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The Buddhist Nuns of 4th - 6th century China Lin, Kathy


The earliest Buddhist nuns in China lived between the 4th and 6th centuries AD. We have record of their lives from Baochang’s compilation of their biographies in 516 AD. They were women who were more likely than not of elite literati familial origin. Many of them were centered around the great metropolitan cities of Chang’an and Luoyang in the North, and Jiankang in the south. The earliest nuns adopted Buddhist ideas and practices that had been slowly entering China along the Silk Routes from Central Asia and India. In the several hundred years prior to the 4th century, Buddhism was quite limited in China, practiced more or less by residents of foreign origin. These residents were treated as marginal within the larger cultural milieu. In particular, the Han dynasty ending in 220 AD had little use for Buddhist ideas and practices, as they were heavily invested in Confucian orthodoxies concerning family, institutions, and statecraft. The conquest of the northern capital cities of Luoyang and Chang’an in 311 and 316 AD by a united nomadic Xiongnu alliance meant an end to Han Chinese governance in the north. Gentry who survived the massacres and book-burnings in the capital cities fled to Jiankang in the south, in present-day Nanjing, where they set up a new seat of government. This massive societal crisis threw the assured Confucian orthodoxies into disarray. In the vacuum of political theory, intellectuals held salons or qingtans to discuss speculative new forms of political and natural philosophy. This is the setting for the broader uptake and flowering of Buddhist ideas and practices, which often took the form of Buddho-Daoist syntheses. The earliest Buddhist nuns were living in this context. In response to the social turmoil of the times, these women bucked Confucian ideas of the exemplary woman as primarily devoted to the institutions of family and, in connection with the apparatus of state, the familial-dynasty. Importantly, the institution of the family should not be seen here as a “private” arena, as it is organized in modern secular societies with a distinction between private and public. In the 4-6th centuries, the family as an institution was the primary building block of political economy. Noble houses interfaced with each other and also with an imperial apparatus of state in alliances involving power, prestige, and territorial control (ie. economic output). The family sent sons into the imperial officialdom; daughters participated in various political alliances between houses. This is the setting in which we can see how radical the Buddhist nuns were. They were trail-blazers innovating new practices that took care of people who fell into the interstitial spaces between the various norms, practices, and institutions of family and familial dynasty. These innovations played an important part in shifting the entire social system, introducing the institution of the sangha in addition to, and in relation with, the institutions of state and family.

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