Exemplary Women: Four primary sources on Chinese Buddhist laywomen and nuns

Below is a list of four collections of stories in Chinese about Buddhist nuns and laywomen, ranging in time from the very early days of Chinese Buddhism to the mid 20th Century. Two collections are only about laywomen, while the other two are exclusively about nuns. While the women in these stories are not always explicitly portrayed as teachers in a formal sense, they are held up as examples for others to follow.

In addition to these four primary sources, there are also secondary sources provided – these being modern works in English that translate and comment on the primary sources.

There might be a separate post in the future about collections put together by modern scholars and published in English (including Beata Grant’s “Eminent Nuns”, Martine Batchelor’s “Women in Korean Buddhism”, and Eun-su Cho’s “Korean Buddhist Nuns and Laywomen”).

The list is in chronological order. All dates are “Current Era” (CE).

1. ~516 比丘尼传 (Lives of Nuns) compiled by Baochang (寶唱)

Baochang lived during the Qi and Liang Dynasties, but more precise dates for him don’t appear to be known. The period of time covered by the biographies that he collected is from 313 to 516. According to Kathryn Ann Tsai (see below) Baochang’s collection was complied around 516. The original Chinese of the 比丘尼传 can be found on the CBETA site. The following link goes to the first section (which includes the first 13 of the 65 stories as well as the author’s preface): http://tripitaka.cbeta.org/T50n2063_001
Related secondary sources:
• “Lives of the Nuns: Biographies of Chinese Buddhist Nuns from the Fourth to Sixth Centuries” translation with commentary by Kathryn Ann Tsai. link: https://uhpress.hawaii.edu/title/lives-of-the-nuns-biographies-of-chinese-buddhist-nuns-from-the-fourth-to-sixth-centuries/
• The BDK America volume “Lives of Great Monks and Nuns” contains a complete English translation of Baochung’s “Lives of Nuns”, along with translations of other biographical works. This translation is by Li Rongxi (李榮熙). (link: https://www.bdkamerica.org/product/lives-of-great-monks-and-nuns/)

2. ~1645 優婆夷志目錄 (Record of Upāsikās) compiled by Xueqiao Yuanxin (雪嶠圓信) and Guo Ningzhi (郭凝之)

Xueqiao Yuanxin’s dates are 1571-1647, while Guo Ningzhi’s dates are unknown. Their collection was compiled around 1644-1647 (according to Hongyu Wu, see below). These are all stories about Zen laywomen. The original Chinese can be found online here: http://tripitaka.cbeta.org/mobile/index.php?index=X87n1621_001
Related secondary sources:
• There doesn’t appear to be a full English translation of the 優婆夷志目錄. An English translation (by Thomas Cleary) of one story from the 優婆夷志目錄 is found in the book “The Hidden Lamp: Stories from 25 Centuries of Awakened Women”, compiled and edited by Zenshin Florence Caplow and Reigetsu Susan Moon. The story is  “Ganzhi’s Wife” (甘贄妻), aka “Ganji’s Family”.
• The 優婆夷志目錄 is mentioned briefly in Hongyu Wu’s PhD thesis (see below). The important thing is that she identifies the 優婆夷志目錄  as the “only known biographical collection of Chinese Buddhist laywomen to predate the Shan nüren zhuan”, which is the next source in this list.

3. ~1782 善女人傳卷上 (Biographies of Good Women) compiled by Peng Shaosheng (彭紹昇)

Peng Shaosheng’s dates are 1740-1796. According to Hongyu Wu (see below) “Peng claimed to have written the Shan nüren zhuan for his daughters in 1782”.
Chinese text online: https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=334620
Related secondary sources:
• “Leading the Good Life: Peng Shaosheng’s Biographical Narratives and Instructions for Buddhist Laywomen in High Qing China (1683-1796)” Hongyu Wu, Ph.D. University of Pittsburgh, 2013 (link: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/12215045.pdf) Hongyu Wu’s thesis contains a number of lengthy translated passages from the original work.
• “Rethinking Gender and Female Laity in Late Imperial Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Biographies” by Xing Wang (link: https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/12/9/705/htm). Xing Wang contrasts Peng Shaosheng’s collection, which is exclusively dedicated to Buddhist laywomen, where “Peng depicts women as submissive and inferior to males”, with another collection by Yunqi Zhuhong (雲棲袾宏, 1535–1615) containing stories about both men and women which “celebrated lay female practitioners’ religious achievement as comparable to men.” Furthermore, Xing Wang asserts that Yunqi Zhuhong’s approach was consistent with “a long-lasting and persistent non-binary narrative of lay women in Chinese Pure Land biographies admiring female agency, in which female Pure Land practitioners are depicted as equally accomplished to male ones,” whereas Peng Shousheng’s depiction of women practitioners as “submissive and inferior to males” was his “own invention, rather than a transmission of the inherited formulaic narration of lay female believers, as he claimed.”

4. 1940s 續比丘尼傳 Xu Biqiuni Zhuan (Further Biographies of Nuns) compiled by Master Zhenhua 震華大師.

Zhenhua’s dates are 1908- 1947. There doesn’t appear to be an exact date known for the first publication of the 續比丘尼傳. Annlaug Tho (see below) simply gives the dating as “the 1940s”.
Related secondary source:
•  “Selected Translations and Analysis of ‘Further Biographies of Nuns’ by Annlaug Tho”, Master thesis in History of Religion, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo, Spring 2008 (link: https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/24057/a.tho.xFurtherxbiographiesxofxnunsx.pdf)

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