Immortal Sisters Panel

The Immortal Sisters Panel includes Livia Kohn, Max Dashu and Robin Wang.

Who are the “Immortal Sisters” and why are they important? 

Breaking the Gender Trap: Daoist Ways of Empowering Women

Livia Kohn will discuss the various ways that Daoists empower women. Daoists have always lived in a highly gendered society, Chinese culture codifying life in terms of Yin and Yang and seeing females as weak and inferior. They balance this in three different ways:

1.  The Daode Jing counterbalances male-centered culture by extolling yin-type values and forms of behavior, without, however reversing or overcoming established stereotypes. 

2.   Daoist communities do away with stereotypes and actively promote gender neutrality, leveling the playing field between the sexes, classifying people on the basis of personal skill and social contribution rather than sex.

3.   Daoist monastics and immortals actively un-gender practitioners. Thus, all monastics wear the same hairdo and the same vestments, participate equally in the tasks of the institution, and address each other in an intentionally ungendered way. They thereby create a new level of androgynous living, actively liberating the individual from the confines of the appropriate.

“Immortal Sister”,  Cao Wenyi

Robin Wang will introduce the original work of “Immortal Sister”,  Cao Wenyi 曹文逸  (1039-1119) from the Song dynasty. She was seen as the “Master of Tranquility and Human Virtue and the Perfection of the Dao” throughout Daoist history.  Cao was born into a wealthy family in Hebei province. According to the record, she could read and recite poetry at the young age of five and was capable of remembering things after a mere glance at the age of 15. By the age of 21, she defied the conventional path of arranged marriage and saw it as a form of imprisonment in this worldly life. She escaped an arranged marriage and went to the Yu Hua mountain to lead an extremely harsh and poor life.

Despite these challenges, she contributed historical commentaries on the Daodejing, Zhuangzi and other Daoist texts. After gaining a well-known reputation as a Daoist practitioner, Cao was summoned to the capital of Kaifen, Hunan by the Emperor Weizhong who was fond of Daoism and the literati. The emperor rewarded her with the title of “Great Master of Literary Withdrawal into Clear Emptiness” (Wenyi zhenren). 

Many of her writings have been lost, with the exception of a text called The Song of Ultimate Source of Great Dao, (Lingyuan Dadaoge 靈源大道歌) that has survived. This text consists of 128 sentences written in poetic and elegant stanzas and is suitable for any beginner who wants to learn about Daoism and its practices. This talk will present it  for the first time in English translation.

Xi Wangmu: the Cosmic Weaver with Max Dashu 

This visual presentation explores the imagery and symbolism of the Western Grandmother, from her earliest Shang dynasty pairing with an Eastern Grandmother, through her tiger-shaman aspects in the Shan Hai Jing, to her governance of the “Cosmic Grindstone”. She looms large as Tai Yin in the Five Element concordance, with her Tiger-Dragon throne, her presiding over the spirit trees of Sichuan, her depictions with the ancestral snake beings Nü Wa and Fu Xi, and with her many spirit servitors. 

As the Zhuang Ze says, “Nobody knows her beginning, and nobody knows her end.”