Abstract: The Ordination System of the Late Imperial China

Yu-chen Li

Associate Professor of the Department of Chinese Literature,
National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan

Historically, political power has influenced the development of Buddhism in China in a variety of ways. The decentralization of the Chinese system of ordination, which was mandated by the Ming and Qing courts and resulted in changes in the ordination records, offers an excellent example. In this paper, I examine the changing relations between Buddhism and the Chinese state that occurred during the Ming and Qing periods, the shift in authority over the Buddhist ordination system that resulted, and the influences and implications of this shift.

Focusing on the roles and status of women in the Chinese ordination system, I seek to explain why the names of some female preceptors are missing in the ordination records as a result of the decentralization policies of the Ming and Qing governments. In contrast to previous dynasties, when Buddhist schools established ordination platforms in local temples, the Ming and Qing courts curtailed the relative independence of Sangha law, in an attempt to confine Buddhism’s power under the law. From the perspective of female Buddhists, however, an officially regulated ordination system might offer a certain degree of protection. In fact, nuns found it easier to receive ordination in the official ordination system than they had in the earlier system of ordination platforms in private temples. This paper reconstructs the complicated process of bhiksuni ordination in China, knowledge that may help revive the bhiksuni lineage in Buddhist traditions that currently lack full ordination for women.