Daoism and Cct

Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Have women exercised leadership among Daoists?

One of the most famous libationers was a woman named Wei Hua Cun (251-334 C.E.). Her rank as libationer apparently indicates that she originally belonged to the Celestial Masters school. Some regard her as a foundational figure in the Shang Qing sect. She is perhaps most famous for having appeared posthumously on many nights over a six-year period to reveal to a certain Yang Xi the sacred texts of the Shang Qing sect. Those texts consist mainly of liturgical ritual. Throughout its long history, the Celestial Masters school has allowed women into the lower rungs of its ritual hierarchy, up to but not including that of Celestial Master itself. Another school, called “Pure Rarity” (qing wei), is said to have been founded by a woman named Zu Shu in the early tenth century. Centered on a thunder deity, the sect blended elements from the Ling Bao, Shang Qing, and Celestial Masters schools. There have been many priestesses over the centuries, and a celibate community of women maintain a temple in Kaoshung, Taiwan.

Hagiographical sources are extant on a number of holy women of ancient times. They make it clear that women who preferred to pursue the spiritual life rather than devote themselves to family risked almost certain disapproval. Even so, it seems that some women were associated with religious orders. Sun Bu Er (1119-1182) and her husband were both ritual specialists in the Perfect Realization order, and she founded a new division of the school dedicated to the religious education of women. A selection of her writings in translation is available in Thomas Cleary’s Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women. A sect associated especially with the Red Turbans is popularly called San Nai, “Three Ladies,” evidently so named to honor a trio of priestesses about whom little else is known. As has often been the case in other religious traditions, many Chinese women have found possibilities for active leadership and ministry more often outside the institutional structures than within.


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