Mother, courtesan, nun, medium or goddess: the feminine in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism

Lecture by Catherine Despeux, sinologist, honorary professor at INALCO.

In China, the feminine is expressed according to the cosmological model of yin and that. These two principles are complementary but nevertheless unequal. the that, it is the sky, the lightness, the light, the world of the gods, the man. the yin, it is the earth, the shadow, the dark, the world of demons and the woman. Wife, yin, has a dark and demonic aspect.
In traditional China, patterns of gender differentiation are marked by strong patriarchy. This does not mean that the woman plays a minor role in society because she is omnipresent there: in the family, in the fields, in the markets, in the harems, in the convents and in the hermitages.
The image of women has been shaped since antiquity through rites that establish a precise distinction between the sexes and well-defined behaviors for both. The Book of Rites of the Great Dai (dadai liji) lists seven transgressions of the woman: not obeying the father and the mother; not having a male child; be licentious; to be jealous; having a bad disease; being too slanderous; spy and steal.
The feminine has many facets: mother, wife, sexual partner (wife, concubine or courtesan), nun (exit from the family), medium (intermediary between humans and gods), but also sacred woman, or feminine divinity.
According to religious currents, women can be perceived differently.


According to the canons of Confucianism, the woman acquires power and begins to really exist as soon as she has begotten a son. She is the guarantor of the good education of the children, such as the example of the mother of Mengzi (372-289 BC) who moved three times to give her son an environment conducive to study.

The wife and the mother have a rather negative image in Buddhism. Sex is determined there according to past acts (karma) and an individual is reborn in a female body due to insufficient meritorious deeds. Moreover, it is as if the woman were cut in two: the upper part with the breast and the face which correspond to the protective and nourishing mother; the lower part demonized by her powers of reproduction with menstruation and the blood of childbirth considered evil substances, dooming her to fall into a special hell, that of the Pool of Blood.

In Taoism, the Dao is the mother of everything under heaven. The man in search of the Dao nourishes within him a fetus of immortality and thus becomes a symbolic mother. In doing so, he usurps the maternal function reserved for the woman who is no longer his complement, since the man has within him the male and female potential. To be a real mother is therefore not an ideal for the Taoist, on the contrary, to realize the Way, she must renounce this function of mother, essential in Confucian society. Self-cultivation practices make a woman's body similar to a man's, a body of pure that, or all of it yin was eliminated. In this context, the image of the woman, and more particularly that of the mother, is valued for its nutritional function, but not for its social status.


The wife.

Marriage, at the heart of social stability, is governed by very precise rules which establish the duties of women and their role in the Confucian organization of the family. The patrilineal kinship system implies that she gives birth to a son in order to be respected; otherwise, she may be repudiated and subjected to mistreatment. The exemplary conduct of the woman: obedience to the father, then to the husband, and finally to the eldest son. She respects the husband, supports him, even reforms him. She can be held responsible for the bad behavior of man and plays an essential role in his education, because she can, like the earth, transform. The glory of the clan therefore rests in part on the woman who must defend the honor of the family into which she was married and show for this a heroic nature. On the other hand, we are wary of his vulnerability to emotions and his dark side. We deplore jealousy in her, one of the most decried faults, sometimes considered a disease. We condemn bad sexual behavior that would make the head of the family forget his duties.

Social space and tasks were precisely divided between the sexes: the wife weaved and the husband plowed. The reality was more complex and women were at the origin of technological inventions or were women of letters. The virtues expected of a woman outweighed her social origins; high personalities, including emperors, could marry former singers or courtesans. From the Song (960-1279), women in high society had their feet bound and became even more "indoor women" compared to men, "outdoor beings".

We perceive the threats hanging over those who are incapable of integrating into the family scheme. Due to a negative horoscope, an infirmity or their ugliness, they cannot find a husband and remain an isolated element of society, therefore threatening for the latter. If they do not give birth to an heir, they can be repudiated. Once widowed, they become a burden for their husband's family and can be chased away. For all these women, ostracized from society, the monastic structures of Buddhism and Taoism could have been refuges.

In the secular forms of Taoism, notably in the school of the celestial Master, whose community structure is based on the family, the wife appears with all her importance, especially the wife of the head of the community, who assists her husband in the teaching and transmission of rites and methods as a "female master". Like the "female master", every woman in this community receives initiations, registers, talismans, texts and methods of self-cultivation, especially during sexual rites with her husband. She thus has an honorable place in a couple whose behavior contributes to the harmony of the community and the cosmos.

The sexual partner.

The wife must give birth to a son and, to do this, sexology textbooks provide precise techniques to promote development, but less in a search for pleasure than with the aim of procreating a powerful male child, in good health. health, techniques that concern both men and women. The men of the aristocracy could have several wives and frequent courtesans.

Sexuality plays a major role in Taoism, but for different reasons. It is here, the reference to cosmological conceptions that takes precedence: the exchange between the yin and that is necessary, both to contribute to the smooth running of the universe and to harmonize its microcosm, the body. In the school of the celestial Master, sexuality is codified and is the subject of initiation rites. The current of Superior Purity, which develops from the 4rd s., presents an ambiguous attitude: sexuality is not prohibited, but sexual abstinence gives access to transcendent beings and to the sacred. Sexuality with a partner is replaced by internalized and imagined sexuality; the adept enters into union with a divine companion light or proceeds to the union, in him, of the feminine and masculine energies. In the various Taoist practices of self-cultivation that develop from the 11rd s., sexuality can become, as in Buddhist tantrism, a method of achievement and access to longevity.

Thus in Taoism, the woman takes many aspects according to the place granted to her by the various currents and according to the times: she becomes, for some, a servant and, for others, a companion. The importance of sexuality in certain schools had as a corollary the frequentation of brothels and the access of certain courtesans to the status of Taoist. Woman can be adored as an ideal beauty without whom access to interiority, to the imaginary and to the divine is unthinkable, but this is what allows man to free himself from the real woman.

Buddhist literature condemns sexuality for both sexes; the texts of vinaya (prohibitions and precepts) are very precise on the subject within the framework of monasticism. Any carnal commerce leads to exclusion from the community, except for homosexuality. Touching and anything that arouses erotic desire is prohibited. The fault of the woman is to be more subject to desire than the man (which means that the prohibitions and precepts which concern her are more numerous and more detailed than for the man). She is dangerous because she is more apt to seduce. However, given that in Buddhism the intention takes precedence over the act, this makes it possible to grant extenuating circumstances to a woman led astray by the passions. Great Vehicle Buddhism, very accessible to lay people, develops the idea of ​​emptiness according to which good and evil are a duality that must be overcome; an attitude of detachment makes it possible to minimize the harmful effects of carnal ties, for the laity as for the monks of certain Chinese schools including Chan (Zen). This attitude culminates in the esoteric school of tantrism, where carnal relations enter the panoply of methods allowing access to enlightenment. However, just as in Taoism, if the rhetoric concerning man and woman is egalitarian, it nevertheless presupposes the inferiority of the woman: the outer woman is ultimately depreciated in favor of the inner woman. Doesn't the Tantric practitioner say, “What do I need another woman? I have in myself an inner woman”.

The nun.

If, in Chinese culture, the norm pushes the woman to acquire marital status, some remain celibate and others, more numerous, choose the monastic life. The monastic status is despised and reserved in fact for those left out of society and those, rare, with a mystical or spiritual vocation. It nevertheless provides these women with the opportunity to acquire a place and a role, which is possible when they express their propensity to love for others and the charisma that allows them to intervene with the most deprived. Renunciation of the role of wife and mother gives them powers similar to those of men, such as the management of monasteries or important activities in and for society, such as certain rituals.

Taoist monasteries can be mixed, this is the essential difference with Buddhism which does not accept mixing. The Quanzhen Taoist school, advocating monasticism, established specific precepts for women, reflecting the influence of Buddhism and the Confucian gaze on women. They warn her against coquetry, jealousy, the desire to have servants and they insist on the qualities expected of women in Chinese society, such as docility and humility. It is diverted from the practices of local popular and shamanic cults.

If the place of women is well affirmed in Taoist monasticism, it had to be won in Buddhism. The rules place the nuns under the authority of men: they must ask the monks for disciplinary rules twice a month, be ordained before an assembly of monks and nuns, make retreat in a place where monks are present, ritually close their retreat in the presence of monks; they cannot officially admonish the monks, while the reverse is permitted; they must go to confession twice a month before the two assemblies; finally they are required, whatever their age and seniority, to greet the monks, even those who have just been ordained. In these circumstances, the woman leaves the yoke of men in Confucian society to find herself under that of the male Buddhist community.

Entering the monastic life was not easy. If some chose this solution by following their faith, others could seek in these structures to improve their education. However, most were motivated either by problems of integration into society (girls wishing to escape marriage, widows unable to remarry, girls who had become orphans), or by health problems, or even the threat of intrigue or political unrest. An interesting case is the choice to enter a monastery made, not by the person concerned, but by her parents who donate the child in the hope of improving the destiny of the family or the child.

The medium woman.

For a marginalized woman in the Confucian world, an alternative to monasticism is mediumship. China has had a long shamanic tradition, in which women played an important role, serving the invisible through song and dance; they invited the spirits to descend into them and maintained a real love relationship with them. These mediums have existed throughout the history of China, but lost their status when Taoism integrated them while distinguishing itself from them. In the Chinese tradition, women find it easier than men to intercede with the divine world. It is she who serves as intermediary between the divinities and the human world, she who transmits the revealed texts and methods, most often because she has given up allying herself with the masculine. It is obvious that she plays a privileged role in mediumship. Possession and mediumship are also in many male-dominated cultures a way for women to improve their position and express their grievances and antagonism towards men.

In Buddhism, the medium or prophetess endowed with visionary powers borders on heterodoxy, she is more a matter of popular religion than of the orthodox doctrine which condemns these practices, even if these powers can derive from a long practice of Buddhist meditation; they must then be considered as an epiphenomenon to which it is advisable not to become attached, even less to exploit it. A collection of hagiographies of Buddhist nuns nevertheless preserved testimonies of female mediums like Nizi (490-505) who revealed to the world twenty-one new sutras. She closed her eyes and recited texts that she had, according to her words, gone to seek in heaven or that she had received from a divinity.


The goddess, inaccessible and initiating woman.

Both in Taoism and Buddhism, the idealized and deified woman holds a prominent place. The deities can be cosmic principles like the Queen Mother of the West, virtuous principles like Guanyin, goddess of compassion, women who played an important role in the lineages of masters like Wei Huacun (252-334), women deified and object of worship like Magu or Tanyang zi, women victims of malemort like Mazu, patroness of fishermen. Messengers of the highest sacred powers, they grant the wishes of humans and relieve their suffering, they are adored and sung by men, venerated and taken as models by women.


In conclusion, it is essential to distinguish between the real status of women in society, the symbolism of the feminine and the imagination that surrounds it in the various religions of China. The status of women is hardly more enviable according to Taoism or Confucianism; on the other hand, it is more unfavorable in Buddhism. The woman having a propensity for mediumship and being able to relate easily to the supernatural, can turn out to be an angel and a demon at the same time. Religious institutions offer a door of salvation to women and value the feminine thanks to certain structures that integrate those rejected by society or on the margins of it. A woman can sacrifice her life through her role as a medium for the community, whose problems she solves through her trances. Finally, religion glorifies the image of the woman who, by her power to be a mother and to be at the origin of life, by her ability to communicate with the divine, becomes a goddess.


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