RELIGION AS A SOURCE OF OPPRESSION AND CREATIVITY FOR CHINESE WOMEN
Jinhua Emma Teng(Master, Regional Studies East Asia, Harvard University)
This paper will examine Chinese religion and folk beliefs in various regions of China, Taiwan and Singapore to demonstrate that religion functioned not only as a source of oppression, excluding women from important religious worship, but also as a source of creativity, enabling women to gain power unavailable to them in secular culture.
Religious taboos surrounding menstruating women or women in childbirth prevented women from gaining direct access to power associated with a constant and close relationship to high or pure gods. At the same time, women could turn the power of their pollution around on men, in the form of black magic charms, to destroy the ritual power of male cults. This was one form of negative power to which women had access. In other regions of China, Taiwan and Singapore female shamans gained power in their communities as ritual intermediaries between village inhabitants and the gods and ghosts. In Canton and Singapore, women joined vegetarian houses in order to avoid marriage and maintain autonomous lives in a community of sisterhood. This type of female community developed into a marriage resistance movement in the Canton Delta in the nineteenth century. Marriage resisters used religious ritual to gain social sanctions for their unconventional behavior. An examination of the symbolism of female deities sheds light on the kinds of power attributed to women and on the images available to women as models in their struggles to find tools in their cultural environments with which to create fulfilling lives.
This paper asks whether women could find any elements within existing religion that could enable them to escape oppression and gain power in their communities, concluding that it appears that women who empowered themselves through religious means, did so at the cost of implicitly accepting the negative beliefs about woman’s nature. Thus it must be asked whether women can ever fully subvert or escape male gender ideology. Most importantly, this exploration of the diverse attempts at creativity in different regions of China demonstrates that religion was never a wholly oppressive force but also offered women the means to create meaningful lives for themselves.
Women, Religion, Sexuality and Reproduction, Goddesses, Taboo