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Temple and Text: Re-imagining Women’s Social Spaces in Late Imperial China

  • Author(s): Ma, Xu
  • Advisor(s): Huang, Martin
  • et al.
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Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license
Abstract

My dissertation aims to offer a new window into women’s spatial, social, and spiritual positioning in late imperial China by reconsidering women’s interactions with various physical and imagined temples/religious spaces. It explores the kinetic role of temples —a unique yet understudied “space”—in producing and reproducing gender relationship, identity, body, and space itself. Temples not only drew the cloistered Chinese women of diverse social and educational status out of their homes, but also disorientated yet vitalized them between the bipolar sensations of anchorage and variability, between bodily confinement and spiritual ecstasy. Through women’s controversial yet common existence in temples or various religious spaces, we could glance at how Buddhism (and other heterodox religions), by lavishing persistent attention on and offering tremendous opportunities to women, negotiates its status and domain within an increasingly hostile society dominated by Neo-Confucianism.

From the second half of the Ming dynasty through High Qing (roughly spanning late 15th to 18th centuries), a dual development rises to prominence in China’s ideological landscape. On the one hand, lay Buddhism flourished across wide swaths of Chinese society, and especially among women; one the other, the Neo-Confucian doctrines ascended to the state orthodoxy and fueled a reinforcement of Confucian family rituals and women’s seclusion. Under these circumstances, women were increasingly relegated to the private sphere, and yet there was nevertheless an ever-growing group of female devotees who embarked on far-flung pilgrimages and devoted themselves to outdoor spiritual activities. As Buddhism and Confucianism vied more dramatically for women’s allegiance at the time, the temple came to represent both a problematic site of heresy and transgression, and an alternative space that provided unique accommodation for women’s body and soul.

Examining a wide range of literary and historical materials, my dissertation aims to show that women’s engagement with religious spaces is much more complicated and even contradictive to what the normative narrative (as prescribed by Confucian moralists and evinced in orthodox discourse) has represented. The temple should not be simply categorized into the tabooed sphere of wai (outside, public) for women, and it was not always the antithesis to the nei sphere (inside, private). As I will show, the temple was capable of contesting, compensating, and conflating with the binary nei and wai spheres as a malleable site. I interpret the temple as a “space” that can take any number of forms. It signifies but is not always bound to any monastic site with specific scale, size, or shape; it could be simultaneously physical and imagined, locating both within and beyond the nei-wai system. Temples can make a combination or take an in-between position along the nei-wai dichotomy; temples also provide a third option, substitution, and compensation for the original binary oppositions. Briefly, instead of asking how temples fit into the Confucian nei-wai divide, my research reorients the question by classifying the religious space as a fluid “third social space” that simultaneously supplemented and subverted the nei-wai divide.

Furthermore, my consideration of temples as a “third social space” does not confine itself to the level of the spatial and gendered nei-wai duality. I also interpret it as a third possibility in terms of its constitution of and conflation with the symbolic worlds of the boudoir and books—

the two available social spaces to women at the time. In this way, my research expands on the scholarly trend of locating and interpreting women’s alternative social spheres in late imperial China. Taking a further step from the scholarly endeavor to expand women’s social spaces in late imperial China, I will argue that the temple is not merely a parallel third option that makes a new locus for us to re-contour women’s bodily placement and social position beyond boudoirs and off pages. Rather, religious spaces, material, textual, or symbolic, could also actively fuse or be identified with the first two realms, ie. books and boudoirs. Self-fashioned shrines or religious spaces within the domestic can always be evoked; physical temples could also be de/re-spatialized and transmuted into written words and illustrations, metaphorically rendering the reader a textual temple of sorts. In other words, boudoirs could be redesigned and appropriated into religious sites; architectural temples could also turn into a system of ideas and practices that traveled through texts. As such, temples not only furnished women with a geographical location to visit, sojourn, and occupy, but also conjured up a symbolic textual and spiritual “pure land” accommodating women’s soul and sentiment.

As religious spaces were transformed into printed words and images, a figurative parallel between text and temple could be thus established. Allowing its audience to evoke an “implied pilgrimage” every time they consumed the texts, all the sutra canvas and book pages became what I would call “textualized temples.” I, therefore, call for a creative hermeneutics of texts/books as an active agent and mediating spaces between ideological norms and people’s concrete interpretation and internalization in daily life. It is my contention that proliferating texts actually functioned as symbolic temples, carried and spread the Confucian and Buddhist doctrines to the individual reader. This “decomposed” discursive narrative denotes, in and of itself, a unique “space” which Michel Foucault would call “heterotopia.” Eventually, these temples on pages enacted multifold and secular appearances of the sacrosanct Confucian tradition and concurrent heterodox systems, in which women’s “socio-religious ablution” is recorded and renewed in innovative and robust manners.

As a more intimate connection between women and Buddhism was forged, Lay Buddhism took full advantage of this new perception of the gendered body to secure its foothold in a Neo-Confucian society that was increasingly hostile to heterodox systems. It strategically circumvented the public sphere and its steadfast male apologists by forging a more intimate connection with women. Through lavishing persistent attention on women and the substantial secularization of its religious practices, Buddhism introduced new ontological dimensions of the female spirituality and enabled the hitherto private, cloistered female body accrued public meaning and visibility in the literary, religious, and social spheres. Meanwhile it also provided men with a new possibility, new mode and new vocabulary to lionize and immortalize their otherwise ordinary mothers, wives, and daughters. As a result, Buddhism not only won over women’s allegiance, but also eventually co-opted or inveigled the male Confucian sectarians into facilitating its full integration into Chinese cultural landscape. In this sense, my research also offers new insights into the question concerning Buddhism’s survival and revivification in China after the catastrophic anti-Buddhism persecution of the 9th century.

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This item is under embargo until June 3, 2026.