Taoism, along with Confucianism and Buddhism, is one of the three main philosophical traditions in Chinese culture. Originating in China thousands of years ago, it remains a widely followed belief system especially in Taiwan, which was out of reach of the communist anti-religious purges of the 20th century. Women play an important role in Taoist spirituality that differs sharply from their often subservient position in Confucian philosophy.
Taoist theology often uses female imagery to describe the way the universe works, referring to the Tao, the religion's unifying concept, as "the mother of the universe" and "the mother of all things." The religion also traditionally has been noted for its encouragement of traits that the patriarchal culture of the time saw as "feminine," such as softness, modesty and non-aggression. In addition, it provides avenues for questioning the gender hierarchy by teaching that the weak eventually will overcome the strong.
Yin and Yang
One of the central ideas of Taoism is the idea of "yin-yang," or the dual nature of the universe. When it comes to gender, femininity is associated with yin and masculinity with yang. Confucian political philosophers in imperial China used this concept as justification for a system of strict separation of men and women into restrictive gender roles. However, Taoism tends to interpret yin-yang as meaning that men and women are equal, teaching that feminine and masculine features are inseparable and appear together in every person.
Since ancient times, women have served alongside men as Taoist priests and teachers. They also serve as nuns, and in medieval Taoist monasteries, women and men were differentiated only by their hats and not by any differences in status or role. Through Chinese history, there are stories of women who turned to Taoism or Buddhism to escape the misogynist oppression they experienced in mainstream Confucian society.
There are numerous legends about female Taoist teachers and other women who after their deaths gained immortality as saints or deities. The most popular Taoist deity in Taiwan is a goddess named Mazu, who in life is said to have used magic to save sailors from peril. Today she is known to her followers as the Heavenly Holy Mother. Other female deities include Lady Linshui, who protects women and children from demons, and Guanyin, a Buddhist bodhisattva who has been adopted into the Taoist pantheon.
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