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Judith Chuan Xu

This article probes the feminine images in the ancient Chinese Daoist
classic the Daodejing MWM (Classic of the way and virtue) and their relation-
ship to contemporary Western poststructuralist feminist theories on sex and
gender.1 I intend to show how poststructuralist feminist theories on sex and
gender and the DDJ's views on the feminine can inform each other on the
problem of femininity. On the one hand, the poststructuralist feminist decon-
struction of traditional concepts of sex and gender helps to prevent a patriar-
chal appropriation of the feminine images and values in the DDJ as the defini-
tion of femininity. On the other hand, the mutually complementary female and
male cosmologica! principles within the Dao M (Way) present a vision that tran-
scends gender dichotomy. Therefore, a poststructuralist feminist reading of the

I would like to acknowledge the JFSR s reviewers for the advice they gave on an earlier version of this
Also named after its alleged author, Laozi %Ψ, the Daodejing is the most significant early
Daoist text and has exerted a profound influence on Chinese culture. (The Daodejing will be referred
to as DDJ hereafter.) There have been numerous debates among modern Daoist scholars regarding
the authorship of this classic and the time of its composition. Contemporary scholars date the DDJ
between roughly 400 B.C.E. and 200 B.C.E., and believe that it was the product of collective wisdom
rather than the work of a single author. (For the purpose of this article, I will consider Laozi to be the
author of the DDJ.) The earliest DDJ manuscripts discovered so far date to approximately 200 B.C.E.
For further information concerning the origin of the DDJ, see William H. Baxter, "Situating the Lan-
guage of the Lao�tzu: The Probable Date of the Tao�te�ching," in Lao�tzu and the Tao�te�ching, ed.
Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 231�54;
Stephan Peter Bumbacher, "The Earliest Manuscripts of the Laozi Discovered to Date," Asiatische
Studien/Etudes Asiatiques 52, no. 4 (1998): 1175�84; John Emerson, "A Stratification of Lao Tzu,"
Journal of Chinese Religions 23 (fall 1995): 1�28; and Harold D. Roth, "The Laozi in the Context of
Early Daoist Mystical Praxis," in Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi, ed. Mark Csik�
szentmihalyi and Philip J. Ivanhoe (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 59�96.
The Chinese texts of the DDJ I have consulted are Ren Jiyu s BBñ Laozi xinyi «*^$T¿Í » (A new
interpretation of Laozi) (Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe, 1985) and the two Mawangdui ^,^-M
manuscripts, which are contained in Ren's volume.
48 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion

DDJ can contribute to feminist struggles to overthrow the sex/gender system,

eliminate gender dichotomy, free women and men from patriarchal ideologies
of Woman and femininity, and hence liberate women from gender discrimina-
tion and oppression.
Before undertaking this study, it may be necessary to consider the risk of
applying contemporary Western feminist and gender theories to the ancient
Daoist text. Would such a cross-cultural reading be superimposing a Western
framework onto a Chinese text? To prevent this from happening, I shall treat
the DDJ and the poststructuralist feminist and gender theories as equal dia-
logical partners, and I will pay close attention to the cultural and historical con-
texts of the DDJ. Further, I would like to caution the reader that we should not
read the DDJ as a "feminist" text, as it would be anachronistic to do so.
Also, given that feminist criticism has challenged the traditional male/fe-
male, man/woman gender dichotomy at its metaphysical basis and thus has
shaken the fundamental ground for gender identities, and given that post-
structuralist feminism sees all gender identities as cultural constructions, one
needs to be extremely careful when it comes to the use of gender terminology.
Hence I shall now clarify my understanding of the gender terminology in this

1. "Female," "feminine," and "femininity": Female refers to the biological

features of the sex that bears young, whereas feminine and femininity consist
of a set of culturally defined gender characteristics for women. As Toril Moi
cautions us, we must not "collapse feminine into female."2 As I will show, the
distinction between sex and gender can be blurry at times, because the concept
of sex may be tainted by culturally constructed gender ideology. Therefore,
what is construed as "female" may actually be "feminine."

2. "Woman/woman" and "women": Woman/woman refers to the cultural

construction of what it means to be a woman, which entails, for example, being
the "second sex," subordinate to men, as described by Simone de Beauvoir.3
Women, on the other hand, indicates the social group that has historically been
oppressed on the basis of presumed female biological identity.

3. "Man" "male" "masculine" and "masculinity": These concepts are cul-

tural constructions just as their counterparts woman, female, feminine, and
femininity are.
According to anthropologist Gayle Rubin, the cause for women's oppres-
sion and social subordination, like all types of oppression of individuals caused
Toril Moi, "Feminist Literary Criticism," in Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Intro-
duction, ed. Ann Jefferson and David Robey (London: Batsford, 1986), 204-21.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage, 1973).
Xu: Poststructuralist Feminism 49

by traditional concepts of sex and gender, lies in what she calls the "sex/gender
system," that is, "the systematic social apparatus which takes up females as raw
materials and fashions domesticated women as products" as well as "the social
organization of sexuality and the reproduction of conventions of sex and gen-
der."4 Thus, an effective way to expose and derail the sex/gender system is to
deconstruct "biological sex" by revealing its constructed nature, so that the
ground for biological determinism that takes the culturally constructed female
nature as that which determines women's identity or femininity will no longer
In the battle against biological determinism, Beauvoir made a historical
breakthrough by distinguishing gender from sex. Beauvoir declared that the
traditional conception of Woman is a patriarchal fiction and a distortion of
women. Woman as conceptualized by the patriarchal mind is not born so but,
rather, is created by the patriarchal culture. Hence, "one is not born, but rather
becomes a woman."5 For Beauvoir, sex may be a biological fact—that is, the in-
variant, anatomically distinct aspects of the female body—but gender is a so-
cial construct, namely, the cultural meaning that the female body acquires.6
Thus, traditional concepts of Woman and femininity are myths of patriarchal
culture. Furthermore, as the title of her landmark book suggests, Beauvoir ar-
gues that such culturally constructed binary gender categories situate women
as the "second sex," inferior to men.
Beauvoir s views are carried forward by poststructuralist feminists who
seek a complete demolition of "the myth of woman"7 by deconstructing the no-
tion of biological sex and challenging the male/female gender dichotomy. Re-
sorting to gender studies in French poststructuralist philosophy and modern
science—particularly genetic and cell biology—poststructuralist feminists
argue that biological sex itself is a social construct. The deconstruction of bio-
logical sex shatters the ground for the patriarchal sex/gender system as well as
the myth of Woman and femininity, and severely challenges gender dichotomy.
The DDJ is a groundbreaking work of ancient Chinese philosophy. Using
traditional feminine images such as the female, mother, valley, and water to
symbolize the Dao and advocating humility, yieldingness, and receptivity—
feminine characteristics attributed to women by the patriarchal culture—as
values of the Dao, the DDJ ushers a different voice into the traditional Chinese
patriarchal world. Indeed, the DD/s insight into the Dao has always been a re-
freshing and challenging voice in traditional Chinese patriarchal society.
Gayle Rubin, "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex," in Toward
an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), 157,
Ibid., 267.
Judith Butler, "Sex and Gender in Beauvoir s Second Sex," in Simone de Beauvoir: Witness
to a Century, special issue of Yale French Studies 72 (winter 1986): 35.
Beauvoir, Second Sex, 199-252.
50 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion

Nevertheless, a patriarchal reading of the DDJ that identifies femaleness

with the metaphoric usage of the traditional feminine images in the DDJ can
reinforce a patriarchal ideology that keeps women subordinate. The poststruc-
turalist feminist critique of the notions of sex, gender, and femininity exposes
the fallacy of the patriarchal ideology of Woman and femininity, and the con-
structed nature of female identity. This helps to make the needed distinction
between women and the traditional feminine images as symbols for the Dao,
so as to prevent misappropriation of these feminine images in the interest of
patriarchal ideology.
By recommending feminine ways to the male sage as the way to govern the
empire, however, the DDJ both implicitly and explicitly breaks down tradi-
tional norms and conceptions of Man and Woman. Moreover, the DDJ's nondi�
chotomous cosmology, that is, the Dao as the undifferentiated ultimate reality
and the origin of the universe as well as the mutual complementarity of the
cosmic forces yin and yang as the Dao in action, offers poststructuralist femi-
nists a new horizon for transcending the patriarchal gender dichotomy. With a
nondichotomous worldview, Laozi advocates feminine values for men. This in-
dicates that in a nondichotomous universe, what is considered feminine in the
patriarchal culture can be free and available to all individuals.
With the foregoing understanding, in this article I shall discuss poststruc-
turalist feminists' views on sex and gender and shall analyze the problem of
femininity in the DDJ based on these views. The research and discussions here
proceed in three steps. First, I present the feminine images and values in the
DDJ. Second, I investigate the poststructuralist feminist critique of the notions
of sex and gender by feminist theorist Judith Butler and feminist biologists. In
this section I also examine the ways in which these poststructuralist feminists
deconstruct the notion of biological sex and therefore dismantle the myth of
Woman. Finally, I analyze the feminine images in the DDJ and their implica-
tions for femininity in light of poststructuralist gender theories, and elaborate
on the impact and ramifications of a poststructuralist feminist reading of the

Feminine Images in the Daodejing

For the sake of a proper understanding of the feminine images in the DDJ,
it is helpful to look first at the concept of the feminine in the broader context
of ancient Chinese culture.
The ancient Chinese understanding of the feminine is reflected in the con-
ception of the dialectic male and female cosmic forces of the hexagrams qian
f£ and kun *Ψ as recorded in the Yijing «f^M» (The classic of change).8 Qian and
The Yijing is also known as Zhouyi «JH^». According to Fung Yu�lan, the original corpus of
the text on the hexagrams dates from probably the beginning of the Zhou ü dynasty (1122-249
Xu: Poststructuralist Feminism 51

kun are the primordial cosmic creative forces. Qian is heaven, the masculine.
Kun is earth, the feminine. The Yijing states, "Qian which symbolizes Heaven
directs the great beginnings of things; Kun which symbolizes earth gives to
them their completion."9 As cocreators, qian and kun are mutually comple-
mentary. Nevertheless, qian, the male principle, plays the leading role,
whereas kun, the female principle, follows the influence of qian obediently and
materializes qian s designs in creating the myriad things (Zhu, 55; Legge, 214),
and the position oí kun is lower (Zhu, 284; Legge, 348). Again, whereas qian is
strong (gangM), kun is gentle and docile (roushun ^Hi); its role is to be recep-
tive and to follow (Zhu, 55, 61; Legge, 214, 418-19).
The Yijing associates qian with men and kun with women: "The attributes
expressed by qian constitute the male; those expressed by kun constitute the fe-
male" (Zhu, 285; Legge, 349). Thus, the female role in ancient Chinese culture
is to be docile and submissive. This is confirmed by the chapter on the mean-
ing of the wedding rite in the Liji (»M1B» (Book of rites), which says that the sub-
missiveness of the wife will bring harmony to the family and will secure its long
continuance. Therefore, when the future wife offers a sacrifice to the ancestors
as part of the preparation for the marriage, the sacrificial fish must be accom-
panied with waterweeds to symbolize the wife's submissiveness.10 As Min Jiayin
points out, the low position of kun in Yijing's cosmology and its association with
women later became the basis for male superiority in Chinese culture.11
During the Warring States Period (480-222 B.C.E.), the concepts of yin H
and yang B§ as the dialectic feminine and masculine cosmic principles became
widely accepted by the different philosophical schools, and they have domi-
nated Chinese cosmology ever since. Yang corresponds to qian, the masculine.
Yin corresponds to kun, the feminine.

B.C.E.), whereas the appendixes, or further commentaries on the hexagrams, were written and com-
piled by Confucians during the early years of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 CE.). A History of
Chinese Philosophy, trans. Derk Bodde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 1:412.
For the text of the Yijing, I have consulted Zhu Xis *Ä commentary on the Yijing, Zhouyi
Benyi IM%#&) (The true meaning of the Zhou yi) (Tianjin, China: Tianjinshi Guji Shudian, 1989);
Nan Huaijin SÄBI and Xu Qinting &#ii , Baihua Yijing «âM*l» (An interpretation of the Yijing)
(Changsha, China: Yuelushushe, 1988); and James Legge s translation, The Yi King (Oxford: Claren-
don, 1882). Hereafter, I shall indicate the page numbers in Zhu s text and Legge s translation, in
parentheses, for my quotations from the Yijing. I have modified some of Legge s translation. This
quotation is from Zhu, 286; and Legge, 349.
Shisanjing zhushu (+HMü®t) (Notes and commentaries on the Thirteen Classics), ed., Rúan
Yuan ETC (Nanchang fu, Jiangxi: xuekai, 1815), reprint (Taibei: Yiwen Yinshuguan, 1976), vol. 5,
1001-2; and James Legge, trans., The Sacred Books of China, vol. 28, pt. 4, The Li Ki, XI-XLVI
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1885), 432. The Liji is a Confucian compilation probably made during the early
years of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C E . ) . Fung, History of Chinese Philosophy, 1:413.
Min Jiayin H^JSL, ed., Yanggang yu yinrou de bianzou: Liangxing guanxi he shehui moshi
(mwimmm#imm--m®Lmmmimn^} (The variations of yanggang and yinrou: Gender relations and social
models) (Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe, 1995), 21.
52 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion

The yin/yang theories found full application and development in Daoism.

In Daoist cosmology, yin and yang are the Dao in motion. Ultimately, the Dao
is the undifferentiated nonbeing (wuM) that is the origin of being (you W) (DDJ
40). Yin and yang are the instruments by which the Dao operates as it gives rise
to the myriad things. The Dao creates and directs the course of the universe
by the change and movement of yin and yang, and dwells in the myriad things
as yin and yang.
Whereas in the Yijings cosmology the female principle kun is subordinate
to qian, the male principle, the DDJ emphasizes the mutual complementarity
and harmony of yin and yang, the female and male cosmic principles. Thus,
"the myriad things carry on their backs the yin and embrace in their arms the
yang."12 Moreover, the DDJ gives precedence to the female and the feminine.
The preference for the feminine is obvious in statements such as "When the
gates of heaven open and shut, / Are you capable of keeping to the role of the
female?" (DDJ 10; Lau, 66) and "Know the male, / But keep to the role of the
female" (DDJ 28; Lau, 85). Above all, the DD] adopts feminine rather than
masculine images in conveying the Dao, which, as the mysterious origin and
ruler of the universe, is ultimately ineffable.
Therefore, whereas the male principle plays the leading role in the Yijings
cosmology, the DDJ exalts the female and all that is lowly and feminine as sym-
bols of the Dao. Hence, in the DDJ, the mother, the female animal, and the fe-
male reproductive organs emerge as the dominant symbols of the Dao as the
origin of the universe. Indeed, in the DDJ, the traditional notions of feminin-
ity are transformed into symbols of the Dao.
The feminine images in the DDJ can be divided into two groups. The first
group centers on the mother and the female body as symbols for the Dao as
the mysterious origin of the universe. The second group consists of images tra-
ditionally associated with women and femininity as metaphors for Daoist val-
The notion that the Dao is the mother of the universe appears in DDJ 1,
25, and 52, and is most explicit in chapter 25:
There was something undifferentiated and yet complete,
Which existed before heaven and earth.
Soundless and formless,
It depends on nothing, and does not change.
It operates everywhere and is free from danger.

For the English translation of the DD], I have consulted D. C. Lau, trans., Lao Tzu: Tao Te
Ching (New York: Penguin, 1963); Wing-tsit Chan, "The Natural Way of Lao Tzu," in A Source Book
in Chinese Philosophy, trans, and comp. Wing-tsit Chan (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1963), 139-76; and Ellen M. Chen, The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary (New
York: Paragon House, 1989). Hereafter, I shall indicate the page numbers of these translations (with
modifications) in parentheses within the text. This quotation is from DDJ 42; Lau, 103.
Xu: Poststructuralist Feminism 53

It may be considered the mother of the universe.

I do not know its name;
I call it Dao. (Chan, 152)

Feminine images suggesting and symbolizing the fertility of the Dao are
rich and abundant in the DDJ. Besides the mother, the valley is another out-
standing symbol of the Dao s fertility:
The spirit of the valley never dies.
It is called the mysterious female.
The gateway of the mysterious female
Is called the root of heaven and earth. (DDJ 6; Lau, 62)

The image of the valley as a downward-tending emptiness through which

water flows suggests the uterus or the female genital organ. The valley in the
natural world is the source of fertility, bringing forth and nourishing life on
earth. Hence, the valley image symbolizes the Dao as the everlasting source of
the universe. In fact, the notion of the Dao s inexhaustible fertility occurs re-
peatedly in chapters 4 and 5, where the Dao is depicted as the emptiness that
is inexhaustible and pours out ever more. Therefore, the Dao as the eternal fe-
cundity of the universe that continuously produces the myriad things is sym-
bolized in a feminine image, the valley, which suggests the uterus and female
reproduction. 13
Feminine images promoting the ways of the Dao—lowliness, softness,
yieldingness, quietude, and inactivity—are prevalent in the DDJ. Among them,
the valley and water are the exemplary symbols of the Dao.
The image of the valley is a typical example of a feminine image based on
feminine characteristics traditionally attributed to women. Its low position con-
notes the socially assigned role of lowliness to women. The DDJ says,
Know the male
But keep to the role of the female
And be a ravine to the empire.
If you are a ravine to the empire,
Then the constant virtue will not desert you
And you will again return to being a babe
Know honor
But keep to the role of the disgraced
And be a valley to the empire.
If you are a valley to the empire,
Then the constant virtue will be sufficient

John Emerson, "The Highest Virtue Is Like the Valley," Taoist Resources 3, no. 2 (1992): 54;
Min, Yanggang yu yinrou de hianzou, 19.
54 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion

And you will return to being the uncarved block. (DDJ 28; Lau,

A ravine is a small-scale valley, sharing the qualities of lowliness and dis-

grace with the valley. In the preceding text, "the role of the female" and "the
role of the disgraced" respectively parallel the "ravine" and the "valley." Hence,
the ravine and the valley embody the traditional female role—receptivity, hu-
mility, submissiveness and yieldingness. These characteristics constitute "the
constant virtue," for they represent the ways of the Dao. Both the "babe" and
"the uncarved block" symbolize the original form of the Dao. Therefore, as
long as the sage can be the ravine or valley to the empire, that is, can put him-
self or herself below and behind the people of the empire, then he or she is
abiding by the Dao. Thus, says Laozi, "the highest virtue is like the valley"
(DDJ 41; Lau, 102).
While the valley symbolizes the highest virtue, water represents the high-
est good. Laozi says,
Highest good is like water.
Water benefits the myriad things without competing with them,
And settles where none would like to be.
Therefore it comes close to the Dao. (DDJ 8; Lau, 64)

Water is a typical feminine symbol in traditional Chinese culture. Like the val-
ley, water abides in low places. It benefits the myriad things without compet-
ing with them; it is content with low places that others disdain. Therefore,
water exemplifies lowliness and humility, hence is near the Dao and the sym-
bol of the highest good.
Moreover, water demonstrates the power of softness and weakness—the
ways in which the Dao works. According to the DDJ, "Weakness is the func-
tioning of Dao" (DDJ 40; Chen, 152). Hence, "the soft and weak overcome the
hard and strong" (DDJ 36; Chen, 141), and "to abide by the soft is called
strength" (DDJ 52; Chen, 178). Water can carve and penetrate the hardest
rocks. Thus, it is the best example of how the soft and the weak can overcome
the hard and the strong:
Nothing under heaven
Is softer and weaker than water,
Yet nothing can compare with it
In attacking the hard and strong. (DDJ 78; Chen, 225)

Therefore, water is the epitome of the true way and the true power of the Dao.
Water exemplifies not only unassertiveness and humility but also softness and
weakness. All these traditional feminine characteristics symbolize the ways of
the Dao.
In summary, the DDJ appropriates traditional notions of femininity and
Xu: Poststructuralist Feminism 55

feminine images and transforms them into images of the Dao. Based on these
images and the values they represent, femininity in the DDJ consists of mater-
nity, humility, lowliness, submissiveness and yieldingness that are typical femi-
nine attributes in a traditional patriarchal society. Nevertheless, unlike the Eu-
ropean hierarchical male/female dichotomy, as described by Beauvoir, which
makes the female the second sex, for Laozi the relationship between the fe-
male and the male is one of mutual complementarity and harmony, and the ex-
altation of the feminine.
However, as Karen Laughlin and Eva Wong caution us, the Dao is bigger
than male or female; it is the ineffable mystery. The Dao is nameless, shape-
less, and formless. Ultimately we cannot know or speak of Dao. The feminine
images of the mother, the valley, and water are all attempts to characterize the
Dao. Each captures some aspects of the Dao but not its totality. Furthermore,
as the undifferentiated cosmic origin, ultimately the Dao is without any kind of
dichotomy. As metaphors for the Dao, these particular qualities are therefore
detached from their binary gender connotations. In other words, they tran-
scend the concepts of femininity and masculinity, and are simply symbols of
the Dao. After looking at pertinent poststructuralist feminist views on sex and
gender, I will return to this point and render a feminist analysis of these femi-
nine images and their implications for femininity in the DDJ.

Critical Views on Sex and Gender, and Deconstruction

of Biological Sex in Poststructuralist Feminism
Simone de Beauvoir s distinction between sex and gender has been crucial
to feminist efforts to demythologize the myth of Woman that is based on the
claim that femininity is determined by the female anatomy. Yet sex remained a
biological mystery. Poststructuralist feminists take the deconstruction of the
myth of Woman further by deconstructing the notion of biological sex. Fol-
lowing French poststructuralist thinkers such as Jacques Lacan, Jacques Der-
rida, and Michel Foucault, who attack and deconstruct our concept of the sub-
ject as having an essential identity and an authentic core that has been
repressed by society, poststructuralist feminists regard the category Woman as
a fiction and aim at deconstructing and de�essentializing the concept of
Woman to its core. Seeing that biological sex is the last stronghold for patri-
archal gender myths, particularly the myth of the biological Woman, post�
structuralist feminists endeavor to deconstruct the notion of biological sex.
Karen Laughlin and Eva Wong, "Feminism and/in Taoism," in Feminism and World Reli-
gions, ed. Arvind Sharma and Katherine Κ. Young (Albany: State University of New York Press,
1999), 162.
Linda Alcoff, "Cultural Feminism versus Poststructuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist
Theory," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 13, no. 3 (1988): 415.
56 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion

For poststructuralist feminist thinkers, sex itself is gendered. In other

words, sex is not a fixed biological or natural given. There is no such thing as a
purely biological body or sex. "Body" and "sex" are already interpreted. There-
fore, like gender, sex is a cultural construction. As feminist theorist Judith But-
ler puts it, "This construct called 'sex' is as culturally constructed as gender."16
Theories of sex and gender propounded by Butler and feminist biologists fa-
cilitate the deconstruction of the myth of biological sex and hence myths of
Woman and femininity.
Judith Butler
In chapter 1 of her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler points out that the
distinction between sex and gender, originally intended to knock down the for-
mula "biology-is-destiny," falls into the trap of cultural determinism. The sex-
and-gender distinction implicitly suggests that sex is intrinsic to the body as an
invariant that preexists culture. Hence, gender is to culture as sex is to nature.
As a result, bodies are seen as the material on which cultural meanings are in-
scribed.17 This implies that the body or sex exists independently prior to gen-
der. If we accept the notion of sex and all the assumptions it entails as a bio-
logical given and as natural, we allow the ghost of biological determinism to
haunt us. Consequently, the myth of gender will not be completely shattered
until the myth of sex is thoroughly scrutinized. Along with Butler, we need to
ask, "Is 'the body' or 'the sexed body' the firm foundation on which gender and
systems of compulsory sexuality operate? Or is 'the body' itself shaped by po-
litical forces with strategic interests in keeping that body bounded and consti-
tuted by the markers of sex?"18
Indeed, as Butler points out, a body does not bear meaning until it is
sexed, or assigned a gender. In other words, no sooner do we associate body
with sex than we ascribe gender meanings to the body. Therefore, for Butler,
neither body nor sex is separable from gender. The body itself is a construction.
The body is already gendered; and sex has been gender all along. Hence, But-
ler concludes that sex is no pure anatomical facticity prior to culture, for "there
is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cul-
tural meanings."19
To further probe sex as a cultural construct, Butler analyzes Julia Kristeva s
idea of maternity, and critiques Kristeva by means of Michel Foucault's theo-

Judith Butier, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge: New
York, 1990), 7. Also see Sherry B. Ortner and Harriet Whitehead, "Introduction: Accounting for
Sexual Meanings," in Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Sexuality, ed. Sherry B. Ortner
and Harriet Whitehead (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 1.
Butler, Gender Trouble, 8.
Ibid., 129.
Ibid., 8.
Xu: Poststructuralist Feminism 57

ries on the relationship between sex and culture. To better understand Butler's
use of Kristeva, let us consider some of Kristeva's main ideas.
In Revolution in Poetic Language (1974), Kristeva posits that the produc-
tion of meaning involves two types of signifying processes: "the semiotic" and
"the symbolic," which are the inseparable dialectic within language. The semi-
otic refers to the presymbolic, nonpaternal, multiple instinctual drives within
the body, and is the underlying foundation ("genotext") for the symbolic, which
is the paternal, societal, cultural and syntactical expression ("phenotext").20
Later, in Desire in Language (1977), Kristeva identifies the semiotic with the
maternal drives and instincts that are the primary causality, namely, the un-
caused cause, which is prior to being, culture, and language.21 On the one
hand, the purpose of Kristeva's theory of the primal maternal body as the semi-
otic was to challenge the Lacanian belief that the paternal law, or the symbolic,
is the universal organizing principle of language and culture. On the other
hand, Kristeva intended to offer a ground for the feminine subversion of the
paternal law within language. Kristeva argues that, although the symbolic re-
presses and places social constraints on the semiotic, the semiotic expresses the
original maternal drives within the terms of language (poetry) and culture, thus
subverting the paternal laws.
Butler disagrees with Kristeva in two ways. Butler argues, first, that the ex-
istence of the presymbolic semiotic cannot be proved. Because the "presym-
bolic" is known only in and through the "symbolic," the so-called presymbolic
semiotic may simply be the "symbolic" itself. If so, the maternal body is the
symbolic, or a cultural construct, rather than a prediscursive semiotic, or the
nonsymbolic, nonpaternal causality. Nonetheless, the idea that the maternal
body bears an original meaning that is prior to paternal signification and prior
to culture prevents us from considering the possibility that maternity itself is a
cultural variable. Thus, maternal drives become part of the biological destiny.
Second, according to Buder, when Kristeva conceptualizes the desire of giv-
ing birth as the "maternal instinct" that is ontologically prior to the paternal law, she
not only fails to see that the paternal law may in fact be the cause of such a "ma-
ternal instinct," but also reifies maternity.22 The truth, Buder says, is this: "The law
that is said to repress the semiotic may well be the governing principle of the semi-
otic itself, with the result that what passes as 'maternal instinct' may well be a cul-
turally constructed desire which is interpreted through a naturalistic vocabulary."23

Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller, with an introduction
by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 24.
Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S.
Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1980), 239.
Butler, Gender Trouble, 88-91.
Ibid., 90.
58 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion

Indeed, to identify maternity with the presymbolic (semiotic), nonpater-

nal, metaphysical cause is to reinforce the notion of sex as the natural, biolog-
ical invariant. To presume that the maternal body is prior to culture, which is
the paternal structure ordered by paternal power, is to say that sex is precul-
tural and natural, instead of a cultural construct. As Butler poignantly points
out, this theory only covers up the cultural construction of maternity and the
female sex, making them appear "natural."24
Furthermore, Butler turns to Foucault s theory on the notion of sex as a
critique of Kristeva's concept of the maternal body. Foucault alerts us to the
fact that the category of sex is fictitious. The notion of "sex" serves as an artifi-
cial unifying principle to organize a set of anatomical, biological, and sensual
elements into a fictitious unity which then turns into a causal principle: "The
notion of 'sex' made it possible to group together, in an artificial unity, anatom-
ical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations, and pleasures, and it
enabled one to make use of this fictitious unity as a causal principle, an om-
nipresent meaning: sex was thus able to function as a unique signifier and as a
universal signified."25
Butler comments that here Foucault cautions against the use of sex as the
causal principle as such, for it gives us the false impression that sex is the cause
of the structure and meaning of desire, whereas in reality the truth is the op-
posite. Also, Butler points out that Foucault distinguishes body from sex. The
body is not significantly sexed until it takes on the idea of natural or essential
sex, which, according to Foucault, is concocted by culture.26
Thus, Foucault reverses the cause and effect in Kristeva's system. If Kris-
teva treats sex as the cause and language as the effect, Foucault proposes that
discourse on sexuality creates the notion of sex. Hence, cultural discourse is the
origin of sex. For Foucault, "bio-power," that is, socioeconomic and political
power, determines the way we see biology and sex, and constructs sexuality.
Therefore, sex is in fact a product and an expression of power, rather than the
original and authentic biological instinct capable of subverting paternal power.
Thus, Butler concludes, sex and sexuality are "saturated with power." To es-
sentialize sex as ontologically self-sufficient, free from power relations and his-
toricity, is to conceal paternal power as the origin of "sex."27
In the light of Foucault's understanding of the relationship between sex
and power, it becomes obvious that the maternal instincts and "maternal libid-
inal economy" in Kristeva's system are conceptualized within the paternal men-

See also Monique Wittig, "One Is Not Born a Woman," in The Second Wave: A Reader in
Feminist Theory, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1997), 265, 270.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley
(New York: Vintage, 1980), 154.
Ibid., 91,92.
Foucault, History of Sexuality, 140-41,143-44; Butler, Gender Trouble, 94-95.
Xu: Poststructuralist Feminism 59

tality, which makes motherhood compulsory for women. Clearly it is society,

governed by paternal law, that sanctions and demands that the female body
perform its reproductive function. It is such paternal law that makes maternity
the natural law for the female body. Consequently, instead of subverting pa-
ternal law, Kristeva's theory of a prediscursive and nonpaternal biological ma-
ternity conceals the working of paternal law in the very institution of maternity,
making the paternal construction of maternity appear natural and inevitable.28
Feminist Biologists
Butler s theory that sex is a social construct is supported by scientific evi-
dence. In The Science Question in Feminism (1986), Sandra Harding throws
light on the social construction of perceived sex differences, sexuality, and gen-
der from the perspective of science. Harding reports that by the mid-1980s,
scientific research in biology, history, anthropology, and psychology all con-
tributed to demythologizing the presumption that sexualities, gender roles, be-
haviors, and desires are determined by sex differences necessary for reproduc-
tion. The biological elements related to different male and female functions in
human reproduction—namely, that males inseminate and females incubate
and lactate—cannot explain the gendered and sexual identities, behaviors,
roles, and desires, which are evidently constructed entirely by culture.29 Nei-
ther is sexuality under the rigid control of genes or hormones.
The extent to which patriarchal ideologies of men and women shape sci-
entific understanding of biological sex is demonstrated in contemporary re-
search and studies in genetic and cell biology. Even in the late 1980s, Aristo-
tle's biological views of the active male and passive female, which reflected the
social principles of his day, was still dominating the mentality of cell biologists,
who regard femaleness as the absence of maleness or the passive presence of
the male-determining factor, and assume that the induction of testicular tissue
is an active (gene-directed, dominant) event, whereas the induction of ovarian
tissue is a passive (automatic) event. In fact, sex determination has always been
conceptualized and conducted in terms of male determination. Nevertheless,
according to feminist geneticists, "the induction of ovarian tissue is as much an
active, genetically directed developmental process as the induction of testicu-
lar tissue."30
Butler, 92-93.
Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
1986), 134. According to Harding, what accounts for this reproductive difference is defined in terms
offivebiological criterial genes: chromosomes, hormones, gonads, internal reproductive organs, and
external genitalia (127).
See David C. Page et al., "The Sex-Determining Region of the Human Y Chromosome En-
codes a Finger Protein," Cell 51 (December 24,1987): 1091-1104; Anne Faust-Sterling, "Life in the
X Corral," Women's Studies International Forum, Special Issue on Feminism and Science. In
Memory of Ruth Bieter, ed. Sue V. Rosser, vol. 12, no. 3 (1989): 328-29; Gerald Schatten and Heide
60 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion

Traditional views on the roles of sperm and egg in fertilization present an-
other well-known example demonstrating how patriarchal prejudice against
women has influenced the biological understanding of sex. Until the late
1970s, biological narratives of fertilization had not departed from the male-ac-
tive, female-passive model. Sperm tales were variants of the conquest stories
of Greek mythological heroes, in which the sperm puts up a heroic fight, sur-
viving against all the odds in its journey through the oviducts until it eventually
wins the reward of the egg.31 Here the sperm is the active agent, and the egg
is completely passive. With the electron microscope, however, scientists ob-
served that sperm and egg are in fact mutually active partners in the fertiliza-
tion process.32
The way in which gender associations are projected onto cells in narratives
of fertilization is obviously modeled on male-female interaction patterns in the
patriarchal culture. This indicates that the biological understanding of sex and
gender bears the profound impact of patriarchal prejudice against the female
sex. Hence, biology is both a privileged oppressor of women and a co-victim of
cultural assumptions.33
These biological study cases indicate that sex difference, sexuality, and
gender roles have little to do with natural biology. Hence, the understanding
that sex is a social construct is confirmed by science, for there is no scientific
basis for the culturally constructed notion of biological sex. Consequently,
there is no biological sex as basis for the myth of Woman.
Indeed, cultural assumptions about men and women, their relative status,
and the conventional understanding of sex identities have shaped scientific re-
search and theories as well as presumptions about biological sex. Preconcep-
tions about sex and gender inform and influence both the hypotheses and the
reasoning of biomedical inquiries that seek to establish sex as it is prior to ac-
quiring cultural meanings, resulting in the predicament of differentiating sex
from gender.34

Schatten, "The Energetic Egg," Sciences 23, no. 5 (1983): 31; Butler, Gender Trouble, 107,108,109;
Eva Eicher and Linda L. Washburn, "Genetic Control of Primary Sex Determination in Mice,"
Annual Review of Genetics 20 (1986): 328-29.
See the Biology and Gender Study Group, "The Importance of Feminist Critique for Con-
temporary Cell Biology," in Feminism and Science, ed. Nancy Tuana (Bloomington: Indiana Univer-
sity Press, 1989), 175-76. The group cites M. Boylan, "The Galenic and Hippocratic Challenges to
Aristotle's Conception Theory," Journal of the History of Biology 17 (1984): 110; and W. C. Keeton,
Biological Science, 3d ed. (New York: Norton, 1976), 394.
Schatten and Schatten, "Energetic Egg," 29,34; Biology and Gender Study Group, "Impor-
tance of Feminist Critique," 177.
Biology and Gender Study Group, "Importance of Feminist Critique," 172.
Butler, Gender Trouble, 109.
Xu: Poststructuralist Feminism 61

The poststructuralist feminist deconstruction of biological sex liberates us
from the biological determinism that supports the patriarchal ideology of
Woman and her subordination, as well as what Gerda Lerner has called the pa-
triarchal "sex/gender system." This indicates that women's subordination and
the sex/gender system are historical rather than natural and thus can be
changed as history progresses.35 With the deconstruction of biological sex,
there is no longer a biological basis for the cultural construction of sex and gen-
der. Hence, the cultural construction of the female sex, and femininity as that
which defines Woman, are left groundless. Consequently, everything we know
about women, every notion of femininity, must be subject to feminist scrutiny
and can no longer be attributed to biology. Furthermore, the deconstruction of
biological sex may facilitate revolutionary changes in the discourse of sex and
gender and thus may cause the eventual elimination of the binary dichotomy
of sex and gender.

Conclusion: The Problem of Femininity in the Daodejing

In this conclusion I shall first examine the feminine images in the DDJ and
their implications for femininity in light of the poststructuralist feminist views
on sex and gender. I shall then discuss the ways in which a poststructuralist
feminist reading of the DDJ challenges and informs our understanding of gen-
der and femininity, and can contribute to breaking down gender dichotomy.
Let us first investigate whether the maternal imagery in the DDJ runs the
same risk that Kristeva's theory on maternal drives as the primary motor for
culture runs in reifying maternity. If we take maternity as a natural instinct and
regard it as femininity, or that which defines Woman, without realizing that
motherhood as a compulsory act for women is in fact the product of paternal
power, we reify Woman and maternity. Nevertheless, as Butler points out, ma-
ternity itself is the product of culture, which assigns reproduction and mother-
hood to be the meaning of the woman's body. Therefore, we need to keep in
mind that, as the mysterious origin of the universe, the Dao is ultimately inef-
fable and transcends all imagery, and we must understand the maternal im-
agery in the DDJ as a means to convey the fertility of the Dao, instead of sim-
plistically accepting maternity as femininity.
The poststructuralist feminist view of sex and gender also enables us to call
into question the concept of femininity drawn from feminine images such as
water and valley. If humility, lowliness, and submissiveness were deemed to
constitute femininity and the norm of behavior for women, the result would be
the reinforcement of patriarchal dominance over and injustice toward women.
Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 6.
62 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion

After Foucault, Butler, and biologists' deconstruction of biological sex, how-

ever, one can no longer assume that traditional concepts of femininity are
precultural and natural. We see clearly, though, that humility, lowliness, and
submissiveness are typical feminine attributes in a traditional patriarchal soci-
ety. They are simply culturally constructed female gender roles and an expres-
sion of "bio-power."
Furthermore, in light of the poststructuralist feminist view that the bio-
logical body is already interpreted and assigned gender meaning by culture, we
need to be aware that traditional concepts of femininity and the patriarchal
ideology of Woman are constructed by the patriarchal culture; they do not rep-
resent absolute truth and must not be accepted as the norm to define the seg-
ment of humanity called women.
Fortunately the DDJ does not use feminine images to vindicate the tradi-
tional notions of femininity. Since Dao is the undifferentiated cosmic origin
and is ultimately without any kind of dichotomy, as symbols for the Dao these
images are no longer within the binary gender system. In other words, the fem-
inine images such as water and valley in the DDJ are transformed into symbols
of the Dao, hence transcend the traditional concepts of femininity and mas-
culinity. In fact, by recommending feminine ways to the male sage rulers
(shengren MA), who were thereby challenged to work against their traditional
gender conditioning, the DDJ inherently contradicts and sabotages fixed gen-
der categories.
Of course, Laozi was no "feminist" and was not concerned about gender
issues. The Daoists seek escape from the world of striving and activity and re-
treat into a state of passivity and oneness with the natural process. For the sake
of spiritual cultivation Daoist sages would relinquish worldly power and posi-
tion, which for the Daoists are nothing but illusions that obstruct spiritual de-
velopment. Thus, one may regard the ideals of Daoism as "feminine" in the
sense that Daoist quietism, non-obtrusiveness and yieldingness coincide with
what is considered feminine in the traditional Chinese culture. Therefore, in
contrast with the Confucian patriarchal ideals about sagehood, Laozi employs
feminine images to symbolize Daoist values as well as the Dao Itself. Or per-
haps Laozi sees the damage and destruction caused by masculine aggressive-
ness, hence recommends the feminine ways as an alternative means of survival
and as the way to govern the world for sage rulers in a chaotic time.
However, if today's feminists wonder about Laozi's view on gender, based
on the DDJ's statements such as "the myriad things carry on their backs the yin
and embrace in their arms the yang," and "know the male/but keep to the role
of the female," I gather that Laozi's gender view is the balance between yin and
yang or what is considered "masculine" and "feminine."
The Daoist emphasis on the harmony and balance of yin and yang or the
female and male cosmic forces is revealed in the classic Symbol of the Great
Xu: Poststructuralist Feminism 63

Ultimate (taijitu i : ì i ) . Deriving from the Dao, the Great Ultimate, namely,
taiji, comprises yin and yang. In the taiji symbol, the seed of yin is present in
the yang, and vice versa. Thus, the movements oft/in and yang give rise to and
follow one another in a cycle. In such circular movements, neither hierarchy
nor dichotomy can be formed. It is in such a context that we ought to under-
stand the DDJs emphasis on the mutual complementarity of the dialectic fe-
male and male cosmic principles yin and yang within the Dao—the nondiffer-
entiated ultimate reality that is both the origin and the end of the universe.
Thus, in the DDJ's cosmology there is absolutely no ground for any form of hi-
erarchy or dichotomy.
Therefore, for Laozi, there would never be a hierarchical gender di-
chotomy. Instead, there should be gender equality. As a matter of fact, there is
far more gender equality in Daoist religion than in the Confucian patriarchal
culture. As Laughlin and Wong note, throughout the history of Daoism women
have played significant roles as teachers of Daoist arts, founding members of
Daoist sects, heads of Daoist monasteries, and authors of Daoist scriptures.
Above all, like their male counterparts, women have attained spiritual perfec-
tion or immortality. Therefore, in Daoism there is sexual equality. Or rather,
Daoism transcends gender roles.36
Interestingly, Laozi's nondichotomous worldview and poststructuralist
feminist gender theories seem to support one another. On the one hand, But-
ler and the feminist biologists seem to back up Laozi's nondichotomous world-
view, for they have shown that the gender dichotomy of male and female, mas-
culinity and femininity, is culturally determined and arbitrary, lacking
metaphysical ground. On the other hand, the DDJ's nondichotomous cosmol-
ogy may provide the metaphysical basis for the feminist endeavor to tear down
the patriarchal cultural construct of gender dichotomy and reconstruct a non-
sexist and holistic worldview. Thus, while the poststructuralist feminist decon-
struction of traditional concepts of sex and gender may prevent a patriarchal
appropriation of the feminine images and values in the DDJ as validations for
the stereotypes of femininity defined by patriarchal culture that confine
women to their gender roles and subordination, the DDJ offers feminists a way
to transcend gender dichotomy.
Indeed, a poststructuralist feminist reading of the DDJ not only provokes
us into rethinking conventional gender categories but also offers us a vision of
freeing humanity from stereotypical gender identities. While the poststruc-
turalist feminists point out how misleading gender dichotomy and traditional
concepts of Man, Woman, masculinity, and femininity are, Laozi presents a
way to transcend these dichotomous gender categories and to reconsider what
it means to be truly human, so that we are open to the full mystery of human-

Laughlin and Wong, "Feminism and/in Taoism," 149^53.

64 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion

ity, instead of making individuals fit into the preconceived categories of Man or
Woman. Thus, along with Laozi's nondichotomous worldview, poststructuralist
feminist gender theories may change our perception and discourse of sex and
gender, and hence may contribute to the eventual elimination of the dichotomy
of sex and gender.
Overcoming the binary gender system is the first step in setting the cate-
gories "femininity" and "masculinity" free, so that the values formerly gathered
under "femininity" and "masculinity" can become free and equally available to
all individuals. Thus, what have been traditionally regarded as feminine virtues,
such as gentleness, humility, reverence for nature, peacefulness, caring, and
nurturing, can be embraced as universal virtues to be appreciated and culti-
vated by all individuals. Therefore, together with the values that used to be
considered feminine, women will no longer be trapped within the patriarchal
ideology of femininity that has been an effective instrument for the patriarchal
oppression of women. The dissolution of the gender dichotomy may also de-
liver "certain aspects of human personality within individuals" and sexual mi-
norities from the oppression of the patriarchal sex/gender system.37 Hence, a
woman can be an independent, autonomous, and self-determinate individual,
just as a man is expected to be; whereas a man can be relational, gentle, and
caring, like a woman in the conventional sense. Additionally, there will be re-
spect for different sexual orientations.
The disintegration of gender dichotomy and its implications can liberate
us from the tyranny of culturally constructed gender roles and from gender dis-
crimination and oppression, for it overturns the patriarchal gender assump-
tions about women and men, and removes the rationale for practices of dis-
crimination against women and the institutional subordination of women.
Finally, with the dissolution of the traditional gender categories of Man,
Woman, masculinity, and femininity, the burden of defining or finding out who
we are falls upon each individual. Perhaps, like the Dao, an individual cannot
be defined. The Dao is constantly in the process of change and creation; it is
forever creating, transforming, and transcending. Likewise, individuals must
create their own identities and not limit themselves to culturally constructed,
stereotypical gender roles.

Rubin, "Traffic in Women," 159.

^ s
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