AAS 2016 Paper

Paper Title: Embodying Guanyin, Embodying yaojing: Devotional Deviance in Liu Xiang baojuan

Abstract:

In Liu Xiang baojuan, a popular Qing religious performance text, when exemplary protagonist Liu Xiangnü is likened to Guanyin by her mother-in-law, it is not meant as a compliment. How could it be, when in the following line she rhymes it with yaojing – seductive sprite? Both are meant as insults, but coming from the mouth of the text’s main antagonist, they instead enhance Xiangnü’s exemplarity and attractiveness. The story is very clear that only seduction she attempts on her new husband is to dissuade him from studying for the exams in favor of reciting sutras and cultivating merit.

Unlike Guanyin’s incarnation in the famous Xiangshan baojuan, Xiangnü is a commoner, not a princess. Rather than debating court ministers and demanding to join a convent, she argues with her sisters-in-law and mother-in-law about how to live out religious convictions at home. Though the only direct comparison made in the text between her and Guanyin is meant derisively, indirect parallels exist throughout, ones of which audiences were surely aware. This is made explicit in some editions where the opening image of Xiangnü is in fact identical to images of Guanyin that opened contemporaneous editions of Xiangshan baojuan.

In this paper, I address the ways in which Liu Xiang baojuan draws upon Guanyin imagery in constructing its plot and protagonist. I argue that Xiangnü’s fictional life embodies another way of performing Guanyin for women; a vernacularized one that inspired many performative acts of recitation and reprinting in the late Qing.

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