|An Androgynous Visage|
Retracing my romance with the Kuan Yin images, I discovered Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay's book on the Chinese goddess of compassion. They described the historical transformation of a male deity into a goddess. Although theirs was the most comprehensive exploration I had found, I still preferred the androgyne interpretation. These passages were most consistent with my deepest understanding of this ancient Chinese metaphor. Added emphasis appears in red, and my reactions are enclosed in a box: (Note 117)
Chinese mythology in its earliest forms appears to have been neither patriarchal nor matriarchal, but was what Riane Eisler has called gylanic - a world where male and female were equal. Other legends of China reinforce this, as does climbing the oldest and most sacred of the Taoist Sacred Mountains of China, T'ai Shan. All the way up the sacred path leading to the summit of this extraordinary mountain are shrines and statues of the great goddess of the mountain. . . .
Amongst the host of legends about her, one recounts that she and her brother, the Jade Emperor, the rulers of Heaven, descended to Earth on T'ai Shan. Here they brought to life all the creatures and plants, birds and fishes. From this mountain streamed forth life in its multitudinous forms. Last of all, the goddess made human beings. Made them, not gave birth to them, for there seems to be no tradition in China of an earth mother figure. As brother and sister the god and goddess ruled the world from the mountain before ascending again. . . .
The role of women in the sphere of the divine in ancient China, before Confucian values came to influence Chinese society from the fourth century BC onwards, seems to bear out Eisler's vision of the existence of a culture in which men and women were equal. There is no evidence that I have seen to show that any form of matriarchal society existed in China in any major way. Rather, it was a society of equals. This seems to be borne out by the fact that both men and women were considered capable of being shamans - vehicles for communication between the spirit world and the material world. . . .
China would seem to present us with a very different model from that posited by many scholars or explorers of the divine feminine. It posits a world in which male and female deities as well as male and female shamans/religious figures worked together. This continued in some form or another at least until the fifth century BC when the firm hand of Confucian patriarchy began to exclude the feminine and the shamanistic - indeed the whole emotional world was sacrificed to the demands of law, order, filial piety and control. . . .
Yet the deep seated sexism of all patriarchal religions is hard to dislodge. Thus it is that many studies of Kuan Yin in Chinese will stress that she is only in female form because this world is so corrupt and degenerate that this is the only way Kuan Yin can be understood. Those writers claim that once she does leave the world of suffering and struggle and enters Nirvana, she will revert to her male form: 'After considering all divergent views and historical facts, it would perhaps be safe to say that Kuan Yin was a female while on earth but turned a male after ascending to Heaven.' . . .
This creation of a female Kuan Yin was revolutionary. The Chinese took basic ideas surrounding a male deity, albeit an androgynous one with 'feminine' attributes such as compassion, and turned this around to make the deity female. They created entirely new forms of statues, unlike anything which had previously been seen in China, remarkable for their depiction of a gentle, feminine deity. Such revolutionary developments do not drop from the sky! They emerge from interaction with models which supply ideas and stimulus. It is clear that one of the stimuli in the emergence of Kuan Yin's images was the encounter with statues or paintings of Mary. . . .