What difference does gender make in terms of religious practice? Are religious practices mediated differently when the practitioners or the deity are female? I explore such questions in a specific context by examining material practices by women around a Guanyin, a deity who was once male and then became the most popular female deity in late imperial China. My book project is primarily concerned with women’s material practices in relation to the cult of Guanyin. I investigate how secular Buddhist women pursued religious salvation through creative depictions of Guanyin in different media such as painting and embroidery, and through bodily portrayals of the deity incorporating jewelry and dance. I focus on the unique ways in which women produced images of Guanyin via various womanly skills and things as well as by means of their own bodies to express a world-view that provided an alternative to the Confucian patriarchal system.
Yuhang Li is an assistant professor of Chinese art in the Department of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Before joining the faculty at the UW-Madison in 2013, she was a Postdoctoral Associate at Yale University and a Mellon Postdoc at the Grinnell College. She received a fellowship to be a research associate at the Women’s Studies in Religious Program at Harvard Divinity School during 2015-16. Her primary research interests cover a wide range subjects and mediums, including gender, material and visual practice in late imperial China. Her articles on hair embroidery Guanyin, Empress Dowager Cixi dressing up as Guanyin in paintings and photographs and other essays have been published recently. She is the co-editor of the exhibition catalog Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture. Currently she is finishing her book manuscript entitled Reproducing a Bodhisattva: Women's Artistic Devotion in Late Imperial China.