AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 548

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Session 548: Representing Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Late Imperial Chinese Religion and Literature

Organizer: Beata Grant, Washington University, St. Louis, USA

Chair: Ann Waltner, University of Minnesota, USA

Discussant: Ann Waltner, University of Minnesota, USA

Images of monks and nuns in late imperial Chinese culture are decidedly ambivalent ones, ranging from representations of glowing sanctity to salacious stories of monastic misbehavior -- or simply dismissed as marginal and inconsequential. The papers in this panel seek to explore the nature and significance of this ambivalence by analyzing representations (and self-representations) of monks and nuns in a variety of different types of sources, including epistolary hearsay regarding the character, teaching styles and spiritual achievements of eminent monks of the late Ming; and the self-representation of many of these same eminent monks as guardians of the faith by means of blood-writing or partial bodily-immolation; literary depictions of monks and nuns in the great Qing-dynasty novel Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng); and finally, poetic and biographical descriptions (and in a few cases, self-descriptions) of Qing dynasty Chan and Pure Land Buddhist nuns. The nature of these various representations and self-representations to a certain extent reflect their intended audiences and the generic conventions governing the kinds of texts in which they are found: literary, hagio/biographical, historical, epistolary or bodily. When considered in juxtaposition, they serve to vividly illustrate the deeply emotional, highly complex, and profoundly ambivalent late-imperial "imaginaire" regarding the roles of monks and nuns in society.

Epistolary Hearsay: Judging Buddhist Monks
Jennifer Eichman, SOAS, University of London, USA

Epistolary hearsay, including criticism and praise of Buddhist monks circulated throughout the networks of disciples associated with the late sixteenth-century Buddhist monks, Zhenke, Deqing, and Zhuhong. Disciples offered a plethora of epistolary opinions on these master’s teaching styles and spiritual attainment. Perhaps Zhuhong’s loyal disciple Yu Chunxi summed it up best when he said that Zhuhong was a gentle old grandmother, Zhenke a fierce soldier, and Deqing a king of knights. This study will present the relationship between hearsay, spiritual judgment, and evaluative consensus to demonstrate that such informal epistolary evaluations were far from benign. How disciples evaluated the teaching styles and personalities of these three masters not only influenced the size of their respective audiences, but also had a far more insidious impact on how the state treated these masters. This is especially so in the case of Zhenke whose intense, forceful teaching style rubbed examination elites the wrong way. They did not defend him in the Yaoshu incident and thus he died in 1603. Without a consideration of epistolary hearsay and other evaluative sources it is indeed impossible to fully understand what transpired in this case and many others. Hence our reading of the historical record and cultural impact of these three great monks on late Ming Buddhist culture would be better served by an inclusion of epistolary hearsay and other evaluative sources. Epistolary sources reveal a robust exchange of opinions not found elsewhere. They are our primary access to why disciples trusted one monk, but not another.

Preserving Orthodoxy through Self-Inflicted Violence: Representation as Embodied Practices
Jimmy Yu, Florida State University, USA

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, several prominent Buddhist clerics engaged in the practice of blood writing and partial body-immolation. They touted these practices as a cure for the “age of decline of the Dharma,” and presented themselves as true defenders of the faith. In their writings, they made an explicit link between mutilating their bodies and perpetuating Buddhadharma and realizing transcendent wisdom. They also encouraged their lay followers to follow in their footsteps. This paper focuses on two Buddhist clerics’ self-representation and argues that their practices not only established their subjectivity as moral agents. Their privileging of bodily austerity also reveals other, larger and more methodological biases that attend our basic analytic categories such as “religion,” “culture,” and the “practice”—that is, the privileging of text-based belief over bodily actions and the reductive tendency, especially among social sciences, to read all action (especially ritual action) as socially constructive and expressive rather than instrumental and transformative.

Monks, Nuns, and Temples in Dream of the Red Chamber
Yiqun Zhou, Stanford University, USA

The eighteenth-century novelistic masterpiece Dream of the Red Chamber (Dream hereafter) features a rich and complex religious world inhabited by goddesses, monastics, and ancestral spirits. An examination of how each category and the relationships among the three categories are portrayed is important for understanding every dimension of the novel, from ideological to artistic. This paper focuses on the images of monks, nuns, and temples in Dream. Comparison and contrast will be made 1) with the depiction of the clergy and religious institutions in other late imperial Chinese novels, and 2) between the first eighty and last forty chapters of Dream. The analysis will show that, in its approach to such themes as the stereotypical vices associated with monastic life, spiritual enlightenment, the functions of language and liturgy, and the tension between family value and individual salvation, Dream reflects but also transcends the prevailing religious outlook in late imperial Chinese literature.

Autobigraphies of Wmen Buddhist Masters of Late Imperial China
Beata Grant, Washington University, St. Louis, USA

This paper will explore female-authored auto/biographies of female Buddhist masters from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. These texts include autobiographical sermons and testimonies; hagio/biographical accounts of women Chan masters composed or compiled by their female disciples; poems composed for self-portraits and poems in which nuns refer to their personal religious aspirations and goals; self-written accounts of vows made or pilgrimages taken; and funerary inscriptions, sermons, and verses of mourning composed by nuns for deceased teachers or fellow nuns. While in many ways very similar in form and intent, these women-authored writings also differ in subtle but significant ways from male-authored religious auto/biographical texts and testimonies such as those studied by Pei-Yi Wu. A close look at both the similarities and differences can shed light, if not always on the actual lives of these religious women, then certainly on how they sought to be represented and remembered.