I hear that China has eclipsed Iran as the West’s number one potential enemy. It seems we have learned to fear China’s rising economic power, which threatens to raise its people’s per capita income above rank number 100 among nations. But what about China’s cultural influence? What kind of soft power will China have? What cultural gifts will it give the world? When we think of Chinese culture, we generally think of the rulers’ culture. But what about the popular culture? What about the women’s popular culture? What about China’s spiritual traditions? What about its religious traditions that were made by and for women? What if that influence spreads to the world, the way Indian spirituality crossed all cultural boundaries in the 1960s?
China’s goddess cults are not normally classed as independent religions. They seem to be sub-sects of Daoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism. We could say that the goddess cults are women’s versions of these traditions. Some people call them “shadow religions.” Even today, the cults of women and goddesses are not classified as organized religions. They fall under the supposedly less important category of “popular religion.” Where men have usually dominated official religious institutions and professional priesthoods, the cults of women have spread informally among common people. Official religion was almost all male, but popular religion was probably more influential.
Throughout China’s history, the legends, lives, and teachings of local wise women formed a counterculture to the values of warlords or patriarchs. And as in many countries, the traditional values of women and villagers bore little resemblance to those of their rulers. In a view from the rulers’ throne, the cults of peasants and women usually seemed unimportant. That’s one reason for the seemingly low profile of goddess religions. But there are additional reasons. Thomas Cleary lists a series of old sayings about the invisibility of real virtue inhis Immortal Sisters: Secrets of Daoist Women:
“A skilled artisan leaves no traces.”
“She enters the water without making a ripple.”
“The skilled appear to have no abilities; the wise appear to be ignorant.”
So when a mother teaches her children, it is best done when the children believe they did everything themselves. And the virtues celebrated in local goddess cults were often invisible to little emperors, or to sycophants who glorified tyrants.
At various times in the past, the rulers and state-backed priests treated goddess cults as subversive. The authorities occasionally tried to discredit female shamans or teachers as “stupid superstitious women.” They did it for roughly the same reasons that medieval churchmen tried to silence Europe’s wise women. But fortunately, the wise women of China never faced a seriously murderous extermination campaign. I suspect they were too popular, or the officials had too much respect their mothers’ values.
Over the centuries, a female-friendly counterculture evolved within Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and village folklore. There are “yin” versions of all these traditions. For anyone interested in a culture of balance between male and female powers, the women’s religions offer a world of experience and insight. Their visions of life are strikingly different from what we find in most any official religion of the East, the West, or the Middle East.
In the West, of course, female deities are few and mostly long forgotten. Christianity has its thin line of sainted women from the Virgin Mary to Mother Teresa. But any goddess is an artifact from classical paganism. Islam has its cluster ofholy women, especially from the faith’s early days. But a goddess would be a relic from the pre-Islamic “time of ignorance.” Judaism has its half-recalled mother of Israel, the spouse of Yahweh, the Matronit, the Shekhina, the Sophia, “the Discarded Cornerstone.” But the goddesses of China are legion, and their cults have been popular from prehistoric times forward.
As in the past, a whole side of China’s evolving civilization is made by women, for women. Women’s traditions from a time before patriarchy are alive and growing. And as China exerts rising influence across the world, its counterculture of women’s values may bring a better balance, both in China and elsewhere. Women’s traditions of bodily and spiritual health, harmony with nature, peace of mind, compassion, and freedom of spirit are something the world needs. After working for decades in hyper-developing Taiwan, a Jesuit father named Louis Guthheinz reflected that the driving passions of the modern world—of empires, maximized growth, “this ultimate wanting to control everything” was so yang. And the whole world needed more balance with yin. Western practitioners of Daoism like Michael Winn felt they were doing something about that:
Neidan [or Inner Alchemy] opens the door to understanding exactly how the human soul, like the brain, is binary in nature. We are divided into yin-yang aspects at many different levels of the body and psyche, polarities often in conflict. The purpose of internal alchemy is to speed up the integration of the warring halves of our soul as part of human evolution.
In Michael Saso’s opinion, the blend of popular Chinese religions offered a balanced message to the world: “The person who is filled with respect and benevolence for others and compassion for all living things, and who lives in close harmony with nature, lives long and is filled with inner peace and blessing.” Or, as Livia Kohn explains of the Daoist Eight Immortals, “Accepting life and death as a single flow, they take neither seriously and make the best of all they meet. Their happy attitude, their playful way of being, is characteristic of the popular image of the immortal today.” At least that’s one version of Chinese tradition, which many Westerners find increasingly attractive.
Ching, Julia and Küng, Hans, Christianity and Chinese Religions.
Cleary, Thomas, Immortal Sisters: Secrets of Taoist Women.
Griffith, Brian, A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization
Kohn, Livia, The Taoist Experience: An Anthology
Patai, Raphael, The Hebrew Goddess
Saso, Michael, The Gold Pavilion: Taoist Ways to Peace, Healing and Long Life
Winn, Michael, “Daoist Internal Alchemy in the West.” In Kohn, Livia and Wang, Robin R., editors, Internal Alchemy: Self, Society, and the Quest for Immortality.
Written by Brian Griffith
Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto.