Book Review: Daughters Of Emptiness



by Beata Grant




Beata Grant’s Daughters of Emptiness: Poems of Chinese Buddhist Nuns consists of a collection of poems written by Chinese Buddhist nuns over a large period of time, from the third to the beginning of the twentieth century. Before becoming Professor at Washington University, where she still teaches, Grant has done a considerable amount of research abroad, especially in Taiwan and in the People’s Republic of China. Remarkably, Daughters of Emptiness is only one example of the author’s engagement in the field: she has published a total of five books and innumerable articles, book chapters, reviews, encyclopaedia articles and translations.

Daughters of Emptiness positions itself in the field of collections of religious and literary works. But Grant’s work has not only been that of collector of poems and biographies and of translator: her Introduction provides the reader with cultural and historical context too.

The significance of her book can be said to mainly lie in the innovative contribution it makes to the field. Hers, in fact, is the first English collection of poems written by Chinese Buddhist nuns: their works are much less known than those of their male counterparts. In this light, Daughters of Emptiness can be recognized as being a powerful assertion: they are usually overlooked when it comes to religious and literary contributions to Buddhism, but Buddhist nuns have been educated and talented; have had a voice. Although representative of a small percentage of the nuns’ lives and works, Grant’s biographies and translations tell the story of female voices which have found a way of expression in a literary and religious tradition which was overwhelmingly predominantly male.

In the book, the poems are divided chronologically into seven chapters according to the dynasty or dynasties they were composed in. In every chapter, an account of the life of the nun author of the poems precedes the poems.

History and culture are combined in the Introduction to help the reader place the authors in their religious and cultural context according to the dynasty during which they lived. During the Six Dynasties nuns were talented, admired and respected, but only one poem written by a Buddhist nun remains. Three poems are left from the Sui and Tang Dynasties, during which many nuns were merely women with no spiritual aspiration in need of refuge. However, some nuns were indeed literate. Their poems seem to be linked by the important role that natural elements and seasons play. More poems remain from the Song Dynasty, during which convents acquired a respected social role. The poems maintain the natural vocabulary of the other dynasties, but start to have a moral message, a lesson directed to the reader: “It may be gold dust, but don’t let it get in your eyes!”, “Don’t you know that afflictions are nothing more than wisdom”, and so on. During the Mongol Yuan Dynasty there are almost no references to Buddhist nuns; only one poem is left from this time. Subsequently, the Early and Mid-Ming Dynasty contributed greatly to the flourishing of Buddhism. In the poems of this period the figure of a woman as author can sometimes be glimpsed, as in Jingang’s poem: “Male or female: why should one need to distinguish false and true?”. The poems from the Late Ming and Early Qing Dynasty make up almost half of the book, as this time is characterized by an explosion in the publication of writings written by women. Social and political turmoil also favoured more flexibility in women’s lives. These poems feature a clearer expression of identity and feelings: emotions such as mourning, sorrow, and anger are expressed, the writing of poetry is explained, and references to the self are made with the word “nun”. Many poems are also left from the Second Half of the Qing Dynasty. These more modern authors clearly retain the heritage of religious and natural vocabulary and of contemplative mood, and further develop personal expression. References to the female body, or to dualities, are present.

Daughters of Emptiness is a rich, pleasant, and insightful book, not to mention it is unique in its kind. Grant’s book is not a mere collection and translation of Buddhist poetry, as it also guides the reader with background information, notes, and an extended list of sources which allows further consultations. I would recommend the circulation of this inspirational reading both in the academic and in the personal spheres.

Elisa Sabbadin