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Governing With Ritual Heterodoxy in Early Medieval China


Stephanie Balkwill (Assistant Professor of Chinese Buddhism, UCLA)

*****This event has been indefinitely postponed*****


The Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 CE) began as a confederation founded and governed by ethnically non-Han peoples from Inner Asia whose homeland is located in the province of Inner Mongolia in today’s People’s Republic of China. These people—known to history as the Taghbach—likely spoke a para-Mongolic language. They were horseback-riding nomads who worshipped an Inner Asian Sky God, but who, in the form of the Northern Wei, settled in the heartlands of the prior Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and began to rule their polity as “Emperors,” just as did the rulers of the Han.

This talk will focus on the last independent ruler of the Northern Wei, a Han woman often referred to as Empress Dowager Ling (d. 528) who was a public patron of Buddhism and who was assassinated by her political rivals. In exploring the context of ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity in the Northern Wei and engaging the context of political instability in the period, we will survey the many ways in which Northern Wei rulers and royals created a hybrid system of state ritual that drew from divergent cultural sources and we will ask just how effective their system was in maintaining political order.


About the speaker:
Professor Stephanie Balkwill is interested in the literary and public lives of Buddhist women who lived in what is now China between the 4th and 6th centuries. Her research engages the question of whether or not Buddhist affiliation provided new social and educational opportunities for women in early medieval China, and, in turn, argues that women were influential in the early spread of the Buddhist tradition throughout East Asia.

She is currently undertaking two major research projects in this area, each with its own series of publications. The first project examines the political lives of Buddhist women in the Northern Wei dynasty and puts forth the thesis that the Northern Wei offers the earliest known case study that we have for the confluence of women, Buddhism, and political power that is seen across East Asia in the medieval period. The second project examines the prominence of female-to-male sex transformation narratives in Mahāyāna Buddhist texts within the context of the gendered practice of the tradition in early medieval China.

At present, she is working on revisions to 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.

She is also the co-Director of the Buddhist Bodies Collective. The aim of the project is to curate and publish new, Open Access, body-centered resources for the teaching of Buddhism at the introductory level and across the humanities more broadly.