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Reviewed by:
  • Women in Daoism
  • Robin R. Wang (bio)
Catherine Despeux and Livia Kohn. Women in Daoism. Cambridge, MA: Three Pines Press, 2003. viii, 296 pp. Paperback $25.00, ISBN 1-931483-01-9.

The Daodejing observes: "Everything embodies yin and embraces yang; through the blending of these qi, they attain harmony" (chapter 42). How, one may ask, does this yin-yang interplay actually take place in the universe and in human life? What is the role and function of the yin force? How does yin play out in many aspects of human life? Women in Daoism by Catherine Despeux and Livia Kohn, perhaps for the first time, takes its readers on a journey to discover the dynamic world of yin supremacy, particularly as yin is manifested in the multifaceted roles, functions, and realities of women's lives. Their impressive effort succeeds in transforming what would otherwise be a merely conceptual investigation into a rich narrative disclosing the vivid world of women in Daoism that allows readers to envision what it would be like to seek genuine harmony with the universe.

The book is divided into three parts and ten chapters. Each of these is subdivided into topics ranging from "The Mother of the Dao" to "Women's Inner Alchemy." The first part, on "Goddesses," goes beyond identifying these divine objects of religious devotion and offers an appreciation of the Daoist worldview [End Page 69] and the role of women within it. The second part, on "Immortals and Ordinands," surveys the actual records of women's lives throughout Chinese history, the communities in which they have sought spiritual perfection, and whatever teachings that they impart to other women who might take up the path to immortality. The third part, on "Women's Transformation," is a detailed description and analysis of actual Daoist practices, culminating in the inner alchemy by which immortality, flowing from a life progressively liberated from the conventions and restraints of the patriarchal family, can actually be achieved. This book is not simply an attempt at Chinese intellectual history but an exceptional invitation to contemporary women to discover what might be the most valuable quality in their own lives and to cultivate it accordingly.

The complexity of Chinese women's identities, roles, and actual lived experience has become an increasingly central topic for investigation. Much work has been done on the Confucian tradition, focusing on the relationship between Confucianism and women. But little attention has been directed toward the Daoist tradition. This book offers a significant resource for moving in that direction. The authors insightfully point out that "Daoism offers a social alternative for women in that it opens paths to pursue their own goals as independent agents, be it the practice of self-cultivation, service as mediums, nuns, or priests, or [the] attainment of immortality" (p. 5). These options have provided women with a reliable path toward spiritual wisdom and emancipation.

Five basic images of the roles of women have emerged from the authors' analysis of the history of Daoism: (1) the female as mother, the life-giver and nurturing power of the universe; (2) women as representative of the cosmic force of yin , which fully complements the male yang; (3) women as authoritative teachers in the esoteric movements of religious Daoism; (4) women as possessors of empowering supernatural techniques who have the wisdom to use them properly; and (5) the female body as the seat of the essential ingredients and processes of spiritual transformation (p. 5). While these roles have materialized at different stages of history, a full grasp of the magnitude of the presence of women in Daoism requires a critical evaluation of each cumulative impact.

At the risk of simplifying the rich lessons to be gathered from this book, let me highlight just three important themes from its abundant contents.

First, there is the construction of an ontological basis for the female identity. The authors offer a convincing case that women, as representatives of cosmic yin, embody a distinctive set of forces and components in the universe. This awareness allocates a paradigm shift in the discernment of the roles of woman. In the mainstream of Confucian culture throughout history, women's identity and self...


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