Experiential Possibilities of the Material Book in Late Imperial China
2: Tangible Bodhisattvas in Books: Reading and Re-creating of Albums by Women Buddhists in 16th- and 17th-Century China
Saturday, March 26, 2022
12:30pm – 2:00pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Duke University, United States
Books have long been prized in Chinese Buddhism, not only as conveyors of information but also as material realities that deserve physical admiration and care. Focusing on two albums sharing the same illustrations of Bodhisattva Guanyin, my paper investigates how books were at the center of diverse Buddhist devotional activities in 16th- and 17th-century China. I argue such books were especially important for women Buddhists as material anchors for their religious lives.
The painted album of Thirty-Two Manifestations of Bodhisattva Guanyin is a rare case of an art book with a woman collector’s seals. Imprinted seal marks and worn-out textile covers attest to the significance of the album for the collector’s religious life, who would have opened and touched the book, enjoyed the illustrations painted in gold ink, and read out loud the gatha poems paired to the images. Such books played an essential role in sustaining one’s belief by requiring active participation of the reader to ‘experience’ the materiality of the book.
The same illustrations acquired a broader readership when reproduced in woodblock print albums, which enabled other women to use those illustrations as designs for Guanyin embroideries. Embroiderers traced designs from Manifestations albums and freely edited the contents to create a new composition. In this multiplication of images, a book was capable of being a stimulant for other forms of art productions; Buddhist women did not remain as docile ‘readers’ but became creators who expressed their piety through the material re-creation of the books.