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Dr. Stephanie Balkwill, "Buddhism and Sex in the Sixth Century: The Biography of Taghbach Yue, a Foreign Prince in Luoyang"

When: Wednesday, December 15, 2021
12:00 PM - 2:00 PM CT

Where: Online

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Public - Graduate Students

Contact: Joshua Shelton  

Group: The Khyentse Foundation Buddhist Studies Lecture Series

Category: Academic


The Chinese sixth century was a time of upheaval and reconfiguration that saw the traditionally nomadic peoples of the Inner Asian steppe settled as conquerors in the bustling cities of the Chinese heartland. As royalty, military, civil servants, and monastics, these newly-urbanized foreigners participated in a cosmopolitan and energetic social milieu in which Buddhist monasteries and nunneries often provided the stage for leisure and entertainment. One eminent socialite among this new elite, a prince named Taghbach Yue 拓拔悅 (d. 533 CE), was a patron of magic shows at the Buddhist nunnery of the Joyous View (景樂寺 jingle si), and his biography in the official history of the Northern Wei 北魏 dynasty (386–534 CE) provides an unprecedented description of a number of his social, religious, and personal activities. Most surprising among the descriptions of his life is the claim that the Prince enjoyed sex with men. Moreover, he is said to have done so while also dwelling at the house of a commoner outside of the city, collecting medicinal herbs, fasting from meat and alcohol, and chanting Buddhist texts.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Prince’s sixth-century biographer takes a generally negative view of the Prince’s life, calling him “licentious,” saying that he practiced heterodox religious ways, and retelling a story of the Prince’s own physical abuse of his wife. In this paper, Dr. Balkwill will attempt to recast the story of the Prince from one of bad behaviour and moral failing to one of the intersections of Buddhism, social life, and sex in the urban milieu of the sixth century.

Stephanie Balkwill is an Assitant Professor of Chinese Buddhism at UCLA. She is interested in the literary and public lives of Buddhist women who lived in China between the 4th and 6th centuries, and is currently publishing on two major projects: 1) women and state Buddhism in the 6th Century; 2) sūtras on female-to-male sexual transformation in Early Medieval China.

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