Transformations of Transcendence: Mimicking Guanyin through Hairpins

Yuhang Li, University of Wisconsin–Madison


A unique burial tradition existed in China during the Ming dynasty.  When women devotees were buried, their hair was adorned with wigs and hairpins that resembled Guanyin’s hairstyle.  The emergence of this new burial tradition was intimately connected to the feminization of Guanyin, which was completed in the early Ming dynasty. A key result of Guanyin’s gender transformation was a framework for religious practice in which the production of identity was interwoven with ideologies and material practices linked to the reproduction of gender hierarchy. My paper investigates this practice on two levels: first I ask how this new burial tradition was related to the feminized Guanyin and how female devotees used women’s things to respond to this gendered transformation. In particular, when fashion and religious practice were intertwined, these hair ornaments became more complex and began to embody overlapping significations. Secondly, I argue that when woman wore hairpins similar to Guanyin’s, these hairpins did not simply function as talismans; rather, we see the emergence of a new idea that physical likeness to the deity enabled a transcendence of the finite world. A new way of forging the connection between worshipped and worshipper based on mimesis created the conditions for the unification of the worshiping subject with the worshipped object.