Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 20, 2021
Yuhang Li Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China Premodern East Asia: New Horizons. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. 312 pp. Cloth $65.00 (9780231190121)

The role of a bodhisattva in Buddhism has often been compared to that of a saint in Catholicism: an intimate and approachable divine figure who would be willing to put their own enlightenment on pause in order to ensure the salvation of all sentient beings. Among all, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin in Chinese), known as the Goddess of Compassion in English, has an outsize role in East Asian Buddhism. While she is ubiquitous in Chinese art, the Goddess of Compassion is woefully underrepresented in scholarly works, which focus mainly on imperially sponsored icons and primarily from the perspective of elite male makers, patrons, or worshippers. The issue of gender is crucial to the reading of Guanyin because after the originally masculine Buddhist deity arrived in China, he underwent what Yuhang Li characterizes as a “thousand-year period of feminization and domestication” (194) that definitively transformed Guanyin into a female Chinese deity. While elite male devotees continued to relish the gender ambiguity of the figure, only her female form was recognized and worshipped by laywomen in late imperial China.

Li’s book Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China is the sole full-length study examining the images of female Guanyin from the perspective of Chinese laywomen from roughly the mid-fourteenth to the early twentieth centuries, or the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. By exploring “the relationship between worshipper and worshipped in practice” (194) and examining a wide range of materials, Li argues that these women were able to establish a connection with or “becom[e]” Guanyin through “devotional mimesis” (22) as expressed through dancing, drawing, painting, embroidery, bodily adornment, and self-mortification. In the four main chapters of the book, she delicately probes individualized and often personal experiences seen through a variety of historical and art historical objects, from texts to paintings, archaeological remains, and devotional textiles.

Departing from other similar studies, Li shifts the burden of the material evidence away from the purely formal and iconographic toward the “complex world of practice, where knowledge and assumptions are often tacit and must be inferred” (20). Though long established in adjacent fields, such as religious studies and anthropology, this approach of emphasizing the agency of the object has been advocated by art historians such as W. J. T. Mitchell and David Freedberg. While not always transferrable across media and across cultures, this method is particularly effective in yielding a bountiful harvest when applied to devotional objects, as demonstrated in the book. Li’s approach is directly influenced by the works of prominent historians and anthropologists of gender in China, such as Dorothy Ko and Francesca Bray. In order to reclaim the authentic voices of women missing in conventional historical texts written by men, Li and others actively utilize “women’s things” (18) to ground and orient their historical subject. In two foundational studies, Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet (University of California Press, 2001) and Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding (University of California Press, 2007), Ko turns to Chinese embroidered shoes made for bound feet, considering them as a type of gendered text. Similarly, Li argues that the baimiao (plain-line drawing) painting style (chapter 2) and embroidery (chapter 3) are coded gendered acts performed by the Chinese laywomen.

I also find much methodological resonance between Li’s approach and that of the historian of medieval Europe Caroline Walker Bynum, who reminds us that devotional objects have agency, and they command us to do, act, and perform. Just like in the late imperial China of Li’s study, Bynum finds in Dissimilar Similitudes: Devotional Objects in Late Medieval Europe that “religious experience was literalized into encounter with objects” during thirteenth- to fifteenth-century Europe (Zone Books, 2020, 29). Li’s discussion in chapter 4 of elite Ming women’s emulation of the bodhisattva through hairstyles and hairpins in order to “overcome the distinction between the worshipped as an object and the worshipper as a subject” is a clear example of the mimetic behavior of “becoming Guanyin” promised in the book title. Additionally, the acts of devotional self-mortification and self-modification by laywomen outlined in chapter 3 echo Bynum’s previous study Holy Feast and Holy Fast, which interpreted medieval women’s devotional manipulation of food and body as a means of controlling their position within a patriarchal society and rigid religious structure (University of California Press, 1987).

Equally important to the book is the concept of “domestic space” in late-imperial China (16), which is coupled with a consideration of social class. For the most part these laywomen were part of the gentry class, which allowed them the privilege of remaining in their domiciles, as expected by the strictly patriarchal Confucian society at large. The female bodhisattva, whose manifestations often reinforced the gendered roles to which the women were assigned (such as the caring mother, the dutiful wife, or the chaste widow), became a significant focus of their lives. It was within the intimate and gendered domestic space that they were able to express their own agency through the devotional practices highlighted in the book. An important exception is found in chapter 1 in Li’s discussion of courtesans, who “became” Guanyin through their “bodily movement and music” (58). The experience of these women differs from the other examples in the book not only because they occupied a place outside of the conventional domestic space in late imperial China, but also because their embodied devotional practice of dancing is constructed mainly from the writings of male literati, underlining the difficulty and significance of reconstructing the female voice in history through a woman’s things.

Given the methodological connections and scholarly references described above, it should not come as a surprise that the meager critiques I can muster about the study have to do with the comparisons Li could have included to reach a wider audience outside of Chinese art history. Many of Li’s conclusions and theoretical implications could have been made more illuminating if only she had included cross-cultural examples, such as comparable case studies drawn from the productive wellspring of Marian cults around the world. It is also worth mentioning that while Guanyin was the most prominent and popular female deity in late-imperial China, several equally well-documented regional cults existed at the same time that were devoted to other maternal deities, such as Mazu (see a recent study by Yanchao Zhang) or Jinhua Niangniang in southern China.

Though Li’s book confidently and rightfully announces its female-centric perspective, in light of several recent or forthcoming studies on transgender history in China, I do wonder what Becoming Guanyin might have looked like from a less binary conception of gender—for example, from the perspectives proposed in a volume edited by Howard Chiang (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). After all, there are deep Buddhist theological rationales for the bodhisattva to have an unspecified gender: gender as an illusory phenomenon, the principle of nonduality, or the idea of skillful means toward reaching enlightenment. If the possibility that Guanyin could transcend gender was an attractive fantasy for some male devotees, did late-imperial laywomen in China feel the same way? At least one gender studies scholar, Cathryn Bailey, has attempted to explore the transgender possibility of Guanyin by seeing the universal in the deity, “a way that captures the pragmatist and feminist emphasis on doing justice to concrete, particular lives” (“Embracing the Icon: The Feminist Potential of the Trans Bodhisattva, Kuan Yin,” Hypatia 24, no. 3, 2009: 178).

Nonetheless, Li’s book is a remarkable achievement. It straddles and provides significant insights for several disciplinary fields beyond Chinese or Buddhist art history. This interdisciplinary approach, borrowing methods from religious studies, anthropology, and sociology, is only the latest example of critically needed contributions to diversify our field, and this book will surely serve as a model for many.

William H. Ma
Assistant Professor of Art History, School of Art, Louisiana State University