Gendered Power: A Discourse on Female-Gendered Myth in the Classic of Mountains and Seas
by Anne Birrell
My paper has a modest and limited aim: to describe the phenomena of female-gendered mythological references which are to be found throughout the text of the Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shan hai ching), and thus provide an introductory foundation for others to pursue more detailed and specialized investigations of the topic in the sinological and comparative disciplines of history, religion studies, sociology, anthropology, and art.l In this paper I argue that this ancient text privileges female gender in an unprecedented way in the ancient Chinese cultural tradition. In applying gender as a category of analysis, I aim to limit my study to this single text so as to evaluate its gendered statements and to discuss its system of female-gendered constructs. Evidence will be drawn primarily from the female-gendered mythological data in this text. Myth is defined here as a cultural construct that reflects a symbolic prehistorical mentalité.3 The modern critic must attempt to decipher this mythic construct and archaic mentalité. I engage in this gender discourse in the hope that my investigation and interpretation of the data will advance our understanding of the concept of woman as it is mediated through ancient oral myths that were preserved in classical writings.4
Gender criticism is productive for studying classical Chinese texts and it offers an entirely new perspective on the ancient cultural tradition. Among male-authored classical texts, for example, the Mencius (Meng Tzu) typically projects a patriarchal ideology.5 The male-authored Biographies of Women (Lieh nü chuan) portrays female gender in ways that fulfil male aspirations for female subordination.6 The female-authored Lessons for Women (Nü chieh), for its part, proposes the moral and personal accommodation of women and their low position in the patriarchal system.7 Other classical texts give similar representations.
Among classical Chinese texts the notable exception to the rule of gender asymmetry, in which the male predominates in terms of cultural superiority and moral values, is the Classic of Mountains and Seas.8 This text posits a balanced gender symmetry in which both female and male genders have significant functions and roles. Yet, as I shall show, woman acquires such prestige in terms of power, authority, and influence, that the text implicitly constructs a gender asymmetry in which the female is accorded a privileged status.
Traditional and modern sinological scholars have adopted a pluralistic and multi-disciplinary approach to the classic. Classical and medieval Chinese commentators and bibliographers have identified the text as geography, cosmology, prophecy, and fiction.9 Modern scholars have studied it from the standpoint of ethnology, medical science, religion, and mythology.10 My own view is that the classic contains all these disciplinary strands, but the organizing principle is the human science of mythology.11
My inquiry into the incidence of female-gendered myth has been informed by theoretical issues current in gender criticism. I have made use of the hierarchical opposition of male and female attributes proposed by Hélène Cixous.12 But I have done so from a comparative standpoint and in a way that demonstrates that, contrary to the concept of fixed gender attributes in Cixous's theory, the Chinese data indicate a wide variation of gender role and function. In this respect, the data confirm the early perception of Margaret Mead that there exists an "extraordinary diversity" of gender roles in the cultural history of humankind. 13 Thirdly, I have adopted Jacques Derrida's gender concept of "the feminine-as-alternative logic" to explore the language and symbolic structure of gender in the Classic of Mountains and Seas.14
Fourth, I make use of revisionist studies of the theoretical foundation of Frederick Engels which has recently been usefully applied by classical scholars.15 Engels demonstrated that the position of women in antiquity was not always subordinate to that of men; he argued that among tribal orders in the prehistorical era there existed a pre-class egalitarianism between males and females which became eroded by the emergence of private property as an organizing principle in society. Moreover, he maintained, the system of private property generated a class structure that did not privilege female gender. Engels based his ethnographic and historical reconstructions on Western classical literature. In my paper I will utilize only one classical Chinese text to validate his theory on the prehistorical position of women, as this is expressed in ancient myth.
Postmodern scholars have rediscovered in Jakob Bachofen's theory of "mother right" (Mutterrecht) a comparative model for examining whether females in prehistorical societies enjoyed an equal or even privileged position. In his theory, Bachofen argued that "mother right" represented the natural and biological relationship between mother and child which developed into a matriarchy, and later into a "gynocracy," or civil rule by women.16 Despite the methodological problems inherent in his work, such as unreliability of sources, the outmoded term "matriarchy" (now replaced by "female gender"), and his acceptance of the mid-nineteenth-century Western image of the perfect woman, it remains instructive for rediscovering the dominant mother figure in obliquely narrated passages and the obscure references to all-female societies. Bachofen's theory has also served to underscore that, although the mother figure occurs in the classical Chinese text, the text itself does not indicate the presence of the mythological construct of a matriarchy, but, on the contrary the presence of the controlling figure of the woman (nü) in whom are invested symbolic emblems of power, authority, and influence
Since this subject is a complex one and the data are varied and abundant, my procedure will be relatively simple. First, I will identify the female mythical figures in the classic, explaining in each case my criteria of selection. Second, I will specify the function and role of each female figure. Thirdly, I will indicate how the text uses power imagery to reinforce these functions. Then I will briefly mention the general incidence of female gender in the text apart from female figures, which is manifested in geographical names, ritual, and clan names. I will also summarize the major occurrences of gendered liminality, that is, figures of indeterminate or ambiguous gender, and related myths. Brief reference is made to the feminization of male names and titles. All these points of discussion will be brought together in my conclusions to show how the classic may be viewed as a feminized text and how it expresses the concept of privileging the female in its gendered mythological constructs. Finally, reasons will be offered to explain the ways by which the concept of woman was written out of the classical record and how males in the historical era superseded those functions and roles which had belonged exclusively to female figures in mythological accounts.include '../includes/navbar.html'; ?> include '../includes/footer.html'; ?>