Discipline and Transformation
Body and Practice in the Lives of
Daoist Holy Women of Tang China
Suzanne E. Cahill
This study investigates an extraordinary group of women who lived in the context of Confucian society: Daoist holy women of the Tang dynasty (618–807). It examines issues of female body and text and highlights the centrality of the body as the location of practice and change. Here I link body, gender, discipline, and liberation in the lives of these women. All the chapters in this volume fracture and complicate our definitions of “Confucianism. ” This chapter promotes inclusive understandings of Confucianism and discourages superficial contrasts between Daoist and Confucian values.
We begin by admitting the relativity of our terms. Such apparently simple terms as “body, ” “gender, ” “discipline, ” and “liberation” have been regarded in different ways at different times and places. We know that the body has not always been perceived as the same whole we understand now. Nor has it always been dismembered and divided from an internal self. Notions of gender are culturally constructed: some go so far as to claim gender is not a state but a performance. Even sex, which we place in the realm of science and assume we can distinguish clearly, does not escape cultural construction. Discipline, viewed by many today as limiting individual freedom, is regarded by others as a path to individual liberation. When the medieval Chinese holy women considered here disciplined their bodies to achieve liberation, they did so in the context of the Daoist religion. 1
The terms “Confucianism” and “Daoism” also need definition for the purposes of this discussion. Confucians and Daoists have often been construed as opposites and rivals, with Confucianism representing the hierarchical standards and structures of the Chinese patriarchy and imperium and Daoism embodying more egalitarian, individual, and even eccentric values. The medieval reality is more complex. Tang Confucianism included commitment to the ethical priorities expressed in the ancient Confucian canonical texts and their later commentaries, together with dedication to the ideals of official service in the imperial bureaucracy under