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East Asian Studies Center Colloquium: Jessey Choo

Getting a Divorce After Death in Late Medieval Chinese Entombed Epitaphs

In late medieval China (500-1000 CE), burying a husband and wife together was the norm. Yet, many elite women rejected such an arrangement. Rather than joining their husband in burial, known as spousal joint burial, or hezang 合葬, they opted instead for a separate one, known as spousal disjoint burial, or fengzang 分葬. In entombed epitaphs, wherein some selected aspects of the deceased’s life and death were commemorated, a woman’s choice of fenzang was often presented as being entirely her own and as the cause of great anxiety among the couple’s children. In a society where family members were typically interred in one graveyard and thereby symbolically reunited, the choice pitted filial piety against familial loyalty and filial devotion to the mother against that to the father, thus introducing the need to explain how the deceased came to this decision and how her children implemented it. Reasons often offered were the deceased’s Buddhist practices and desire to leave the secular life while living. These explanations added the chance of salvation to the already hefty weight of conscience on the children. This talk examines the rhetoric of filial piety and Buddhist renunciation in the discursive field of spousal joint/disjoint burial. Drawing on entombed epitaphs, records of court debates, and women’s Buddhist burials, it argues that fenzang was tantamount to a posthumous divorce. To some women, it seemed, one lifetime with their husband (and in-laws) was quite enough.

Professor Choo is a cultural historian specializing in China’s medieval period (200–1000 CE), with particular expertise in Chinese entombed epigraphy (muzhiming 墓志銘). Her current research centers on cultural and religious practices associated with death and childbirth, as well as the acquisition and exercise of personal agency in everyday life. Specifically, she is interested in the tension between the “Confucian” emphasis on selfless devotion to one’s parents and family and the growing importance in medieval Chinese society of pursuing personal agency, identity, and salvation. Her book, Inscribing Death: Burials, Texts, and Remembrance in Tang China, 618-907 CE (University of Hawaii Press, forthcoming) explores how people in late medieval China fashioned and preserved the preferred identities and memories of the dead, themselves, and their families through burial practices and entombed epitaphs. She is also a co-editor of Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook (Columbia University Press, 2014) and Tales from Tang Dynasty China: Selections from the Taiping Guangji (Hackett Publishing Co., 2017).

Friday April 20, 2018 12:00 PM
Friday April 20, 2018 01:30 PM
Global and International Studies Building 2067
Sponsoring Unit(s)
East Asian Studies Center, Department of Religious Studies
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