Fellows in Focus: China and Buddhist Studies Fellow Jue Liang Explores the Intersection of Gender and Tibetan Buddhism
Published: November 28, 2023
Growing up in Chengdu, a city in the Sichuan province of China, Jue Liang F’23, F’19, G’16 had a general familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism. However, it wasn’t until she studied the language, history, culture, and belief systems during her postsecondary education that she discovered her interest in the field. As a graduate student at Renmin University of China and the University of Chicago, she realized she wanted to explore gender discourses in Buddhist communities and to examine the translation of Tibetan literature. With the help of the Luce/ACLS Program in China Studies and The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Program in Buddhist Studies, administered by the American Council of Learned Societies, Liang has been able to delve into her research in Tibetan Buddhism.
“I was able to travel to Eastern Tibet in the summer of 2017, to dedicate a year’s time to finishing my dissertation, and to continue conducting research in 2023 to 2024, all thanks to the generous support from ACLS,” Liang said.
After hearing about the ACLS programs in China and Buddhist Studies from mentors and colleagues in her doctoral program at the University of Virginia, Liang decided to apply to support her studies and expand her research network.
Liang received the Luce /ACLS Predissertation-Summer Travel Grant in China Studies in 2016 and The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Dissertation Fellowship in Buddhist Studies in 2019 to conduct research for her dissertation Conceiving the Mother of Tibet. The project analyzes narrative literature from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries about Yeshe Tsogyel, who is celebrated the mother of Tibetan Buddhism. The dissertation assesses why literature about Tsogyel emerged 600 years after her lifetime, searches for depictions of Buddhist women’s experiences in accounts by men, and tracks Tsogyel’s elevation of status. Liang is revising her dissertation research into her first book, Conceiving the Mother of Tibet: The Early Literary Lives of the Buddhist Saint Yeshe Tsogyel.
In 2014, Liang visited Larung Five Sciences Academy, colloquially known as Larung Gar, a center for Buddhist learning in Eastern Tibet, to search for manuscripts about Yeshe Tsogyel for her dissertation. During her time there, she met nuns who were granted the same access to Buddhist educational materials as the monks were, even though female inferiority is historically prevalent in Tibetan Buddhist institutions. Liang has returned to Larung Gar nearly every year since then, and has forged relationships with the nuns, which inspired her current project, A Library of Her Own.
On the one hand, many Buddhist texts make an inclusive claim for humanity’s capacity for enlightenment regardless of gender; on the other hand, women historically and systemically lack access to Buddhist teachings as well as a path to religious leadership.
Jue Liang F’23, F’19, G’16
Photos clockwise from left to right: Jue Liang at Larung Gar, December 2019 (photo by Tashikyid); Status of Padmasambhava and his two companions, Yeshe Tsogyel and Mandarava inside Yeshe Tsogyel’s meditation cave at Samye Chimphu in Tibet; View of Larung Gar from the top, July 2018
Liang received a 2023 Luce/ACLS Early Career Fellowship in China Studies, which she is using to advance her research on the nuns at Larung Gar and the gender and social discourses in China. She will be traveling for two months in 2023 and 2024 to conduct research for the project and will eventually convert her findings into a manuscript titled Thus Has She Heard: Theorizing Gender and Religion in Contemporary Tibet.
“The continuing thread of my research is the tension between the generally lesser status of women in Buddhist communities and the theological claim on the irrelevance of gender in Buddhist teachings,” Liang said. “On the one hand, many Buddhist texts make an inclusive claim for humanity’s capacity for enlightenment regardless of gender; on the other hand, women historically and systemically lack access to Buddhist teachings as well as a path to religious leadership.”
Liang’s research interests stem from courses she participated in about Tibetan, Sanskrit, Indian Buddhism, South Asian Religions, and Tibetan culture and history as a graduate student at Renmin University in China. She went on to attend the University of Chicago, where she first learned about religious studies.
“Although my research expertise is in Tibetan Buddhist literature and gender, I see myself as a scholar of cultural expression and its varieties,” she said.
To help develop relationships with other scholars, Liang attended the ACLS Buddhist Studies Early Career Retreat in August 2022 and the Luce/ACLS Summer Institute for China Studies in June 2023. Liang says the intellectual community fostered by ACLS has benefited her immensely.
“I have met many ACLS cohorts and officers throughout the years at workshops and retreats organized by ACLS,” she said. “Conversations with them always inspire me to pursue new venues of interest and expand my understanding of the field.”
With program grants totaling $957,000, ACLS will continue to support scholars and broaden the circulation of knowledge about China with fellowships and grants for research, travel, and innovative collaboration.