Rethinking Gender and Female Laity in Late Imperial Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Biographies
2. Androcentrism in a Buddhist Context
This is perhaps one of the earliest indigenous Chinese male Buddhist elites’ comments on the role of women, especially lay women. A clearly androcentric and misogynistic statement—that male Buddhists should avoid any direct contact with women—sets the basic tone for this chapter. Whether this is the compiler’s own voice or not is questionable, since this collection contains many contradictory themes. However, this statement at least shows an elitist and monastic perspective on women based on a long-lasting development of a Chinese Buddhist androcentric perspective before the Tang dynasty. Similarly, early Chinese Pure Land discourse also addresses the issue of women’s exclusion based on the translated scriptures, in which the female body is considered defiled and therefore excluded from the Pure Land; a transformation of the female body into a transcendental Great Man (da zhangfu 大丈夫) is required for women to access it (Harrison 1998). In one of the first systematic Pure Land essays written in China, Tangluan’s 曇鸞 (476–542 CE) Annotations to the Article of Pure Land Rebirth (Wangsheng lunzhu 往生論註), the author not only reiterated the doctrine of “no women in the Pure Land,” but also extended the concept of womanhood to a kind of psychological status of “obsequiousness and weakness [諂曲或復儜弱]” in both genders (T40, p. 831a18–19). In this sense, not only the female body is excluded in the Pure Land; allegedly “feminine” mental qualities are also denied. One may see this as a stigmatization of femininity and womanhood and an oversimplification of the complex relationship between gender, sex, and gender-specific mentalities. At least based on textual representations, an androcentric doctrine is clearly subsumed into Chinese Pure Land discourse.Lay women are poisoned and full of faults, and Buddha said [their] wickedness is worse than males… [if one] gets intimate with [women, then his] country will perish and [his] family will collapse. [If one] touches [women] then it is like holding a viper. [Women’s] words on the outside are like honey, but [their] inner heart is toxic. Poverty in the family is brought by women. Death on a journey is brought by women. Grudges at home are brought by women. Sons’ and daughters’ betrayals are brought by women… The inability of rebirth as humans and celestial deities is brought by women. The obstacles to the path of good karma are brought by women. The inability to attain the fruit of awakening is brought by women. Faults [of women] as such are impossible to discuss in detail. Sentient beings like this are worth [Buddha’s] mercy. [They] are often burnt by the flame of desire and cannot break [themselves] away, [and as a result they] suffer from endless afflictions.夫在家俗女患毒多過，佛說邪諂甚於男子…近則失國破家，觸則如把毒蛇。外言如蜜，內心如鴆。家貧困苦，皆由女人。出外喪身，亦由女人。室家不和，亦由女人。男女反逆，亦由女人…不生人天，亦由女人。障善業道，亦由女人。不入聖果，亦由女人。如是過患不可具論。眾生如是甚為可愍，常為慾火所燒而不能離，致受殃苦爾來不絕也。(T53, pp. 443c23–444a11)
Here, unlike the passage in Forest of Gems in the Garden of the Dharma, femininity is celebrated as an important aspect of an enlightened heart equal to masculinity rather than denounced. Ding-wa E. Hsieh (2002, pp. 166–71) argues that during the Song dynasty, monastic male Chan Buddhist writings, especially Chan biographies, started to focus more on women’s spiritual and religious accomplishment; they tried to reconcile the tension between misogynistic Chinese Buddhist doctrines and the gender equality in attaining Buddhahood celebrated in Chinese Tathāgatagarbha teachings. Therefore, it is important for us to realize that certain non-binary gender narratives co-existed with androcentric doctrines in Chinese Buddhist texts. Chan literature is not the only kind of writing popularizing positive images of female Buddhist practitioners. As we shall see, monastic Pure Land biographies of lay women in China before Qing dynasty do not follow an androcentric discourse as well and advocate a non-binary gender image in return. Later in Zhuhong’s discussion of women’s rebirth in the Pure Land we will see that he also disagreed with the simplistic binary gender view which only read the “no women” doctrine in Pure Land texts literally. It was in Peng Shaosheng’s writing that the androcentric Buddhist doctrine is reiterated as the guideline for the construction of ideal lay female Buddhists.The heart of great compassion is humble and adaptive to the external world. Its nature is soft and meek; it accords with things and does not violate. Therefore [the heart of great compassion] resembles [the great qualities of] women.慈悲之心，虛而外適。其性柔弱，隨物不違，故如女也。(T 48, p. 559c19–20)
3. Peng Shaosheng in a Late Imperial Chinese Gender Context
4. Pure Land Biographies before the Ming Dynasty and Narratives of Lay Women
5. Narrative of Exemplary Lay Female Buddhists in Zhuhong’s Writings
Xu’s wife, of the Ming period, was from Hangzhou. She was respectful, modest and by nature honest, and only took nianfo as her [major] business in life. When [she was] about to die, she summoned her family to say farewell. She [then] put on clean clothes and sat up straight. She held white flowers from Mount Tianmu in her hand and pinned them in her hair. She [then] died in great peace.大明許氏婦，杭郡人。生平恭順質實，惟以念佛為事。將卒，呼家人與訣別。著淨衣端坐，手執天目白花，自簪之。安然而逝。(T51, p. 146b11–13)
We can see that in Zhuhong’s narrative of these two Ming lay figures there is no clear gender-specific image, apart from the accessories they wore before they died. Both Xu’s wife and lay gentleman Hua are described as possessing virtuous character in a secular sense as well as a strong and persistent faith in the Pure Land. Fitting both secular moral ideals and religiously exemplary imagery, Zhuhong treated these two Ming period Pure Land lay practitioners with a rather asexual tone. I believe this narrative feature is inherited from early biographies. Song records do not particularly stress the secular integrity of lay practitioners, but we cannot assert that Zhuhong’s focus has no predecessors at all. We have seen that celebrating lay Pure Land believers’ secular integrity and religious devotion regardless of their gender is already visible in the Tang period records.Lay gentleman Hua, of the Ming period, was from Jianggan. [He was] honest without hypocrisy, and [he] always treated other people unflatteringly. In his middle age he entrusted his businesses to his sons and stayed in a room, separating [himself] from worldly affairs. In day and night, he was only dedicated to continuously performing nianfo. Later [when he] was about to die, he knew his time had come. [He] changed his clothes in his bedroom, [then] tidied his hat and sat up straight. [He] said farewell to others and died.大明華居士，江干人。醇朴無偽，與人不款曲。中年屬業諸子，獨處一室，不涉世事。朝暮惟孜孜念佛而已。後將卒，自知時至。更衣正寢，手整冠端坐，別眾而逝。(T51, p. 143b10–15)
Here Zhuhong not only omitted details about Li’s domestic life as a widow, but also celebrated the possibility of a female body attaining high accomplishments by praising the old woman Li’s bone relics.11 Apparently, to Zhuhong, the idea that the female body is naturally deficient and thus excluded from the Pure Land and achieving high levels of Buddhist cultivation was ridiculous. There is a particular story of Ming dynasty lay woman Lady Xue (Xueshi 薛氏) (T51, pp. 146a–b) in which Zhuhong mocked those who valued Confucian ritual propriety and social norms over Buddhist norms. Zhuhong suggested that the Confucian ideal death position of lie-low contradicts the Buddhist proper death position of sitting straight in cross-leg. Xue was a noble lady from a scholar-official’s family in Wutang 武塘, in today’s Hunan province. Lady Xue was married into the Zhou 周 family and widowed after giving birth to five sons. She was a devoted Pure Land practitioner and the incense sticks she offered to Guanyin (Avalokiteśvara) burned in the shape of a lotus, which was marveled at by her peers. Four days prior to her death she started to restlessly practice nianfo and spell chanting. She put a “Zhigong Hat” (Zhigong mao 誌公帽), a kind of headpiece for male Buddhist monks,12 on her head (T51, p. 146a26). On the day of her death there were miraculous fragrances and she sat cross-legged with her hands in a sealed posture as she died. There was no sign of death on her body and, in fact, after she died her body looked even more lively. Her sons put her into a shrine following her will and thousands of people paid respect to her incorruptible body.The old woman Li [who married into] the Hu family in the Song was from Shangyu. After her husband died, [she] chanted Buddha’s name [nianfo] day and night, and also chanted the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra for decades. One day [she] saw a monk who covered [her] in a crimson canopy and said [to her]: “You will be reborn [in the Pure Land] on the fifteenth day [of this month] at the double-hour of zi.” [She] asked who the master monk was, and [the monk] said: “[I] am he whose name you chanted.” The old woman then bid farewell to her relatives. On the day there were extraordinary fragrances and light, [in which Li] sat up straight and died. After seven days [her body] was cremated, and [instead of turning into black ashes] her teeth were as white as jade, her tongue like red lotus, [and] her eyes like grapes. They were all pure, solid, and persistent, and the bone relics9 [she left] were countless. The next day a flower had blossomed at the place where [she] was cremated, and it was said that [the flower] resembled a white poppy. [Zhuhong] complimented that: [Her] various bodily organs10 were persistent, and [her] bone relics were countless. People ridiculed the female body as possessing five kinds of defilements, but [in the case of Li] anything is possible.宋胡長婆李氏，上虞人。夫喪後，日夜高聲念佛，及誦《彌陀經》，凡十餘年。一日見有僧覆以緋蓋，曰：“汝十五日子時往生。”問師何人，曰：“是汝所念者。”婆遂會別諸親。至期有異香光明，端坐而逝。七日焚化，齒如白玉，舌如紅蓮，睛如葡萄，皆精堅不壞。舍利不可數計。次日焚處生一花，如白罌粟云。贊曰：諸根不壞，舍利無數。世譏女人五漏之體，無乃不可乎。(T51, p. 144a23–b2)
Here Zhuhong clearly held a negative view on the Confucian and popular funeral rituals and suggested that even those male literati descendants should obey their female Buddhist elder’s religious request. In this sense, Zhuhong put the importance of this lay female Buddhist’s religiosity over her male relatives’ Confucian pursuits. Zhuhong’s comment is perhaps in response to systematic movements initiated by conservative Confucian literati and officials in the Ming to promote Zhu Xi’s version of family rituals in southern China including Zhu Xi’s stipulated Confucian funeral ritual process, in which any distinctly Buddhist religious element is strictly forbidden (Zhao 2010; Zhang 2021). In some personal writings Zhuhong explicitly stated that Confucian family pursuits—including producing male heirs—are nothing but shackles for women, and that devoted lay female Buddhists should actively resist any kind of secular pursuits in order to achieve higher religious goals (Jian 2007, pp. 169–171).14 His renunciation of Confucian gender norms can also be witnessed in the “General Conclusion” (Zonglun 總論) section of his collection’s lay female biography chapter. In this section he proclaimed that “There are no women in the Pure Land. Once a woman is reborn [in the Pure Land], then [she] will have all the appearances of a Great Man…in the realm of purity, [one] cannot even find the true appearance of male, not to mention that of female. [極樂國土，實無女人。女既得生，悉具大丈夫相…清淨界中，覓男相尚不可得，況女相乎？]” (T51, p. 146b15–18).It was the mother [Xue’s] request upon death that a Buddhist shrine should be prepared [for her corpse]. There was no casket, no killing ritual to please gods, no paper money burning, and no killing sacrifice to ancestors.13 Her sons willingly obeyed [their mother’s will] without any disagreement. I heard that there was [a male Buddhist] who died sitting cross-legged, but his son out of the fear of violating Confucian norms pulled [his father’s] leg to stretch the body [in order to make it lie down]. The father suddenly raised his arm to hit his son, and the son said in fear: “[I was] only trying to help you to die sitting.” Now [if we] see the sons of Zhou, what is the reason [they could obey their mother’s will]?母遺命具龕。無棺槨，無迎殺神，無燒紙錢，無殺牲以祭。諸子悉隨順不二。吾聞：昔有臨終坐脫者，子恐乖名教，拽其足伸之。父忽躍臂捶子。子懼曰：“助父坐脫耳。”視今日周氏諸子，為何如？(T51, p. 146b2–6)
6. Peng Shaosheng’s Modification of Zhuhong’s Gender Narrative
Thus, he admitted that he had a personal standard in editing and selecting these texts. Those he regarded unsuitable, including stories of practitioners committing suicide for quick rebirth in the Pure Land, are excluded. Clearly, certain provocative elements are considered transgressive to Confucian social norms and not the “correct” kind of material for Qing period Buddhist readers. But what were his “personal criteria”? In the Biographies of Good Women, Peng’s intention to modify those previous stories that were contrary to Confucian gender norms is disclosed in his preface. He expressed his personal distrust of those morally corrupted or improper women who were reborn in the Pure Land (X88, p. 399c). At the very beginning of this collection of biographies of lay females, Peng reiterated the misogynistic Buddhist doctrine as the underlying attitude on women in his collection; this doctrine is absent in previous monastic narratives of lay Pure Land females. He wrote: “…In the past Buddha reproached women, as they are replete with all kinds of fiendishness and defilement. For those who are contaminated by them, the risk [in them] is worse than imprisonment… [佛昔呵女人，具足諸妖穢。其有染著者，患乃甚牢獄…]” (X88, p. 399b13–14). Peng also claimed that apart from Buddhist biographies, this collection is also inspired by early Confucian biographies of exemplary women (lienü zhuan 列女傳) whose chastity and submissive character are considered prior to their personal achievements (X88, p. 401a). In this sense, under both the Confucian disciplines of women and the Buddhist misogynistic discourse, Peng wished to shape the ideal image of lay females as those who could on the one hand stay obedient in their inferior domestic arena and on the other act devote themselves to Buddhist faith and practices.The records included in the collections mentioned above are not consistent in their simplicity and complexity, and those refined [stories] and coarse [stories] are mixed up. Without meticulous discrimination [one] cannot avoid being confounded [by those stories]. Hence [I] scrutinized the original texts, and consulted the old books. [I] added my own embellishment on them in order to make [these stories] fit in my own criteria.從上諸家紀述，繁簡不齊，雅俗並奏。不經甄別，難免淆訛。茲斟酌舊文，參稽往牒，加之潤飾，就我準繩。(X78, p. 217a17–19)
Again, Zhuhong celebrated Tao’s religious superiority as a lay woman over her male relatives and accentuated the husband’s shame when realizing his wife was an accomplished Buddhist, far better than himself. But in Peng’s version, neither Tao’s conversion of her husband nor the husband’s expression of shame appeared. Peng even changed the story’s narrative into “Gentleman Zhang was devoted in the practice of Pure Land, and in [his daily] dietary custom [he was] stoic. After Tao married Zhang, [she] also started to chant Buddhist scriptures incessantly. [居士精修淨土，一蔬一飯，泊如也。陶氏自歸張，亦課誦無閒。] ”(X88, p. 412a9–10). Zhang’s devotional Buddhist lifestyle is completely absent in Zhuhong’s version of the story and there was no clear specification on when Tao started her Buddhist practice. This interesting twist of narrative delivers the opposite message of Zhuhong’s version; Peng clearly implied that it was the husband who cast influence on Tao’s Buddhist belief. Peng’s story shows a reversed image of Tao, as someone who was married into a Buddhist family already strong with Pure Land faith and who, following her husband’s dedicated religiosity, was able to achieve extraordinary results in the end. Interestingly, in Zhuhong’s original story the title is Zhang’s Mother, which indicates Tao as a superior and senior female figure in the family. In Peng’s version, by contrast, the title is Lady Tao (Taoshi 陶氏), which is a way to address a wife. This title change trick can also be found in another of Peng’s adaptations of Zhuhong’s stories, in the story of Lady Xu (Xushi 徐氏). Zhuhong started the story by introducing Xu as the mother of the Lu 陸family (T51: 149b), positioning her as the elder in Lu’s clan, whereas in Peng’s version Xu is introduced at the beginning as Gentleman Lu’s wife (X88, p. 412a).Zhang’s mother Lady Tao of the Ming dynasty was the second wife of the Lay Gentleman Zhang Shouyue in Chuangshui. Gentleman Zhang was converted to Buddhism because of her guidance. [She] chanted Buddhist scriptures every day incessantly. [One day] Gentleman Zhang went out to pay a respectful visit to Putuo Mountain. The mother said to her two sons: “I contemplate on the two sentences [from the scripture] ‘It is the heart that attains Buddhahood; it is the heart that is the true Buddha,’ in daily life. Now I begin to understand. On the fourth day [of this month], I shall leave.” When the time arrived [she] sat up straight and died. The next day [after her death] Gentleman Zhang came back to encoffin her. Suddenly, five green lotus flowers grew out of her casket. Gentleman Zhang was astonished and ashamed since in spite of her daily company for a long time, he did not realize her Buddhist achievement [was as high] as such. All those in her neighborhood or from afar who saw and heard [Tao’s achievement] praised and admired [her].大明張母，陶氏，為長水守約居士繼室。居士奉佛，母化之。日課誦無間。居士出禮普陀，母謂二子曰：“吾平日參‘是心作佛，是心是佛’二語。今始悟。初四日，吾行矣。”及期端坐而逝。次日居士歸成殮，俄而棺上出青蓮花五朵。居士大駭異，自愧恒常與俱，不知其道行如此。遠近見聞，靡不嘆慕。(T51, p. 148b12–18)
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Conflicts of Interest
There have been abundant academic works in Chinese, English and Japanese that comprehensively explain the historical development of Chinese and East Asian Pure Land traditions; see Charles B. Jones’ (2019) Chinese Pure Land Buddhism: Understanding a Tradition of Practice and Tsukamoto Zenryū’s well-known work Chugoku jūdokyo shi kenkū (Tsukamoto 1976).
As the term “Neo-Confucian” is still problematic in its meaning, in this paper I will still label the new Confucian developments since the Song as “Confucian” to show its continuity from earlier Confucian discourses. But I hope the readers could be aware that the kind of Confucian tradition salient to Peng Shaosheng’s writing is this new tradition in Song, Ming and Qing.
Daoist practices and theories during late imperial China undoubtedly influenced Buddhist and Confucian views on gender. However, a thorough discussion of these traditions is outside the scope of this paper. For more information about Daoist conceptions of gender during this period, see Valussi’s work quoted in the main text.
For Peng’s autobiography see “Zhigui zi zhuan 知歸子傳” (X88, pp. 290b–291a); see also Ge and Wang (2006).
Here the term “monastic patriarch” does not refer to a strict sectarian Pure Land patriarch lineage like the case in Japanese Pure Land tradition, but rather a series of monastic Pure Land authors who were considered as belonging to a looser lineage of Pure Land clan later in Song, Ming and Qing. Jones (2019, pp. 25–31) has pointed out that the identities and lineage of these Chinese “patriarchs” were constructed in later period not as a strict “master-disciple” clan but to highlight eminent figures and monastic authorities in history. Accordingly, their narrative “tradition” in this article refers to the common features their writings share rather than a clearly defined custom.
This is a story the compiler extracted from an earlier Buddhist miracle story collection Mingxiang ji 冥祥記, but the original book is lost and this is the only version available.
There is a confusion in the text about who talked about the miraculous experience, Lady Wu or her maid. I insist that the text refers to Lady Wu’s experience since the whole story is dedicated to her accomplishment.
Seng 僧 here might only refers to monastic male since in Zhuhong’s collection he called Buddhist nuns “ni 尼”. But Zhuhong never used “nifa” to describe Buddhist nun’s funeral. So in this Old Lady Cui story, sengfa might only refer to funerals in monastic style without a gender-specific connotation.
Also called Śarīra, sheli 舍利.
A Buddhist concept known as indriya including sensual organs: the eyes, nose, tongue, ears, and the whole body.
These kind of bone relics and mummified body (both called sheli) were usually understood as remains of Buddhist “saints” and a proof of their accomplishment. They were enshrined and venerated for their miraculous power, but very often this kind of veneration of bodily relics was limited to monastic figures, see Ritzinger and Bingenheimer (2006).
See http://buddhaspace.org/dict/fk/data/%25E5%25B8%25BD%25E5%25AD%2590.html, accessed on 23 June 2021, for more information about the “Zhigong Hat.”
These perhaps are the animal killing and meat sacrifice rituals involved in Ming funeral rituals based on Zhu Xi’s version of Confucian funeral ritual and the Confucian classic the Rite of Zhou, see Chi (2017, pp. 24, 131–32, 145–52).
As Zhuhong once wrote: “君不見，東家婦，健如虎，腹孕常將年月數，昨宵猶自倚門閭，今朝命已歸黃土…”, this is a poem expressing his lament on those women who were shackled by domestic duties without Buddhist faith and devotion, see Yunqi Zhuhong (Yunqi 1983, pp. 4428–29).
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Wang, X. Rethinking Gender and Female Laity in Late Imperial Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Biographies. Religions 2021, 12, 705. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12090705
Wang X. Rethinking Gender and Female Laity in Late Imperial Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Biographies. Religions. 2021; 12(9):705. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12090705Chicago/Turabian Style
Wang, Xing. 2021. "Rethinking Gender and Female Laity in Late Imperial Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Biographies" Religions 12, no. 9: 705. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12090705