Student Report on “Repositioning Women in Buddhist History: Roles and agency of Buddhist nuns in republican Sichuan”

Reported by Lia Smith, Class of 2026

This lecture was a part of Gender Studies Initiative’s event series. Each event connects gender to a range of topics where gender, sexuality, and feminism are discussed. The topic of this lecture was to unravel patriarchal historical narratives that focused on men, and to reposition women into the historical perspective.

This event brought Professor Stefania Travagnin to DKU for a lecture on the repositioning of women and nuns in Buddhist history in republican Sichuan. She specifically uses the term ‘women’ to include nuns that were part of the nun community, but were not officially ordained, hence being a significantly overlooked group within this area of research.

Professor Travagnin started her research off with looking at documents, but realized that official documentation didn’t focus on nunneries, so she opted for an ethnographic research method instead where she looked at unpublished documents, pagodas, gravestone inscriptions, looking around the nunnery temples, looking at legends that are related to the temple, and finally listening to the oral historical narratives of those that are connected to this community within Chengdu. She explains that there is a lack of representation of women as leaders within Buddhist narrative, and this is especially true in the context of republican Sichuan, due to some nuns not being ordained particularly in the 80’s.

Small temples were a main point of reference to look at the impact of women in these nunneries on their surrounding communities and religious life. Though many may assume that due to less resources in smaller temples, their impact would be smaller, however, small temples play a key part in the religious community. When people in the community want to understand and learn about Buddhism, they want to go to the small temples, because the big temples aren’t able to cater to individuals as well as the smaller temples. These small temples have smaller and closer community in contrast to the larger and more prominent temples.

She introduces a theoretical framing of taking peripheries as new centers in research, where we can change invisibility from something that is not value, and something that has a negative connotation to redefine this term into (in)visibility, something that is powerful and positive, using their invisibility to their advantage. She states that the process of repositioning has the ability to change narratives from a dogmatic one to a loose one. Creating and encouraging historical inquiry could shake the traditional notions.