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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 4.1 (2021): 381–389;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhist Worldmaking Programs & Tiantai/Chontae/Tendai Buddhism)

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Li, Yuhang. Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. Pp. xii +299.

University of Michigan

Both real-life observation and scholarly works tell us that women constitute the majority of Buddhist devotees, but the textual record consistently belies this across history: There are only a handful of texts authored by nuns in the most inclusive Chinese Buddhist canon, whereas even texts composed by morally compromised male Buddhist laymen were circulated and cherished. The small number of texts about female Buddhists were mostly penned by men. How then are we to retrieve the historical voices of this ‘silent majority’? Becoming Guanyin by Yuhang Li, an art historian by training, takes on this challenge, turning our gaze to women’s non-textual expressions of spiritual longing and experience in late imperial China.

There has never been a single, homogenous ‘Buddhist view on gender’. Rather, they range from the empowering and liberating message delivered by the flower-showering deity in the Vimalakīrti Sūtra to the belief in a hell waiting for every menstruating human. Instead of trying to reach an essentialist conclusion, Li focuses on women’s interpretations expressed in their creative works. In fact, tensions among conflicting Buddhist views of gender provided opportunities for and stimulated those interpretations.


About the Author: Lang Chen 陳朗 is a research fellow at the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies. Before joining the University of Michigan, she was an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She received her Ph.D. in religious studies at Yale University and worked as a postdoctoral fellow for the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. She is working on her book project on Tiantai Buddhism in late imperial China.


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