Occult gender regimes: the Yin-Yang binary
We shouldn’t be surprised that contemporary occult representations of gender mirrors and reifies the binary oppositions of masculinity and femininity central to western culture. One aspect of this that does interest me is how appeals to non-western cultural concepts are deployed to further legitimise this regime. An example of this tendency is the popular assertion that women = yin (receptive) and men = yang (expansive). This is a few notes on the yin-yang binary to kick off a series of posts examining how gender is represented in contemporary occult discourses.
In popular occult & new age discourses, the Chinese yin-yang binary – often expressed as yin and yang – is often used as a signifier in the reification of the binary gender regime. It is not uncommon to see assertions that yin is “feminine” and yang is masculine, and that this binary pair indicate the inevitability of essential/innate characteristics of men and women, or the belief that men and women consist of masculine and feminine qualia. These are frequently paired with similar oppositions such as light-dark, passive-expansive, etc., and the yin-yang binary is “read” as the union of “opposites”.
Examine premodern Chinese sources and a very different picture emerges. Women and men are not conceptualised in terms of an innate nature or biological beings, but in terms of familial relations. As Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee points out in Confucianism and women: A philosophical interpretation:
“…in the Chinese world, a woman is a “woman” only because she is also a daughter, a wife, and a mother. There are no distinct qualities of “woman” as such.”(p47)
In other words, it is kinship relations that make a person recognisably “man” or “woman” not innate or biological distinctions. In tracing the usage of the yin-yang metaphor, Rosenlee finds its origins in texts such as the Shijing – where it is used to refer to the north and south of hills – a metaphor for light and shade. She highlights the point that yin-yang is “…is a correlative binary, not an oppositional binary in which each negates the other conceptually.” (p51) and goes on to examine how this yin-yang correlative binary is used in Chinese texts. She demonstrates that although yin-yang can be correlated with gender, it is not underwritten by gender, and is in fact, applied at times not only to husband-wife relations, but also hierarchical social relations such as father-son, or ruler-minister – where the ruler is yang and the minister is yin, in relation, for example:
“Instead of seeing the yin and the yang as innate gender traits, the yin-yang binary is merely a placeholder for registering hierarchical, yet at the same time, complementary binaries such as parent-child, ruler-minister, husband-wife, virtue-punishment, and spring-autumn, etc.”(p65)
In summary of her discussion, Rosenlee writes:
“The imposition of the dualistic paradigm onto the yin-yang metaphor is inappropriate and misleading since it not only reduces the Chinese gender construction to two sets of innate gender traits that are contradictory and ontological, but more importantly overlooks the relational aspect of gender that emerges out of kinship roles in the Chinese world. Gender cannot be reduced to the innate attributes of sexed bodies in terms of a feminine yin and a masculine yang, especially in a world where the yin-yang binary is not contradictory, and gender itself is not conceived as an ontological category beyond concrete familial relationality.”(p68)
By the Han period, the yin-yang metaphor increasingly became associated with gender hierarchies. The influential Dong Zhongshu argued, for example, that the equality of two paired elements was impossible, and in his writings he referred to yang as exalted and yin as inferior. Some writers of the period used yin-yang to rail against women’s participation in government and court.
For related discussion of the yin-yang binary in Chinese medicine, see Charlotte Furth’s A flourishing Yin: gender in China’s medical history, 960-1665; also Louise P. Edwards’s Men and women in Qing China: gender in the Red chamber dreams for an examination of gender relations viewed through the famous Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, also Geng Song’s The fragile scholar: power and masculinity in Chinese culture. and Huashan Zhou’s Tongzhi: politics of same-sex eroticism in Chinese societies.
Historical analyses of concepts such as yin-yang are useful, I believe, for a number of reasons. Occult representations of the inevitability of the gender binary are often legitimated through the strategy of asserting that significations from premodern (“traditional”) cultures such as China are “ancient” and further, that they are singular, and unchanging – that they are Universal constants across cultures (or at least found in cultures which are associated with long-standing esoteric “tradition”) and that the (often simplistic) interpretations of them by Westerners are the only ones that “really” matter. Historical examination shows that concepts such as yin-yang not only have meanings which are quite different from western assumptions, but that those meanings were often contested and subject to heterogenous interpretations within a variety of contexts and periods. Appeals to “tradition” in support of maintaining (or at least not questioning) gender representations are often therefore, reductionist and simplistic, as it is often assumed that these regimes are not themselves historical products – the notion that they are representations of “metaphysical” principles which are entirely seperate to physicality and culture.
For me, an interesting question is “How did the Chinese yin-yang binary become so firmly related with male and female deterministic “essences” in western representations?”
Lee Irwin has written a detailed overview of how Daoist Alchemy was introduced to the West – but I haven’t (as yet) been able to find much in the way of examinations of how yin-yang came to be equated with masculinity and femininity. I’m guessing that a strong influence here would be psychoanalytically-informed esoteric theory – as found in the works of Dion Fortune and Jung, for example.
Ying-Yang is often used as a legitimising marker in occult/new age discourse which asserts the inevitability or necessity of balance or equality between men and women – and the related belief that individuals have both masculine and feminine aspects within. The striving for balance or wholeness appears to be a powerful imperative in contemporary western culture – something I’ll return to at another time. What I find particularly interesting though, is when the presumed “necessity” of striving for balance between masculine and feminine elements in the psyche (where the Yin-Yang binary is often used as a symbolic marker) is used to shut down any critique of occult systems of gender representation.