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

Stephanie BalkwillUniversity of Southern California

Search for other papers by Stephanie Balkwill in
Current site
Google Scholar
View More View Less
Open Access

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.


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.

Introduction: Beyond the Biographies of the Bhikṣuṇīs

Recent studies of the lives of Buddhist women who lived in Tang 唐 (618–907) and later China as well as in pre-modern Japan have highlighted the social worlds that bhikṣuṇīs lived and worked in, with particular respect to groupings of elite Buddhist women;1 however, the study of such women in pre-Tang times is not similarly developed in western scholarship.2 This is unfortunate; studying Chinese Buddhist history before the seventh century yields contact with the earliest Buddhist women that we have on record in East Asia, and their stories challenge popular perceptions of the pious and celibate medieval bhikṣuṇī. This lack of a focus on the social lives of East Asia’s earliest bhikṣuṇīs is likely due to two, interrelated assumptions: 1) that sources for the study of Buddhist women, or women generally, between the Han 漢 (202 BCE-220 CE) and the Tang are limited; 2) that although the source material threatens the scope of our study, the tradition itself has provided a partial answer to the missing voices of female monastics from the early medieval period.3 This partial answer is the Buddhist biographical collection, the Biqiuni zhuan 比丘尼傳 (Biographies of the bhikṣuṇīs, T. no. 50.2063; hereafter BQNZ), which ­appears to have entered Buddhist catalogues during the Song 宋 dynasty (960–1279).4 The majority of studies on pre-Tang Buddhist women in China have taken the BQNZ as their starting point.5

Reputed to have been authored by the Liang 梁 dynasty (502–87) monk, Shi Baochang 釋寶唱 (fl. early sixth century)6 in approximately 516, the BQNZ is a biographical collection of China’s most eminent bhikṣuṇīs from the years 357–519.7 The first biography in the collection is that of Zhu Jingjian 竺淨檢 (292–361),8 who is famed for being the first woman to have raised the question of ordination for woman in China, and who eventually took orders herself. Jingjian’s ordination, however, was incomplete: she was ordained in a Mahāsāṃghika “list of rules,” and her ordination did not have the requisite quorum of already ordained women to support it.9 This was a problem for early communities of Buddhist women in China seeking to ordain. Although there were many Indian and Central Asian bhikṣus active in China in the early medieval period, there were not similar numbers of bhikṣuṇīs to support an ordination. The text then follows chronologically from Jingjian forward until we meet the women of the Liu Song 劉宋 dynasty (420–79). The first biography in this section is that of Huiguo 慧果 (364–433).10 Her biography tells of her own insistence to establish orthodox vinaya ordinations for Chinese women, including the necessary quorum of fully-ordained bhikṣuṇīs and the use of newly-translated vinayas. According to Ann Heirman, this ordination finally took place in 433 with the permission of the bhikṣu Qiunabamo 求那跋摩 (Guṇavarman) (367–431). The ordination ceremony included a group of ordained women from Sri Lanka and was likely undertaken in the Dharmaguptakavinaya. The full story of this ordination can be found in the biography of Sengguo 僧果 (b. 408).11 The ordination was successful and included the re-ordination of approximately 300 Chinese women who, like Jingjian, had already taken incomplete orders.12

From these biographies, it is evident that some of the earliest Buddhist women in China were eager to receive ordination according to Buddhist monastic law. They took this matter seriously, repeatedly petitioning male members of the monastic community to ordain them fully and to provide the necessary conditions for the attendance of already ordained women from the larger Buddhist world. The biographies show that women such as Jingjian and Sengguo had studied vinaya and knew not only what they needed for ordination, but also that it was their right to demand such things. In placing their biographies at the beginning of the text, Baochang highlights this battle for women’s ordination as one of the major themes of the text. This theme colors the rest of the stories in the text, and the text never questions whether Buddhist women after Sengguo were ordained in a proper method or not, whether they lived in nunneries as was their right, or whether they practiced Buddhism in earnest. These assumptions are never challenged in the BQNZ, because the text seeks to commend the virtues of the bhikṣuṇīs collected, and not necessarily to record the realities of their lives.

Furthermore, in telling the stories of China’s most famed bhikṣuṇīs, the BQNZ functions as a highly prescriptive account of how Buddhism became a new means for women to enact the societal virtues which were then valorized within a literary tradition dominated by “Confucian discourse.”13 The women in the collection are extolled for their acts of filial piety, including resisting marriage to unfilial and unvirtuous men through renunciation,14 or divorcing such men and becoming bhikṣuṇīs as proof of their own virtue,15 showing how renunciation is a path to fulfilling filial responsibility,16 and even resisting rape against the threat of death.17 As such, the text needs to be understood within the context of the merging of Buddhist and Confucian values at the elite level of society.18 This is a topic that has garnered significant scholarly attention.19 The BQNZ thus offers an important depiction of how Buddhist practices became integrated into ideals of value creation and gender-specific notions of work and space in the early medieval period; however, it features so predominantly in studies of Buddhist women in pre-Tang times that it has led to a lacuna in scholarship wherein current studies have provided few counter examples to the stories contained in, and perpetuated by, the text.

In this article, I will expand current scholarly perspectives on East Asia’s earliest bhikṣuṇīs beyond what is offered in the BQNZ by using source materials that reference only one important early nunnery, the imperially-funded Yaoguang si 瑤光寺 (Jeweled radiance nunnery) of the Northern Wei 北魏 (386–534).20 My study is concentrated on this nunnery because the historical record contains a unique set of sources that provide a glimpse into the lives of a few women who lived and worked in both the court and the nunnery at roughly the same moment in history. As to the sources: first, we have references to the nunnery in the biographies of empresses contained in the dynastic history of the Northern Wei, the Weishu 魏書 (Book of the Wei); second, we have a lengthy description of the nunnery itself, including its inhabitants, in Yang Xuanzhi’s 楊衒之 (fl. sixth century) Luoyang qielan ji 洛陽伽藍記 (Record of Buddhist monasteries in Luoyang, T. no. 51.2092; hereafter LYQLJ);21 third, we have the commemorative entombed epitaphs, or muzhiming 墓誌銘, of three women of the court who were bhikṣuṇīs, associated with the Yaoguang si during their careers, and buried at the Northern Wei’s imperial burial site of Mangshan 邙山 just outside of Luoyang 洛陽: Ciyi 慈義 (d. 518),22 Ciqing 慈慶 (d. 508),23 and Shi Sengzhi 釋僧芝 (516).24

As a genre, muzhiming developed a standardized form during the time period of our study. This standard muzhiming includes a lineage of the deceased person’s clan and social class, information on their spouses and children, a brief overview of their careers, a discussion of their merits, and a rhymed elegy.25 For our purposes, the standardized muzhiming discussed here are the earliest that we have on record for bhikṣuṇīs, and they have yet to be studied in detail. This is unfortunate; muzhiming provide rare details into the lives of the monastic and courtly careers of some of the earliest Buddhist women in East Asia. The use of muzhiming in the study of early Buddhist women is still in its infancy, though it is better developed for studies located in the Tang. Using Tang sources, the contemporary scholar Pang Shiying has argued that muzhiming provide new and different kinds of information on the lives of Buddhist women, which allow us to come to radically new conclusions regarding the nature of gendered Buddhist practice in early medieval society.26 In bringing these sources and stories to light, this article contributes to a methodological conversation begun by Wendi Adamek, Ping Yao, Su Shimei, and Valentina Georgieva who all investigated sources outside of canonical biographies and Buddhist sūtras – including muzhiming in some cases – in order to tell new stories about the social lives of Buddhist women.27

As we will see, the sources documenting the Yaoguang si suggest that the structure was a parallel institution to the women’s court and that it was kept close to the court – physically and administratively – in order provide support for the women who lived in both spaces. The boundary between the two institutions was simultaneously permeable enough to support a woman’s free and easy movement back and forth, and yet solid enough to offer a woman sanctuary from her political career when needed. As a result, far from being exemplary monastics of Confucian virtue and Buddhist practice like the women of the BQNZ, the women of the Yaoguang si undertook renunciation in ways that might upset Zhu Jingjian and Sengguo. The women of the Northern Wei court and the Yaoguang si became bhikṣuṇīs in order to avoid political troubles, because they were sick or widowed, and to gain status at court through identification with Buddhism. Thus, the women connected to the Yaoguang si did not always live in the nunnery: some remained at court working as religious officers, and some lived with their natal families. In some cases, they became bhikṣuṇīs only temporarily and in most cases they did so having had no prior recorded Buddhist inclination.

Unlike the stories of the women in the BQNZ, in no one place in our Northern Wei materials is the idea of full vinaya ordination discussed. In our sources, the process of becoming a bhikṣuṇī is just that: wei ni 為尼 (becoming a [bhikṣu]ṇī).28 We therefore have no way of knowing if the women in our stories actually ordained according to any monastic law or if they even followed the discipline of Buddhist renunciation in general. Similarly, the one source that documents what the Buddhist community was understood to look like from the perspective of the Northern Wei court is the Shilao zhi 釋老志 (Annals on Buddhism and Daoism) which is the final chapter of the Weishu. Although that text enumerates different statuses for male members of the community, for women it reserves two sentences: “As for those women who enter the Way, they are called ‘[Bhikṣu]ṇīs.’ Their precepts amount to 500, all of which are taken […] as their base. Accordingly, these extra [rules] are relied on to restrain the mind, control the body, and rectify speech.” Fu rudao zhe yue biqiuni. Qi jie zhiyu wubai, jie yi wei ben, sui shi zeng shu, zaiyu fang xin, she shen, zheng kou. 婦入道者 曰比丘尼。其誡至于五百,皆以□為本,隨事增數,在於防心、攝身、正口.29 Thus, in the Northern Wei in general, and in the lives of our women to be discussed below in particular, the question of the status of a women’s ordination seems to be largely ignored. The author of the official history of the Northern Wei was aware of the extra rules that bhikṣuṇīs take on, but he says nothing of what exactly they are – he is silent on how and when an ordination is to be done.30 This is in sharp contrast to the lives of women recorded in the BQNZ.

In examining the lives of the women who moved between the Northern Wei court and the Yaoguang si, it becomes evident that entrance to the Buddhist monastic community provided the most elite women of the Northern Wei with additional means to gain political opportunity, standing, and prestige at a highly competitive court. As such, the women’s motivations for becoming bhikṣuṇīs are not of the type that we are accustomed to seeing in the BQNZ.31 Motivated by political standing and influence, the ability to ascend ranks at court, and the desire to safeguard their own lives and careers while putting an end to those of others, the women of the Northern Wei court came to the tradition of Buddhist monasticism not looking to permanently renounce their tumultuous lives, but in need of better mechanisms by which to chart their way through.

This motivation, again, is in contrast to the stories of women in the BQNZ who often show purposeful ambivalence to political life. Take for example the biography of Huixu 慧緒 (431–99).32 She is extolled for constantly evading the palace women who requested her religious services. She did so by repeatedly staging hunger strikes when brought to the palace. Her biography reads as though she spent her entire life avoiding the palace because she was the kind of eminent woman who had no concern for material matters. Indeed, the text says that she died only after having finally rid herself of all her palace connections. Though we may assume that such a woman lived a life of courtly politics not so different from our Northern Wei women to be discussed below, what is noteworthy is that she is not represented that way by Baochang in his collection. She is presented reverentially and idealistically as an apolitical monastic, and not as a living women working between networks of power at a busy court. What we can therefore approach through a study of the elite women of the Northern Wei is precisely the account of these networks of power that is missing in the BQNZ. From this, we can understand how the Buddhist institution provided new avenues for social status, practice, and safety for the women of early medieval China. For some, this meant an earnest desire to renounce and undertake the full rules of Buddhist monastic law. For others, entrance to the Buddhist monastic community was meant only to be a temporary pivot, a social opportunity that made life more dynamic, and perhaps easier. The stories of these “others” are in sharp contrast to those with whom we are familiar from the BQNZ, and thus they are important sources for our understanding of early monastic life in China.

The Court, the Nunnery, and the Women Within

The women who populated the Yaoguang si were not the pious Buddhist women of the BQNZ. They were women of the court. To understand their lives in the nunnery, an initial consideration of their lives at court is necessary. In a lengthy series of articles on the powers and political influence of the elite women of the Northern Wei, Jennifer Holmgren has shown how a woman’s power in the Tuoba court was directly related to that court’s marriage practices. Arguing that Northern Wei marriage policies prior to the 490s worked to separate empresses from their kin and disengage them from the political, Holmgren states that the women of the early Northern Wei court were “merely passive instruments in cementing temporary politico-military alliances with outside groups” and that they neither had “any legitimate opportunity to exercise political power” nor any “any indirect means of influencing the leadership.”33 She arrives at this deduction by surveying the biographies of the wives and mothers of early Northern Wei leaders preserved in the the Weishu.34 In her reading, she exposes Tuoba society as a clan group defined by a patriarchal leadership in which women were never able to rise politically because: 1) the early Northern Wei court did not know the institution of women’s ranks, including that of “empress,” and so the wives and consorts of Tuoba emperors were never promoted politically; 2) the mothers of emperors were forced to commit suicide on the accession of their sons;35 and 3) women were never able to serve as regents and empress dowagers because Tuoba rules of succession would never allow a child ruler to be placed on the throne.36

However, in a later article, Holmgren further shows that this situation of the women at the Tuoba court changed dramatically by the 490s. This change was affected by a transformation in Tuoba marriage policies that saw elite members of the court inter-marrying with members of the Han Chinese elite in an attempt to consolidate their expanding Northern empire. Holmgren argues that during this time, the “throne began to use the marriages of female offspring to gain access to the social network of the Chinese elite” and that, “a controlled, elitist marriage strategy was developed during the 490s in an effort to establish a recognizable and ‘respectable’ circle of families from which the ruling line and close paternal kin (males and females) could draw their spouses.”37 Ultimately, this change in marriage practices created the necessary conditions by which women of political importance could gain access to court and cement their own power, as well as that of their families, from within. As a case in point, the latter half of the Northern Wei saw the rise of two of the most powerful women in Chinese history – Empress Dowager Wenming 文明 (442–90) and Empress Dowager Ling 靈 (d. 528), the former of whom was an active voice behind such policy changes, and the latter of whom benefited from their enactment.

These two empress dowagers are well known because of their high position; however, many other women below them were also occupied with this same pursuit of rank and influence that Holmgren has sketched out above. We get a hint at the burgeoning numbers of women in the Northern Wei court, and of their political significance, in the section of the biographies of empresses in the Weishu. In the introduction to this section, the author provides a historical overview of the development of court ranks for women in Chinese history, as he understood it. Starting with the ranks of political women in the court of the Han, he delineates a history of the increasing numbers of women at court and of the increasing complexity of their organizational structure up to the Northern Wei. For the sake of brevity, I offer here only the section regarding the court ranks for women in the latter part of the Northern Wei, under the direction of Emperor Wencheng (r. 452–65). The Weishu says:

Furthermore, Shizu38 and Gaozong39 were dependent on the mercy of the labors of their wet nurses and, indeed, they held in highest esteem the justice of venerating [them]. Therefore, in such matters, they disobeyed the canons of ceremony and subsequently they viewed [this issue] with extraordinary wisdom and benevolence. Gaozong remodeled and settled the inner court: the Zhaoyi of the Left and Right were established comparatively to the Great Inspectors of the Armies, the Three Furen were established comparatively to the Three Offices, the Three Concubines were established comparatively to the Three Ministers, the Six Concubines were established comparatively to the Six Ministers, the Mother of the Realm was established comparatively to the Grand Master, and the Female Guards were established comparatively to the Gentlemen of the Yuan family.40 又世祖、高宗緣保母劬勞之恩,並極尊崇之義,雖事乖典禮,而觀過知仁。高祖改定內官,左右昭儀位視大司馬,三夫人視三公,三嬪視三卿,六嬪視六卿,世婦視中大夫,禦女視元士。 

Furthermore, as for placing the women in their employ, the canons were used for these domestic issues: the Inner Officer was established comparatively to the messengers and servants of the Secretary; the three palaces of the Acting Officer, the Great Overseer, and the Women’s Attendant were established as comparatively to the second rank; the Overseer, the Women’s Secretary, the Talented Women, the Women’s Historian, the Female Sages, the Scribes, the Scribes, the Scribal Ladies, and the Lesser Female Scribes of the Five Bureaus were established comparatively to the third rank; the Central Lady of Talent, the Provisioner, the Ladies of Talent, the Respectable Palace Envoys were established as comparatively to the fourth rank; and the Spring Clothier, the Female Libationer, the Banqueteuse, the Restaurateuse, the menial service and the female slaves were established comparatively to the fifth rank. 後置女職,以典內事。內司視尚書令、僕。作司、大監、女侍中三官視二品。監,女尚書,美人,女史、女賢人、書史、書女、小書女五官,視三品。中才人、供人、中使女生、才人、恭使宮人視四品,春衣、女酒、女饗、女食、奚官女奴視五品。41

Although we cannot rely on an official dynastic history to be an unbiased, eye-witness account of the political situation it describes, this delineation of women’s ranks does suggest that the inner imperium of the Northern Wei court was a codified and expansive structure with some measure of prestige, though perhaps not exactly as described. Moreover, the establishment of these ranks under the Northern Wei is further verified in the Songshu 宋書 (Book of the Song) which provides a similar overview of the development of court ranks for women from the Han through the Liu Song.42 The development of innovative court ranks for women was a necessary procedure under the Northern Wei because, as the Tuoba expanded their territory across new frontiers, they took large numbers of non-Tuoba women into the court as tributes. They then utilized a modified Han Chinese style of bureacractic organization to structure and house all of these new members of the court.43 And yet, though many of these women of the court were tributes from conquered states, it seems clear that they had responsibilities and created prestige at court. Working at the court in stiff competition with each other, they used whatever means necessary to advance their standing through the ranks, as suggested by Holmgren above in her studies of the marriage practices of the Tuoba elite.

What Holmgren does not consider in her study of the political influence and the courtly careers of elite women of the Tuoba court is that many of them identified as Buddhist, including our powerful empress dowagers. This identification likely worked in a woman’s favor at court – allowing her to present herself as virtuous and moral – though it also aided in her political standing in more institutional ways. When we read across the available sources for information on the lives of elite women of the Northern Wei court – official biographies, mortuary inscriptions, selections from the Weishu and the LYQLJ – more often than not, they had deep connections with the Buddhist monastic institution, primarily with the Yaoguang si. Fortunately for us, the Yaoguang si is described in Yang Xuanzhi’s LYQLJ and so we know quite a bit about it.

Of the Buddhist buildings in the city center that appear in the text, Yang Xuanzhi states that there are simply too many to describe in his record, and so he selects only nine eminent ones for inclusion.44 These nine include four nunneries, four monasteries, and the dynasty’s pre-eminent Buddhist structure, the Yongning si 永寧寺 (Forever abiding monastery), which according to the biography of Empress Dowager Ling in the Weishu housed both bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs.45 Though it was built slightly later than the Yaoguang si, the Yongning si was known to be the most amazing building in the realm; Yang Xuanzhi records that upon seeing it, the mythic Chan founder, Bodhidharma – who claimed to be 150 years old and to have traveled the entire Buddhist world – proclaimed that even he had never seen anything like it.46 For our purposes, Yang Xuanzhi compares the ornamentation and decoration of the Yongning si to our Yaoguang si, thus suggesting that the nunnery was a place of tremendous wealth founded on imperial patronage. When offering a physical description of our nunnery, Yang Xuanzhi states:

The nunnery housed a five-story stūpa that rose fifty zhang (approx. 150 meters) from the ground. Its “immortal’s palm”47 rose into the sky [such that] its bells hung from the surface of the clouds. The brilliance of its workmanship was equal in beauty to the Forever Abiding [Monastery]. Of the lecture halls and the nun’s quarters, there was over 500 rooms. Elegantly scattered, they were all connected as their doors and windows shared a passage on which there was rare trees and fragrant grasses which could not be matched with words. 有五層浮圖一所,去地五十丈。仙掌淩虛,鐸垂雲表。做工之妙,埒美永寧。 講殿尼房,五百餘間。綺疏連亘,戶牖相通,珍木香草,不可勝言。48

The Yaoguang si was one of Luoyang’s premier Buddhist structures, alongside the Yongning si. The structure was evidently quite large: Yang Xuanzhi reports that it held 500 cells, and that these were populated by the women of the court. Even if the number 500 was an exaggeration on the part of Yang Xuanzhi, this large number speaks to two different currents of the Northern Wei court: 1) that there were a large number of women at court; 2) that these women were commonly associated with Buddhism, specifically with the Yaoguang si. Having large numbers of women at court makes sense: in an era as turbulent as the Northern Wei, when emperors, generals, dukes, and other men of the court often lived shorter lives than their women folk, and also when the emperor had a harem populated with both captured women and politically appointed consorts from allied clans, it is likely that the numbers of women at court were very large.

As to the location of the Yaoguang si, according to the LYQLJ, the nunnery had the exclusive status of being the only Buddhist building situated north of the palace. It was securely tucked in between the northwest corner of the palace, the palatial gardens to the east, and a fortress built in the northwest corner of the city wall.49 Thus it was essentially blocked off from the rest of the city by the palace itself, and was integrated into the buildings and gardens of the larger palatial complex. This close proximity between court and nunnery is because the nunnery was home to the most elite women of the realm – women who needed protection and separation from common society. Of the inhabitants of the nunnery, Yang Xuanzhi says:

Imperial consorts from the “Pepper Chamber” studied the path there, as did the ladies of the court who dwelled there together with them.50 Likewise, there were maidens of reputable clans whose disposition was to cherish this place of practice and so they shaved their heads, bade farewell to their families and came with proper deportment to this nunnery. Rejecting their rare and beautiful ornaments and wearing the clothes for cultivating the path, they surrendered their hearts to the eight truths51 and entrusted themselves to the unique vehicle.52

椒房嬪御,學道之所,掖庭美人,並在其中。亦有名族處女,性愛道場,落髮辭親,來儀此寺。摒珍麗之飾,服修道之衣,投心八正, 歸誠一乘。53

How are we to understand this? In a competitive court environment like the one described by Holmgren wherein women had few avenues by which to exercise political influence and secure their positions, this parallel alignment of nunnery and court provided literal space, and from this space, room to move and negotiate for the women who lived in these dual domains. This space, moreover, was one in which women were able to exist without reference to male kin; renunciation (if only temporarily and only ideologically) provided a woman in crisis at the court who had almost certainly experienced a disconnection from her male kin through their death or similar, a place to live as an eminent and single woman. From this status she could also consider planning her return to court. Similarly, for women at court, the nunnery allowed them options for their competition: pressuing a fellow court woman to enter the nunnery was likely a better option than having her murdered, though that happened too. Thus, far from Yang Xuanzhi’s account above of the pious inclinations of the women of the Northern Wei court, and far from his statement that these women were driven to the nunnery by their sole desire to study the Buddha’s teachings, what follows are a number of accounts of women in the nunnery who used the space of the nunnery for their political advantage, with the Buddha’s teachings seemingly quite far from their minds.

The Empress

Empress Gao 高 (d. 528) was a widow of the court. She entered the Yaoguang si after the death of Emperor Xuanwu 宣武 (r. 499–515), who was himself the founder of the nunnery. The story of her entry into and subsequent life in the nunnery is full of intrigue. It illustrates the type of political competition in the inner imperium that is suggested by both Holmgren’s work on the political influence of women at the Northern Wei court as well as by the delineation of the women’s bureaucracy offered above. Her biography from her muzhiming tells us:

Her name was Ying, and her family name was Gao, and she was from Tiao prefecture in Bohai. She was the daughter of the elder brother of the Retired Empress Wenzhao.54 She was appointed as a lady of the court in the fourth year of Shizong’s reign of Luminous Brightness (504).55 In the fifth year of the reign of True Beginnings (509) she was granted the position of empress. When the emperor died, she determinedly aspired to the path and the gate [to practice religion], and so she left the secular world to become a [bhikṣu]ṇī.


When compared to the other muzhiming of elite women of the time period – those discussed here and otherwise – the biographical information on Empress Gao’s muzhiming seems truncated. This is odd: as an empress, we might expect the text to contain abundant information on her lineage, deeds, etc, yet really no biographical information is given about the Empress at all in her muzhiming. It seems a given that because she was widowed she needed to become a bhikṣuṇī – an assumption confirmed by unspecific references to Buddhism in her muzhiming, references that do not connect Empress Gao to the Buddhist tradition in any notable way. However, digging a little deeper, we find that there is much more to the story of Empress Gao’s move to the nunnery than the simple retirement of a court widow. As we will see, her muzhiming serves as a cover for her murder.

Since Gao was an empress, she has a biography in the Weishu. It, too, is brief; however, it provides additional background information on her life circumstances at the time of the death of Emperor Xuanwu. From her biography we learn that her entrance to the nunnery was perhaps not her decision, but was the political move of Empress Dowager Ling. Ling has earned a certain infamy in Chinese history for the many unprecedented maneuvers that she performed at the Northern Wei court: she forced the repeal of the Northern Wei practice of imperial matricide so that she could rule the dynasty as regent and empress dowager behind her own son, whom she eventually murdered over a quarrel about her lover; she attempted to place a girl child on the throne after the murder of her son; she held court and issued edicts in her own name; she tried at one point to gain political asylum by becoming a bhikṣuṇī herself and shaving her head, though she was nonetheless murdered by Erzhu Rong 爾朱榮 (493–530) during his rebellion;57 and, most damningly, she ruled over the collapse of the dynasty.58

Empress Gao had the unfortunate fate of being the enemy of Empress Dowager Ling. Both women were attached to Emperor Xuanwu: Gao, his empress, and Ling, his consort. Gao had had two children with the emperor, both a prince and a princess. Of her son, her biography tells us only that he “died early” zaoyao 早夭 – a common fate of young emperors – and of her daughter, the biography tells us that Empress Dowager Ling personally raised the girl child after her mother entered the nunnery. Of Empress Gao’s entrance to the Yaoguang si, though her muzhiming tells us only that she “she left the secular world to become a [bhikṣu]ṇī,” her biography in the Weishu gives us a fuller account of what happened after the death of Xuanwu. It says:

As soon as Suzong was established [as emperor], [Empress Gao] was given the respectful title of huangtaihou 皇太后 (retired empress). Seeking to become a [bhikṣu]ṇī, she dwelled in the Yaoguang si and she only came back to court for celebrations.

及肅宗即位, 上尊號曰皇太后。尋為尼, 居瑤光寺, 非大節慶, 不入宮.59

This move from court to nunnery is because Suzong is none other than Emperor Xiaoming, the son of Empress Dowager Ling, whom she birthed by the husband of Empress Gao, Emperor Xuanwu, and whom she ruled behind as regent. Thus Gao’s desire to move to the nunnery makes sense because, with her enemy ruling, she would have found no space at court to exercise her power or enjoy her own freedom of movement. Even though she had just been granted a venerable title from Suzong, she still chose to go to the nunnery. This intense competition between the two women is further witnessed by Empress Gao’s death. Her biography tells us that three years after her move to the nunnery, in the first year of the shengui 神龜 (divine tortoise) reign (518), Empress Dowager Ling was responsible for her murder. This murder may have occurred because Empress Dowager Ling feared that Empress Gao might successfully put in play the policy “if the son is noble, the mother dies” in order for herself to rule behind the child emperor by killing the mother. There was dynastic precedent for such a move: Empress Dowager Wenming did this very thing some fifty years earlier in order to secure her position as regent behind Emperor Xianwen 獻文 (r. 465–471). As for Gao’s death, her characteristically silent muzhiming tells us only that “she died in the nunnery.” Her biography tells us more: after Empress Gao’s move from the court to the nunnery, she went to visit her then-deceased mother in their ancestral home of Wuyi 武邑. Then, the biography tells us of an unusual event, recounting that: “At that time, the constellations had changed [i.e. there had been an omen], and Empress Dowager Ling desired that Empress [Gao] should bear the ruin. At night there was a sudden magnicide and all under heaven considered it an injustice. The funeral saw her returned to the Yaoguang si where the court women at the burial all undertook the ceremony of the [bhikṣu]ṇī [ordination].” Shi tianwen you bian, Ling taihou yu yi hou dang huo, shi ye bao bang, tianxia yuan zhi, sang huan yaoguang fosi, pin zang jie yi ni li 時天文有變,靈太后欲以后當禍,是夜暴崩,天下冤之。喪還瑤光佛寺,嬪葬皆以尼禮.60 Though the text does not expressly say that the Empress Dowager personally murdered Empress Gao, it does implicate her in the latter’s death while also suggesting the deep grief of the other women at court who came to her funeral.61

The moral that we should take from this story of murder and political competition is that some of the women of the Buddhist monastic institution in early medieval China were political opponents and that their lives, as well as the lives of their competitors, were inextricably linked to the nunnery. In the story of Empress Gao this linkage played out in a number of notable ways. First, the nunnery acted as a sanctuary for Empress Gao; however, it was not a distant sanctuary removed from court intrigues. The murder of Gao by Ling suggests that Ling feared that Gao could return and perhaps Gao was actually working on such stratagems from the nunnery, though we have no way of knowing.62 Third, that this retirement from politics through the nunnery, if only symbolic, didn’t always work: Gao was murdered and Ling herself attempted renunciation when under attack by Erzhu Rong, but was murdered nonetheless.

On a more generalized level, what needs to be recognized is that the nunnery provided the court women of medieval China with increased institutional space outside of the court and the family. Though the women of the court often came to the nunnery because of a loss of connection with the man who kept them at court through marriage or motherhood, what they found in the nunnery was, in fact, opportunity. From the nunnery they had the chance to stay alive and continue building their political alliances. They might even have had the chance to come back to court with a different, and perhaps higher, status. This is exactly what happened with the most famous woman in all of Chinese history, Wu Zetian 武則天 (r. 690–705); having gone to the nunnery for several years after the death of Emperor Taizong 太宗 (r. 626–49), whose consort she was, she came back to court as empress to his son, Emperor Gaozong 高宗 (r. 649–83). She then succeeded him officially and became the only woman to ever rule China in her own name.63

The act of widow retirement to nunneries is not a new topic in scholarship, in fact the practice is common enough to have been viewed by scholars as “essentially a transformed observance of burial sacrifice;”64 however, I believe that this interpretation does not consider the range of motivations that a woman may have had for choosing the nunnery. The story of Empress Gao well illustrates that it was not her commitment to a patriarchal tradition of widow chastity that saw her move to the nunnery; her move was political, lateral even. It allowed her to stay alive, if only for a while, and perhaps continue to bolster her political connections. In her work on the renunciation of Buddhist women in Japan, Lori Meeks has also argued that the motivations of court women to move to the nunnery go far beyond the oversimplified idea of “widow retirement.” In her case, Meeks has shown that widow chastity and ritual suicide were later developments in the tradition, and that such explanations are not applicable to the lives of the women she has studied.65 This has allowed her to make the powerful argument that, “When placed in historical context, the act of becoming a nun appears much more complex and is shown to have a much wider range of signification than is suggested by the simple characterization of nuns as victims of patriarchy.”66 I believe we see echoes of this argument in our story of Empress Gao.

Finally, in this regard, consider one last bit of information we have on the life and renunciation of Empress Gao: a small fragment that comes to us from the muzhiming of another elite bhikṣuṇī of the Northern Wei, Shi Sengzhi. According to her muzhiming, Shi Sengzhi was an eminent bhikṣuṇī and a Buddhist virtuoso. She was brought to court in the late fifth century to serve as the biqiunitong 比丘尼統 (Superintendent of the bhikṣuṇīs).67 Her biography tells us that while Shi Sengzhi served in this position, Empress Gao along with another then “retired” empress about whom we will read below, Feng Qing 馮清 (fl. fifth century) or Empress Fei 廢, staged a sort of political action under the rule of Empress Dowager Ling: they brought together a group of the highest women of the court – more than twenty in total – all of them renouncing simultaneously in order to become the disciples of Shi Sengzhi. According to the text, these women achieved a high status in so doing. Of their devotion to Shi Sengzhi, the text says:

Considering the way (dao) of the dharma master to be the crown of the universe and her virtue (de) to be like the force that creates the world, they abandoned their flowery secular life and entrusted their minds to the dharma gate – all of them becoming disciples of the Dharma Master. From that group of bhikṣuṇīs, those who followed her example and went on to ascend the high seat68 are too many to record.69 以法師道冠宇宙,德兼造物,故捐(合)拾華俗,服胸法門,皆為法師弟子。自餘諸比丘尼服義而昇髙座者不可勝紀。

I believe that this bizarre case of a simultaneous renunciation of the elite women of the court under the direction of Empresses Gao and Feng signifies two things. First, as an act of political protest against the Empress Dowager who was not a friend to many, the renunciation en masse shows how the Buddhist institution provided support and space for women in the service of the court. Second, this further shows precisely how the said women both enjoyed and utilized the “women only” community that Buddhist monasticism offered, using it to find camaraderie and safety.

One other possibility exists: the virtuoso Superintendent of the Bhikṣuṇīs, Shi Sengzhi, was the aunt of Empress Dowager Ling, both of them from the Hu 胡 clan of Anding 安定. Though the sources do not say as much, we might imagine a situation of coercion created by the two clanswomen in order to rid the court of women from competing clans. In such a scenario, the entry of the twenty women to the nunnery would read as a sort of banishment – a situation we in fact will see in the story below. This banishment of the women of the other clans, however, would have allowed those other clanswomen to create a sort of secondary family with each other while in the nunnery. Furthermore, though we cannot confirm such a conjecture, the story of Empress Gao above told us that the court women who attended her funeral all undertook some sort of ordination rites at her graveside: could it be that these twenty women who became bhikṣuṇīs simultaneously are the very same ones who did so at the grave of Empress Gao? Having lost Empress Gao – their ally against Empress Dowager Ling – could it be that the women of the court knew that it was time to shelter themselves in the Yaoguang si? Was their ordination a sign of their own decision to leave court politics behind at a point in time when the politics of the inner chamber had never been more dangerous? This explanation, though conjectural, is precisely what we see in the stories of the two Feng sisters below.

The Sisters

Although in contemporaneous donor inscriptions on Buddhist images and cave art, it is not uncommon for women of the same clan to all hold monastic status – a fact that speaks to the existence of clan-based family units within the dharma family – the stories of our court women reveal that clan loyalty is not always maintained in matters of monastic life at such high levels of courtly rank. The Weishu tells us the fascinating story of two sisters who came and went from the nunnery and who were also both empresses to the same man. The stories of these two empresses of the Feng 馮 clan of Empress Dowager Wenming are preserved in back-to-back biographies of empresses from the Weishu.70 The sister empresses were the nieces of Empress Dowager Wenming, who brought them to court. They were also both empresses to Emperor Xiaowen 孝文 (r. 471–99), who was the child emperor behind whom Empress Dowager Wenming ruled for the longest stretch of her regency. The Empress Dowager is said to have had complete control over him. Hence, the story of our sister-bhikṣuṇīs is the story of three women all related through the Feng clan and all working against each other to retain a close connection to Emperor Xiaowen.

As the biographies go, Emperor Xiaowen was very fond of the elder sister, Feng Run 馮潤 (d. 499). However, although Emperor Xiaowen favored her, and although she did eventually become his empress, her ascension was not easily wrought. She came to the court in adolescence and was placed under the care of her aunt, the Empress Dowager Wenming. She was beautiful and she caught the attention of the young emperor. However, illness kept them apart. On this, the Weishu says:

The empress71 had beauty and charm and [people were] inclined to look on her lovingly and favorably. But she soon became ill and Empress Dowager Wenming sent her to return to her family and become a [bhikṣu]ṇī. Gaozu (ie. Xiaowen) remained longing for her. 后有姿媚,偏見愛辛。未幾疾病,文明太后乃遣還家為尼,高祖猶留念焉。72

Very likely the emperor’s longing for Feng Run was a fact that did not sit well with the Empress Dowager, who benefitted politically by being the only woman in the emperor’s life. It may not be a stretch to imagine that Feng Run’s sickness was not serious, and that the Empress Dowager used her power to send the young Feng Run back to a monastic life with her family in order to retain her own hold over Emperor Xiaowen. This certainly seems to be the case when we read further in the biography and discover that though Feng Run recovered from her illness she did not return to court until after the death of the Empress Dowager. The text continues:

Years passed and the Empress Dowager passed away. When Gaozu had completed his mourning, he was inclined to inquire about [the empress]. He heard that her former illness had been eradicated, and then sent out two or three eunuchs to read her an imperial letter and make inquiries. Ultimately, the emperor invited her to Luoyang. When she arrived, the emperor loved her like in the early days, and slept with her exclusively and the palace officials were rarely invited to an audience. She was appointed Zhaoyi of the Left and later she was installed as empress. 歲餘而太后崩。高祖服終,頗存訪之,又聞后素疹痊 除,遣閹官雙三念璽書勞問,遂迎赴洛陽。及至,寵愛過初,專寢當夕,宮人稀復進見。拜為左昭儀,後立為皇后。73

It seems, then, that after the Empress Dowager’s death, all was fine for the young emperor and his empress; reunited after some years, they were free to continue their love. However, one large problem stood in their way: the sister of Feng Run, Feng Qing, who we met in the story of Empress Gao, and who Emperor Xiaowen had taken as his empress after the death of the Empress Dowager, but for whom he had little love. Thus when Emperor Xiaowen brought Feng Run – the elder sister – back to the court, all manner of difficulties ensued. We can turn to the biography of Feng Qing for a description of exactly what happened:

The zhaoyi, considering that she was the senior and moreover, that she had entered the court before, simply held her own views, treating the empress lightly and not following the concubine’s etiquette. The empress, although she was not jealous by nature, in time had the appearance of being ashamed and resentful. The zhaoyi planned to become the master of the inner [court], and the empress was slandered and teased in every way possible. Seeking to discard all of this, the empress became a commoner. The empress was upright and prudent and had her chaste virtue, and so she went on to take on the practices of the [bhikṣu]ṇī. After all that, she finally went to the Yaoguang si.

昭儀自以年長,且前入宮掖,素見待念,輕后而不率妾禮。后雖性不妬忌,時有愧恨之色。昭儀規為內主,譖構百端。尋廢后為庶人。后 貞謹有德操,遂為練行尼。後終於瑤光佛寺。74

The biography thus tells us two things: that when Feng Run returned to court as zhaoyi, she did not follow the protocols of etiquette and undermined her sister’s authority to such an extent that her sister was ashamed and slandered in her position as a powerless empress. Feng Qing’s solution was radical: reverse her imperial ties and become a commoner. In doing so, she took up an eminent positon as a bhikṣuṇī in the Yaoguang si, thus clearing the way for her sister to become empress.75 Now, although the biography reads as though this choice to become a commoner and a monastic were her own, the choice was no doubt motivated by fear. The only other path to empresshood that her sister would have had was murdering her, and it seems as though Feng Run may have been ambitious enough to attempt that. Feng Qing’s abandonment of courtly life and move to the nunnery was a ploy that kept her alive; distancing herself from court politics, it allowed her to live out her years in a resplendent, imperially-funded nunnery. Feng Qing’s fate was very much like Empress Gao’s above. Both of them were empresses who left to the court and went to the nunnery because of intense competition at court. Unfortunately for Gao, she was still murdered; however, in her time in the nunnery, she and Feng Qing knew each other and worked together, likely having much to commiserate over. Furthermore, in a final reflection on the relations between these two sisters and the emperor, it is helpful to consider the posthumous names given to the empresses. Feng Run is known posthumously as Empress You 幽. Meaning, “the concealed empress,” her posthumous name has intentional semantic meaning suggestive of her break from the emperor and her time spent at home “sick.” It may also point to her defacto power at court when she essentially acted as empress though she was a zhaoyi, in this case meaning something like the “behind-the-scenes Empress.” Further, as we saw above, Feng Qing’s posthumous name is Empress Fei 廢, or, “the discarded empress.” This name is likely a dual reference to her discarded status as an undermined empress, and also to what her biography tells us: that she “discarded” courtly life in order to become a commoner and a bhikṣuṇī.

If the story of Empress Gao shows us the intense political competition that was embedded in the structure of the inner court, the story of the Feng sisters should leave us convinced that the nunnery was an integral part of it. Working both for and against a patriarchal court structure, women like Empress Gao and the Feng sisters went in and out of the nunnery at various points in their tumultuous careers, usually not without coercion. Yet as the story of Feng Run, or Empress You, illustrates, this move to Buddhist monastic life was not necessarily a demotion – rather it could be seen as a lateral move from which one could return. In a situation such as that in the Northern Wei when the Buddhist monastic institution was closely aligned with the imperial institution, the crossing between these two institutions allowed for a high degree of social fluidity in the lives of our women discussed here. This fluidity is similarly mapped on to monastic life: unlike our eminent bhikṣuṇīs in the BQNZ who undertook proper vinaya ordination because of their Buddhist faith and who lived in nunneries, the women of the Northern Wei court considered monastic life a transitional phase, a stage of life. It was a social option available to them which allowed them safety, comfort, community, and prestige – things that they needed when life at court failed them.

The Rebel Wife

Of the stories of the women associated with the Yaoguang si, the story of the bhikṣuṇī Ciqing 慈慶 might be the most remarkable of all. Though of low birth, Ciqing became known by the end of her life as one of the most eminent women of the Northern Wei court. Her story tells of the transformative power that association with the Buddhist monastic community offered to women of the court in perilous situations, and thus provides an instructive contrast to the lives of the women discussed above.

We know Ciqing from only her muzhiming. She was not an empress and so has no official biography in the Weishu with which to compare it. Although her muzhiming does not say that she was specifically from the Yaoguang si, her name features the religious name of “Ci 慈,” which she shares with Ciyi, or Empress Gao, with whom she was a contemporary. Thus we may assume that the shared lineage, as well as the shared status and time frame of these two women, may suggest that Ciqing enjoyed connections with the Yaoguang si during her life.

The text of her muzhiming is lengthy, including an exceptional poetic elegy; however, for the sake of brevity, I offer only instructive excerpts below. The biography based on her muzhiming tells us that Ciqing had previously been married to a certain Yang Xingzong 楊興宗 from Hengnong,76 who was the zhubo 77 of Yu Prefecture78 and the Governor of Nandun 南頓, and that she excelled in this positon. She showed brilliance in her wifely virtue. However, this marriage did not last long because her husband’s clan raised a rebellion against the Northern Wei and she was brought to court as a captured wife and made to work as a servant. On the rebellion and her capture, the muzhiming says:

The Clan Patriarch Tanzhi79 went to serve in Zhangshe80 and took with him his family and retainers. When they had settled in Yuzhou, the Garrison Commander of Xuanhu81 Chang Zhenji, who was from Runan,82 seized the city and raised rebellion. In order to respond to this external attack, an imperial army was sent to suppress it. Ciqing was captured and placed in the Menial Service under the care of Emperor Jingmu83 or Gongzong’s84 zhaoyi from the Hülu clan. She mercifully raised the emperor85 and it was like she was the twin of Empress Wenzhao 文昭 (469–97).


During the Taihe period she determinedly sought to “leave home” and so she straightway took on the austerities of a bhikṣuṇī though she dwelled in the imperial household.86 She engaged with both high and low, while maintaining an unadulterated heart, and continued on like this from beginning to end. From this came her patience, vigor,87 and refined progress. Her virtues accumulated in the dharma current: humane, wise, respectful, and elegant, her actions were the crown of the “Pepper” ranks.88 太和中固求出家。即居紫禁。尼之素行。爰協上下。秉是純心。彌貫終始。由是忍辱精進。德尚法流。仁和恭懿。行冠椒列。89

This biography is riveting for it tells of a woman who entered the court as a low-level servant – at the fifth and bottom rank of that enumerated above in the section on women’s court ranks from the Weishu – and yet who died as an extremely eminent person of that same cou;rt. In fact, it tells us that, “She mercifully raised the emperor and it was like she was the twin of Empress Wenzhao.” This is no small feat, for what the biography is actually saying here is that Ciqing cared for Emperor Xuanwu when he was young, and did so with such care and compassion that it was just like his own mother, Empress Wenzhao, would have done had she not died when he was only fourteen.90 How are we to make sense of this drastic transition? Ciqing became a bhikṣuṇī in the Taihe era (477–90), and she died in 524 at the age of 86. This means that at the very least she lived as a bhikṣuṇī for 34 years, and at the very most she lived as a bhikṣuṇī for 47 years – more or less half of her life, and certainly more than half of her life at court. We know that after becoming a bhikṣuṇī and taking up the practice of Buddhism with some diligence, she was considered a role model for the women of the court and remained living at the court. The muzhiming also tells us that in this position, she personally cared for the child emperor, Emperor Xuanwu, sacrificing her own childbearing years in order to do so. Such a situation of a bhikṣuṇī caring for an emperor is not unique: legend has it that less than fifty years later than Ciqing and Emperor Xuanwu, the founding ruler of the Sui 隋 dynasty (581–608), Emperor Wen 文 (541–604), was himself raised by a shen ni 神尼 (divine nun) who cared for him until he was thirteen years of age and, even prophesied his accession.91

It is my contention that Ciqing’s decision to undertake the Buddhist practices of a bhikṣuṇī was a strategic decision that saw her distance herself from her prior, rebellious family, through the symbolic act of chujia 出家 (leaving home). This allowed her to reconfigure her virtue from that of a captive of a rebel family to that of an industrious and trustworthy woman of virtue and celibacy, which was an essential act in her political rise. This pivotal role that Buddhist renunciation played in the reshaping of her court identity is hinted at in a few places in the muzhiming. In sources dealing with the lives of other Buddhist women, both muzhiming sources and biographies, it is not always the case that a bhikṣuṇī “leaves home” or even desires to – yet this verbal phrase is used in Ciqing’s muzhiming where it tells us that she “determinedly sought” to undertake such a practice; hence, her commitment to leaving behind her family is emphasized. Furthermore, this distancing of herself from her worldly and rebellious family connections in order to practice the Buddhist austerities of a bhikṣuṇī is explicitly stated in the poetic elegy section of her muzhiming, which says that:

Long separated from her family’s difficulties, 契闊家艱

Caused by the hardships amassing in this world, 屯亶世故

She trusted in her destiny and was at peace with 信命安時

 the times.

At first she was lonely, but later she met [others]. 初睽末遇

An orphaned reflection lightly floating, 孤影易彯

Crippled by a darkness difficult to brighten, 窮昏難曙

She cast herself at the footsteps of the four dhyānas,92 投迹四禪

And sought out the noble six perfections.93 邀誠六渡

This excerpt from her elegy makes clear that association with Buddhism was a transformative move in Ciqing’s life, one that removed her from her early, rebellious, troublesome roots and which saw her blossom at the court as a trusted care taker of the emperor. This transformation was not easy: she was desolate at heart, but took every effort to abide by the rules of both her religious and secular worlds. And yet her rare path was beneficial because it allowed her to eliminate the bad roots of her former self – karmic roots, even – and climb to the highest of court ranks.

As a final illustration of the success that Ciqing’s alignment of religious and secular brought about for her status at court, her muzhiming tells us one more remarkable tale: that the subsequent emperor, Emperor Xiaoming, was also in Ciqing’s care. Though he was only five years old at the time of her death, he was so shaken that he personally came to her bedside, supervised her medicines, and wept. He then, likely at the behest of Empress Dowager Ling who was his regent, made the following decree:

Throughout her life, this bhikṣuṇī has served five courts and was respected by three emperors. Her name is glorious among the aged and she is an elder within the dharma gate. Moreover, when the court had been restored, one day an omen was established and because of that, from my very birth and early education, always with compassionate admonitions, she was entrusted to serve and watch over me. Yesterday in the late afternoon she suddenly met with her death and departed and I am personally mourning and suffering with a pain in my bosom. The tomb requisites will be supplied according to a separate edict and Senior Supervising Secretary Wang Shao will supervise the funerary rites. To be bestowed, are goods to the measure of 1500 pieces, and also to be posthumously bestowed, [the rank] of Superintendent of the Bhikṣuṇīs.94


The story of Ciqing is different from the stories of Empress Gao and the Feng sisters. This difference is accounted for by the fact that Ciqing succeeded in her struggle for court status and political influence, whereas Empress Gao and the Feng sisters found themselves pitted against formidable adversaries, namely Empress Dowagers Ling and Wenming. And yet, the themes in their stories are similar: that the nunnery offered women of the court physical, political, and ideological space. From this space they were able to negotiate alternatives to courtly politics while simultaneously creating opportunities for further political maneuvering. For Ciqing, this meant reconfiguring her identity and recasting her abilities through making connections with the Buddhist monastic institution and gaining pre-eminence in both courtly and Buddhist circles. For Empress Gao, her move to the nunnery was an act of distancing herself from Empress Dowager Ling in a failed attempt to stay alive throughout the Empress Dowager’s regency. For the Feng sisters, renunciation and/or the nunnery served as a middle ground between the two of them and their aunt, the Empress Dowager Wenming, all of whom sought the attentions of Emperor Xiaowen.

Conclusion: Bhikṣuṇis, But Not Exemplars

The BQNZ is an invaluable text and we are fortunate to have it. Telling the story of the fight for the ordination of women in China and recording the lives of exemplary women who moved between both Buddhist practices and a literary tradition of Confucian discourse which defined their virtue, the text is irreplaceable. It deserves a central place in studies of Buddhist women in the early medieval period. However, the women whose stories have just been told – Empress Gao and Empress Dowager Ling, Empress Dowager Wenming and the Feng Sisters, Ciqing – would not be included in such a collection. Elite women they were; exemplars they were not. And yet their stories are also incredibly valuable, perhaps even more so than those contained in the BQNZ. The stories of their interactions with the Buddhist monastic community place the human, the social, and the institutional in relief and thus force us to come face-to-face with one aspect of Buddhist renunciation that made sense to some of our earliest bhikṣuṇīs in East Asia: that it was politically expedient. This fact problematizes received notions of what it meant to be a bhikṣuṇī in early medieval China by showing that not all bhikṣuṇīs behaved the same way, lived in the same places, or were ordained by the same methods, if even ordained at all.

The fact of this political expedience is not new in studies of the Buddhist tradition. It has long been acknowledged that elite women in the Chinese realm have had connections with the Buddhist monastic institution, a situation that Chikusa Masaaki has referred to as a “corruption” of the Buddhist faith.95 Furthermore, studies on the figure of Wu Zetian have necessarily highlighted the Empress’s connections with the Buddhist monastic community and have shown how she both used and manipulated the Buddhist tradition to support her rule.96 The stories of the women of the Yaoguang si in Northern Wei Luoyang suggest a somewhat different perspective on this Buddhist politicking of Chinese women in the early medieval period – one that reads more sympathetically than prior studies have shown. As Jennifer Holmgren has exposed, the Tuoba court of the Northern Wei was not a friendly environment for women. An arena of intense intra-female competition wherein women were brought to the court in large numbers as captives or as tributes in order to negotiate surrenders and alliances, the women of the court lived lives of animosity and ambivalence toward each other. By offering a different avenue for survival and prestige than the court itself, the Yaoguang si provided an apparatus upon which women of the court could live and work in a patriarchal establishment in which they had little power.

Taking a locality-specific approach to the study of our earliest East Asian bhikṣuṇīs has allowed for this picture of the competing lives of court women to emerge. What I have learned through my investigation of the women who we know held rank in both the Yaoguang si and in the Northern Wei court is that they were women who worked in the service of the government and who, from that position, were able to gain prestige, opportunity, and influence. In competing with each other and with the men to whom they were connected, this small group of ambitious and elite women reached out to the nunnery. With the nunnery kept close to the court but also at an arm’s length, they used it as a political refuge, which allowed them to divorce themselves from political life while also allowing them to retain a high degree of social eminence. It also provided them space to reconfigure their identities from lone women who had lost their connection to male kin and family, to women of virtue who lived in female-identified communities.

Though limited in scope due to its focus on only one medieval nunnery, this study has larger applications for the scholarly understanding of the development of Chinese Buddhism. Specifically, though we know much about the process by which Buddhism came to be integrated into Chinese notions of imperial legitimation during the early medieval period, scholarship has yet to grapple with the question of the unique effect that this creation of a Chinese Buddhist court had on the lives of the women who lived in and worked in the said courts. As such, we know very little about how and why women – who were some of the most prominent and vigorous supporters of Buddhism in East Asia – chose to align themselves with the Buddhist monastic institution, thus supporting its rise in prominence in East Asian society. Our Northern Wei women, though not “exemplary” in ways that align with the women of the BQNZ, provide exemplary models of just precisely what attracted elite women of the court to the monastic establishment: it supported their careers and safeguarded their lives at a particular moment in history when they sorely needed such assistance.

1 Recent representative studies include: Wendi Leigh Adamek, “A Niche of Their Own: The Power of Convention in Two Inscriptions for Medieval Chinese Buddhist Nuns,” History of Religions 49 (2009): 1–26; Gina Cogan, The Princess Nun: Bunchi, Buddhist Reform, and Gender in Early Edo Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2014); Lori Meeks, Hokkeji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Premodern Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2010); Ping Yao, “Tang Women in the Transformation of Buddhist Filiality,” in Jinhua Jia, Xiaofei Kang, and Ping Yao, eds., Gendering Chinese Religion: Subject, Identity, Body (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014), 25–46. 

2 Scholarship in Chinese is considerably more developed. Representative studies include: Hao Chunwen 郝春文, Zhonggu shiqi sheyi yanjiu 中古時期社邑研究 (Taibei: Xinwenfeng, 2006); Hou Xudong 侯旭東, Wu liu shiji beifangmin zhong Fojiao xinyang 五六世紀北方民眾佛教信仰 (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 1998). 

3 Chikusa Masaaki 竺沙雅章 makes this assertion in his study of the lives of China’s earliest bhikṣuṇīs and then bases his study on two sources: the BQNZ and the dynastic history of the Jin 晉 (265–420), see his study “The Formation and Growth of Buddhist Nun Communities in China,” in Barbara Ruch, ed., Engendering Faith: Women and Buddhism in Premodern Japan (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2002), 3–20, and see page 3. As a corrective, however, Clara Wing-chung Ho has recently put forth an edited volume showing that sources for the study of early medieval Chinese women are not as rare as was previously thought, see her edited collection: Overt and Covert Treasures: Essays on the Sources for Chinese Women’s History (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2012).

4 For a study and translation, see Kathryn Tsai, Lives of the Nuns: Biographies of Chinese Nuns from the Fourth to Sixth Centuries, A Translation of the Pi-Ch’iu Ni Chuan, Compiled by Shih Pao-Ch’ang (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1994).

5 For example, see the excellent work by Ann Heirman, “Chinese Nuns and their Ordination in Fifth Century China,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 24 (2001): 275–304.

6 The biography of Shi Baochang is the second biography contained in the Xu gaoseng zhuan 續高僧傳 (Extended Biographies of Eminent Monks, T. no. 50.2060: 426b13–427c20). Though the BQNZ is commonly attributed to Baochang, Tom DeRauw has questioned this attribution with a careful study of Buddhist catalogues of the time period, and through comparison with other texts that Baochang is more certain to have written. DeRauw argues that the authorship of the BQNZ is uncertain, and that its attribution to Baochang and subsequent appearance in Buddhist catalogues is the result of a Tang-dynasty misattribution. See Tom DeRauw, “Baochang: Sixth-Century Biographer of Buddhist Monks … and Nuns?” Journal of the American Oriental Society 125 (2005): 203–18, and in particular pages 215ff.

7 Tsai, Lives of the Nuns, 1.

8 T. no. 50.2063: 934c24–25.

9 For the details of this story, see: Heirman, “Chinese Nuns and their Ordination,” 275–76.

10 T. no. 50.2063: 937b18-c7.

11 T. no. 50.2063: 939c6–940a3.

12 Heirman, “Chinese Nuns and their Ordination,” 275–77.

13 In discussing how women have lived within East Asian cultures, Dorothy Ko, Jahyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott have argued that women’s lives were constantly bisected by a tradition of “Confucian discourse” which “envisioned a universal and undifferentiated womanhood, defined as the mutually constitutive Other of manhood” See their “Introduction,” in Dorothy Ko, Jahyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott, eds., Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 1–26, and see page 2.

14 For example, see the biography of Kang Minggan 康明感 (fl. fourth century) who was abducted by bandits, one of whom wanted to make her his wife. She refused and was punished, but she suffered her years of torment by concentrating on Buddhist teaching and she eventually became a bhikṣuṇī. See Tsai, Lives of the Nuns, 27; T. no. 50.2063: 935b29-c20).

15 For example, see the biography of Miaoxiang 妙相 (fl. fourth century) who divorced her husband by joining the community of bhikṣuṇīs because he did not undertake proper funerary rites after the death of his parents (Tsai, Lives of the Nuns, 23; T. no. 50.2063: 935b14–28).

16 For example, see the biography of Anling Shou 安令首 (fl. fourth century) who artfully articulated to her vexatious parents how practicing Buddhism for the sake of all beings is a route to fulfilling filial piety (Tsai, Lives of the Nuns, 20; T. no. 50.2063: 935a06–25). For a study on this biography, see: Arthur F Wright, “Biography of The Nun An-Ling-Shou,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 15 (1952): 193–96.

17 For example, see the biography of Zhixian 智賢 (300–70) who was stabbed more than 20 times for successfully resisting rape by the Prefect Du Ba 杜霸, of whom nothing else is known (Tsai, Lives of the Nuns, 21; T. no. 50.2063: 935a26-b13).

18 Bret Hinsch has come to a similar conclusion regarding the text, see his publication, “Confucian Filial Piety and the Construction of the Ideal Chinese Buddhist Woman,” Journal of Chinese Religions 30 (2002): 49–75, and especially page 55.

19 For representative studies, see: Lin Xinyi 林欣儀, Shehui guizhen: Zhonggu Han di Fojiao famieguan yu funü xinyang 捨穢歸真:中古漢地佛教法滅觀與婦女信仰 (Taibei: Daoxiang chubanshe, 2010); Lo Yuet Keung, “Conversion to Chastity: A Buddhist Catalyst in Early Imperial China,” Nan Nü: Men, Women and Gender in China 10 (2008): 22–56; Yao Ping, “Women’s Epitaphs in Tang China (618–907),” in Joan Judge and Hu Ying, eds., Beyond Exemplar Tales: Women’s Biography in Chinese History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 139–57.

20 The name Yaoguang 瑤光 has had many translations, and I here suggest another, “Jeweled Radiance.” The first character, yao, is a whitish gem, perhaps a jade, though this remains ambiguous. The second character, guang, signifies the glow or luster of the stone. Because the name of the nunnery lacks any sort of clear Buddhist, courtly, or political reference, I believe that the name is a reference to the beauty of its inhabitants who were princesses, empresses, and consorts. As for other translations, Wang Yitong’s study A Record of Buddhist Monasteries in Lo-Yang (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986) suggests “Jade Sparkle,” whereas W.J.F. Jenner’s translation offers “Precious Light.” See Jenner, Memories of Loyang: Yang Hsüan-chih and the Lost Capital (493–534) (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1981). In a review of Jenner, Paul Kroll has suggested “Gemmy Light.” The review appeared in Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles. Reviews 5 (1983): 106–11, and see page 110.

21 The LYQLJ was written by Yang Xuanzhi in the Northern Qi 北齊 (550–77) and chronicles the most famous of the Northern Wei Buddhist establishments in Luoyang. The text is generally considered a reliable account of the Buddhist landscape of the city. The Japanese scholar of Northern Wei Buddhism, Katsuhiko Hattori 服部克彦 has also used the text, alongside the Weishu, to discuss both the social lives of Northern Wei Buddhists and the building of a Buddhist capital in Luoyang, see for example: “Hokugi rakuyō jidai ni okeru shomin to bukkyō – shakai o fukumete no shomin to bukkyō no musubitsuki no shujusō” 北魏洛陽時代における庶民と仏教 – 生活を含めての庶民と仏教のむすびつきの種々相, Indogaku Bukkyogaku Kenkyu 印度学仏教学研究 17 (1968): 305–9. Throughout this study I have offered my own translations; however, text has been translated into English, as in the footnote above, and more recently into French with more substantial notation: See Jean Marie Lourme, Mémoire sur les monastères bouddhiques de Luoyang (Paris: Belles lettres, 2014).

22 “Wei yaoguang ni Ciyi (Gao Ying) muzhiming (shengui yuannian shiyue shiwuri)” 魏瑤光寺尼慈義 (高英) 墓志銘 (神龜元年十月十五日) in Zhao Chao 趙超, ed., Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian 漢魏南北朝墓誌彙編 (Tianjin: Tianjin guji chubanshe, 2008), 102.

23 “Wei gu biqiuni Ciqing (Wang Zhong’er) muzhiming (zhengguan wunian wuyue qiri)” 魏故比丘尼慈慶 (王鍾兒) 墓志銘 (正光五年五月七日),” Zhao Chao, ed., Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian, 146–7.

24 “Wei gu biqiunitong fashi shi sengzhi muzhiming” 魏故比丘尼統法師釋僧芝墓誌銘 in Zhao Junping 趙君平 and Zhao Wencheng 趙文成, eds., Heluo muke shiling 河洛墓刻拾零 (Beijing: Beijing tushuguan chubanshe, 2006), 20.

25 Timothy M Davis, Entombed Epigraphy and Commemorative Culture in Early Medieval China: A Brief History of Early Muzhiming (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 4–5.

26 Pang Shiying, “Eminent Nuns and / or / as Virtuous Women: The Representation of Tang Female Renunciants in Tomb Inscriptions,” T’ang Studies 28 (2010): 77–96, and see page 78.

27 Other than the works by Adamek and Ping Yao cited above, examples include: Su Shimei 蘇士梅, “Cong muzhi kan Fojiao dui Tangdai funü shenghua de yingxiang” 從墓誌看佛教對婦女生活的影響, Shixue yuekan 史學月刊 5 (2003): 84–88; Valentina Georgieva, “Representation of Buddhist Nuns in Chinese Edifying Miracle Tales During the Six Dynasties and the Tang,” Journal of Chinese Religions 24 (1996): 47–76.

28 The Chinese term ni 尼 will be translated throughout as [bhikṣu]ṇī. This retains the intended Sanskrit referent of the Chinese text, i.e. bhikṣuṇī, but signals the common authorial abbreviation of the term to only the final syllable. When not offering direct translation, but rather discussing the women, I have followed the full Sanskrit form of bhikṣuṇī.

29 Wei Shou 魏收 (505–72), Weishu 魏書 (reprint; Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1995), 114: 3026–7.

30 The “extra rules” mentioned here refer to the fact that in all vinaya traditions women take on considerably more rules than men, the most controversial being the so-called “Eight Heavy Rules,” which essentially place monastic women in a disadvantaged position in the monastic community. For a recent study of these rules, see: Ute Hüsken, “The Eight Garudhammas,” in Thea Mohr and Jampa Tsedroen, eds., Dignity and Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010), 143–8.

31 A comparison can be made here to the lives of Daoist monastic women at the Tang court. See Charles D Benn, The Cavern-Mystery Transmission: A Taoist Ordination Rite of A. D. 711 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1991).

32 Tsai, Lives of the Nuns, 81–83; T. no. 50.2063: 943c25–4b05.

33 Jennifer Holmgren, “Women and Political Power in the Traditional T’o-pa Elite: A Preliminary Study of the Biographies of Empresses in the Wei-shu,” Monumenta Serica 35 (1981–83): 33–74, and see page 63.

34 The original text of the Weishu was compiled under the Northern Qi between the years 551–54.

35 The origins of this practice, known as “If the Son is Noble, the Mother dies” (zigui musi 子貴母死) are contested; however, I follow the work of Scott Pearce and Tian Yuqing who argue that the practice is not necessarily a long-standing Tuoba practice, but instead one instituted by Emperor Daowu 道武 (r. 386–409) with respect to his particular succession problems, and was then used by a number of later Tuoba rulers to help legitimate their own rules. For more on this, see: Scott Pearce, “Nurses, Nurslings, and New Shapes of Power in the Mid-Wei Court,” Asia Major 22.1 (2009): 287–309, and see page 290; Tian Yuqing 田餘慶, Tuoba shitan xiudingben 拓跋史探 修訂本 (Beijing: Shenghua dushu xinzhi sanlian shudian, 2011), especially pages 1–49. For a diversity of views on the topic, see: Valentin G. Golavachev, “Matricide Among the Tuoba-Xianbei and its Transformation During the Northern Wei,” Early Medieval China 8 (2002): 1–42; Andrew Eisenberg, Kingship in Early Medieval China (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 50–51.

36 Holmgren argues that Tuoba imperial succession could not have produced empress dowagers because it was not regulated by birth right to the eldest son of the official wife of the emperor, but by capability; the most capable of all the sons of the leader was chosen, regardless of age or the rank of the mother or child. This meant that there could be no possibility of creating an empress dowager and a regency government, because a child emperor would never have been chosen as the candidate most qualified to rule See Holmgren, “Women and Political Power,” 38–39. This, she argues, is in contrast to rules of succession used in Chinese dynasties, whereby birthright went to the eldest legitimate son. A study of Empress Dowager Baoming 寶明 (455–512) of the Southern Qi 南齊 (479–502) provides a useful and contemporaneous contrast to Tuoba laws. Empress Dowager Baoming became empress dowager after the death of her husband, and the appointment of their child as taisun 太孫 (imperial grandson-heir). See Lance Eccles, “The Empress Dowager Wang Baoming and her role in the political affairs of the Southern Qi and Liang Dynasties,” Journal of Asian History 27 (1993): 1–15.

37 Jennifer Holmgren, “Imperial Marriage in the Native Chinese and Non-Han State, Han to Ming,” in Rubie S. Watson and Patricia Buckley Ebrey, eds., Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 58–96, and see page 80.

38 Shizu 世祖 is Emperor Taiwu 太武 (r. 423–452), who was Wencheng’s predecessor.

39 Gaozong 高宗 is Emperor Wencheng.

40 Yuan 元 is the family name that the Tuoba took after adopting Chinese names and language at court, hence these gentlemen are of the ruling Tuoba clan.

41 Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 321–2.

42 Shen Yue 沈約 (441–513), Songshu 宋書 (reprint; Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1995), 41:1269–70.

43 Zhang Chengzong 張承宗, “Beichao gongnü kaolüe” 北朝宮女考略, Suzhou Daxue xuebao 蘇州大學學報 2 (2006): 107–111 (see page 107).

44 Wang Yitong, Record of Buddhist Monasteries, 7; T. no. 51.2092: 999a23–5.

45 Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 338.

46 Wang Yitong, Record of Buddhist Monasteries, 20–21; T. no. 51. 2092: 1000b22–4.

47 According to Wang Yitong, the xian zhang 仙掌 (immortal’s palm) was an “ornament designed to collect dew as a gift of heaven, the consumption of which would promote longevity.” Wang Yitong, Record of Buddhist Monasteries, 48 n. 181.

48 T. no. 51.2092: 1003a13–6.

49 For a reconstructed map of central Luoyang in the Northern Wei, see Lourme, Mémoire sur les monastères, LII-LIII.

50 Hucker records that the “Pepper Chamber” or jiaofang 椒房, is an “indirect reference to the wife of a ruler” which alludes to an “Empress’s delight with imported Southeast Asian pepperwood used for paneling her bedchamber.” Charles Hucker, A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), 141, item 727.

51 This is likely a reference to the eight-fold path of Buddhist practice.

52 This is a reference to a doctrinal idea popular in the Mahāyāna that there is only one path of practice, not three – as is defined in many other popular writings.

53 T. no. 51.2092: 1003a17–20.

54 This empress was a concubine to Emperor Xiaowen and the title was given posthumously. She was born in Goryo, Korea in 469 and died in 497.

55 Shizong 世宗 is Northern Wei Emperor Xuanwu.

56 Zhao Chao, Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian, 102.

57 All of these details are taken from the biography of the Empress in Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 336–7.

58 For a study of the treatment of the Empress Dowager in the Weishu, see Jennifer ­Holmgren, “Empress Dowager Ling of the Northern Wei and the T’o-ba Sinicization Question,” Papers on Far Eastern History 18 (1978): 123–70, and see page 123.

59 Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 336.

60 Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 337.

61 This story is also briefly discussed in: Keith McMahon, Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013), 142–3.

62 In fact, the intrigues between Gao and Ling seem to have been edited out of later Buddhist accounts of the time period, as in the thirteenth-century text, Fozu tongji 佛祖統紀, T. no. 49.2035). Although the text uses the Weishu as a source to reconstruct the Buddhist developments of the time period in question, and although it does mention both of our empresses, it casts them both in a pious light. Of Gao, it says that the she commissioned an image of Samantabhadra in a roadside temple and that then strange monk appeared momentarily to prophecy the coming of heavenly peace, an action which brought about an imperial edict to change the name of the temple to “Heavenly Peace.” (T. no. 49.2035: 345c20–2). Of Ling, the text only mentions the role that she played in constructing the Yongning si (T. no. 49.2035: 463a21–3).

63 For the most recent discussion of Empress Wu’s deep and varied connections to the Buddhist tradition, see: N. Harry Rothschild, Emperor Wu Zhao and her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers (New York: Colombia University Press, 2015), especially pages 191–226.

64 Jowen R Tung, Fables for the Patriarchs: Gender Politics in Tang Discourse (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 59.

65 Lori Meeks, “Buddhist Renunciation and the Female Life Cycle: Understanding Nunhood in Heian and Kamakura Japan,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 70 (2010): 1–59, see page 2. A similar theme can also be found in another of Lori Meeks’ articles: “Survival and Salvation in the Heike monogatori: Reassessing the Legacy of Kenreimon,” in Mikael S. Adolphson and Anne Commons, eds., Loveable Losers: The Heike in Action and Memory (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015), 142–165.

66 Meeks, “Buddhist Renunciation and the Female Life Cycle,” 2.

67 “Superintendent” is here tong 統. The Northern Wei began granting such titles to members of the Buddhist clergy in the early half of the dynasty, with the monk Tanyao 曇耀 (fl.450) being the first shamen tong 沙門統 (Superintendent of the Śramaṇas) though with his predecessor Faguo 法果 (fl. early fifth century) holding the title of daorentong 道人統 (religious superintendent).

68 Commonly, in Buddhist sūtras and other materials, a person, Buddha, or bodhisattva generally ascends a high seat (or a throne) just prior to giving a teaching, an explanation, or a verse. Hence, we can assume that this phrase means something like “those who went on to teach/explicate are too many to record.”

69 Zhao Junping and Zhao Wencheng, Heluo muke shiling, 20. mutributed to the morder of Empress Gao was murdered by the Empress is also ust how said women bothe njoyed rt crea

70 All of the biographical details from the stories of the Feng sisters that I will use here are taken from their biographies in Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 332–5.

71 This is Feng Run, not Empress Dowager Wenming.

72 Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 333.

73 Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 333.

74 Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 332.

75 Her entrance into the Yaoguang si is also briefly recounted in the Fozu tongji. The text simply says that she entered the nunnery in the twentieth year of Xiaowen’s rule and that in the twenty-first year an edict was issued on her behalf for the construction of the Baode si 報德寺 (Repaying Merit Monastery) (T. no. 49.2035: 355b08–9).

76 Hengnong 恒農 is located in modern-day Henan province.

77 Hucker lists zhubo 主薄 as zhubu 主簿, and states that the term designated a person who either was in control of documents, or who was an “Assistant Magistrate on the staff of various units of territorial administration.” See Hucker, A Dictionary of Official Titles, 182). Given the context, I find the latter definition more appropriate.

78 During the Northern Wei, Yuzhou 豫州 was located in what is now Xinyang 信陽 city, Henan 河南 province.

79 No further information is available on Yang Tanzhi 楊坦之. The one reference that I have found to him appears to be based on this very inscription and can be found in: Huimin Bhikṣu 釋惠敏, Foxue guifan zilioaku  佛學規範資料庫 (Buddhist Studies Authority Database Project); Accessed February 8, 2015, <>.

80 Zhangshe 長社 is in modern-day Xuchang 許昌, Henan province, close to Yuzhou.

81 The administrative center of Yuzhou is called Xuanhu, normally written 懸瓠. The inscription gives the name of the city Xuanhu 玄瓠, which I take to be the same.

82 Runan 汝南 is still the name for a prefecture in Henan.

83 This is the eldest son of Emperor Taiwu.

84 Zhao Chao, Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian, 146.

85 I am much indebted to Professor Luo Xin 羅新 of Peking University for his translation of Ciqing’s muzhiming, from which my own translation of this difficult section draws. His translation was presented at a 2016 workshop at Reed College entitled: “New Frontiers in the Study of Medieval China.”

86 This section of the inscription is notable for it tells us that although her lineage was likely connected to the Yaoguang si, through the shared religious name of “Ci” with Ciyi or Empress Gao, she in fact lived at the court – a testament to just how permeable were the boundaries between court and nunnery.

87 Both “patience” (renru 忍辱) and “vigor” (jingjin 精進), are two of the Six Pāramitās, or perfections. The attainment of these perfections through Buddhist practice suggests advanced levels of religious merit.

88 It is unclear what the “Pepper” ranks are, but it seems to refer to the women of the inner court, because the term “Pepper Room” (jiaofang 椒房) indicates the private chambers of the Empress.

89 Zhao Chao, Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian, 146–7.

90 The death of Empress Wenzhao may well have been at the hands of the women of the Feng clan, specifically, Feng Run, or Empress You. Empress Wenzhao’s biography (Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 335–6) tells us that Feng zhaoyi (Empress You held this title on her return to court) cherished and secretly acted like a mother to Emperor Xuanwu. It also says that some believe her to have murdered Empress Wenzhao (Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 335).

91 Chen Jinhua, “Śarīra and Scepter. Empress Wu’s Political Use of Buddhist Relics,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 25 (2002) 33–150, and see page 41, n16.

92 Stages of concentration that allow one to progress from the realm of desire to the four heavenly realms. See Charles A. Muller, sichan 四禪, Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, <>.

93 Zhao Chao, Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian, 147.

94 Zhao Chao, Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian, 147.

95 Chikusa, “Formation and Growth,” 8.

96 There is a long history of such studies, the most recent and comprehensive being: N. Harry Rothschild, Emperor Wu Zhao.

  • 7

     Tsai, Lives of the Nuns, 1.

  • 12

     Heirman, “Chinese Nuns and their Ordination,” 275–77.

  • 25

     Timothy M Davis, Entombed Epigraphy and Commemorative Culture in Early Medieval China: A Brief History of Early Muzhiming (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 4–5.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 26

     Pang Shiying, “Eminent Nuns and / or / as Virtuous Women: The Representation of Tang Female Renunciants in Tomb Inscriptions,” T’ang Studies 28 (2010): 77–96, and see page 78.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 32

     Tsai, Lives of the Nuns, 81–83; T. no. 50.2063: 943c25–4b05.

  • 44

     Wang Yitong, Record of Buddhist Monasteries, 7; T. no. 51.2092: 999a23–5.

  • 45

     Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 338.

  • 46

     Wang Yitong, Record of Buddhist Monasteries, 20–21; T. no. 51. 2092: 1000b22–4.

  • 56

     Zhao Chao, Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian, 102.

  • 59

     Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 336.

  • 60

     Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 337.

  • 64

     Jowen R Tung, Fables for the Patriarchs: Gender Politics in Tang Discourse (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 59.

  • 65

     Lori Meeks, “Buddhist Renunciation and the Female Life Cycle: Understanding Nunhood in Heian and Kamakura Japan,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 70 (2010): 1–59, see page 2. A similar theme can also be found in another of Lori Meeks’ articles: “Survival and Salvation in the Heike monogatori: Reassessing the Legacy of Kenreimon,” in Mikael S. Adolphson and Anne Commons, eds., Loveable Losers: The Heike in Action and Memory (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015), 142–165.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 66

     Meeks, “Buddhist Renunciation and the Female Life Cycle,” 2.

  • 69

     Zhao Junping and Zhao Wencheng, Heluo muke shiling, 20. mutributed to the morder of Empress Gao was murdered by the Empress is also ust how said women bothe njoyed rt crea

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 72

     Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 333.

  • 73

     Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 333.

  • 74

     Wei Shou, Weishu, 13: 332.

  • 84

     Zhao Chao, Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian, 146.

  • 89

     Zhao Chao, Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian, 146–7.

  • 91

     Chen Jinhua, “Śarīra and Scepter. Empress Wu’s Political Use of Buddhist Relics,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 25 (2002) 33–150, and see page 41, n16.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 93

     Zhao Chao, Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian, 147.

  • 94

     Zhao Chao, Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian, 147.

  • 95

     Chikusa, “Formation and Growth,” 8.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 279 0 0
Full Text Views 763 342 37
PDF Views & Downloads 852 446 61