A millennium and a half ago there lived in China some remarkable women who cast aside the fetters of the world to become Buddhist nuns. Lives of the Nuns preserves the memory of their lives and deeds and gives us a look into a world that is foreign, exotic, and now vanished; yet, that world is far less alien than we might first think, for it is people with men and women who express the same emotions—the same desires, aspirations, or longings for spiritual enlightenment—as those found at all times and in all places. Furthermore, the character of these nuns who lived during dangerous and chaotic times can instruct us who also live in such times. We need not be Chinese Buddhists of the sixth century to be charmed by the nun Hui-chan's insouciant bravery (no. 7), or to be moved by Chih-hsien's fearless integrity (no. 3), or to smile at Ching-ch'eng's clever ruse (no. 28). And we who have in this generation seen Buddhist monastics offer their bodies as a sacrifice by fire will feel kinship with the religious and laity of long ago who, when they learned that T'an-chien (no. 46) had offered her body by fire to the Buddha, "lamented, their cries reverberating through the mountains and valleys."
This translation of Lives of the Nuns, a major revision of an original translation done as part of my doctoral dissertation for the University of Wisconsin, was prepared with both the general reader and the scholar in mind in the hope that those who have no special background in the subject may take up the material and read with pleasure and understanding, while the scholars in the field may also enjoy the Lives.
Because the biographies are often concise to the point of obscurity, and because allusions, references, names, and places familiar to the Chinese reader of nearly fifteen hundred years ago are simply not going to be clear to the present-day English-speaking reader, the translator has taken the liberty of adding to the text of the biographies bracketed phrases or even sentences necessary to provide a smoother narrative. Any material that cannot be worked into the biography itself is found in the notes.
To provide a sense of geographic direction, place-names are supplemented with brief phrases indicating where they were in China or where they were in relation to the southern capital, which, as the major city of the southern dynasties, makes an obvious reference point. A map of China, showing many of the places mentioned in the biographies, is also included. It should be kept in mind that, whenever a biography mentions the place where the woman's family came from, it frequently means the place from which the family had emigrated several generations previously. When a place-name cannot be located with reasonable certainty, no attempt is made to locate it.
To clarify relationships or to bring out more clearly the point of a nun's connection with particular individuals, named persons, whenever possible, are identified by a brief phrase in the translation. Additional information, if any, appears in the notes. Those individuals who are otherwise unknown will not be annotated.
To help readers fix the events in time, dates of birth and death are given when known and, for emperors, dates of birth, beginning of reign, and death.
The bibliography of sources, reference works, and readings describes the books mentioned in the notes, those used as sources and references for the preparation of the translation, and those that readers might find of further interest.
Appendix A is a more technical discussion of the history, sources, and literary prototypes for the text of the Lives.
The romanization system used for transcribing the Chinese characters is a modification of the Wade-Giles system, chosen because the English-language references and suggested further readings also use this system, thereby creating a consistency that the reader might find helpful.
Words of Sanskrit origin are transcribed using the long marks (macrons) over the vowels but not the retroflex marks under certain consonants. The letter combination sh represents both the consonant often transcribed as an s with the acute accent and the consonant s often transcribed with the retroflex dot underneath. The letter combination ch represents what is often written only as the letter c. The letter n before g, k, or h represents what is often written as an m. These differences should be noted when trying to find in other readings the words or titles of Sanskrit origin used in the Lives of the Nuns.
The nuns' personal names have been transliterated, with a translation of the name appearing only in the glosses that begin the individual biographies. Names of convents and monasteries have been translated to provide the reader with a respite from the many Chinese names and in some instances to make clear the point a biography is trying to make concerning the choice of a name for the convent, as for example, biography 5. Place-names have been transliterated, except for some names of mountains that can be straightforwardly translated into English. The names of the two most famous rivers in China are given in the form familiar to English-speaking readers—that is, the Yellow and the Yangtze rather than the Ho and the Chiang.
Thanks are due to the late Arthur E. Link for having introduced me, many years ago, not only to the Pi-ch'iu-ni chuan but also to the world of medieval China, to the late Richard H. Robinson for having supervised my initial work, and to the late Holmes Welch for having provided opportunities for further study and research.
I must also thank a colleague whom I have never met, Li Jung-hsi, of the Chinese Buddhist Association in Peking, whose own English translationof the Pi-ch'iu-ni chuan I reviewed in 1985. Although I would have preferred speaking with him personally, having his translation at hand meant that I was able, in a sense, to ask his opinion about any phrase or sentence in the text. Because we are working with difficult and often ambiguous material, it is to be expected that we will not always agree.
A heartfelt thank you I offer to Sharon Yamamoto of University of Hawaii Press not only for her initial interest but also for her encouragement and for her well-chosen suggestions for improving the book.
To my husband, Tsai Hsiang-jen, I owe deep and deserved thanks in recognition of his patient endurance as well as his very concrete help in more ways than I can count.
To the late Anna Katharina Seidel of the Institut du Hōbōgirin in Kyoto, for her help, criticism, and especially for her unfailingly kind generosity, I owe a debt of gratitude that can never be adequately repaid. Whatever is good in this work is hers, and to her I dedicate Lives of the Nuns.
Kathryn Ann Tsai
|Published by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia|