Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sexual Dualism in the Tao Te Ching

Religious texts, like all others, contain ideas of gender, whether they intend it or not. The Tao Te Ching is a key example of this, since dualism natural lends itself to the idea of a male-female dichotomy. That is, the following poem in the Tao Te Ching raises questions to this blogger of a problematic gender theory, interesting in such a well-regarded text:

28. Becoming

Using the male, being female,
Being the entrance of the world,
You embrace harmony
And become as a newborn.

Using strength, being weak,
Being the root of the world,
You complete harmony
And become as unshaped wood.

Using the light, being dark,
Being the world,
You perfect harmony
And return to the Way.

(Translation obtained from Click Here to Read a Cool Text!)

Feminist readers will be familiar with the social construct common in many cultures whereby femaleness and maleness are seen as direct opposites or complements, rather than different but sometimes similar forms of identity. As far as the idea of sexual relations, for example, men will be cast as active aggressors and women as passive vessels of male desire. None of this can be shown as categorically true. Rather, maleness and femaleness are gender identities formed in their own right, just as female genitalia is not simply lack of male genitalia. This becomes interesting when considered along with the Taoist theme of the poem. The idea of femaleness and maleness as directly opposed is clear in the poem. The parallel first lines of each stanza show this. "Using", an active verb, is used with the "male' attributes--strength and lightness. "Being", a passive verb, is used with "female" attributes of weakness and darkness. This association may not bring with it the negative connotations it might take in a Western text, but the dualism common in both cultures is definitely evident. After all, gender roles need not be negative on their faces to have a impact, and femaleness clearly has high regard in Taoism, as does maleness. Both are cast as essential aspects of the universe, and femaleness is even regarded as the state of "being" rather than "doing", which gives it a higher aspect given Taoism's tendency towards inaction. However, from this writer's perspective this is a strange text to simply accept as it is. The idea of maleness as powerful, active, and bright, with femaleness as passive and mysterious, reinforces many of the ideas that keep men and women locked in very traditional roles based on their sex, and encountering such dualism in an Eastern text only serves to show that gender dualism exists in many cultures across the globe.