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When Renunciation is Good Politics: The Women of the Imperial Nunnery of the Northern Wei (386–534)

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In order to examine the ways in which women of the court interacted with the Buddhist monastic establishment in early medieval China, this article investigates one particularly important nunnery, the imperially-funded Yaoguang si (Jeweled radiance nunnery) of the Northern Wei (368–534). Using the Luoyang qielan ji (Record of Buddhist Monasteries in Luoyang, T. no. 51.2092), the Weishu (Book of the Wei), and selections from entombed mortuary epigraphy, or muzhiming, the study will introduce a number of women from the Yaoguang si whose lives complicate our understandings of what it meant to be a bhikṣuṇī (nun) in early medieval China, particularly in the turbulent North. Arguing that the women of the Northern Wei court moved in and out of the nunnery in order to advance their own political standing and safeguard their tumultuous lives, this study will reveal how ordained women appear to have lived at court, while, in some cases, women of indeterminate ordination status lived in the nunnery. Such a study both problematizes received notions of Buddhist ordination for women in China – largely influenced by the Biqiuni zhuan (Biographies of the Bhikṣuṇīs, T. no. 50.2063) – while also exposing just how antagonistic life was for women who lived and worked in a patriarchal court that did not provide space or opportunity for them to advance politically.

Affiliations: 1: University of Southern California


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