Presentation Schedule and Abstracts: Emerging Voices in the Study of Chinese Religions at AAR San Antonio, 2023

Society for the Study of Chinese Religions
Emerging Voices Panel (P18-200)
AAR 2023 Annual Meeting, San Antonio

12:00–1:30 pm, Saturday, November 18
Marriott Riverwalk – Alamo Ballroom Salon F

Yongshan He (ABD, University of Toronto)
Department of Religion and Culture, University of Winnipeg
“Compassionate Buddha, Compassionate Ruler: Buddhist Image-making and State-Subjects Relationship in Early Medieval China (400-600 CE)”

This presentation addresses this question: How did Buddhism, especially through its images and image-making practices, participated in shaping the way the state was felt by its subjects in early medieval China? I approach this question through Raymond Williams’ “structure of feeling,” a concept drawing our attention to the affective experience of people, especially at moments of change in historical processes. I see Buddhist statues as a newly introduced type of “affective infrastructure,” and argue that Buddhist image-making facilitated the construction of an affectively imagined community with the shared identity of “Buddhist subjects of the state” in early medieval China, by providing iconic statues as a channel both for the state to insert its presence top-down and for the subjects to strengthen their relationship with the state bottom-up. Through this process, an imagery of “compassionate ruler” was generated together with the images and imagery of the compassionate buddhas and bodhisattvas, supplementing the Confucian ruler-as-father metaphor.

Dr. Jiangnan Li (PhD, Arizona State University)
Sheng Yen Postdoctoral Fellow, UC Berkeley 
“The Making of Imperial Religion: State and the Three Teachings in Song China (960-1279 CE)”

My dissertation challenges the conventional understanding that the Song dynasty was a period when Confucianism was placed at the center of governance. Bringing heretofore inadequately studied Buddhist and Daoist texts into discussion, it offers three case studies on interrelationships between Song emperors and the Three Teachings of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. As shown in all three cases, although a religious campaign directed by the emperor and his institutional apparatus could set out under the influence of a certain teaching, the campaign’s outcome at the state level would often be a fusion of various religious and cultural components. My research suggests that Song emperors employed an eclectic strategy in selecting and utilizing elements from the Three Teachings and attempted to build an imperial religion centered around themselves. As such, Song imperial power emerged as a centripetal force that compelled the Three Teachings to tailor themselves to the imperial religion. Therefore, I term the Song imperial court as a “regulated syncretic field” where segments from different religious traditions became amalgamated into religious entities that served imperial demands of the time. Although proponents of the Three Teachings by and large continued their efforts to gain imperial acceptance of their teachings, they often turned to local society to ensure their authority when their efforts at the court failed.

Dr. Sherry Pan (PhD, Brown University)
Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Michigan 
“Forms of Practice: Religiosity of Eunuchs during the Late Ming (1527-1644)”

My project looks at the religious practices of late Ming eunuchs, who have not been well researched in Religious Studies, despite their importance in the social landscape of the Ming Capital Beijing. The religious aspects of their lives, in particular, remain underrepresented in traditional historical sources. To fill in this gap, my dissertation makes use of autobiographical notes, stelae inscriptions, epigraphic evidence, as well as other sources including poems, gazetteers, and travel diaries. Drawing from these materials, my study shows how religion was experienced and expressed in the lives of eunuchs. Furthermore, it takes consideration of eunuchs from a range of social strata, ranging from top-ranking officers to those in menial roles whose lives were less documented than their well-educated and powerful counterparts. By looking into their religious lives, I argue that palace eunuchs partook in various religious activities, both as part of their professional duties and in their personal capacities, finding their own ways in and around the palace in the pursuit of materialistic, spiritual, political, and socio-cultural goals. 

Dr. Huiqiao Yao (PhD, University of Arizona)
ASIANetwork-Luce Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, Trinity University
“Popularizing the Sage: Wang Yangming and Secular Hagiographies in Late Ming China”

This presentation will highlight my dissertation’s framework of “secular hagiographies.” This framework takes the biographical writings about the Neo-Confucian figure Wang Yangming (1472–1529) as a starting point. Wang is often thought of as a “secular” thinker of the elite, in contrast with popular “religious” figures from Buddhist and Daoist traditions. However, he in fact occupied both the secular and religious spheres. As a result of the development of print culture and different religious traditions in the late Ming, popular biographical texts featuring him took on various forms, which includes vernacular stories, illustrated manuals, lineage records, chronicles, plays, and recorded sayings. I characterize these writings as “secular hagiographies.” They follow similar trajectories of Wang’s life events but are unique in their own generic expressions. This interdisciplinary framework of “secular hagiographies” breaks down the traditional barriers between “religious,” “historical,” and “literary” sources and juxtaposes them as part of a broader cultural phenomenon in late Ming China. I argue that these secular hagiographies performed the function of popularizing Wang and proselytizing Confucianism, making Wang an admired and idolized secular figure among people of various social backgrounds.