Re-staging the Periphery as the Center: Women Communities in East Asian Religions

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444).

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (28 February 2023) | Viewed by 19521

Special Issue Editors


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Guest Editor
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, Singapore 119260, Singapore
Interests: gender and religion; Chinese Buddhism; Chinese diaspora; ethnography of Chinese religions; China–Southeast Asian historical connections

E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
Institute for Philosophy, Leiden University, 2311 VJ Leiden, The Netherlands
Interests: gender and religions in East Asia; Buddhist feminism; East Asian Buddhist thought; East Asian Yogācāra

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

In East Asian traditions, women have always been active participants in religious affairs. However, their stories tend to be excluded from the standard historical narrative to consolidate the social norm of inner–outer distinction. Such a narrative chooses not to position women on the central stage of the outer, public domain as their male counterparts, but rather push women to the periphery as secluded members of the inner quarters for their religious cultivation. Recent scholarship has substantially problematized this exclusive narrative. In the burgeoning field that intersects gender and religion, scholars of Chinese history have scrutinized the (often biased) gendered historical representation of women to underscore their subjectivities (Jia, Kang and Yao 2014; Kang 2017; Yao 2021). Indeed, Chinese women not only participated in the Buddhist modernist movement during the 20th century (Travagnin 2017; DeVido [forthcoming 2024]), but also played central roles in the post-Mao religious revitalization (Qin 2000; Sun 2014). In parallel, as shown in the research of Japanese religions, women collaborated to refashion female monasticism, as epitomized by the effort of a group of privately professed women to reinstall the nun’s ordination order in Hokkeiji (Meeks 2010), and the multiple roles of Shin Buddhist temple wives who were not only good wives and wise mothers but also supported priests (Starling 2013). Likewise, studies on the forgotten lineages of Buddhist women in Korea have prompted scholars to reconnect the thriving nun communities in contemporary South Korea with their historical legacy (Cho 2011).

Restaging the periphery as the center, this Special Issue aims to investigate how women in East Asian religions throughout history have harnessed various resources to carve a space for their communities and thus reshape the religious landscape in their societies. In particular, this issue enriches the current discussions on the structure of religious organization, community activities/rituals and networks initiated and maintained by women groups. How are the migration patterns, religious practices, community networks, and kinship resources of East Asian religious women similar or different? Can we put them in dialogue with each other? Are there feminist traits in their history that would be helpful for us to forge regional or transnational connections? A comparative approach to studying religious women in East Asia and in the East Asia cultural sphere (such as countries of Southeast Asia that received significant influence from East Asia) would highlight the interconnectivity of the region and reveals patterns of how gender history and religious history intersect, collide and inter-penetrate. 

Thereby, we invite empirical and theoretical contributions on women’s roles, identities, and communities in a broad range of East Asian religious traditions, lay or monastic, institutional or non-institutional based, communal or voluntary. Therefore, religious traditions involved include not only the more institutionalized forms of religions such as Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Shinto, but also popular/folk/sectarian religions, NRM, smaller-scale village religious communities, voluntary organizations, impromptu religious gatherings, ancestor worship, etc. We look at both the localized forms of female religious communities, and also the transnational movement of religious sisterhoods (e.g., Bhikkhuni movements or regional migration of vegetarian nuns). Particularly welcomed are papers with a focus on:

  • Ethnographies of women’s religious communities (lay or monastic);
  • Female religious lineages, doctrines, networks;
  • Female alchemy in Daoist tradition;
  • Histories of female temples and other religious spaces;
  • Women’s religious communities and material culture (devotional or liturgical objects, images, sacred space, etc.);
  • Women’s religio-kinship networks;
  • Local, regional and transnational religious sisterhoods
  • Women’s communal religious life, activities, rituals;
  • Social life of religious women (i.e., religious women as entrepreneurs, political activists);
  • Domestic life of religious women (i.e., re-centering the family, the household of women, re-enacting kitchen as ritual space);
  • Religious food practices (vegetarianism, culinary piety);
  • Biographies of Bhikkhunis, priestesses, female religious practitioners, performers, Chinese vegetarian nuns (zhaigu), etc.;
  • Textual traditions of female religious communities, and the reception of female-centered texts;
  • Interfaith dialogues;
  • Lay Buddhism/Household Buddhism, lay religiosity;
  • Gender empowerment, gender equality, religious egalitarianism.

Interested authors please submit an expression of interest (with proposed title, abstract of 300 words and a short biography) to the guest editors Dr Ying Ruo Show ([email protected]) and Dr Jingjing Li ([email protected]) by 30 June 2022. Full length articles of about 8000 words including references are due by 31 December 2022. All papers are subject to double-blind peer review.

Reference:

Cho, Eun-su ed. 2011. Korean Buddhist Nuns and Laywomen: Hidden Histories, Enduring Vitality. Albany: SUNY Press.

DeVido, Elise A. Forthcoming 2024. Women, Buddhism, and Modernity in China, 1900-1950. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing.

Kang Xiaofei. 2017. “Women, Gender and Religion in Modern China, 1900s-1950s: An Introduction.” NAN NÜ 19(1): 1-27.

Meek, Lori R. 2010. Hokkeiji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Premodern Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Qin, Wen-jie. 2000. “The Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China: Women Reconstruct Buddhism in Mt. Emei.” PhD Dissertation, Harvard University.

Starling, Jessica. 2013. “Neither Nun nor Laywoman: The Good Wives and Wise Mothers of Jōdo Shinshū Temples.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40(2): 277-301.

Sun, Yanfei. 2014. “Popular Religions in Zhejiang: Feminization, Bifurcation and Buddhification.” Modern China 40(5): 455-487.

Travagnin, Stefania. 2017. “Buddhist Education Between Tradition, Modernity and Networks: Reconsidering the ‘Revival’ of Education for the Sangha in Twentieth Century China.” Studies in Chinese Religions 3(3): 220-241.

Yao, Ping. 2021. Women, Gender and Sexuality in China: A Brief History. London: Routledge.

Dr. Ying Ruo Show
Dr. Jingjing Li
Guest Editors

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Keywords

  • East Asian religions
  • women’s communities
  • feminism
  • Bhikkhuni
  • female alchemy
  • religious sisterhoods
  • gendered religious networks

Published Papers (9 papers)

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Research

13 pages, 883 KiB  
Article
A Woman’s History: A Lifetime of Practising Yiguandao—The Senior Leader of the Subdivision Baoguang Chongzheng
by Yeh-Ying Shen
Religions 2023, 14(7), 849; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14070849 - 28 Jun 2023
Viewed by 2026
Abstract
This paper examines a female Yiguandao (一貫道) leader’s lifelong history of practising the faith: Huang Shih-Yen (黃世妍, 1940–), the Elder (qianren 前人) of the subdivision Baoguang Chongzheng (寶光崇正). The journey begins with her conversion to Yiguandao and devotion to its religious practices, followed [...] Read more.
This paper examines a female Yiguandao (一貫道) leader’s lifelong history of practising the faith: Huang Shih-Yen (黃世妍, 1940–), the Elder (qianren 前人) of the subdivision Baoguang Chongzheng (寶光崇正). The journey begins with her conversion to Yiguandao and devotion to its religious practices, followed by her assuming leadership of a subdivision and expanding overseas proselytising missions. Female leaders are not uncommon in modern and contemporary Yiguandao; however, Huang presents a different image from that of conventional female leadership in popular Chinese religions. First, unlike most female leaders who refuse marriage, Huang is a wife and mother; she has shouldered both sacred and secular duties. Second, when she gained leadership, her husband, who was also an Elder of Baoguang Chongzheng, followed and assisted her in managing the temple affairs. Third, she was personally and actively involved in missionary outreach rather than being a spiritual mentor. The materials used to investigate Huang’s life history were predominantly oral history and my own participant observations. This paper illustrates that women’s contributions to religious practices may be on par with their male counterparts, but their stories have been overlooked. Full article
18 pages, 883 KiB  
Article
Sword and Lotus: The Life of a Confucian Buddhist Woman Warrior in Seventeenth Century China
by Hongyu Wu
Religions 2023, 14(6), 739; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14060739 - 3 Jun 2023
Viewed by 1543
Abstract
This paper focuses on the life of Liu Shu (1520–1657), a woman warrior who lived through the social and political turmoil of the violent dynastic transition from the Ming (1368–1644) dynasty to the Qing (1636–1911) dynasty. Drawing on the writings of Liu Shu [...] Read more.
This paper focuses on the life of Liu Shu (1520–1657), a woman warrior who lived through the social and political turmoil of the violent dynastic transition from the Ming (1368–1644) dynasty to the Qing (1636–1911) dynasty. Drawing on the writings of Liu Shu and on different versions of accounts of her life written by male literati in different time periods, this paper intends to reveal the multiplicity and complexity of how a woman could exert her agency and interact with the dominant structure. Commonly, women’s agency has been understood as resistance against the male-dominant patriarchal system. However, recently, scholars such as Saba Mahmood have problematized universalizing overtly resistant acts against the patriarchal society to bring radical changes as demonstrations of women’s agency. These scholars argue that this approach fails to recognize that through their autonomy and while living a life of self-fulfillment, women have the capacity to reproduce, sustain, or subtly change the social norms and views of values that justify and support the patriarchal structure. In light of these scholars’ studies, this paper explores Liu Shu’s engagement in political and military activities and her Buddhist practices to analyze how she transgressed established gender norms in order to uphold rather than reject the virtues promoted by patriarchal ideology. The paper also discusses how conflicting demands on women by a male-centered society in the drastic dynastic transition enabled her to negotiate with or challenge the dominant structure. It also considers how her disobedient acts were accepted and applauded by some male literati to address their own agenda in different cultural, historical, and political contexts. Full article
16 pages, 830 KiB  
Article
Female Practitioners’ Religious Lives: The First Generation of Female Wŏn Buddhist Clerics
by Sung Ha Yun
Religions 2023, 14(5), 637; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14050637 - 10 May 2023
Viewed by 1365
Abstract
For Korean women, the Japanese colonial period was a transitional period in which Confucian patriarchal culture still prevailed, but some options for a social identity outside the home as “new women” were beginning to emerge. In this era, Sot’aesan, the founder of Wŏn [...] Read more.
For Korean women, the Japanese colonial period was a transitional period in which Confucian patriarchal culture still prevailed, but some options for a social identity outside the home as “new women” were beginning to emerge. In this era, Sot’aesan, the founder of Wŏn Buddhism, put forward the teaching of “equal rights for men and women” as one of the core doctrines of Wŏn Buddhism and opened the way for many women to find their true selves through Buddhist teachings and practices. This path was that of becoming a kyomu (Wŏn Buddhist ordained clerics). By analyzing the biographies of the first 146 female kyomus, this paper sheds light on how these devotees were transformed from women with no identities outside the home into Buddhist masters or mothers of the world. Full article
24 pages, 1587 KiB  
Article
The Miraculous Narratives in The Biographies of Eminent Nuns and The Further Biographies of Eminent Nuns
by Haoqin Zhong
Religions 2023, 14(5), 565; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14050565 - 23 Apr 2023
Viewed by 1300
Abstract
This paper introduces miraculous narratives in The Biographies of Eminent Nuns (BQNZ) and The Further Biographies of Eminent Nuns (XBQNZ) and provides a comparative examination based on the relevant narratives in the above-mentioned collections and The Biographies of Eminent [...] Read more.
This paper introduces miraculous narratives in The Biographies of Eminent Nuns (BQNZ) and The Further Biographies of Eminent Nuns (XBQNZ) and provides a comparative examination based on the relevant narratives in the above-mentioned collections and The Biographies of Eminent Monks (GSZ). First, this paper suggests that eminent nuns’ miracles in the BQNZ seem to be more limited than those of their male contemporaries in the GSZ, which might reflect their comparatively limited agency in social engagements. Furthermore, the BQNZ’s silence on the eminence of foreign nuns, in sharp contrast to the special attention afforded to foreign monks in the GSZ, might suggest androcentrism in both the Saṅgha and Chinese society. Second, the entries containing “intentionally performed miracles” in the BQNZ outnumber those in the XBQNZ in terms of the percentage of all entries and diversity. Moreover, in later records of the XBQNZ, most miracles are only related to death. This might point to the lower esteem that eminent nuns enjoyed during and after late imperial China, partly because of Buddhism’s development and social status. Alternatively, this might have resulted from special social circumstances. Finally, this paper suggests that the androcentric inclination of the male compilers of the BQNZ and XBQNZ, or the sources on which the two collections are based, might have undermined eminent nuns’ prominence in upholding and spreading Buddhism. Such an androcentric bias is reflected in their selective use and adaptation of the materials. Full article
14 pages, 946 KiB  
Article
Four Chinese Buddhist Nuns’ Gender Anxiety in Their Colophons to the Da banniepan jing 大般涅槃經
by Ruifeng Chen
Religions 2023, 14(4), 481; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14040481 - 3 Apr 2023
Viewed by 1453
Abstract
Many scholars of Buddhism believe that Buddhists (particularly Mahāyāna Buddhists) regularly reproduce scriptures for merit in general, regardless of their content. However, by examining four Chinese Buddhist nuns’ colophons in manuscripts of the Da banniepan jing 大般涅槃經 (Scripture on the Great Extinction; Skt. [...] Read more.
Many scholars of Buddhism believe that Buddhists (particularly Mahāyāna Buddhists) regularly reproduce scriptures for merit in general, regardless of their content. However, by examining four Chinese Buddhist nuns’ colophons in manuscripts of the Da banniepan jing 大般涅槃經 (Scripture on the Great Extinction; Skt. Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra) (T no. 374) from around the sixth century with reference to its content, I argue that this scripture is significantly related to gender transformation and “female filth”. In this way, I suggest that these nuns could have deliberately commissioned this particular scripture due to their gender-based concerns. This study deepens our understanding of the reception of this scripture by Chinese Buddhist nuns by concentrating on the notion of gender, and it indicates that some nuns did not commission scriptures simply for merit without awareness of the scriptures’ content. This method of reading Buddhist texts as objects put into practice provides insight into the intellectual background of medieval Chinese Buddhist nuns, showing how they drew on their knowledge of Buddhist texts and financial resources to commission a specific scripture in order to negotiate more spiritual space. Full article
23 pages, 3164 KiB  
Article
Ascending the Milky Way: Seven Sisters Festival and the Religious Practices of Cantonese Women in Singapore
by Lynn Yuqing Wong
Religions 2023, 14(3), 406; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14030406 - 16 Mar 2023
Viewed by 2640
Abstract
The Seven Sisters Festival (also known as Qixi Festival) is especially important to Cantonese women, with differences in syncretic religious practices and beliefs between marriage resistance and nonresistance regions. Despite being forerunners in the wave of women’s migration since the 19th century, developments [...] Read more.
The Seven Sisters Festival (also known as Qixi Festival) is especially important to Cantonese women, with differences in syncretic religious practices and beliefs between marriage resistance and nonresistance regions. Despite being forerunners in the wave of women’s migration since the 19th century, developments in ritualistic practices and sisterhood structures of these Cantonese women after their migration remain largely unexplored. This article investigates the formation of Milky Way associations, liturgical sororities for organizing festival celebrations and worship of the Seven Sisters, and its influence on the social and religious lives of Cantonese women in Singapore. Through highlighting the coexistence of different belief systems, shifts in interest from China as the center of sociocultural origin to post-war/post-independence Singapore in the periphery, as well as negotiations with space, this article shows that Cantonese women have been active agents in reorganizing themselves, interacting within and outside of their communities, and engaging in heritage meaning-making. By compiling a non-exhaustive list of over 100 Milky Way associations in Singapore in the 1930–1940s, this article spotlights the magnitude and significance of the Seven Sisters Festival, which has disappeared since the 1970s with little material trace. Full article
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28 pages, 3771 KiB  
Article
Buddhist Women and Female Buddhist Education in the South China Sea: A History of the Singapore Girls’ Buddhist Institute
by Ruo Lin
Religions 2023, 14(3), 392; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14030392 - 15 Mar 2023
Viewed by 2991
Abstract
This paper studies the history of the Singapore Girls’ Buddhist Institute, the first and only modern Buddhist education institution for women in Singapore and Malaysia. This paper aims to explore a dynamic transregional Buddhist network constructed by nuns, vegetarian nuns, and laywomen, with [...] Read more.
This paper studies the history of the Singapore Girls’ Buddhist Institute, the first and only modern Buddhist education institution for women in Singapore and Malaysia. This paper aims to explore a dynamic transregional Buddhist network constructed by nuns, vegetarian nuns, and laywomen, with a particular emphasis on the prominent female figures and religious women communities involved. Through an analysis of the movements and religious practices of the Buddhist women community, the author demonstrates the contributions of Buddhist women to the transmission of religious knowledge and modern experiences. It is this paper’s intention that the micro-history of the case could contribute to restaging the women-centered Buddhist community in the narrative of “South China Sea Buddhism”. Full article
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17 pages, 3025 KiB  
Article
From Courtesan to Wŏn Buddhist Teacher: The Life of Yi Ch’ŏngch’un
by Grace J. Song
Religions 2023, 14(3), 369; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14030369 - 10 Mar 2023
Viewed by 1209
Abstract
This study examines the life of Yi Ch’ŏngch’un 李靑春 (1886–1955), one of the first female disciples of Wŏn Buddhism, a 20th-century Korean religious movement. Her story shows modernity’s impact on Korean women’s psyche and social roles, and the progressive initiative of male teachers [...] Read more.
This study examines the life of Yi Ch’ŏngch’un 李靑春 (1886–1955), one of the first female disciples of Wŏn Buddhism, a 20th-century Korean religious movement. Her story shows modernity’s impact on Korean women’s psyche and social roles, and the progressive initiative of male teachers who advanced gender equality in new Korean religious movements. A range of data, including periodicals, letters, and newspaper articles, enable us to understand the changing face of women during the process of modernization in Korea. This paper gives voice to the significant role of Yi Ch’ŏngch’un, an exceptional financial sponsor in the formative years of Wŏn Buddhism and an advocate for women’s rights. By highlighting her contributions, it becomes clear that the progressive males who pushed for gender equality relied on the support of female-ordained devotees to actualize the doctrine’s ideal. Full article
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18 pages, 11246 KiB  
Article
Posthumous Release for Lay Women in Tang China: Two Cases from the Longmen Grottoes
by Pinyan Zhu
Religions 2023, 14(3), 365; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14030365 - 9 Mar 2023
Viewed by 1942
Abstract
Famous for its cliff-carved Buddhist cave-shrines, Longmen was also a burial ground that attracted a few women from the seventh and the eighth centuries. This paper examines the burial caves of two lay women, Lady Lou (d. 661) and Lady Zhang (c. 658–c. [...] Read more.
Famous for its cliff-carved Buddhist cave-shrines, Longmen was also a burial ground that attracted a few women from the seventh and the eighth centuries. This paper examines the burial caves of two lay women, Lady Lou (d. 661) and Lady Zhang (c. 658–c. 718), in relation to the newly excavated archaeological material and epigraphic evidence. Lady Lou compared her cave burial to the Indian ascetic practice in the forest of Śītavana but did not enact the compassionate offering of flesh. Lady Zhang was later removed from her burial cave by her sons so that she could be interred in a joint tomb with her husband. Through these two cases, I investigate the motivations behind the adoption of cave burials in medieval China. Canonical Buddhist scriptures taught these women that their social gender presented an obstacle to the final release. Dedicatory inscriptions at women’s burials and two tales of miraculous events at Longmen further suggest that family ties, an important constituent of women’s social gender, were believed to persist posthumously. Married women were expected to maintain their spousal and parental relations in the afterlife, and unmarried girls were imagined as turning into seductive spirits because of their lack of spousal union in their lifetime. I argue that cave burials at Longmen were not a compromise of the Indian ascetic practice but rather presented these lay women with a socially acceptable way to break free from their familial attachments after death. Full article
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