Surveilled, Harmonized, Purified

The Body in Chinese Religious Culture


  • Ori Tavor University of Pennsylvania


Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Ritual, Celestial Bureaucracy, Microcosmic Body


The human body has long occupied a central role in religious praxis across the globe. Recent decades have witnessed a change in academic studies aimed at theorizing the body and its relationship with society and the cosmos. This article adds to this discourse by demonstrating the pervasiveness of the body as a root metaphor in medieval Chinese religious culture. The notion of the body as a microcosmic replica of the social, political, and metaphysical realms, and the need to synchronize it with the natural cycles of the universe, played a key role in the emerging doctrinal and liturgical schemes of Buddhism and Daoism, China’s two main organized religious traditions. Using the apocryphal medieval Buddhist scripture The Sutra of Trapusa and Bhallika as a case study, and reading it against the backdrop of earlier religious, medical, and philosophical texts, this article argues that visions of the body as an object of surveillance by the celestial authorities, and its purification and harmonization through ethical practices and ritual means, were hailed as the most significant religious activities in Buddhist and Daoist communities alike in medieval China, a feature that continues to occupy a central place in contemporary Chinese religious life.

Author Biography

Ori Tavor, University of Pennsylvania

Ori Tavor is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies and the Director of the MA Program at the department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the history of Confucianism and Daoism, the relationship between religion and wellbeing, and Chinese ritual theory. His work has featured in Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, Body and Religion, and the Journal of Ritual Studies.


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Body and Religion