The Immortal Woman

Professor Ann Waltner uncovers the story of Ming-era Tanyangzi: visionary, mystic, immortal.

By Kelly O'Brien

Painting of Tanyangzi
Shanghai Museum.
Painting of Tanyangzi

Some people read trashy magazines when they are bored. Others read comic books, or mass market fiction. History professor Ann Waltner likes to get out the dictionaries. And it was while browsing through a standard biographical dictionary that she came across a "tantalizing entry," that of Tanyangzi, a Ming Dynasty-era religious figure and leader of her own cult. This brief introduction was destined to send Waltner on a journey from Minneapolis to the deep storage of a Beijing museum.

Tanyangzi was a fascinating figure. Born in 1557 in China, she showed an early affinity for the Taoist religious practice of the day and developed a precocious devotion to the Buddhist bodhisattva Guanyin. As an adolescent, she stopped eating as her wedding day approached; she told her worried parents that deities were bringing her food during the night. After her fiancé died before their wedding, she asked her parents to consider her a widow and allow her to live in her own space in the family compound. Reluctantly, this was granted, and Tanyangzi, barely 17 years old, committed herself to religious study and teaching.

Soon she developed her own group of followers, who believed in precepts she said would lead to immortality: love and respect ruler and parents, prohibit and stop lewdness and killing, pity and cherish orphans and widows, tolerate insult, cherish frugality and be modest in your enjoyment of wealth, honor and respect words, don't discuss people's faults, don't harbor unorthodox books and finally, don't follow unorthodox teachers who are outside the Tao or who advocate certain sexual practices.

Ultimately, on the ninth day of the ninth month in 1580, at the age of 23, Tanyangzi literally ascended heavenward, attaining immortality. Documents from the era state this event was witnessed by some 100,000 people.

No wonder Waltner was hooked. Her research led her to a biography of Tanyangzi written by her father and another disciple shortly after her ascension. It was widely distributed and very popular, so much so that local government officials brought charges against the two men for spreading non-Confucian ideas. For hundreds of years, this biography and various letters written by her followers were all that was known about Tanyangzi and her teachings. But then a few years ago a friend of Waltner's was doing research in Beijing's Palace Museum. While researching the painter You Qiu, she came across a catalogue reference to You's painting of a woman with a collection of 51 letters attached to it. The subject of the painting was none other than Tanyangzi, and the letters were her own.

In the late Ming Dynasty it was common practice to collect and publish the letters written by notable men. Collecting women's writings was comparatively rare, and the collection of Tanyangzi's writings is the largest-known collection by a single woman in the 16th century. But what makes the find even more fascinating is that her own writings can be compared against the biography written by her father and disciple.

One of the letters written by<br />
Tanyangzi.
Palace Museum, Beijing.
One of the letters written by
Tanyangzi.

The unpublished letters have revealed a wealth of information on Tanyangzi's teachings and life. Some of the letters are farewell messages which impart instructions about the attainment of immortality. Others are ordinary and show Tanyangzi's ties to the world of mundane emotions--she consoles her uncle when her aunt is ill, she gives her brother advice when he has bad dreams. The letters, no matter what their subject matter, show her profound connections to her family and disciples even as she is on the verge of attaining immortality.

Waltner says a lot of people are at first surprised that a woman in Ming Dynasty China could be so venerated as a religious leader. In fact, Taoism has a tradition of young women transmitting texts to men, and Tanyangzi had many men of her father's generation as her followers. Westerners need only look to Christianity to see comparisons to female saints, who were not so different than Tanyangzi. "We are comfortable with female saints because we have always known about them," Waltner says.

The significance of the letters may boil down to what they tell us of the world surrounding Tanyangzi. "They show the flexibility of the 16th century Chinese intellectuals--that they were seriously interested in a woman visionary," says Waltner. "And they show us ways in which a young woman commanded authority."

Whether or not Tanyangzi actually did ascend heavenward in front of 100,000 people, she has attained a certain immortality; she lives on through her letters and biography, which today instruct scholars about the life of a Ming Dynasty woman.

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on June 29, 2009 3:36 PM.

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