Gender and The Tao

Taoist art
In the middle of the top row sits Taoist master Sun Bu-er, among her male counterparts.

At the deepest level of our being—in our spiritual essence—we are, of course, neither man nor woman. Here we are, on planet Earth, in this culture or that, traveling through our life with a male or female body. What does this mean, concerning Taoist practice?

Gender & Taoist Cosmology

According to Taoist Cosmology, the first movement into manifestation happens via Yang Qi and Yin Qi—the primordial masculine and feminine energies. At this level, then, there is equality between the masculine and the feminine. They are understood to be two sides of the same coin: one could not exist without the other, and it is their “dance” which gives birth to the Five Elements, which in their various combinations produce the Ten Thousand Things, i.e., everything arising within the fields of our perception.

Yin Qi & Yang Qi in Chinese Medicine and Inner Alchemy

Regarding Chinese Medicine, each human body is understood to contain both Yang Qi and Yin Qi. Yang Qi is symbolically "masculine," and Yin Qi is symbolically "feminine." The balanced functioning of these two is an important aspect of maintaining health. Regarding Inner Alchemy practice, however, there frequently is a bias of sorts in the direction of Yang Qi. As we progress along the path, little by little, we replace Yin Qi with Yang Qi, becoming more and more light and subtle. An Immortal, it is said, is a being (a man or a woman) whose body has been transformed largely or completely into Yang Qi, en route to transcending the Yin/Yang polarity entirely, and merging ones body-mind back into the Tao.

Is the Daode Jing a Feminist Text?

Laozi’s Daode Jing—the primary scripture of Taoism—promotes the cultivation of qualities such as receptivity, gentleness, and subtlety. In many western cultural contexts, these are qualities considered to be feminine. Even though most English translations render the Chinese characters for “person” or “sage” as “man,” this has everything to do with the translations themselves—and with the English language—and little or nothing to do with the text itself. The original Chinese is always gender-neutral. One of the places where the text—in most English translations—assumes a distinctly gendered meaning is in verse six:

The Spirit of the valley never dies.
They call it wondrous female.
Through the portal of her mystery
Creation ever wells forth.
It lingers like gossamer and seems not to be
Yet when summoned, ever flows freely.
Laozi’s Daode Jing, verse 6 (translated by Douglas Allchin)

For a radically different translation of this verse, let's explore the one offered by Hu Xuezhi:

The magical function of infinite emptiness is endless without limits,
thus it is called The Mysterious Pass.
The Mysterious Pass serves as a communing doorway
connecting human beings with Heaven and Earth.
Endlessly it seems to exist there, yet functions naturally.

In his amazing commentary, Hu Xuezhi reveals this verse to be alluding to "the place where Yin and Yang begin to divide from each other." As such, it is profoundly relevant to our explorations of gender in the Tao. Here's the full line-by-line exegesis:

"Line one. The Mysterious Pass is of an extremely minute, fathomless, secluded, and still nature. It works as the place where Yin and Yang begin to divide from each other. It is also the place where Congenital Nature and Life Force take residence. It is composed of two passes: one is Xuan, the other Pin. The Mysterious Pass stays in the human body, yet people cannot name the certain place of its residence. Such infinite emptiness and stillness, though nonexistent, is capable of gestating an unlimited magical function, and being free of birth and death from the very beginning, if ever.
Line two. Human beings always commune with nature, and the Mysterious Pass serves as the doorway.
Line three. Because people have the ability to feel, we often have the consciousness of the Mysterious Pass’ existence. Yet it functions following the Tao’s own course, gaining possession of something without any previous ideas and getting things done without making any efforts. It functions endlessly and without any intermission. Such is Nature’s great power!"

Female Gods in the Taoist Pantheon

Regarding Ceremonial Taoism, we find a pantheon that is huge, and that includes many important female Gods. Two notable examples are Xiwangmu (Queen of the Immortals) and Shengmu Yuanjun (Mother of the Tao). Similar to the Hindu tradition, then, Ceremonial Taoism offers the possibility of seeing our Divinity represented in female as well as in male forms.

The Role of Women in Historical Taoism

Have women had equal access to the various practices of Taoism? Do we find female as well as male Immortals? Are the number of Taoist matriarchs equal to the number of patriarchs? Are Taoist monasteries peopled equally by monks and nuns? For an exploration of these and more questions related to women’s role in the historical development of Taoism, check out Catherine Despeaux and Livia Kohn’s book, Women in Daoism.

Gender & Inner Alchemy Practice

Regarding the practice of Neidan (Inner Alchemy), there are places where techniques for men and women are different. In the introduction to Nourishing the Essence of Life, Eva Wong provides a general outline of these differences:

In males, blood is weak and vapor is strong; therefore the male practitioner must refine the vapor and use it to strengthen the blood. … In females, blood is strong and vapor is weak; therefore the female practitioner must refine the blood and use it to strengthen the vapor. (page 22-23)

If “dual cultivation” sexual practices are part of our path, there obviously will be differences that correspond to the differences between male and female sexual anatomy. Mantak Chia and his student Eric Yudelove have provided some very clear practice manuals, outlining these different techniques. See, for instance, Eric Yudelove's book Taoist Yoga & Sexual Energy.