Wilkinson Lecture Series: Reconsidering the Agency of Pre-modern Japanese Women

Carolyn Wargula, Karen Gerhart, Mimi Yiengpruksawan and Michelle McCoy

 

Wilkinson Lecture Series: Reconsidering the Agency of Pre-modern Japanese Women

Author: Carolyn Wargula

PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

Dr. Mimi Yiengpruksawan, Professor of Art History at Yale University, was this year’s speaker for the annual James and Susanne Wilkinson Lecture held on September 26. This lecture series invites esteemed scholars of pre-modern art each year to discuss their research. Professor Yiengpruksawan, a historian of eleventh- and twelfth-century Japanese Buddhist art, gave a public lecture titled “TWILIGHT WORLD OF SCREENS? REALLY? Women, Art, and Agency in Late Heian Japan,” in which she explored how modern analysis and interpretation of Heian-period (794-1185) literature has skewed and even obscured our view of the political and social agency of Japanese aristocratic women.

Previous scholarship often assumed that Heian-period aristocratic women were cloistered within their residences and were denied the rights to participate in society at large. Visual and literary sources from this period were used as corroborative evidence that court women were simply passive recipients of the male gaze. 

In her lecture, Dr. Yiengpruksawan underscored the importance of using new exegetical methods and interpretive strategies, such as those developed by David Summers on the use of space, to recontextualize the agency of Heian court women. She explained the influence that court women had as patrons and their contributions to religious institutions, noting that court diaries show that these women held considerable social and economic power, traveled freely, and were not simply passive figures, but demonstrative and loud about their thoughts and desires.

One point that Professor Yiengpruksawan highlighted in her talk was that Heian women owned property and could inherit land. Minamoto no Rinshi (964-1053), the wife of the illustrious statesman, Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1028), was actually of higher status and had considerably more wealth than her husband upon their marriage, yet most of the current scholarship focuses on his patronage activities. What becomes clear from this talk is that, despite the patriarchal nature of Buddhist institutions at the time, patronage of Buddhist art and architecture afforded women a public voice and means by which they could negotiate power and form new social identities and communities.

What makes Professor Yiengpruksawan’s research so innovative and inspiring is her interest in framing the patronage activities of Heian women within a cross-border perspective. She concluded the talk by comparing the patronage practices of Rinshi and her daughter Shōshi (988-1074) with those of Khitan princesses on the continent, arguing that these women saw themselves as crucial figures within a larger Buddhist cosmopolis. It is rare and even refreshing for a scholar of Heian-period Japanese art to bring attention to the exchange between Japan and the continent. This talk offers new perspectives on the religious lives of Japanese aristocratic women and serves as an exemplary model for the idea-driven research of the Constellations program.

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