Theses Doctoral

The Female Body, Motherhood, and Old Age: Representations of Women in Hell in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Japan

Shen, Yiwen

My dissertation, The Female Body, Motherhood, and Old Age: Representations of Women in Hell in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Japan, examines the literary and visual representations of women in hell in late medieval and early modern Japan, with particular attention to the female body, motherhood, and old age. My focus is the late Muromachi and early Edo periods, when a constellation of new hells began to be conceptualized that had serious ramifications for representation of women. I examine a group of otogizōshi texts and hell paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which were disseminated widely through different media (picture scrolls, screen paintings, and narrative texts) and which generated a set of motifs representing women in the afterlife. I relate the emergence of these motifs to the larger history of the discursive construction of the female body and the evolution of representations of hell in premodern Japan.

I argue that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, representations of women in hell in these texts and paintings shifted in their focus to domestic relationships, specifically mother-child and wife-husband relationships. This change is best exemplified by the late medieval set of gendered hells (The Hell of Barren Women, The Hell of Two Wives, and Children’s Limbo), which represent the body of the woman from three perspectives: 1) as infertile (as in the Hell of Barren Women), 2) as related to animals (such as the serpentine queen in Daibutsu no go-engi (The Venerable Origins of the Great Buddha) and the serpent-women in the Hell of Two Wives), and 3) as stigmatized or punished for excess desire/attachment in their mother-child and wife-husband relationships (as in the Hell of Two Wives).

This dissertation also analyzes woman as erotic object, as mother, and as aging body from a comparative Japan-China perspective. By comparing similar motifs that emerged at approximately the same historical moments—the snake queen falling into hell in Daibutsu no go-engi with the snake queen in “Empress Xi turning into a python,” and Datsueba (Clothes-snatching Hag) with Meng Po (Lady of Forgetfulness)—I am able to highlight distinctive features of these new hells for women as well as compare the differing functions of hell shown by these Japanese and Chinese examples.

In Chapter 1, “Women Falling Into Hell in Early Medieval Japan,” I analyze three early medieval tales of women journeying to and from Tateyama hell in the eleventh-century Dai Nihonkoku Hokkekyō genki and twelfth-century Konjaku monogatari shū in order to provide background for my later discussion on the new concerns for women that emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I show how the salvation of the deceased female protagonists depended on the proper rituals being performed by family members and I make clear the significance that motherhood was accorded in early medieval Buddhist tales of women in hell.

I then examine how representations of women evolved and became more complex in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the emergence of the Hell of Barren Women, where childless women are punished, and the Hell of Two Wives, in which two serpent women coil their bodies around a man with whom they had become involved in a triangular relationship. In Chapter 2, “Barren Women Hells and Daibutsu no go-engi (The Venerable Origins of the Great Buddha),” I show how the Hell of Barren Women stresses the reproductive responsibilities of women. The representations of the Hell of Barren Women, reflecting a growing female audience in the late Muromachi and early Edo periods, are clear evidence of a belief that it is motherhood that is a woman’s passport to salvation.

In Chapter 3, I examine “The Serpentine Queen and the Chinese Tale of Empress Xi Hui Turning Into a Python.” A comparison with Daibutsu no go-engi shows that the Chinese stories about Empress Xi focus more on the feelings and observations of the living, while Daibutsu no go-engi stresses the accumulation and elimination of negative karma.

Chapter 4, “The Hell of Two Wives: Transformed Women and the Jealousy of Joint-Wives,” examines the motif of the “transformed woman” found in the Lotus Sutra, the eleventh-century Hokke genki, and the mid-sixteenth century Dōjōji engi, showing how a negative connection between women and the dragon-serpent body was established, and how the animalized female body relates to the question of desire. The entwined threesome in the Hell of Two Wives not only exemplifies a domestic narrative of betrayal and resentment; it also shows a transition from a general stigmatization of the female body towards a more specific condemnation of lust, jealousy, and resentment—which are all gendered female. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women’s roles evolved to reflect a desire to maintain the stability of family. At the same time, these representations began focusing more on situations in which women’s efforts to control body or mind met with failure.

Chapter 5, “Old Women as Keepers of the Borders: Datsueba and Meng Po,” analyzes two figures of hags in hell: Datsueba in Japan and Meng Po in China. While Datsueba watches over the dead as they descend to the depths of hell to receive judgment, Meng Po cares for them as they make their way out of hell to achieve reincarnation. I argue that both Datsueba and Meng Po reinforce the border of hell by depriving the deceased of their social identities, but while Datsueba punishes and purifies the deceased, Meng Po focuses on the transitional stage between death and the next life, and her memory-erasing function shows that, paradoxically, in Chinese hell deceased souls are not liberated from the basic Confucian relationships that are so important to the living.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Shirane, Haruo
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 18, 2021