Decentering Critical Theory of the Body

In traditional Chinese philosophy, pondering ultimate questions of existence has always been intertwined with thinking through the body. Many early Chinese texts illustrate how the natural world itself is conceived of primarily as a quasi-human organism. The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (Huangdi Neijing; 111 CE) gives an account of the human body participating in the same categorical structure (xianglei 相類) as heaven, earth, and the myriad things; the pattern of human pathology is the same pattern as the changes of heaven and earth; human biological rhythms should change according to the rhythms of heaven, earth, and the four seasons. The human body partakes in the shape and logic of the cosmos and can the express the entirety of cosmic generations and changes. One such motif for understanding cosmic change is the figure of yinyang, female and male entwined in a single co-constituting process. Depicted as a circle ☯ in which black and white, yin and yang, merge into each other, it is the pre-eminent symbol of Daoist philosophy, culture, and religion.

Like all phenomena in nature and all things under heaven the human body can be classified according to its characteristics as either yin or yang (Wang 2012). Thus woman/female/femininity and man/male/masculinity are naturally identified within a broader cosmological matrix of yin and yang. The problem of gender in the Chinese context is interpreted through this lens, and the motif of yinyang has been a conceptual, cultural, and historical frame for constructing gender relationships throughout Chinese history. Furthermore, this figure has been extended into Chinese medical anthropology, where it functions as a dynamic of circulation and transformation of energy. In this sense yinyang is more than a simply binary, but more a model for organic transformation that lies at the heart of Daoist thought.

Hall and Ames (2001) have argued that while Western sexism tends to be dualistic, with gender construction reflecting institutional male dominance, sexism in traditional China was “correlative” with interdependent, complementary aspects like yin and yang, earth and heaven, inner and outer. This, in turn, provided a discursive space that allowed women a great range of opportunity. This view implies that the yinyang gender outlook might offer a conceptual foundation for the equality between men and women. However, in Chinese practice we encounter a much deeper and more practical puzzle: on the one hand, there are intriguing and valuable conceptual resources for a balanced gender equality in ancient Chinese thought, in particular based on the yinyang structure; on the other hand, no one can deny the fact that the inhumane treatment of women throughout Chinese history was exercised under the notion of yinyang. These two conflicting empirical observations have also been reflected in divisions in the scholarship. Rosemont (1997) claims that the concept of yinyang can be the primary source for understanding Chinese gender identity and that it has much to offer contemporary feminist thought. Woo (1999) argues that the denigration and abuse of women in traditional China is a direct result of yinyang idea. A historically nuanced and philosophically acute treatment of this issue shows that there is rich evidence for both sides of the debate.

This research theme will thus investigate three main issues at hand in yinyang body/gender dynamics: (1) the sex and gender debate; (2) the integration, transformation and queering of the boundary between man and woman; (3) the tension between diversity and creativity of the individual and the social structure. Thus yinyang theory becomes a link for the cross-fertilization between the more abstract fields of philosophy and cosmology and the concrete struggle of body and gender dynamics, leading to a pervasive scheme for a better understanding of body and gender issues in a global setting.

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