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Literary Prototypes

The Lives, unique in content, is part of a long tradition of biographical writing in China composed not merely for the sake of history itself but for edification, example, and instruction. Within the biographical form it is possible to evaluate individuals and their actions, whether for good or ill, as statements of admonition and encouragement.

The most obvious of the prototypes for the women in the Lives is the Lieh nü chuan (Lives of women) (hereafter LNC) compiled some time between 77 b.c. and 6 b.c. by Liu Hsiang, a scholar of the Former Han dynasty (206 b.c.-a.d. 8). The LNC is intended to be a vehicle for moral instruction and memorials for women by relating the lives of those who are worthy of emulation and serve as models of righteouness and upright conduct. The moral qualities of these women, paragons of traditional society, are the apex of what is expected and admired in women within the traditions of that society.

The Lives contains this type of biographical documentation. The two collections, however, have a different structure, the LNC being arranged categorically, including types such as the virtuous and wise, the chaste and obedient, or those able in reasoning. The eighth category, possibly not by Liu Hsiang, contains warnings about the pernicious and depraved. The type of women in this last category does not appear in the Lives and would be contrary to Pao-ch'ang's purpose. All the other Buddhist biographies, as well as the LNC, divide their material by categories, and Pao-ch'ang did likewise in his MSC.

The Lives is divided chronologically. Pao-ch'ang in his preface, however, singles out four types of women whom he especially admires: the ascetics (Shan-miao, no. 26, and Ching-kuei, no. 47); the contemplatives (Fa-pien, no. 31, and Seng-kuo, no. 27); the faithful and steadfast (Seng-tuan, no. 24, and Seng-chi, no. 8); and the teachers of great influence (Miao-hsiang, no. 4, and Fa-ch'üan, no. 44). Reading these biographies, we see that Pao-ch'ang has chosen extreme examples, the most spectacular being the ascetics who commit suicide by fire in honor of the Buddha; the steadfast are those who refuse marriage by using daring means to escape. The contemplatives go into trances so deep that they are like wood and stone. The teachers have hundreds of disciples and followers.

The Lives also serves as a model or exemplar for Buddhist women, but in this case the values are Buddhist. Nevertheless, in the Lives, when the biographer records secular values such as filiality, obedience, and upholding tradition, we see attempts on the part of the compiler to show clearly that Buddhist values and way of life did not fundamentally go against the traditions of society, or against Confucian ethics and morals. One difference is that the women of the LNC are praised or blamed because of their effect on father, husband, or son, the three men to whom a woman is to be obedient throughout her life. The nuns, on the contrary, are in most cases praised and honored for their own worth, for their own self-development, often in the face of opposition.

The vocabulary of praise and blame are different—with some overlapping—between the LNC and the Lives. The emphasis changed from Confucian-inspired ideals, such as i (righteousness) or jen (human heartedness), to Buddhist ideals such as keeping the precepts or teaching the Buddhist law. Women in the LNC commit suicide for more passive reasons, as, for example, to preserve their reputation or that of their families—a Confucian ideal woman. In the Lives women who commit suicide do it for religious reasons, a very positive attitude of doing something in honor of the Buddha, his law, and his monastic assemblies.

The terminology of praise in the Lives often conforms to Buddhist texts as models. For example, the text known as the Mahāprajāpatī Scripture provides a compact example for the women to follow. Much of the content of the nuns' experiences has direct prototypes in the Buddhist scriptures. The biographies demonstrate and give proof of the efficacy of the Buddhist Way. The two clearest examples are the sacrifice of one's life by fire as advocated in the Flower of the Law Scripture and the protection given by the bodhisattva Kuan-yin as promised in the Kuan-yin Scripture. Many rituals and practices derive directly from the scriptures.

Despite the Buddhist inspiration of most of the biographies, there are several that seem to have a secular background. The biography of Miao-yin (no. 12), for example, illustrates a nun highly involved in the secular world, carrying on actions specifically prohibited to nuns. Miao-yin is an adviser to the emperor, and she hobnobs with all the famous people of her day. Everyone flocks to her because of her influence. She is literate and clever; she is a famous person, the type of cleric whom Pao-ch'ang admired.

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia