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Conversion to Chastity: A Buddhist Catalyst in Early Imperial China

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This paper traces the history of the notion of female chastity (zhen) in China from pre-Qin to the mid-imperial era and argues that, prior to the arrival of Buddhism in China, the idea of female “chastity” was concerned not so much with physical virginity as the dutiful fulfillment of wifely obligations as stipulated by the Confucian marriage rites. A woman's chastity was determined by her moral rectitude rather than by her biological condition. The understanding of the physical body as a sacrosanct entity that must be defended against defilement and violation emerged under the influence of Buddhist notions of the uncontaminated body, the pious observance of the Buddhist monastic code, and the performance of religious charity that became popular in early imperial China. Based on a critical analysis of a wide array of Confucian canonical texts, dynastic histories, Indian Buddhist scriptures, biographies of Chinese monks and nuns, the monastic code, and Chinese Buddhist encyclopedias, this paper delineates the gradual process by which the Buddhist concept of the “pure body” became fully assimilated into the indigenous Chinese notion of female “rectitude” and the notion of female chastity finally acquired an ontological identity around the end of the sixth century.

Affiliations: 1: National University of Singapore


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