Stephanie Balkwill - October 4, 2021

Another Cakravartin Ruler?: Feminist History and the History of Buddhism in Early Medieval China

Northern Wei 北魏 (386–534 CE) Empress Dowager Ling (d. 529) is commonly regarded as the last independent ruler of her dynasty, which descended into terminal internecine war during her regency. As a ruler, she inherited a deeply divided state. The move of the capital from Pingcheng to Luoyang in 494 created severe economic alienation for the northern peoples who had traditionally supported the rise of the dynasty, just as it made them cultural outsiders to elite politics in the new capital. Although the Empress Dowager exacerbated such geographic and ethnic tensions in her time, what is less known about her is that she also shaped Buddhist modalities of statecraft to legitimate her reign and, seemingly, attempt to manage her difficult empire. In this talk, I will analyze the Empress Dowager’s program of state Buddhism and argue that like her famous contemporary in the South, Emperor Wu (r. 502–549) of the Liang (502–557), she, too, positioned herself as a universal Buddhist monarch in medieval China. In so doing, I engage the question of how our understanding of Buddhist history changes when we put women into it and I propose a series of new questions, which, based in the study of women, serve to elevate our understanding of the ways in which Buddhism became a dominant social force in early medieval China.

Stephanie Balkwill specializes in Buddhism and early medieval China, with particular interest in the important role women played in the early spread of Buddhism throughout East Asia. She has published extensively on related topics. Her current projects include publications on the political lives of Buddhist women in the Northern Wei dynasty, female-to-male sex transformation narratives in Mahāyāna Buddhism, and a book-length study of Northern Wei Empress Dowager Ling, entitled Numinous Under Heaven: The Rise and Fall of a Female, Buddhist Regent in 6th Century Luoyang.