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Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Religion | Social and Cultural Anthropology


This chapter demonstrates that Taiwanese Buddhist nuns resist the limitations of traditional Han gender ideologies by drawing on opportunities offered within those traditional gender constructions—opportunities that allow them to define themselves in opposition to the limited female gender characteristics and roles they reject. Crane argues that we should not interpret these nuns' masculine identification simply as resisting dominant Han gender ideologies. Instead, the nuns embrace the traditional, sexist Han ideologies, even to the point of exaggeration—portraying women not only as dangerous to the spiritual cultivation of others, but also of limited spiritual ability. They define the negative characteristics of women as stemming from the roles that they have within the family, and having freed themselves of these familial roles in order to become nuns, define themselves as quite different from women who exhibit these negative characteristics. As these nuns are informed by other aspects of traditional Han gender cosmology, particularly by their conceptualization of genders as correlative rather than binary, changing gender is relatively easy for them.

In analyzing the nuns' statements about their gender change as well as their repeated references to religious, historical and mythical figures who change from women to men and serve as role models for the nuns, Crane draws on the works of historians, philosophers, and anthropologists to show that in the correlative model, genders are fluid and defined by the embodiment of the yin and yang analogy. A female in a yang position becomes, for all intents and purposes, a man. In this way, the nuns are able to imagine themselves as men in every way that is spiritually important and reject the female constraints they perceive as hingering their religious progress. This correlative gender model provides the possibility for a woman to imagine herself to be a man, provided she adheres to certain rules and has certain statuses. In this model, gender is related (but not affixed) to the sex of one's body and is more accurately thought of as a product of one's relationships than as a description of what one truly is.

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Original Citation

Hillary Crane
Resistance through transformation? The meanings of gender reversals in a Taiwanese Buddhist monastery.
In Women and gender in contemporary Chinese societies: Beyond Han patriarchy, edited by Shanshan Du & Ya-chen Chen
2011, pages 185-200, Lexington Books: Lanham, MD



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