Becoming Buddhist Nuns in the Absence of Husbands


In the premodern era, male migration aroused tremendous anxiety about left-behind women’s safety and sexuality. To assuage such anxiety, male migrants resorted to patriarchal kinship organizations like lineages to monitor and safeguard stay-behind women. Since the effectiveness of such control arrangements varied, there is tense scholarly debate about whether migration offered women more opportunities and choices or not. This paper joins the debate by foregrounding the often-neglected perspective of gender and religion. The larger context is that migration often placed women in a financially perilous situation if remittances sent by their migrant husbands were insufficient, sporadic, or lacking. In regions like Southwest China where lineages were not well established, stay-behind women faced a different opportunity structure than their counterparts did in Southeast China’s lineage society. In the absence of strong male-centered kinship organizations, southwestern women exploited unorthodox options to support themselves. Buddhist nunhood proved particularly appealing because it provided both a stable livelihood and an inclusive all-female space. However, female monasticism was controversial because it challenged state-sponsored patriarchal values. Returned husbands enlisted the state’s help in revoking their wives’ religious decisions. Paradoxically, for particularly vulnerable women like concubines, nunhood proved valuable in terms of obtaining migration-triggered divorces on favorable terms. They strategically synergized monastic celibacy with the discourse of female chastity to assure their estranged spouses of life-long commitments to non-remarriage and succeeded in receiving generous financial compensation. In sum, this study highlighted how the combination of religion and translocality enabled women to renegotiate their positionality within the patriarchy.


Gilbert Chen (Ph.D. Washington University in St. Louis, 2019) is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Towson University, Maryland. He is currently working on a manuscript analyzing the masculinity of Buddhist clergy in Qing China. His works have been published in journals such as Late Imperial China, Journal of Chinese Religions, Buddhism, Law & Society, and NAN NÜ: Men, Women and Gender in China.