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Irrepressible Female Piety: Late Imperial Bans on Women Visiting Temples

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Late imperial officials, from the highest-ranking ministers in Peking down to the county magistrates, repeatedly issued proclamations prohibiting women from visiting temples. Such bans were often ignored, but both normative and anecdotal evidence from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries documents a number of sustained attempts at enforcement. This article summarizes interpretations given to such bans by historians and analyzes the parameters of enforcement. While all-out bans were rarely envisioned, because of the total lack of public support, some officials tried to curb certain types of female participation in temple life that were considered particularly offensive (ritual roles for women, staying overnight, spectacular penitential practices, and so forth). This article argues that while outright repression of women (jailing and punishing all women entering temples or joining festivals) or temples (closure or destruction) was difficult to maintain on a long-term basis, it might serve as a threat in negotiations between official and local elites. In the course of such negotiations, elite members agreed to try to curb some “excessive” female practices in temples in exchange for official approval for temple festivals.

Affiliations: 1: Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités EPHE & CNRS


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