The Yijing, Gender, and the Ethics of Nature
Eric S. Nelson
I. Gender, Nature, and “Chinese Thought”
This essay traces the shifting roles of gender and changing character of nature in the Yijing (《易經》)
I consider how gender and nature have been conceived in relation to the Yijing and its potential and limits for addressing questions of gender, the environment, as well as issues of the interconnection of gender and ecology articulated in ecofeminism.
Chinese philosophical and cultural traditions have become part of contemporary interpretive conflicts over the meaning of gender and the relative social status of women and men.
On the one hand, Chinese cultural and intellectual traditions have been interpreted as having a greater appreciation of the significance of gender and the feminine than standard Western forms of thought.
The gendered logic of classical Chinese thought with its emphasis on a dynamic relational balance and transformative reversibility between the categories of the masculine and the feminine is distinguished from rationalizing Western tendencies that either essentialize social-cultural gender roles as an unchanging natural fate determined by “natural” biological sex or conceal gender under the guise of masculine-oriented claims to a non-gendered universality and neutrality.
Chinese sources such as the Daodejing (《道德經》) attributed to Laozi (老子), the Yijing with its earlier origins in the Shang (商) and Zhou (周) dynasties, and yinyang (陰陽) thinking have become part of the contemporary reassessment of gender and feminist arguments about the gendered character of the underlying logic of modern societies.
The ecofeminist Jytte Nhanenge, for instance, utilized these three Chinese models of gendered thinking in formulating an analysis that links the exploitation of women with the masculine domination of nature that has reached a flashpoint in the contemporary environmental crises of a now globalized Western modernity (Nhanenge, 2011, pp. 71-9).
On the other hand, as feminist critics of Confucianism have demonstrated, essentializing gender has not only been a Western practice. Despite a growing number of ecofeminist and ecological appropriations of Chinese models of gender and nature, the gendered logic of classical Chinese thought has been criticized as a potentially problematic basis for rethinking gender and the roles of women insofar as it has been complicit with, or motivated, the exploitation of women and the domination of nature in traditional East Asian societies.
The greater awareness of gender and the feminine in classical Chinese thought does not necessarily entail actual gender equality and fairness.
Customary Chinese models of understanding gender have been questioned to the extent that dominant Chinese traditions appear to hierarchically privilege the male (nan 男) over the female (nu 女), yang 陽over yin 陰, and active masculine heaven (tian 天) over passive feminine earth (di 地).
Masculine and feminine phases are not dualistically separated into opposites, as the expressions tiandi, yinyang, or nannu indicate; yet they are not seen as equal in the normative hierarchical accounts of Confucianism and in the prioritizing of the feminine and maternal in the Daodejing.
According to critics, the gendered and familial logic of masculine and feminine oriented expressions serves to reproduce a patriarchal and patrilineal socio-cultural order that encourages the role-defined recognition and subordination of women and the elements of nature identified as feminine.
One way of responding to these two apparently incompatible understandings of gender in Chinese culture, which emphasize either interactive mutuality or stratified hierarchy, is to offer a less essentialist and more differentiated account of the variety of roles gender can play within Chinese and other Confucian cultures.
There is no one meaning of gender in Chinese culture just as there is no one essence to what it means to be Chinese.
A strategy that has been developed by a number of authors, which is also adopted in this essay, is to show how mutuality and reversibility continue to resonate in the context of the stratified and hierarchical interpretations that come to dominate through the Confucian tradition.
Accordingly, the initial hexagrams of the “creative” (qian 乾) and “generative” (kun 坤), or heaven and earth, that inaugurate the Yijing retain traces and indications of their basic mutuality and reversibility, as modalities of one autopoietic and generative dance-like reality, despite their increasingly hierarchical stratification into opposites through Confucianizing male-oriented interpretations such as the “Great Commentary” (Yi Dazhuan 《易大傳》).
Unlike the earlier strata of the Yijing, this commentary identified heaven with height and superiority and the earth with what is naturally lowly and base: “tian (heaven) is high and di (earth) is low (天尊地卑，乾坤定矣)” is construed as a natural phenomenon that entails a social hierarchy between women and men .
While Confucianizing interpretations transformed the Yijing from a work of divination into one that inspires ethical reflection and natural philosophical inquiry, they masculinized the text by transforming the generative into the receptive.
Qian (the creative) and kun (“the receptive”) and the correlational logic of the Yijing are associated with a hierarchical understanding of the paired appearances (liangyi 兩儀) of yinyang. Yinyang is an expression that means the shady and sunny sides of the mountain in its earliest uses and which was introduced and solidified in Confucianizing commentaries.
There is little evidence of yinyang thought in the earlier strata of the Yijing (Redmond et al., 2014, p. 77).
It was only in these subsequent interpretations that qian was identified with yang, masculine power, nobility, height, and ease and kun associated with yin, feminine passivity, ignobility, lowliness, and labor (Wang, 2003, p. 28; Rosenlee, 2006, p. 56).A sense of the infinite primordial generative nature of kun was lost. Later figures such as the early Han dynasty Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒—who played a key role in the Confucian hermeneutic tradition—solidified the identification of yinyang with femaleness and maleness and the five elements (wu xing 五行).
Though Dong recognized mutual resonance and the role of the feminine in constituting the masculine and the masculine in constituting the feminine, he systematized a moralistic interpretation with an entrenched gendered hierarchy.
The Yijing as a changing text and a matrix of practices has multiple meanings inside and outside its East Asian milieu.
Recent historical research and contextualization of its earlier strata reveal a different picture than a static hierarchal order of nature and society; transformation, reversal, movement, generation, fecundity, and fertile interchange are constitutive of the Yijing’s formative process—or “dialectical logic” in a fluid, open, and non-Hegelian sense—in which the polarities of positions are continuously changing as in dance.
The unceasing movement of generativity (shengsheng buxi 生生不息) and reversal, opposition, and return (fan 反) indicates a different understanding of balance and harmony than the reproduction of a static hierarchical binary opposition in feminist appropriations of yinyang thinking.
Robin Wang has noted how yinyang continues to serve a double function in the Chinese tradition: “on the one hand, yinyang seems to be an intriguing and valuable conceptual resource in ancient Chinese thought for a balanced account of gender equality; on the other hand, no one can deny the fact that the inhumane treatment of women throughout Chinese history has often been rationalized in the name of yinyang” (Wang, 2012, p. xi).
Whether this feminine/masculine dialectical play—a dialectic without an encompassing overcoming and synthesis of its elements—in Chinese thought and the significance of the feminine in the Yijing have a critical, ecofeminist, and socio-culturally transformative character are separate questions.
Since the practice of the Yijing is to promote divinatory understanding and/or self-reflection on one’s own present situation, it can be interpreted in relation to ecofeminist questions that stress the links between gender and nature in order to reflect on and respond to our current ecological plight.
The Yijing does not offer one exemplary model or metaphysics of the cosmos.
There are multiple—at least sixty-four—changing models in the Yijing through which to reflectively engage one’s own situation, including one self, society, and natural world. Along with the passive and responsive modalities (ying 應) that it shares with the Daodejing, the Yijing traces appropriate moments (shi 時) in their incipient movement (ji 幾) for responsive activity and intervention in the world. In contrast to the Yijing, the Daodejing arguably indicates one model of thinking about the feminine character of nature.
It emphasizes the maternal fecundity and nurturing dimension of nature as well as a comportment of responsiveness, deferential passivity, and deferment.
It has been argued that this strategy suggests an important way to respond to the activism and aggressiveness of technological modernity and its masculine oriented domination of nature.
However, large scale effortful interventions aimed at maintaining or reestablishing equality and fairness between humans and humans and the balance and harmony between the human and natural worlds are called for; such as are needed in response to gendered inequalities, environmental injustices, and the domination of nature.
The Yijing presents a more extensive basis for reflecting on nature and the ecological crisis insofar as it encourages creatively restoring through both activity and responsiveness the balance between humans and themselves, other humans, and nature.
It does so through a reflective logic that indicates moments of appropriate increased activity as well as moments of deferential letting be. Such appropriate models of activity, informed by receptivity and responsiveness to the emerging incipient situation, are necessary in a situation in which ecological restoration is needed more than minimal activity and non-intervention in a massively degraded environment.
II. A Pre- and Post-Patriarchal Book of Changes?
The Yijing has itself changed almost as ceaselessly and radically as the change it describes.
In this section, I will offer an overview of gender and gender-related issues in the long historical and interpretive development of the Yijing, and consider its possible pre- and post-patriarchal elements.。
The Zhouyi 《周易》, the Changes of Zhou, is one of the oldest documents from ancient China along with the Book of Documents and Book of Odes.
The Zhouyi—the oldest strata of the Yijing—is a record of divinations (bu 卜) about war, travel, sacrifice, marriage, and death.
It concerns the significant affairs of daily life, including the relations between women and men, the changing natural seasons, and the movements of the heavens above.
The earlier strata of the text make descriptive rather than prescriptive statements about women and their roles (Redmond et al., 2014, p. 89).
An early form of divination involved burning animal bones and tortoise shells, interpreting the cracks as signs and indications from the spirits, and leaving brief records inscribed in the oracle bones.
Informed by these archaic bronze-age [brɒnz] divination practices of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, the Yijing 《易經》, the Book of Changes—anachronistically associated with the legendary sage ruler Fu Xi (伏羲) and later cultural heroes such as the founder of the Zhou dynasty King Wen (文王)—gradually emerged.
The divination practices of the Zhou should be understood in relation to those of the Shang dynasty.
There is evidence for the prominent role of women in divination during the Shang period.
Remnants of divination practices record the significance of aristocratic woman in early Chinese social life.
One intriguing example is the Shang dynasty consort and military leader Fu Hao (婦好) whose tomb was excavated at Yinxu (殷墟) near Anyang (安陽) in 1976年.
Fu Hao was a frequent object of divination (e.g., her health, dreams, and battles) and she herself is recorded as leading sacrifices and divinations (Haapanen, 2002, pp. 11-2).
The case of Fu Hao reveals the importance of women in the early practice and understanding of divination in China, an understanding that continues to resonate in later masculinized periods.
The emergence of the Yijing included the introduction of the eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams that were said to be drawn from the patterns of heaven and earth and which are used to interpret the casting of the yarrow stalks.
According to tradition, it was King Wen who added the judgments and made the 64 hexagrams out of the 8 trigrams (Marshall, 2002, p. 10).
Each trigram is associated with gender, either feminine or masculine, and each hexagram has a gendered character based on the gender of the trigrams.
Hexagrams can be feminine-feminine, feminine-masculine, masculine-feminine, or masculine-masculine in their composition (Nielsen, 2003, p. 88; Wu, 2003, p. 127).
Gender, encompassing those socially and culturally mediated qualities associated with biological males and females, is formative for interpreting the logic of the Yijing throughout much of its history since the later Zhou dynasty.
The historical strata of the Yijing and its interpretations offer multiple changing models and images of the feminine and the masculine.
The Yijing accordingly indicates a gendered way of thinking of nature, society, and the self that have been understood in hierarchical and non-hierarchical ways.
Despite the later association of the feminine with passivity and the lowly and the masculine with activity and nobility, the hexagrams themselves indicate a more complex and shifting understanding of gender relations beginning with the generative power of the earth (kun).
The lines concerning kun only refer to gender in the image of a mare (pinma 牝馬), which referred to a sacrificial animal and was only later reinterpreted as feminine and compliant.
Kun is not portrayed as weak, passive, or base as later commentators propose: its energy creates and completes the myriad things and sets into play the dynamic transformations of nature, society, and the self that are indicated in the Yijing.
坤 不是对虚弱，被动，低级的描述 不是和后来的评论员们评论的一样：它的能量创造并使神秘事物完整，集中进行了，像易经中描述的那样，在自然，社会和自我中进行的动态转换。
The later normative interpretive tradition highlights how it is the activity of qian that activates passive kun; another understanding stresses how qian only ascends like a dragon to the heavens from out of the infinite generative depths of kun to which it will return or from its dance with kun itself.
This is a dance of attraction between partners and a play of distance and approach without the hierarchical closure suggested in patriarchal interpretations.
Even the heavens, like all things, are born from and require earth for their generation and fulfillment.
The Zhouyi/Yijing is not the sole model of divination in ancient China: “According to the Zhouli 周禮 (Rites of Zhou) in ancient times there were three ancient sources that represented three methods of divining: (1) Lianshan 連山; (2) Guicang 歸藏; and (3) Zhouyi 周易” (Knechtges et al., 2014, p. 1877).
The first “connecting mountains” method was attributed to the archaic Xia (夏) dynasty and associated with Shennong (神農), one of the legendary three founding emperors of Chinese civilization.
He introduced agriculture and is associated with the earth. Lianshan begins with the doubling of the mountain trigram (gen 艮).
The mountain arises from the earth toward the heights and has both sunny (yang) and shady (yin) sides.
The primacy of generative kun itself is found in the divination text “Return to the Hidden” (Guicang 歸藏).
The Guicang was ascribed to the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi 黃帝), attributed to the more feminine-oriented Shang dynasty, which followed the semi-legendary Xia. It was historically thought to be a later forgery until an earlier version was excavated in 1993.
Its hexagram sequence begins with the doubling of the kun trigram, and the early text provides clearer evidence of the power of earth, water, and the feminine than the Yijing.
In the Yijing, the third divinatory approach mentioned in the Zhouli, the constitutive role of the feminine cannot be denied.
The autopoietic generative interplay of nature is distorted if it is understood as the imposition of heaven upon earth or the masculine on the feminine.
In the earlier strata of the Yijing, it is clear that various qualities such as qian and kun can be associated with either women or men.
It is in the Xi Ci 〈繫辭〉commentary that heaven is defined as male and earth as female (乾道成男，坤道成女), even as other passages in the same commentary articulate the generation of the myriad things (wanwu 萬物) from the generative interplay of heaven-earth (tiandi) and male-female (nannu) (天地絪縕，萬物化醇，男女構精，萬物化生) (Xi Ci I, 1.2 and Xi Ci II, 5.12).
In commentaries such as Tuanzhuan《彖傳》1.2, the obedience of earth to heaven and vassals to their lord is emphasized.
Hierarchy has in this context an ethico-political function unrelated to the sexual play of kun and qian that generates the difficult new beginning of the sprouting blade of grass pushing through the earth in hexagram three (zhun 屯) and the subsequent hexagrams.
Confucius himself purportedly added the commentaries that emphasize the moral-political lessons of the Yijing.
The Yijing remained until modernity a political guidebook, even as it continued to be a source for the practice of understanding the present through divination and also for understanding the natural world and human roles within it.
Yijing divination is about interpreting of the present situation and its direction of potential development, so that one can choose the right course of action to maximize the possibility of a beneficial result.
The Yijing initially developed and continued to function as a work of divination.
Because of its interpretive character, it became a primary source for understanding one’s various changing roles in the social and natural world.
The Yijing’s shifting roles, patterns, and identities allows gender to be experienced and re-experienced in multiple ways without one underlying essential structure defining what it means to be male or female. The roles of child, daughter, sister, wife, mother, or elderly woman are relational roles that can be adopted and varied in multiple ways in responsiveness (ying 應) and resonance (gan 感) with shifting polarities, positions, and situations in the generative dance of life.
Basic religious practices of ancient and traditional Chinese culture were sacrifice, geomancy, and divination, which call for interpreting the past, future, and particularly the present.
These religious yet worldly practices inform the sensibility and examples used in classic texts such as the Analects attributed to Confucius and the Daodejing associated with the name Laozi. Practices can be understood as divination based either on their procedural or non-scientific characteristics (Guo, 2012, p. 419). Divination can involve spirits and the supernatural or be “naturalistic” without any appeal to the supernatural or to spirits.
The Yijing is taken in a naturalistic way throughout its history.
In the Analects, one sees the Confucian tendency to reinterpret the religious or supernatural in terms of the ethics of the exemplary person (junzi 君子).
Heaven (tian 天) emerges as the morally sanctioned order of the world and moral action as genuine prayer and listening to heaven’s command.
One should sacrifice to the ancestors as if they are present, because of the importance of sincerity and cultivating a virtuous disposition through the rituals that renew (fu 復) daily life.
Religious rituals become primarily social-ethical, as the secular becomes the sacred (Fingarette, 1972).
A parallel development occurred with the interpretation of the Yijing.
The emphasis turned from interpreting the traces left by ancestral spirits and indirectly the lord on high (Shangdi上帝) to an imaginative reflective encounter with one’s own situation in the context of one’s natural and social world.
In the Zuo Zhuan 左傳, which described events and persons of the 6th century B.C.E. through either proto-Confucian or anachronistic Confucian lenses, some regard divinations as literal but the wise interpret their results in relation to the ethical character and situation of the person such that “success and failure” lies “in the human realm” (Pines, 2002, pp. 86-7, 200-01).
Although the historical reconstruction of the oldest strata of the Zhouyi calls for removing its philosophical and ethical dimensions, the role of the Yijing that is crucial to the development of later Chinese culture and thought stresses cosmology and ethics.
Wang Bi 王弼 (226-249 C. E.) explicated the naturalistic and ethical dimensions of the Yijing, and becomes crucial to this reading for the later tradition. Wang Bi only lived to be twenty-three years old and, during his brief life, edited and wrote commentaries on the Daodejing and Yijing.
Wang Bi is known as a “Neo-Daoist” because of his teaching of the numinous or the “dark learning” (xuanxue玄學) that begins with the mystery of the emptiness of things and proceeds through their self-generative natural spontaneity.
Wang Bi is influenced by Confucianism as can be seen in his eclectic commentary on the Yijing that emphasizes its role as a guide for interpreting the natural world and the moral cultivation of the self and the community.
In Wang Bi’s commentary on the Daodejing, the mysterious or dark female (xuanpin 玄牝), an expression found in Daoist texts associated with Laozi and Liezi 列子, is an image that points beyond words and is an indication of the ultimate.
The philosophy of mysterious or dark learning highlights feminine qualities of flexibility, receptivity, and responsiveness as well as infinite depth and mystery.
Wang Bi associated the Yijing’s kun (the female, the earth, the receptive, the mare) with the primordial emptiness (wu 無) of Laozi and thus recognized the primordial and generative power of the feminine.
Kyoo Lee argues that Wang Bi both recognizes and attempts to tame the feminine in his analysis of Laozi’s “dark female animal” (Lee, 2014, pp. 57-77).
Wang Bi’s understanding of the feminine can be inadequate to its shifting and transformative character in the Yijing; yet his reading provides important clues for imaginatively and reflectively engaging gender and the feminine through the Yijing and feminist and post-patriarchal interpretations of the Yijing.
While Confucius once stated to sacrifice to the spirits as if they were present, Wang Bi comments: “The yarrow stalks respond to questions as if they were echoes.” (Wang Bi, 1994, p. 120).
This Confucian-Daoist synthesis is not uncommon, as it is found throughout Chinese intellectual history; nor is it unusual to see Han Confucians and later Neo-Confucians take the emptiness and receptivity of the way (dao)—and accordingly the openness and generativity of the feminine—as the point of departure for their thinking of nature and the cosmos.
The late Eastern Han dynasty Confucian philosopher Xu Gan 徐幹 (170-217 CE), recognized in his Zhonglun 《中論》 (Balanced Discourses) that the Yijing taught that it is by emptying the heart-mind (xin 心) that one becomes receptive and hence responsive to the incipient transformation of things, others, and one’s own heart-mind (Xu Gan, 2002, p. 51). Emptying the heart-mind signified a return to its openness and responsiveness as well as its naturalness and generative power.
III. Conclusion 结论
At the same time as ordinary popular Confucian culture officially maintained a masculine and hierarchical attitude, elements within Confucian philosophy point toward the importance of the feminine in experiencing and conceptualizing the world.
These pre- and non-patriarchal elements indicate the possibility of, and they can be used to reconstruct, a post-patriarchal philosophy of the Book of Changes.
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