Gender and Taoism
---Graphics by Kervin Brissdeaus
Lao Tzu - a feminist? If you were in a light-hearted mood, you could call the Tao "the oldest extant feminist book." Written during a violent period in Chinese history, is urges rulers to "embrace the feminine way".
The Tao sees the world as male (yang) and female (yin) energies constantly in motion. Since the nature of male energy is so obvious (action, stubbornness, speaking), it extols the virtue of the female way of doing things (patience, flexibility, listening).
As Taoism's popularity grew, so did women's status in Chinese society. It is hard to say how much of this was caused by the Tao and how much by other factors, but there is certainly no sense of female inferiority in any part of the Tao. On the contrary, there are dozens of passages advocating people "get in touch with their feminine side" to use the modern vernacular.
Political Correctness in 300B.C. Many translations of the Tao have sections like: "A wise man follows his belly" or "A good man is a bad man's teacher". These gender specific words were added during the translations process. The original Chinese is always neutral. Usually the original word is person () or sage (), neither of which specifies male or female.
It is a little difficult not to choose "he" or "she" in English, but there are several translations that have managed it. In many cases assuming the sage or person is male is a symptom of the age of the translation. Many of them originate in the 1930's to 1950's. Other translations are based on these earlier, famous ones and have copied their inaccurate style. This is particularly ironic, because the Tao is probably the most pro-woman treatise outside of modern times.
Two gender specific items stand out though.
Yin Positive references to Yin, as typified in Chapter 6:
"Yin" energy is like a Valley Goddess who never dies. She should be called "Mystical Female" The door of this "Mystical Female" is the root of Heaven and Earth. This power is always with us. Using this power is effortless.
It is generally believed that the Tao was written to advise the ruler on good government. At the time, all the rulers were kings, so the word king is frequently used.