Chapter Four
Women of Taoism

© Copyright 1991, 2017 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.

[NOTE: in any updating of this chapter, I would want to update all uses of the Wade-Giles transliteration system to the much more widely used official Pinyin system. Thus the name "Taoism" would be spelled "Daoism," and its most ancient text would be spelled "Dao de jing," not "Tao te ching."]

In China, the feminine principle has been honored to a great extent in the ancient philosophy-psychology of Taoism, and a few actual women have been accorded respect and even leadership roles in the later, “religious” Taoism which was to emerge.  In the earliest tradition of Taoism, known as the “contemplative” or “philosophical” Taoism (Tao-chia), based on the writings of the legendary Lao-tzu (“the Old Boy”) and the more historical Chuang-tzu (c.369-286 BCE), the great Tao, the ultimate Way or Principle of nature and the primordial, mysterious source of all things, is rendered in feminine imagery—especially in many passages of the classic work, Tao te ching (written circa 3rd century BCE, perhaps as early as the 5th century, most probably by a single author who is identified with a certain wandering sage, Lao-tzu). [1]  Peter Goullart, who spent many years in Taoist monasteries of China, wrote:  “Tao is not only the Mother of all Existence, but also our Mother and, if we realize it, we should know her other children, i.e., the rest of Creation.” [2]  Furthermore, many “feminine” qualities, such as “softness,” “passivity,” “gentleness,” “receptivity,” and so forth, are praised and recommended as the marks of a sage who is one with the Tao.  But no cases of realized female (or for that matter, male) masters are mentioned in the Tao te ching.


The Taoist sage Chuang-tzu mentions (in Book 6 of the Chuang-tzu, part of the authentic first seven books of the Chuang-tzu) Hsi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the West, as the lone female among the “ancients” who found the Tao and thus became immortal.  Hsi-wang Mu in ancient legends was represented as wife of the Lord-King of the East, dwelling on K’un-lun mountain, the abode of the immortals.  In slightly later, more popular legends, she lives on the highest level of heaven as the wife of the August Jade Ruler/Father Heaven (Yu-ti/Lao-t’ien-yeh, another deified person of ancient times, the chief deity figure for religious Taoists).  Hsi-wang Mu becomes the center of a full mythology and cult which developed by about 100 CE and flourished for many centuries.  Barbara Reed reports that her cult finally died out some time ago, though she is still revered in literature and art as the Fairy Queen of all the Immortals.  Peter Goullart, writing in the 1950s, suggests that practicing Taoists still consider her abode in the West “a Taoist symbol for a perfect retreat where both spirit and body find a common focus of joy and happiness, where an earthly paradise ineffably impinges on and fuses into that other Heaven, just visible through a veil to a real Taoist.” [3]


Reed has found another passage in Burton Watson’s translation (1968) of Chuang-tzu (Book 6) indicating “there is ... an old woman with the complexion of a child who knew Tao and tried to teach it to a sage.” The James Legge version regards this as an old man. Whatever Chuang-tzu intended throughout his work one frequently hears about the “great men of old”—indicating that the ancient sages who realized the Tao were considered to be chiefly male. [4]


So it seems that, while the ancient contemplative Taoists definitely preferred female imagery in discussing the origin and deepest principle of nature, and emphasized the development of yin (female) qualities in the Taoist adept, they did not tend to value any actual, living human females as exemplars for Taoist excellence.


On the topic of developing female, yin characteristics, it is highly curious to see that, in later Taoist commentary literature, several passages have suggested that males must “become female,” at least metaphorically, so as to achieve the goal of “deathlessness.”  This is an interesting contrast to some writings in the Buddhist, Sūfī, Jewish, and Christian traditions wherein it is the other way around:  females are urged to “become male,” either by miraculously transforming their body (as told in some Mahāyāna Buddhist literature), or by leaving behind their sexuality and supposed “weak ways” (as urged by some Jewish and Christian writings). 


A later development of Taoism is “religious” Taoism (Tao-chiao)—“most narrowly defined as the religious organization that traces itself to the second century revelations to Chang Tao-ling ... the first Celestial [Heavenly] Master (t’ien-shih),” who founded the Heavenly Master sect (Cheng-i Meng-wei) in western China about 142 CE [5]  This religious Taoism, concerned with purification, mystic union with the Tao, and attaining “immortality” (both in the sense of longevity and realization of deathless spirit), was rooted in the practices of the ancient court magicians (fang-shih) of the 3rd century BCE, the Wei apocrypha literature (early 1st century CE) the writings of the mystic saint, Yu Chi of northeast China (first half of 2nd century), Chang Chiao’s politically-involved (and quickly, violently suppressed) Way of Great Peace (Yellow Turban) movement in eastern China (second half of 2nd century), as well as ancient shamanistic techniques of exorcising malevolent spirits and enlisting the support of helpful spirits.


Religious Taoism, in contrast to “elite,” philosophical Taoism, showed much greater appreciation for actual women, who traditionally had been on the low end of the power totem in accordance with Confucian mores.  Though the Heavenly Master office of Chang Tao-ling’s Cheng-i Meng-wei Taoism was based on patriarchal lineage over the centuries, we are informed by Reed that the leadership was not totally male:  “The basic position of ritual and moral leadership was the libationer (ch’i-chiu) who served [twenty-four] small dioceses.  Both women and men served as libationers.”  This allowance of local leadership by women was evidently due to a concern for balancing yin (female) and yang (male) energies.  The religious Taoist canon is the Tao-tsang, a diverse amalgamation of works from different religious Taoist schools, a first version of which (the San-tung, or Three Arcana) was brought together by the time of Taoist master Lu Hsiu-ching (d. 471 CE); (a fuller version would be published in the 15th century).  The early canon reveals evidence of Taoist ordination for women, and the first several ranks of priestly ordination in the Way of the Heavenly Masters were parallel for men and women—only the highest rank of Divine Lord (shen-chun) had no parallel female rank. [6]


The mother of Chang-lu (grandson of Chang Tao-ling, the first Heavenly Master) was an important court-priestess of the Wei dynasty (220-65) who helped him expand his grandfather’s “sorcery-cult” Cheng-i Meng-wei Taoism, which flourished, first in Western China, later throughout the country (it came to be based at Lung-hu Shan in Kiangsi province). Wei Hua-ts’un (251-334), a semi-legendary Meng-wei woman libationer, is regarded as the spiritual founder of the prestigious, influential meditation- and monastic-oriented Shang-ch’ing Taoist movement at Mao-shan (Kiangsu province, eastern China, one of the major Taoist sites) as a result of her postmortem appearances and guidance to its male founders (Yang-hsi, Hsu-hui and his brother Hsu-mi).  It is said that she had been educated in the classics and the Taoist texts, and later enjoyed visitations from many of the immortals, who revealed to her the basic scriptures of the Shang-ch’ing tradition, which later were drawn up as the Yellow Court Canon and the Ta-tung Chen-ching by Yang-hsi, et al.   (Note:  Ling-pao liturgical Taoism was the third of the three early religious Taoist schools in addition to Meng-wei and Shang-ch’ing Taoism; many other religious forms of Taoism also emerged through the centuries, the most important of which were:  Ch’ing-wei [tantric Thunder Magic—very similar to Shingon/Chen-yen Buddhism], Pei-chi or Pole Star [martial] Taoism, the popular, but usually heterodox Shen-hsiao Taoism, and the later, meditative, monastic reform movement—Ch’üan-chen Taoism [which incorporated Ch’an Buddhist elements]. [7])


Reed tells us how, in general, women were influential in the development of religious Taoism, and comments:

“The Taoist religion as a whole grew up in the context of shamanism.  Women in China have always been important in contacting the world of the spirits, so there is nothing surprising in the role of women in a new organization based on communication with the Immortals.  Many of the male Taoist leaders were influenced by shamanist women in their families. ... In both traditional and modern Chinese societies, a large number of the shamans who serve on the margins of organized religion have been female.  Shamanesses (wu [the term used to refer exclusively to women]) and female mediums [tang-ki] predated Taoist sects, influenced them, and were rejected by them [as excessive and sometimes immoral], but continued to operate on the periphery of the movement.” [8]

I would interject to comment that women functioning more or less “shamanically” as visionaries, mediums, and/or oracles is a theme one finds, not only in China and Japan, as we have learned, but also in other traditions such as Judaism (as prophetesses), Christianity (as visionaries), Islam (protecting against malevolent jinn spirits), ancient Mediterranean mystery religions (as oracles, mediums and priestesses), Amerindian and Australian aboriginal shamanism, and various modern, Western movements such as Spiritualism and Theosophy and their many offshoots in the “new age” movement.  Clearly, this is one area of activity in which women dominate men.  Men have often tried to compensate for this shortcoming by branding such sensitive women as “unstable” or as “witches,” thereby trying to demean their contribution and relegate them to a lower class or fringe-element of society.  Along this line, Reed notes that one of the reasons women play such a prominent role in religious Taoism is that both women and religious Taoists were together at the bottom of the social hierarchy (below Confucians, Buddhists and the more contemplative, philosophical,”elite” Taoists; since the Confucian viewpoint dominated the writing of historical works, all other parties—Buddhists, Taoists and women—were, in that order, given less attention). 


However woman might be viewed, as shamaness/medium she has been a major element in religious Taoism and in Chinese non-mainstream religion (including, in recent decades, Taiwan and Hong Kong).  Jack Potter has reported on three shamanesses (wu) of Ping Shan in the Hong Kong vicinity (one of them having lived to be 120 years of age).  Kevin Stuart and Hu Jun tell of the clairvoyant yanjiangui-s (whose name means “eyes see ghost”) in the Tu area of eastern Qinghai and Gansu provinces of northwest China, who identify the source of evil causing illness in persons; they work alone and also assist the falas (the male shamanic trance mediums who bring messages from the gods) and the “yinyang” Taoist priests during festivals.  The most famous yanjiangui among the Tu was a much-respected Han woman in her 50s, who is often invited to homes to cure illness by communicating with the evil spirits.  Taoist scholar and priest Michael Saso tells of women mediums (tang-ki) in Taiwan of the Fukien-based Lu Shan “Three Sisters sect” (San-nai) who serve the Taoist priests of the Shen-hsiao Redhead (red hat) Taoist sect of Taiwan (which, with its tendency to stress exorcistic practices, is considered rather heterodox by the Blackhead Taoists, who emphasize stately ritual and meditative union with the Tao).  The Redhead and Blackhead priests. Both perform the elaborate 3- or 5-day long chiao ritual of cosmic renewal, which involves a meditative union with the Tao, contacting of spirits, blessing and healing of living beings, and, in the Blackhead circles (under Buddhist influence), the releasing of souls from hell.  Whereas women previously participated in and presided over these esoteric chiao rites, Reed notes that “public ritual performance by women is now rare.  Many more women serve religious functions outside this literary ritual tradition”—that is, as mediumistic assistants, independent shamanesses, or, as is the case today on mainland China, as meditating priestess/nuns of the more contemplative traditions. [9]


For the record, Michael Saso has pointed out that

“…the use of possessed mediums in popular ritual is not admitted by the orthodox Heavenly Master [meng-wei] sect... The two professions—that of the stately, literary, orthodox Taoist, and that of the frenzied possessed medium—were distinguished by two separate ministries almost from the beginning of religious Taoism.” [10]


In the centuries since its inception, religious Taoism has produced a whole host of heavenly deities, fairies, spirit generals, and so forth (a Taoist priest must learn to know all these by name and recognize them by their appearance, costume, fragrance, etc.).  These gods and goddesses are usually considered to have been humans of ancient times who attained immortality through heroic deeds or inner alchemy, and now are part of that anthropomorphic, highly bureaucratic Chinese heaven.  Thus, to the western, Christian mentality, most of these personages may often seem to be more like “patron saints” than deities.  There are many feminine beings among this pantheon, including the aforementioned Hsi-wang Mu, wife of the Jade Emperor, whose heavenly Western abode is looked to with fondness and yearning by Taoists.  The Princess of Streaked Clouds, Pi-hsia-yüan-chün, is the daughter of the Emperor of the Eastern Peak (T’ai-yüeh-ta-ti; the most important assistant to the Jade Emperor).  She becomes known as the Sacred Mother (Sheng-mu) or Lady Mother (Nai-nai Niang-niang), a protectress of women and children who presides over births, with several female attendants.  Her Chinese Buddhist equivalent is the highly popular Guan-yin (mentioned earlier).  Nü-kua is the dragon-tailed divine lady who is said to have originally fashioned the human race out of clay.  Another important female deity is the Empress of Heaven (T’ien-hou), evidently a girl living on the island of Mei-chou in the second millennia of our common era who went into deep trance and saved her brothers at sea in a storm.  Her cult became popular in recent centuries as a result of more postmortem miracles.  Ho Hsien-ku is the lone female amidst the “8 Immortals” (Pa-hsien) of Taoism, a particular grouping of legendary Taoist practitioners, artistic representations of whom began to appear during the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, somewhere around the 13th or 14th century.  (They actually personify the 8 different conditions of life.)


Other important female goddesses are the four-headed Mother of the Pole Star (Tou-mu—identical to the Shingon Buddhist deity, Marishi-ten), the beautiful Woman in the Moon (Ch’ang-o or Hengo-o), the Mother of Lightning (Tien-mu), the Lady Who Bestows Children (Sung-tzu niang-niang), the Old Woman Who Sweeps Heaven Clear, the Lady of the Wind (Feng-p’o-p’o), the Heavenly Spinster (Chih-nii), the Lady (and Lord) of the Bed, et al. [11]  A number of female adepts of religious Taoism are cited by “the eccentric scholar,” Ko-hung, in his 4th century work Pao p’u-tzu.  These are allegedly historical women who had evidently mastered the art of “longevity,” though unfortunately many of them had tragic ends. [12]    


Thomas Cleary, in his Immortal Sisters: Secrets of Taoist Women [13], has compiled and translated the enlightened poems and spare biographical details of six female Taoist adepts (note that the recent Pinyin system is used here for transliterating their names):  1) Wu Cailuan, daughter of Taoist adept Wu Meng of the late 3rd century (though some scholars place her in the 9th century); 2) Fan Yunqiao, who, along with her husband, was an adept of the 3rd century; 3) Cui Shaoxuan (no date), an adept of northern China; 4) Tang Guangzhen, of the late 12th century, who left her husband to study Taoism in the mountains with several Taoist “Immortals”; 5) Zhou Xuanjing (12th century) who, along with her son Wang Chuyi, became an adept under the tutelage of master Wang Zhe (one of the principle founders of the Northern, “Pure Serenity” school of Taoism at Lungmen-shan);  6) Sun Bu-er (12th century), another disciple of Wang Zhe; she was married, with three children, and became the most famous of all historical Immortal Sisters, having passed into folklore as one of the much beloved “Seven Immortals.”  Lacking further biographical details on these women, we must utilize the powers of imagination so as to gain a sense of the power, virtue, and typically Taoist balance of yin and yang characterizing their lives. 


Michael Saso has discovered that the mother of the eminent Taiwanese Taoist master of modern times, Chuang-ch’en Teng-yun (1911-76), a woman by the name of Ch’en A-kuei, was trained as an orthodox Blackhead Taoist priest by her father, Ch’en Chieh-san (d. 1901), who had been the foremost Taoist priest in the public forum in all of Taiwan, and who considered women to be capable of attaining to eight of the nine levels of priestly ordination.  A-kuei, who was selected for training by her father instead of her younger brother, “soon surpassed her peers ... in ritual perfection.  A-kuei’s training, however, was kept within the immediate family circle, her status as a daughter of one of the elite clans of Hsinchu [northern Taiwan] keeping her from performing in public.” [14]  Nevertheless, A-kuei would come to have no small influence on her son’s emergence as the leading Taoist master of northern Taiwan (she and her son were mainly involved with the orthodox Ching-i Meng-wei tradition).


Saso has recently reported on the resurgence of Taoism in mainland China (the PRC—People’s Republic of China), and women are a major part of this process.  At remote, scenic Wu-tang Shan in western Hupei province (near the Shensi border), visited by roughly 1,000 pilgrims a day, 20 young nuns and 50 young monks are practicing under Taoist elders, living a celibate, vegetarian, contemplative life according to the Ch’üan-chen/Qüanzheng monastic rules.  (Ch’üan-chen was the leading sect of the Reform Taoism which arose during the 12th century, integrating Ch’an Buddhism, neo-Confucianism, and religious Taoism; its main seat is the Monastery of the White Clouds, Pai-yün kuan, in Beijing).  Saso also observes that “Taoist monks and nuns can be found on Ch’ing-ch’eng Shan near Chengtu city, Szechuan province, who spend most of their lives in ch’üan-chen style Taoist meditation.” [15]  Major Taoist centers like Mao-shan (near Nanjing), Lung-hu Shan and Ko-tsao Shan (in Kiangsi province) have also made comebacks since 1979 when the communist government began to ease restrictions on religious practice, and women practitioners may also be found here or in the vicinity.  A recent statistic I have heard is that 100 active Taoist temples are operating in China, with 3,000 priests, and fully a third of these are women. [16]


The “Five Sacred Mountains” hallowed by the past Chinese emperors—Tai-shan (Shandong province), Hua-shan (Shaanxi province), Song-shan (Henan), Heng-shan (Hunan), and Heng-shan (Shanxi)—have also undergone renewal to some extent, and religious Taoist masters are often invited to perform sacred rites there, as in days of old, women being involved in these practices as shamanesses or mediums when Redhead Taoists enact liturgies there.


Saso has informed this author that a prominent woman Taoist teacher of meditation can be found at Yüan-hsüan Hsüeh-yüan monastery in the Hong Kong area (at Tsueh-wan/Ch’uan-wan in the Kowloon New Territories) wherein Taoist, Buddhist, and neo-Confucian practices are utilized. [17]  Taoist monk Moy Lin-shin founded the Fung Loy Kok Taoist Temple in Hong Kong in 1968, which has two branch temples in Toronto, Canada, and one in Denver, Colorado.  The Fung Loy Kok Taoist Temple at Denver is presided over by his female disciple, Eva Wong, who is translating Taoist texts into English (she also teaches psychology at the Univ. of Denver).  Speaking of translators, Ellen Marie Chen (1933- ), a professor of philosophy at St. John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y., is an esteemed author and lecturer on Taoism, and has recently completed a new translation and commentary on the Tao Te Ching, which is, to my mind, probably the finest in print, reflecting a profoundly wise intuition of the ancient principle of the TaoLivia Kohn, teaching at Boston University, is author of the valuable works Seven Steps to the Tao; Sima Chengzhen’s Zuowanglun; and Taoist Meditation and Longevity TechniquesIngrid Fischer-Schreiber of Germanyis another esteemed female scholar of Taoist studies.  Regarding the Taoist-inspired martial art/dance form, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the foremost master of its Wu style is a woman, westerner Sophia Delza. [18]


In recent decades the study by Chinese, Japanese and Western scholars of religious Taoism as a legitimate and important field, and the study and practice of chi-kung/qi-gong, or Taoist life-energy yogic training, by masses of Chinese (including many personnel in the most sophisticated hospitals) renders a bright future for religious and yogic Taoism, and women are already seen to be taking strong (and sometimes leading) roles in these developments. For instance, journalist Marlowe Hood tells of Zhang Xiangyu (b.1943), for a short time considered to be one of the “four great masters” of qi-gong in the PRC. A barely literate, middle-aged woman from remote Qinghai Province, she claims to have experienced a vision in 1984 in which a trio of Buddhist and folk deities annointed her a daughter of the Jade Emperor and instructed her in the “language of the universe.”  She moved to Beijing in 1987 at the behest of the Beijing Academy of Qigong Science and Research and set up her own “institute.”  By late 1988, after she had demanded and collected a total of nearly a million dollars and half as many followers through her qi-gong “treatments,” she began to make apocalyptic predictions, some of which apparently were coming true in the form of a massive hepatitis epidemic that year and then a major earthquake in 1990.  The Chinese government, which had begun in various ways to suppress the hugely popular qi-gong movement lest it occasion political movements that would challenge the supremacy of the current regime, in August 1990 arrested Zhang on charges of defrauding the public. She was convicted in 1993.


Many other lesser known women are also leading large qi-gong groups.  Time will tell what is in store for them.