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14th February, 2018

Gender as a useful category of analysis in Chinese religions - with two case studies from the Republican period

Dr Elena Valussi, Loyola University, Chicago

According to Dr Elena Valussi, gender as an analytical theory, and "gendering" as social practice, are central to religion, and the under-investigation of such phenomena has had a deleterious effect on the adequacy of the scholarship that the scientific study of religion has produced. As Valussi explained, there exists a sort of "double blindness" in the fields of gender and religious studies, where religion is blind to gender, and vice versa. In her study, Valussi attempts to bridge this gap by explaining the relationship between gender and two Chinese religions, Buddhism and Daoism, in early 20th-century China.

The late Qing reform era witnessed, for the first time in Chinese history, women emerging into public space in collective groups. Women became actively involved in schools, charitable and religious organizations, and hospitals, while newspapers were used for learning, as well as for distributing information about religious practice. At the same time, a number of important lexical changes were occurring within the Chinese language. Western concepts of human rights were introduced to China, and terms such as "natural rights" (天赋人权), "people's rights" (民权), and "power" (权力) were coming into use for the first time. Accordingly, phrases such as "men are superior and women inferior" (男尊女卑) increasingly gave way to those such as "gender equality" (男女平等).

How, then, were these terms used in relation to women's religious practice, and not only in relation to women's political and social freedoms? According to Valussi, Daoist and Buddhist championing of women's spirituality and spiritual equality must be viewed as a recognition of the widening of public religious discourse to include women, but also as part of a larger project to create a modern, lay, and nationalist spirituality. Valussi provided a number of examples of the people and publications that drove this movement, with one of the most notable individuals being a female Buddhist monk known as Hengbao (恒宝), who challenged the very use of "woman" as a separate category. As Hengbao questioned, "How could there really be a female gender? The Buddha says that in terms of the (Buddhist) doctrine, there are no males and females, so you see the Buddhist view on gender differences, how it upholds equality!" Thus, according to Valussi, gender and religion played highly complementary roles in the development of gender consciousness and the women's rights movement, as well as the push for a more modern Chinese spirituality.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman