2012 New History
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Daoism and Gender: A Review of American and European Studies
from the Mid-Twentieth Century to the Present

Hsin-yi Lin

Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University

This review article introduces some representative studies from America and Europe over the past sixty years on Daoism and gender, including some work on popular religion. It is composed of three major topics: “female deities and transcendents”; “Daoism, popular religion, and the body”; and “female followers, religious institutions, and rituals and lineages.” In my discussion of each topic, I reflect on the methodologies and theoretical approaches adopted by these studies and indicate the research trends developed during the past few decades. Overall, in terms of research topics, studies of female deities, transcendents, and sectarian founders have been the foci of the field. Topics related to gendered body concepts in Daoism and popular religion are also of interest to Western scholars. They explore issues such as the gap between the doctrinal superiority of femininty and real female Daoists’ situations in history, sexual arts and female desire, reproductive taboos, and female inner alchemy. Recently, investigation on women in religious institutions, rituals, and lineages has gradually become prominent. In terms of theory and methods, scholars have been utilizing a wide range of materials from multiple areas in addition to canons so as to uncover the history and lives of female transcendents behind the mythology of hagiography. They also delve into various gender issues embedded in these accounts. From the 1990s onward, research in this realm shows more and more distinct consciousness of using gender as an analytical category. Chinese religion now tends to be seen as an arena where different discourses, conflict, and negotiation intersect and whose contents are shaped together by religious professionals and followers. Corresponding to this view, Daoism and popular religion are also perceived as a channel through which women may find their own voices and reactions by participating in religious practices and through the process of recounting and reinterpreting doctrines, myths, symbols, and legends of female deities. Unlike previous scholarship before the 1990s which tends to regard religion as a rigid social structure imposing existent gender norms on women, recent studies demonstrate that Daoism and popular religion in China may equip women with various views and abundant resources to challenge their disadvantageous conditions in their real lives. Even the religions themselves may have been molded by women in accordance with their interests and concerns.


Keywords: Daoism and gender, Daoism and body, female deities and transcendents, female practitioners, female inner alchemy