Gender and Taoism

Taoist art
In the middle of the top row sits Taoist master Sun Bu-er, among her male counterparts.

According to Taoist practice, at the deepest level of our being—in our spiritual essence—we are neither man nor woman. Learn how this concept applies throughout Taoism, including its history, scriptures, ceremonies, and tradition.

Gender and Taoist Cosmology

According to Taoist cosmology, Yang Qi and Yin Qi—complementary, opposing forces—are the primordial masculine and feminine energies. One cannot exist without the other, indicating equality between the masculine and the feminine. They are understood to be two sides of the same coin. It is the “dance” of Yin and Yang which gives birth to the Five Elements, which in their various combinations produce the Ten Thousand Things, i.e., everything arising within the fields of our perception.

Each human body is understood to contain both Yang Qi and Yin Qi. Yang Qi is symbolically "masculine," and Yin Qi is symbolically "feminine." The balanced functioning of these two is an important aspect of maintaining health. However, regarding inner alchemy—or the practices by which Taoists create an immortal spirit—there frequently is a bias of sorts in the direction of Yang Qi. As we progress along the path, little by little, we replace Yin Qi with Yang Qi, becoming more and more light and subtle. An Immortal in Taoism, it is said, is a being (a man or a woman) whose body has been transformed largely or completely into Yang Qi, en route to transcending the Yin/Yang polarity entirely, and merging one's body-mind back into the Tao.

Female Gods in the Taoist Pantheon

In ceremonial Taoism, the extensive pantheon includes many important female Gods. Two notable examples are Hsi Wang Mu (Queen of the Immortals) and Shengmu Yuanjun (Mother of the Tao). Similar to the Hindu tradition, ceremonial Taoism offers the possibility of seeing divinity represented in female as well as in male forms.

The Role of Women in Historical Taoism

At the source of the practice, Taoism is gender-neutral religion, emphasizing the dualism and importance of both masculinity and femininity as necessary, complementary forces that cannot exist without each other. This is evident in the Tao Te Ching, where Laozi highlights the nurturing mother, referencing her as the “source,” the “water,” and the mother of heaven and earth. In fact, the Tao itself is often personified as a woman, or more specifically, as the Mother.

However, this gender equality has not manifested itself historically, especially with the advent of the patriarchal hierarchies conscripted by Confucianism. Taoism as an organized religion has seen very few female priests. Under a Confucian system, every individual fits strategically into a prescribed place to maintain harmony. A woman would be subservient to a male her for the duration of her life: first under her father, then her husband, then her son, should her husband die first. The foundation of a Taoist priesthood is education, to which most women did not have access.

This is not to say woman were not important to the practice of Taoism. Women have historically served vital roles in the expansion of the religion, often as mediums or oracles to communicate with spirits rather than as priests. There are notable female figures, including women that have left husbands and family to study Taoism, but the limited ability for women to read and write prevented them from achieving priesthood.

This is evident even in Taoist deities. Of the Eight Immortals, only one is explicitly female: He Xiangu, who symbolizes nourishment and purity. One other Immortal, Lan Caihe, is portrayed in a gender neutral manner. The ambiguity of Lan Caihe is likely intentional, as they symbolize a disinterest in matters of the earth. All of the remaining six of the Eight Immortals are explicitly male, illustrating the gender inequality in Taoist practice.

Though not an Immortal, an important deity to note is Hsi Wang Mu, or the Queen Mother of the West, who rules over the Immortals alongside her husband. Particularly during the Middle Ages, she served as a symbol of strength, femininity, and independence for Chinese women, contradicting the ideal nature of a submissive woman. Figures like Hsi Wang Mu reflect the gender neutral nature of Taoism’s origins and the importance of femininity as a complement to masculinity.

Though historically, women have been prevented from obtaining a priesthood by lack of education and societally imposed expectations, a 20th century resurgence of Taoism has been influenced strongly by women. More than a third of Taoists priests are female, and that number continues to rise. 

statuette of Kuan-Yin, the Taoist goddess of mercy.
Chinese statuette of Kuan-Yin, the Taoist goddess of mercy, with some of the eight Taoist immortals, with biscuit and enamel decoration. From the British Museum's collection, 17th century. CM Dixon / Print Collector / Getty Images

Is the Tao Te Ching a Feminist Text?

Laozi’s Tao Te Ching (also spelling Daode Jing)—the primary scripture of Taoism—promotes the cultivation of qualities such as receptivity, gentleness, and subtlety. In western cultural contexts, these qualities are frequently associated with femininity. Even though most English translations render the Chinese characters for “person” or “sage” as “man,” this has everything to do with the translations themselves and little or nothing to do with the text itself. The original Chinese text is always gender-neutral. One of the places where the text assumes a distinctly gendered meaning in mot English translations is verse six:

The Spirit of the valley never dies.
They call it wondrous female.
Through the portal of her mystery
Creation ever wells forth.
It lingers like gossamer and seems not to be
Yet when summoned, ever flows freely.

- Laozi’s Daode Jing, verse 6 (translated by Douglas Allchin)

For a radically different translation of this verse, let's explore the one offered by Hu Xuezhi:

The magical function of infinite emptiness is endless without limits,
thus it is called The Mysterious Pass.
The Mysterious Pass serves as a communing doorway
connecting human beings with Heaven and Earth.
Endlessly it seems to exist there, yet functions naturally.

In his commentary, Hu Xuezhi reveals this verse to be alluding to "the place where Yin and Yang begin to divide from each other." As such, it is profoundly relevant to our explorations of gender in the Tao. Here's the full line-by-line exegesis:

"Line one. The Mysterious Pass is of an extremely minute, fathomless, secluded, and still nature. It works as the place where Yin and Yang begin to divide from each other. It is also the place where Congenital Nature and Life Force take residence. It is composed of two passes: one is Xuan, the other Pin. The Mysterious Pass stays in the human body, yet people cannot name the certain place of its residence. Such infinite emptiness and stillness, though nonexistent, is capable of gestating an unlimited magical function, and being free of birth and death from the very beginning, if ever.
Line two.
Human beings always commune with nature, and the Mysterious Pass serves as the doorway.
Line three.
Because people have the ability to feel, we often have the consciousness of the Mysterious Pass’ existence. Yet it functions following the Tao’s own course, gaining possession of something without any previous ideas and getting things done without making any efforts. It functions endlessly and without any intermission. Such is Nature’s great power!"

Sources

  • Despeux, Catherine, and Livia Kohn. Women in Daoism. Three Pines Press, 2011.
  • Laozi. “Tao Te Ching .” Translated by Douglas Allchin, Douglas Allchin, 2002.
  • Wong, Eva. Nourishing the Essence of Life: the Outer, Inner, and Secret Teachings of Taoism. Shambhala Publications, 2004.
  • Xuezhi, Hu. Revealing the Tao Te Ching: In-Depth Commentaries on an Ancient Classic. Edited by Jesse Lee. Parker. Ageless Classics Press, 2005.
  • Yudelove, Eric Steven. Taoist Yoga and Sexual Energy: Internal Alchemy & Chi Kung for Transforming Your Body, Mind & Spirit. Llewellyn, 2000.