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Communicating Guanyin with Hair: Hair Embroidery in Late Imperial China

Yuhang Li, 2011-2012 Postdoctoral Associate of Yale University will speak about Hair Embroidery in Late Imperial China.

November 30, 2011 12:00pm to 2:00pm

Hair embroidery is a particular technique practiced by lay Buddhist women to create devotional images. The embroiderers used their own hair as threads and applied them on silk to stitch figures. Scholars contend that this tradition started from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). However, the resurgence of this practice in the Ming period (1368-1644) was related to two historical factors: the spread of the cult of Guanyin, the most prevalent Chinese female deity, and the proliferation of embroidering Guanyin during late imperial China. In recent works on women’s talent, scholars have cursorily mentioned hair embroidery, but they have failed to study it in detail. Hair embroideries of Guanyin offer us a felicitous window on this tradition. Hair embroidery was a unique site where women externalized part of their body to communicate with Guanyin.

In this lecture, based on textual references and surviving hair embroidered Guanyin images, Li will explore the technique of hair embroidery, its religious connotations, and then analyze the cultural significance of this practice. When women embroidered these images of Guanyin, they would create an object out of their hair, and put the product embodying an intimate part of their bodies in temples for all to see. In this way, women sought favors from Guanyin, asking her, for instance, to heal illness. Thus, by offering a part of themselves to Guanyin, they attempted to be close with her. Investigating such practices sheds light on how intimate and non-intimate realms were constituted in relation to religious practice in late imperial China.

Yuhang Li is an art historian of late imperial China. Her primary research interest is gender and material practice in relation to Buddhism in Ming and Qing China. Her dissertation (University of Chicago 2011) “Gendered Materialization: An Investigation of Women’s Artistic and Literary Reproductions of Guanyin in Late Imperial China” examines how lay Buddhist women participated in the cult of the most prevalent Chinese female deity, Guanyin, by reproducing images of her through painting, embroidery, and even using their own body to dress up as Guanyin and being captured in painting and photographs to reach religious salvation. Her broader research projects and research interests concern gender and Chinese art history, which cover women as a subject of representation and women as producers and patrons of the arts, as well as woman’s life cycle and its relation to material practice. During her residence at Yale, she will expand her dissertation into a book manuscript and teach a course entitled “Gender in East Asian Art History.”

Please contact to register for this event no later than Monday, November 28, 2011.