Embodying the Buddha: The Presence of Women in Japanese Buddhist Hair Embroideries, 1200-1700

Embodying the Buddha: The Presence of Women in Japanese Buddhist Hair Embroideries, 1200-1700
Carolyn Wargula


This dissertation explores the patronage, materiality, and ritual function of Buddhist embroideries in premodern Japan. It traces the shifting meanings attributed to embroideries from their use in memorial services during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) to objects metonymic of devout female patrons during the Muromachi period (1333-1573). In past scholarship, Buddhist hair embroideries were evaluated as mere copies of painted masterpieces and thus remain little studied. This study, however, will emphasize materiality over iconography and practice over doctrine to show that Buddhist embroideries uniquely supported the soteriological needs and ritual practices of Japanese women. Each chapter demonstrates that embroidered Buddhist icons enabled women to subvert religious doctrine concerning the impurities of their sex, form a bond with the Buddha, and establish female presence in an otherwise male-dominated space. Chapter Two traces the cross-cultural movement and adaptation of Kannon (Sk. Avalokiteśvara, C. Guanyin) embroideries from China to Japan and considers how the ritual use of these embroideries in Japan differed from those on the continent. Chapter Three examines the development of Japanese Buddhist images embroidered with hair in the late twelfth century to show how this medium was thought to accrue worldly and soteriological merit for women. Chapter Four focuses on the ritual significance of hair embroideries attributed to Chūjōhime (753?-781?) a legendary aristocratic woman credited with attaining enlightenment after commissioning the famous Taima mandara tapestry. These chapters employ methods of social history, material culture studies, and the history of the body to examine Buddhist hair embroideries not simply for their artistic value (iconography and visuality), but also their cultic value within ritual contexts. Such theories provide a framework for understanding why women were encouraged to express religious devotion through practices that emphasized the sacrifice and denial of their bodies. This dissertation ultimately challenges the assumption that female devotees were marginalized figures in Buddhist communities and contributes an art historical approach to growing scholarship in the fields of history and religious studies on the agency of premodern Japanese women.


Carolyn Wargula

Defended in


PhD defended at

University of Pittsburgh






Art and Culture
Gender and Identity