Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Historicized ritual and ritualized history—women's lifecycle in late Medieval China (600–1000 AD)
by Choo, Jessey Jiun-Chyi, Ph.D., Princeton University, 2009, 298; 3374782
Abstract (Summary)

The dissertation, titled “Historicized Ritual and Ritualized History—Women’s Life-Cycle Rituals in Medieval China, 600-1000 AD,” focuses on rituals that women performed to prevent or resolve personal crises as they entered critical junctures of their life, such as childbirth, marriage, illness and death. Medieval China was a highly ritualized society. Confucian rituals, in particular, served as the basis of legal codes pertaining to social interactions of all kinds. Mourning as well as adjudication was conducted according to the relationship between the mourner and the mourned and between the parties involved in any legal proceeding. The dissertation examines the competing ritual programs drawn from Buddhist, Daoist, and folk traditions to which women resorted in order to secure safe passage through liminal phases. Underpinning such behavior was the common belief that supernatural forces could be manipulated to affect the outcome of human affairs. The dissertation clarifies the process through which these ritual programs were understood by supplicants to have power in transforming their lives and afterlives. At a time when the netherworld was constantly being re-imagined and its relationship to this-world re-defined with the advent of Buddhist and Daoist theologies, Confucianism did not have ready a soteriology that provides comparable care for the dead or lends equally persuasive explanation to predicaments that women had to face day in and day out. Women’s demand for a more gender-specific soteriology that explains their allotted positions in the society and the accompanying sufferings fueled a competition among major religious traditions; in which Buddhism topped all its competitors by presenting a women-only hell with Daoism in tow. Women fell into this hell as their menstruation blood and childbirth fluid pollute the heaven and earth. This Buddho-Daoist explanation and the accompanying ritual solutions became immensely popular not only in medieval China but also in Japan in the subsequent age. The dissertation thus argues that the better a soteriology came to explain the roots of women’s lots and sufferings, the lesser the value women came to attach to the bodily contributions they made to their family and society.

The dissertation also analyzes the cultural milieu that shaped and was reshaped by women’s manipulation of ritual programs and of public discourses with regard to lifecycle rituals. It systematically examines many medieval documents, either transmitted or recently excavated, that have not been utilized previously in the study of Chinese women’s history and religion. Such documents include epitaphs, ritual and etiquette manuals, prayer texts, dedication colophons, and medical and divination treatises. It also addresses historiographical issues regarding the use of these written records to capture daily life. Therefore, its research broadens our approaches to family and social history, and challenges commonly held notions about medieval Chinese family structures and mother-child relationships. Ultimately, this is a project that aims to enhance our understanding of the roles of women in shaping the economy of salvation in medieval Chinese religion.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Teiser, Stephen F.
School: Princeton University
School Location: United States -- New Jersey
Source: DAI-A 70/09, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Religious history, History, Womens studies
Keywords: Burial, Childbirth, China, Marriage, Ritual, Tang dynasty, Women
Publication Number: 3374782
ISBN: 9781109363357
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