In my second post on Women of Yanggao I gave a brief introduction to studies of gender in Chinese religious life. Within this ever-growing scholarly field, here I’d like to introduce two substantial recent discussions, by Kang Xiaofei and Elena Valussi.
Focusing on prescriptive tracts by educated commentators, both authors highlight the “double blindness” between women’s studies and religious studies, revisiting the elite dichotomy between religious reformists and “superstition” in the first half of the 20th century, the influence of Christianity, the May Fourth movement, and Communist rhetoric. Kang further pursues the story into the Maoist and reform eras.
Throughout Chinese history until the 1950s, the vast majority of women were illiterate; the reliance of our portrayals on elite perspectives is an unfortunate limitation in historical scholarship generally, all the more so when we consider gender. While much research focuses on the discursive aspect of religion (canonical texts, and so on), among the fruits of fieldwork since the 1980s is that it reveals the importance of women’s religious activities—a view that appears only dimly for earlier periods.
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- Elena Valussi, “Men built religion, and women made it superstitious: gender and superstition in Republican China”, Journal of Chinese religions [currently free access!] 48.1 (2020).
As she observes:
Until quite recently, histories of the May Fourth movement (1919) and of the Republican period (1912–1949) generally did not include women/gender issues. More recent histories which include a gender perspective do not discuss religion. There has been substantial research on the birth of feminism in China, on the rise of a female collective consciousness and of the “new woman” and discussion of the methodological hurdles in integrating a gender perspective into the study of the Republican period. However, scholarship about women and modernity does not generally include the powerful connection between women and religion, and certainly not the connection between women and superstition.
Religion in 20th-century China was reorganised according to new, modern, and scientific paradigms; in this novel definition, which excluded many communal experiences deemed superstitious, religion came to be identified more with personal practice and individual beliefs, understood as self-strengthening and self-improvement, and was to be one of the responses against Western Imperialism and Japanese occupation. Women had always been seen as closely involved with religious practices, but at this time they were identified as intrinsically and powerfully superstitious, and their religiosity was used as a necessary site of symbolic transformation for the nation. Numerous examples of the deleterious effect of superstition on women, their children, the family, and society were described, and modern and scientific education was seen as the antidote to this seemingly intractable problem.
The noble, elusive goal of reformists was to eliminate male Confucian power over women as part of a general attack on religion. Valussi introduces The Woman’s Bell (Nüjie zhong 女界鐘, 1903), an early “feminist manifesto” by the male author Jin Tianhe 金天翮advocating the liberation of women by eliminating “the four great obstructions” for women: foot-binding, decorative clothing, superstition, and restrictions on movement.
But such pundits often gendered “religion” as male and “superstition” as female. As Jin Tianhe commented:
Superstition is an inauspicious thing. Nuns, witches, geomancers, and astrologers are inauspicious people.
Indeed, more generally one finds a similar dilemma facing pundits writing about the reform of (mostly male) folk musical groups: while admiring their music, they fretted that their performing contexts were inseparable from “superstition”.
Valussi goes on to cite newspapers, magazines, gazetteers, and novels from the Republican era—such as Hu Ruilan 胡瑞蘭, a writer from the Gansu female teachers’ academy:
Gentlemen have refined their bodies and corrected their minds, they are intelligent and honest, and cannot be deluded by ghosts and spirits [Yeah, right—SJ]. My female compatriots are ignorant folk. They should strive to be like gentlemen, respect morals, be upright in character and diligent in self-cultivation, establish their hearts on behalf of heaven and earth, set their destiny in service of people and things. (In this way) they would not be deluded by evil talk that would make them lose their true nature.
As Valussi observes:
Younger and more educated women, seeing themselves as part of a modern collective identity, are urging older, rural, and uneducated women to also join this “imagined sisterhood.” Narratives imply or state clearly that peasant/uneducated women are more likely to be superstitious and in need of rescuing. […] However, we do not often hear the voices of the older and rural women, we only see their actions described.
So such lofty exhortations effectively penalised women’s behaviour.
Canons, liturgy, and hierarchical structures, described by Katz as acceptable and non-superstitious elements of religion, as well as Confucian philosophy, also acceptable if not linked to oppressive and restrictive practices, were typically the purview of males. […]
What is progress, modernity, and a secular religiosity is often attached to male behaviours, and what is excluded from it, superstition, often is more directly and strongly attached to women’s own nature, beliefs, spaces, and practices.
But as Chau suggests, this speaks to the dominance of elite perspectives in the discourse, not to the situation on the ground.
Mediums at Shanxi temple, 2011. My photo.
Valussi discusses women’s activities in temples (including burning incense, and the harmful economic costs of women’s religious practices), in the family, and in urban and rural religious organisations. Female spirit mediums, often described as tricksters swindling other women, are particular objects of criticism from the reformists. Now, since male and female mediums coexist in some regions (cf. the self-mortifying male mediums of south Fujian and Amdo), while one gender predominates in others, I’d like to learn more about how they are treated differently, then and now—in the literature, by the authorities, and by their local clientele.
In her Conclusion Valussi comments astutely:
But is there an actual shift in the position and role of women? A question that arose in the context of critically engaging with these sources was: are we actually talking about women here? Or rather, are women’s religious practices used, in popular newspapers, as a foil that stands in for the inability of the government and of intellectuals to eradicate practices deemed backwards? Are women, perceived as particularly superstitious because of their lack of education and access to the outside world, only a symbol of the inability of China to rid itself of these practices? A symbol of China’s backwardness and inability to move forward? There is a remarkable continuity in the period that goes from the early to mid-twentieth century in terms of the calls against female superstition. However, nothing much seems to change, except a certain heightened force and violence in the message, inspired by the increase in the forcefulness of the anti-superstition campaigns in general. […]
The calls for change, often from young educated women, could be seen as a genuine attempt at changing women’s lives. On a more metaphorical level, however, we see both male and female educated intellectuals inveighing against practices that mar China’s very essence and its ability to move forward.
While Valussi only takes the story as far as the eve of the Communist revolution, even during the Maoist era the manifestations of “superstition” (both male and female) that had so concerned intellectuals became muted, but were not erased. And from the perspective of women since the 1980s’ reforms, modern education and “superstition” don’t entirely seem mutually exclusive. For both men and women, opportunities are always greater in urban areas; for both, religious (and superstitious) activities remain popular in the countryside. Of course such discourses are never gender-neutral; but while we should detail all the kinds of religious behaviour of both men and women, and refrain from belittling female activity, the rhetoric of idealistic pundits, as Valussi observes, doesn’t tally with grass-roots practice.
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Among the extensive literature that Valussi cites is
- Kang Xiaofei, “Women and the religious question in modern China”, in Vincent Goossaert, Jan Kiely, and John Lagerwey (eds), Modern Chinese religion II, 1850–2015 (2016),
which further pursues the story after 1949. Kang’s nine sections examine the challenges and changes brought by the arrival of Christianity the May Fourth movement; rural and urban women, and the early role of left-wing feminists; political uses of religion, women, and gender in the Communist revolution; women and religion in the religious revival since the collapse of Maoism; and thoughts on further integrating women, gender, and religion in a globalizing era.
Like Valussi, Kang notes that
intrinsic elements of Chinese religious practices and rituals, such as incense burning, paper offerings, communal worship, ghost pacification, demon exorcism, fortune-telling and spirit possession, were all denounced as “superstition” and hence a hindrance to modernity.
But as she explains, rejection and suppression don’t tell the whole story.
The century-long mass mobilisation for gender equality and women’s liberation has also brought women out of domestic confinement and empowered women in various realms, including that of religion. Since Republican times, women have participated in public religious life and have assumed leadership in different religious organisations. At times they have also used religion to defy officially-prescribed gender roles, to negotiate with state authorities, and to create social spaces of their own.
Still, the participation of women that we can now find through fieldwork can’t be attributed solely to such official “mobilisation”; rather, it may seem like a belated revelation of a longer-term involvement that was previously hidden to us.
Kang pays attention to women’s role in both institutional and folk religious activity, including the ubiquitous spirit mediums—on whom, apart from the sources that Kang cites (notably, for the Hakka, Xu Xiaoying 徐霄鹰, Gechang yu jingshen 歌唱与敬神, 2006), I’d also mention fine ethnographers such as Xiao Mei and Mayfair Yang, as well as Adam Yuet Chau.
Indeed, the very informality of the status of such women may have helped them to keep practising under Maoism, as Kang suggests:
First, compared to the male dominated textual and institutional traditions of religion, women’s religious practices are more personal, oral, and informal. This lack of institutional and doctrinal attachment has been a main reason that women’s religious activities have often been condemned as superstition, but it has also made them less threatening targets and more resilient in the Maoist campaigns against religion. “A few old women” here and there kept religions and ritual traditions alive in one way or another during the oppressive years of the Cultural Revolution. Second, the revolution’s advocacy of economic contribution to society has had the effect of bringing women out of domestic confinement. As women’s employment outside the home in both urban and rural settings has become widely accepted, women face much less constraint and prejudice than their late imperial counterparts did when venturing into the public space of religion. […]Third, the revolution has also effectively destroyed the traditional power structure in local society and eliminated the Confucian gentry elite who once collaborated with state officials and monopolised the ritual life of local communities.
Discussing the age-range of religious women, she observes:
Either as lay believers or spirit mediums, the middle aged and elder women are neither victims of superstition nor obstacles to modernity. For many, religious practices are not simply to revive the pre-revolutionary past. They ingeniously construct female religiosity with the traditional and modern resources—including Maoist teachings—at their disposal. They are well aware of the social and political stigma [risks, I might say] of conducting “superstitious” activities, and they adopt different strategies to legitimise their activities.
Their religious authority is defined by “social skills, marketing strategies, moral qualities, and in certain cases female charisma”.
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Plunging into rural fieldwork as I did in the 1980s without being conditioned by elite discourses, I found the simple public–private dichotomy in religious activity revealed in the male domination among public performers such as ritual specialists and shawm bands; yet I came to realise that while women rarely occupy such formal roles, they do play a major part in religious life—notably as mediums and sectarians. The background provided by Valussi and Kang makes valuable preparation for fieldworkers.
FWIW, among my own sketches of the lives of rural women, see Women of Gaoluo; nuns of rural Hebei; and my series on Women of Yanggao, starting here. In my survey of ethnographic films I cite the documentary Under goddesses’ shelter, about a Hakka nun. These, along with some of my other posts on gender in China and elsewhere, are listed here.
Lastly, a bold, nay revolutionary, idea: I wonder how long it might take for us to totally reverse our perspectives on “doing religion” in China—privileging oral, largely non-literate practices and relegating elite discourse (including the whole vast repository of early canonical texts) and temple-dwelling clerics to a subsidiary place?! Notwithstanding the role of women in the latter manifestations, such a reversal would also entail a far greater recognition of their fundamental importance in Chinese religious life. One can but dream…
For collected posts on mediums, see here.
8 thoughts on “Gender in changing Chinese religious life”
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