Feminist daoism and Laozi’s mother

Reading Kristofer Schipper’s book The Taoist Body from 1982 in the park today (see picture) I was intrigued by the chapter on Laozi’s birth and its concluding remark: “We can now assert without any hesitation that in this world the body of the Tao is a woman’s body.” (Schipper, 1982: 129)

One of the oral myths on the birth of Laozi relates how an old woman becomes pregnant after drinking a drop of ‘sweet dew’ (gan lu甘露). She carries the baby for 80 years, but only during the day time, at night baby Laozi leaves the womb to study the Dao. When he is finally conceived (through his mother’s armpit some stories say) he already has a long white beard and is able to walk straight away. Seeing this strange ‘old child’ (Laozi 老子 literally means old child as well as old master) his mother takes fright and dies.

Many interpret from this story that Laozi was his own mother. Before his birth Laozi was Lao Jun (jun君 a term that, according to Schipper, is gender neutral but often used for female deities. It is however often used to designate lords or gentlemen, at least in a secular context) and chose to manifest him/her/itself as a woman because the female body is the only body capable of ‘transformation’ (pregnancy).

Thus in this genesis of Laozi, from gender neutral divine being to woman to child, there is no father. According to Schipper this is only one of the examples of how feminine qualities are seen as superior to masculine within Daoism. He also cites a Daodejing commentary which strain that “[man] must pattern his mind after that of the earth and that of woman.” (Schipper, 1982: 127)

The feminine powers (de 德) include ‘non-action’, gentleness, creativity and knowledge of the techniques of the body. Of course this is not feminism; it is just a positive valorisation of a gender specific construction of characteristics. The interesting thing is that not only women have to conform to the feminine ideals, but men as well. It is telling, though, that many of the cited commentaries address and center around men. Even though women and female principles are valued (and indeed there were and are female Daoist priests and divinities) we must not get carried away; the primary readership seems to have been men, and it must be remembered that men were still far above women in the general social hierarchy of pre-modern China.

Whether this story of Laozi’s birth was inspired by biographies of the Buddha or the other way around (there certainly are parallels) it can be said to be an important part of the understanding of Daoism today. No mythology is pure in origin, and neither is any reading of that mythology absolutely objective. Thus the fact that Schipper is an ordained Daoist priest as well as an academic of the 1970’s, has given him some rare insights into the scriptures and practices of Daoism, but it might also have influenced his ‘feminist’ reading of the Daoism and the story of Laozi’s mother.

Of course this doesnt change the fact that I found it interesting enough to write a (rather long) blog post about it!

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