Decaying and Deifying: Female Body, Death, and Religious Representations in East Asia
3: Displaying Her Decaying Body: Embodied Exemplarity of Women in the Qing Biographies
Saturday, March 26, 2022
10:30am – 12:00pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Lafayette College, United States
In premodern China, the principle of gender segregation generally prohibits public exposure and evocation of a woman’s face and body. As a result, model women are not only supposed to cloister in the inner quarters, but their biographical memory also tends to minimize the portraits of their physical appearances and countenance. As Susan Mann points out, premodern Chinese writers of female biographies are less concerned with the “visual” aspects than “deeds” which they believed is the touchstone of women’s morality. This paper, however, undertakes to examine some Qing biographical accounts which nevertheless include straightforward descriptions of the female subjects’ bodies, be it disfigured, diseased, or dead. Strikingly, this unconventional focus on the “visual aspects” of a model woman and/or her corpse is often coded in Buddhist vocabulary and allusions, representing the female subject as both a Confucian paragon and a religious saint. In other words, this paper aims to explore the extraordinary, religiously-oriented depictions of the uncanny female body in Confucian biographies of the Qing dynasty. Enshrined in the textual representations of her (un-/)putrefying body, a Confucian model’s exemplarity—spiritual and moral—takes on a corporeal expression. Featuring both religious (Buddhist) rhetoric and Confucian tropes, the biographical inscription of the decaying female body bespeaks, in a broader sense, a gendered reason and reification of the unprecedented religious syncretism in early modern China.