Chao on Li, 'Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China'

Yuhang Li
Jacqueline Chao

Yuhang Li. Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. xii + 299 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-40088-7.

Reviewed by Jacqueline Chao (Crow Museum of Asian Art of The University of Texas at Dallas) Published on H-Buddhism (January, 2021) Commissioned by Jessica Zu (USC Dornsife, School of Religion)

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In China, by the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) periods, Guanyin bodhisattva (Skt: Avalokiteśshvara), bodhisattva of mercy and compassion, was the most popular female Buddhist deity, worshipped widely by both male and female followers alike. Yuhang Li’s groundbreaking study, Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China, explores the various ways in which Buddhist laywomen forged a connection with the deity and argues that the relationship was largely established and facilitated through material objects. Li concentrates on how laywomen expressed Buddhist devoutness to Guanyin by reproducing her image and restaging her presence using particular skill sets, labor, and their bodies, specifically through dance, painting, hair embroidery, and jewelry. This well-researched and engaging study presents the reader with an impressively interdisciplinary analysis, which the author interweaves with contemporary debates on female agency, demonstrating how women used objects to create their own religious authority and to transcend the gendered limitations imposed upon them. Her approach combines a variety of textual sources, works of art, archaeological findings, and a close investigation of materiality and material culture, which allows her to tie various threads between individuals, objects, and their visual and literary representations.

In the introduction, Li provides an overview of Guanyin’s gradual feminization in China (having been previously represented as a male deity with masculine features or as gender-neutral) and the associated gender politics, as well as defines her methodology and focus on Buddhist laywomen of various social status and their spaces and spheres of operation. The book consists of four chapters organized around four types of materials and practices identified by Li through which laywomen expressed mimetic devotion and bodily connection with Guanyin: dancing, drawing and painting, hair embroidery, and mimicking through jewelry. 

In the first chapter, “Dancing Guanyin,” Li begins with a discussion of dance and theorizes how dance became a form of religious expression among courtesans through an exploration of the life and practice of Xu Jinghong (mid-sixteenth century, before 1610), a late Ming courtesan who achieved fame for performing a Guanyin dance. Xu’s Guanyin dance reflects the period’s fascination with staging Guanyin’s power through live performance, and its potential transformative power for both dancer and viewer. Recognizing the ephemerality of the practice of dance, in that many elements are not preserved, and citing other examples of courtesans such as Gu Mei (1619-?) and Ma Shouzhen (1548-1604), Li demonstrates the limitations of the textual approach, noting how existing written accounts are largely entangled with male literati perspectives and ideals and do not fully reflect the female lived experience.

The second chapter, “Painting Guanyin with Brush and Ink,” proposes that through the practice of painting Guanyin’s form, women projected themselves onto the image, thus transcending their bodies in the abstract. While there is a long tradition of women’s patronage of Buddhist art in China, and Guanyin was a popular subject for all painters, records of women creating Buddhist icons from the Tang to the Yuan dynasties are few, and it was only during the Ming and Qing dynasties that women painters of Buddhist images became more prominent. By looking at examples of the lives and works of women painters like Xu Can (1617-98), who painted images of Guanyin as a means to fulfill her role as a filial daughter-in-law and loyal widow; Jin Liying (1772-1807), a female painter of the Qing period known for her Guanyin paintings and filial virtue; Xing Cijing (1573-?), who prayed to Guanyin for a son and finally bore one in middle age and continued to produce images of Guanyin to express gratitude; and Fang Weiyi (1585-1668), who painted and thus internalized Guanyin as a form of meditative exercise, Li not only demonstrates the complex intersection between Buddhism and Confucianism in late Imperial times, but effectively argues that women created Guanyin icons for different reasons than men, and that the feminized Guanyin served as a reflective device upon which female painters could express affinity with the deity.

In the third chapter, “Embroidering Guanyin with Hair,” Li explores how the practice of embroidering images of Guanyin with human hair gained its devotional significance by examining its functionality, performativity, and ritual process as well as the symbolic meanings of needle pricking. Li discusses how embroidery and needlework was largely perceived as woman’s work and signifying of womanhood, and argues that in this merit-making and highly laborious practice, a profound connection between the deity and the embroiderer’s physical body is established via the woman’s mind, hands, and needle and thread. Li discusses examples of women, such as Ni Renji (1607-85) and Wang Yuan (act. Kangxi period), who used the practice of hair embroidery to merge with Guanyin as well as to fulfill particular obligations and conditions such as filial piety, or to cure an ailment.

Elements from each of the previous three chapters culminate in the fourth chapter, “Mimicking Guanyin with Hairpins.” Focusing on two case studies of the archaeological findings of women who were buried with hairpins and hair coverings, specifically the burials of Nee Sheng (1459-1540) and her daughter-in-law, Nee Xu (dates unknown), and of Lady Wang/Empress Dowager Xiaojing (1565-1611), Li argues that women wore hair ornaments similar to Guanyin’s ornaments not just for meditation or worship purposes as previously assumed, but rather in imitation of the deity and thus as a form of mimetic devotion, and the pins themselves were possibly believed to have a particular power to transform the devotee’s physical body. Li provides a particularly powerful analysis of Empress Dowager Xiaojing’s burial and its spectacular positioning of multiple hairpins with an array of Buddhist and auspicious imagery, arguing that the hairpins and their specific positioning were possibly believed to help dispel suffering, as well as functioning as a bridge that enabled one’s rapid transformation to the Pure Land. 

While at times speculative simply due to lack of direct, unmediated information, Li’s approach is a new and important way to consider how the relationship between the female Buddhist worshipper and the worshipped was established, and the role particular objects and practices played. This study is significant in how it recognizes a wider range of religious expression and brings forward a better understanding of women’s socially constructed roles and intimate practices of self-fashioning and subjectivity, thereby revealing women’s experiences and devotional practices that have been largely obscured and unrecognized. Li’s dexterous use of interdisciplinary methods makes the book useful to scholars and students in multiple fields of visual and material studies, including art history, Buddhist and religious studies, gender studies, and sociocultural anthropology. Li’s specific case studies on various female figures throughout the book could serve as useful reading for a variety of undergraduate courses.

Citation: Jacqueline Chao. Review of Li, Yuhang, Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL:

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