Individual Studies

(In)visible Nuns and Nunneries: Female Hidden History of Sichuan Buddhism

Stefania Travagnin

During my very first trip to Chengdu I started a long-term research on a small nunnery, the Jinsha Nunnery金沙庵, via archival research and interviews to the resident nuns. The nunnery is built on a tiny and busy commercial alley, with the main gate quite hidden by surrounding shops. Jinsha is a small community, but it is also a temple that was built in the Qing dynasty, and whose history includes the succession of more than thirteen generations of nuns, which is a rare and remarkable achievement in the female history of Buddhism.

My research extended to other small hidden nunneries in Chengdu, like Zhongxing Nunnery 中興寺, Zhuyin Nunnery 竹隱寺, and Dizang Nunnery 地藏庵, and mapped their relations during the Republican period.

Other hidden yet crucial nunneries in the late Qing and Republican period in other parts of Sichuan include Xinlin Nunnery 西林寺, located in Neijiang 內江 and very important since 1938; Jingye Chan Nunnery 淨業禪院 and Qingfu Nunnery 清福寺, located in Suining 遂寧 and whose histories intersected with the local popular worship of Guanyin and the monk Qingfu 清福 (1862-1940); Fuhu Nunnery 伏虎寺, which also hosts the Mt. Emei Female Institute of Buddhist Studies 峨眉山佛學院尼眾班.

Several of these nunneries, like Jinsha and Zhongxing in Chengdu, and Xilin in Neijiang, display photos of previous abbesses and resident nuns, and also of other monastics who have been important in the histories of these sites, in small rooms and shrines; these ‘pagoda’ are not merely a memorial of the temple nuns, but they represent the collective memory of larger communities, which go beyond the borders of a single site, and show how temples and networks can intersect and develop in a micro-area.

Research findings have been presented in several talks, and have been published in three major publications:

1- “Monk Changyuan 昌圓 (1879–1945), Nuns in Chengdu, and Revaluation of Local Heritage: Voicing Local (In)Visible Narratives of Modern Sichuan Buddhism.” Journal of Chinese Religions 49, no. 2: 191-239. This article addresses nuns and nunneries in Chengdu, with special reference to their schools and other education initiatives.

2- “Buddhist Discourses in Modern Suining (Sichuan): Local Discourses within Chinese and Regional Narratives.” Asia Major 34, no. 2: 127-179. Part of this article analyzes nuns and nunneries in Suining from the late Qing up to today.

3 – “汉传佛教多元化图景中边缘女性的经验:近现代四川比丘尼的隐形和显性” . 西南民族大學學報, no.3: 50-56. This Chinese article assesses visibility, invisibility, and (in)visibility of nuns in Republican Sichuan, under the main headings of charisma and leadership; education accomplishments; contribution in the Sino-Japanese war; memorialization strategies.

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