Women in Daoism

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WOMEN IN DAOISM. By Catherine Despeux and Livia Kohn. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2003. Pp. viii + 296, illustrations, charts. Paper, $25.00, ISBN 1-931483-01-9. 


This volume assembles together for the first time a comprehensive history of women in Daoism. Despeux and Kohn explore both symbolic and historical women in the Daoist tradition, from the earliest times up to the near-present. Each of the book’s three sections focuses on a unique aspect of women in the Daoist tradition. This is preceded by an introduction covering aspects of women’s activity and representation. Five “visions and roles” are identified: female as cosmic mother; women as symbols of cosmic yin, the complement of yang, and their expression in fertility; women as divine teachers; women as possessors of divine communication with the supernatural and of healing powers; and the female body as the seat of ingredients needed to achieve immortality. These five “visions” are each tied to an historical timeframe, or in the case of the first “vision,” to a text, namely, the Zhuangzi. The mother-image in the Zhuangzi links motherhood to the Dao and cosmic production. In the second vision, the authors underscore how the yin-yang pairing led to active roles for women as cosmic partners with men in the Taiping (Great Peace) and early Tianshi (Celestial Masters) movements. The authors clearly identify the inexact relationship some Western scholars have drawn between sexual practices—both within and outside a Daoist framework—and Daoist and alchemical practices (10). The emergence of women as divine teachers is linked to Shangqing (Highest Clarity) Daoism in the fourth and fifth centuries, while the vision of women as possessors of divine communication with the supernatural is tied to the emergence of important female teachers in the Tang and Song, such as Zu Shu (fl. 889-904), Cao Wenyi (fl. 1119-1125) and Sun Bu’er (1119-1182) (17-19). The final vision is discussed in terms of inner alchemy, especially as it developed in nüdan (“female alchemy”) in the Late Imperial period. The introduction ties together with a note on women and their social context. Confucian norms influenced how moral regulations solidified in the traditions, but Daoist “institutions” also served as a safe haven for widowed and divorced women who failed to fill normative roles in Confucian society.


Having provided an historical framework for the representations and roles of women in the tradition, the first section goes on to focus on major female Daoist gods, Xiwangmu (Queen of Immortals), Shengmu yuanjun (Mother of the Dao, also known as Mother Li,) and Doumu (Dipper Mother). The gods are well chosen not simply for their importance in the tradition, but also for the models they invoke. Xiwangmu invokes the vision of a cosmic mother who gives birth not to humans or gods but to the world. She is a divine catalyst, a divine instructor, and a divine administrator, holding sway over the immortals. Particularly in later worship, the Queen of Immortals has the ability to command salvation of the faithful. Mother Li represents another face of cosmic mothers. Mother Li’s life represents the ideal life-cycle of human women. Mother Li descends to be born as a human, is a filial daughter, gives birth to a pure life-force in the form of Lord Lao, instructs her son, then retreats from the world as a benevolent but distant ancestor. The Dipper Mother is a star deity and a Daoist adoption of the Tantric deity Marici, a personification of light and dawn. As a savior and healer, she is invoked through visualizations that unite the adept with cosmic light and “oneness with cosmic principles” (75-76). As the cosmic mother of the nine star-gods of the dipper, she is a nurturer and instructress, but the Dipper Mother also maintains her own salvific powers and authority.


The second section of the book deals with historical women in the Daoist tradition: immortals (xian), model nuns, matriarchs and founders, and Quanzhen (Complete Perfection) nuns. Female immortals are discussed largely in the vein of all other immortals: as perfected beings, mostly hermits and eccentrics tied to the Han and pre-Han period. These sprite-like beings escaped the human life through dietary regimen, breathing exercises or sexual techniques. They travel at will between the divine and mundane realms. They share with shamans magical powers, but differ in their erratic behavior, saving and performing magic as personal whim rather than as social duty. Model nuns are discussed in their relation to the rise of monasticism in the Tang. Models nuns are discussed as chaste examples of moral and spiritual purity. They are identified with both the ruling elite and commoners, and are described as having the ability to command great authority. Matriarchs and founders are noted particularly from the political collapse of the Tang. As iconic of medieval founders, Zu Shu is discussed, credited as the founder of the Qingwei (Pure Tenuity) school of Daoism. The iconic matriarchs are Cao Wenyi and Sun Bu’er. These women differ from earlier renunciants in their literary competence, relationships to elites, and integration with society. Their practices are described as “more conventional” and more community oriented. They contribute to, rather than escape from society. They undertake both visualizations and breathing exercises for personal perfection, and social rituals and exorcisms for the benefit of the community (149-50). In this aspect they are more fully engaged in society than their Six Dynasties and Tang predecessors. The final aspect of historical women discussed is that of Quanzhen nuns. The authors discuss the rise of major convents, their key locations, and their changing relationship with government and community. The authors summarize the monastic codes, practices and lifestyles. In particular, they linger over the discomfort many endured to partake of the tranquility necessary for perfection practices to underscore the very determined nature of those women who have chosen and still choose this life. (172-74)


As expected, the final section, devoted to inner alchemy, is a masterful discussion of the topic. Building on Despeux’s earlier Immortelles de la Chine (Pardès, 1990) and Kohn’s unparalleled and exhaustive scholarship on Daoist meditation, yoga, and history, as well as other recent scholarship in the field, the authors cover (consume) three major aspects—inner landscape, inner alchemy and stages of attainment. For each of these aspects, the authors provide a general (voir unstated andocentric) background, and follow this with a discussion of how women’s inner landscape, inner alchemy and stages of attainment each differ from the (unstated male) norm. Indeed, the major problem with the discussion is the authors’ failure to acknowledge the male-centered norm that underlies the Daoist and alchemical worldview. In attempting to write women (back) into the tradition, the authors flirt with the danger of idealizing the historical and social context within which Daoism emerged and continued to develop. They smooth over male-centered biases in alchemical symbolism, and attribute to historical women inordinate intellectual and religious authority.


Despite this idealized presentation, the discussion of alchemical schools, techniques, processes and soteriological potential provides an excellent survey of the topic. The work as a whole gathers together for the first time all major research in the field. It is an excellent resource for teachers and scholars, and is a welcome addition to the field. The detailed information provides an excellent framework for undergraduate and graduate courses in Chinese religion, women and Chinese society, or women in world religions.


Sara Elaine Neswald

McGill University

December 2, 2004