Becoming Guanyin

Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China

Yuhang Li

Columbia University Press

Becoming Guanyin

Pub Date: February 2020

ISBN: 9780231190121

312 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $65.00£54.00

Pub Date: February 2020

ISBN: 9780231548731

312 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $64.99£54.00

Becoming Guanyin

Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China

Yuhang Li

Columbia University Press

The goddess Guanyin began in India as the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, originally a male deity. He gradually became indigenized as a female deity in China over the span of nearly a millennium. By the Ming (1358–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) periods, Guanyin had become the most popular female deity in China. In Becoming Guanyin, Yuhang Li examines how lay Buddhist women in late imperial China forged a connection with the subject of their devotion, arguing that women used their own bodies to echo that of Guanyin.

Li focuses on the power of material things to enable women to access religious experience and transcendence. In particular, she examines how secular Buddhist women expressed mimetic devotion and pursued religious salvation through creative depictions of Guanyin in different media such as painting and embroidery and through bodily portrayals of the deity using jewelry and dance. These material displays expressed a worldview that differed from yet fit within the Confucian patriarchal system. Attending to the fabrication and use of “women’s things” by secular women, Li offers new insight into the relationships between worshipped and worshipper in Buddhist practice. Combining empirical research with theoretical insights from both art history and Buddhist studies, Becoming Guanyin is a field-changing analysis that reveals the interplay between material culture, religion, and their gendered transformations.
Yuhang Li is, by training, an art historian. However, her take on Guanyin goes beyond the realms of art history. Li analyzes the female portrayal of Guanyin through paintings, material culture of embroidery, theatrical display of dance, archaeological objects, scripture, and literature. This is truly an interdisciplinary work. Chün-fang Yü, author of Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara
What distinguishes Becoming Guanyin from other excellent work on women and religion in late imperial China is its careful attention to the material culture of religious practice, from objects women made to objects of worship. The book should appeal to scholars and students in a variety of disciplines—history, art history, religion, literature, and gender studies. Ann Waltner, coauthor of Family: A World History
Becoming Guanyin is a truly innovative and interdisciplinary book that explores how lay women expressed religious devotion in late imperial China. Through a critical examination of women’s hairpins, embroidery made from women’s hair, and courtesan dance performances, Yuhang Li responds with intelligence to current scholarship on visual and material culture, women’s history, and religious studies. Highly recommended! Shih-shan Susan Huang, author of Picturing the True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China
List of Figures
Introduction: Gendered Materialization of Guanyin
1. Dancing Guanyin: The Transformative Body and Buddhist Courtesans
2. Painting Guanyin with Brush and Ink: Negotiating Confucianism and Buddhism
3. Embroidering Guanyin with Hair: Efficacious Pain and Skill
4. Mimicking Guanyin with Hairpins: Jewelry as a Means of Transcendence
Conclusion: From Home to Temple and Court: Restaging Women’s Devotional Objects
Notes
Bibliography
Index

About the Author

Yuhang Li is an assistant professor of Chinese art in the Department of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She cocurated with Judith Zeitlin the exhibition Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture and coedited the resulting catalog based on the exhibition.