Qing dynasty transition of power, took place mainly in South China (that is, south of the Yangzi River), where Chan masters as well as monastic master-disciple teaching could take place. One of the most telling passages relates Qiyuan Xinggang’s struggle and preliminary success in solving the huatou conundrum proposed in a dialogue between her two male masters, Shiche Tongshen and Jinsu. The passage, quoted on page 46, must be read fully to realize the effect of the nun’s reply to the master’s question, “When you are dead and cremated, where will you be?” (Response: “Red dust rising from the bottom of the Sea.”) [End Page 600]

The best known of the seven officially designated dharma heirs of Qiyuan Xinggang is the nun Yikui Chaochen, who wrote the biography quoted in chapter 4 and her own set of Yulu Recorded Sayings, the subject of chapter 5, “Passing on the Lamp.” Her quite moving (to this reviewer) teachings are found on page 100, in which the quiet life in a monastic nunnery and the presence of a devoted and caring master are the basic causes for real success in practice. Due to her governance, the three nunneries under her became centers for laity as well as monastic refuge and succor.

Seven of Qiyuan Xinggang’s dharma successors were born and raised in the Jiangsu and Zhejiang cultural areas, which were, during the seventeenth century, strongholds of Confucian as well Buddhist and Daoist classical literary studies. Two of her dharma heirs, whose writings are preserved in the Jiaxing Ming dynasty Buddhist canon (Daxing Dazang Jing, 40 vols., Taipei reprint: Xinwenfeng chubanshe, 1987), were from Hengzhou in Hunan Province: Jizong Xingche, who is the subject of chapter 6, and the late...


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