Saturday, October 6, 2012

Buddhist and Taoist Ideals of Chinese Masculinity

Two weeks ago I discussed Confucian ideals of Chinese masculinity and observed that they put extreme pressure on men. Confucian norms of conduct make up the bulk of what I saw in school textbooks in Taiwan while I was living there and in the books my sisters-in-law sent for my children to use learning Chinese. The biggest pressure in textbooks and social commentary is the idea of filial piety. From the first grade on, children memorize the phrase: “Parents support us when we’re young; we will support our parents when they’re old.” Sons, especially eldest and only sons, are exhorted from a young age to study hard and bring glory to their parents and ancestors. It is expected that each generation will do better than the last. 

In practice, though, the Confucian norms are mitigated traditionally by Buddhist and Taoist ideals. Scholars tend to agree that traditional Chinese culture is made up of three strands: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism (Daoism), but in researching my thesis, I did not find any scholarly works discussing Buddhist or Taoist norms for masculinity beyond a book or two on Chinese monasticism. Beata Grant has two interesting books on Buddhist Chinese women, and she discusses how Buddhism opened space in society for women to escape the strictures of Confucian culture. There are no such studies yet on masculinity, but from my observation of the men in the Liu family and their relatives and friends, I have noticed Buddhist and Taoist sensibilities that seem to counter-balance the rigidity of Confucian mores. For example, Confucian men are supposed to be rigid patriarchs, yet both Pa and Yuni have a certain reluctance to physically harm anything, even flies. I have watched them spend over an hour chasing a fly around the house to herd it outside where it would not bother them. When I asked why they did not just swat the pest, they both seemed shocked that I did not understand that one always does one’s best to avoid killing anything. They used the phrase bu keyi sha sheng (不可以殺生), which is Buddhist. If the fly came back to pester them, however, it was usually not so lucky. Yuni is quite adept at catching flies in mid-flight and killing them, when he wants to. 

For the analysis of Buddhist ideals of masculinity in my thesis, I examined two sutras, which were popular in medieval China: the Lotus Sutra and the Vimalakirti Sutra. Both these sutras give instructions for laymen, which are particularly important, as historically, very few Chinese men became monks, due to the Confucian requirement of producing sons to carry on the family name. The Lotus Sutra essentially says that if anyone can learn even four words of the sutra and speak them to someone else, he will be enlightened. Furthermore, laymen should be humble and give alms. In other words, the sutra seems to provide a means of redemption for men who might feel they have failed in their lives. When juxtaposed with the essay “Record of the Thatched Hut on Mount Lu” by Tang Dynasty poet Po Chu-I (Bai Juyi 白居易; translated by Burton Watson in Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life), it seems that after men retired from their careers as imperial officials, they would look to Buddhism as a way of cultivating themselves and, perhaps, of making up for the damage done while they were in the service of the emperor. 

The Vimalakirti Sutra is more imaginative. Vimalakirti is a bodhisattva, who lives in the form of a layman with a wife and children. He behaves impeccably in all his doings. Throughout most of the sutra, he is lying ill on his bed in his small, spare room, and all the various buddhas and bodhisattvas come to visit him. He is able to confound them with his wisdom and to carry them to other buddha-fields with the power of his mind. (One sees where the authors of martial arts novels got the ideas for some of their stories.) I think that stories like the Vimalakirti sutra reinforce the idea that what lies beneath the surface is more important than appearance. It doesn’t matter in Buddhism if you appear poor or ill or relatively powerless; it is what is in your heart that counts. I frequently see such a spirit in Pa. He always keeps on going no matter what the outward circumstances, often by dint of his strength of character and his heart.
Traditionally, Taoism has been another counter-balance to Confucianism. Taoist texts emphasize oneness with nature and going with the flow. Taoists thought that too much learning could be counter-productive. Taoism is also full of yin-yang philosophy. The Tao Te Ching (道德經) exhorts men: “Know the male / But keep to the role of the female / And be a ravine to the empire” (XXVIII, 63).  Taoist men were supposed to be in touch with their feminine side and were supposed to choose to be rustic and humble. One of the highest virtues in Taoism is wu wei (無為,acting without doing). As I mentioned in my last post on masculinity, Pa said he is happy to be balanced by Ma in his marriage. He is also well able to roll with life’s punches. I did not realize how much his worldview is imbued with Taoism until I started studying for my MA. He is not the only male in the family to live by this worldview; most of the men in his generation seem to be attuned to nature and able to go with the flow. 

Indeed, my exposure to Pa and Eldest Paternal Uncle gave me an idea for a paradigm to express traditional Chinese masculinity. I laid out the rudiments of this framework in my final paper for a class on classic Chinese novels in the fall semester of 2011. The key to my framework is two lines from the Three Character Classic (San ci jing 三字經): 

Zuo zhong yong, nai Kong Ji, zhong bu pian, yong bu yi.
(The author of Doctrine of the Mean was Kong Ji; it means balanced and constant.)

From this passage, I noted that an ideal Chinese man should be balanced and constant. I argued that Kam Louie’s wen-wu (literary-martial) binary, Song Geng’s yin-yang binary, and the notion of other scholars that there is a Confucian-Taoist/Buddist or a pragmatic-spiritual binary are all valid descriptions of Chinese masculinity, AND they all apply simultaneously. These binaries are the poles in a multi-dimensional grid among which Chinese men need to find balance. I see their balancing act as not merely balancing a see-saw or balancing a linear binary, but rather one of balancing on an exercise ball. They need to be balanced in a well-rounded, multi-dimensional manner. And in the midst of their balancing act they need to be constant or persistent in certain basic morals: filial piety, loyalty to friends and country, and diligence in their careers. In my paper, I applied this analytical framework to the heroes in five of China’s most important classic novels: Liu Bei of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演講), Song Jiang of Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳), Tripitaka of Monkey (西遊記), Jia Baoyu in The Story of the Stone (紅樓夢), and Ximen Qing in The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅). I will not rehash that analysis here; I did get an A on the paper. 

Instead, I want to describe how I believe this framework is borne out in the lives of Pa and Eldest Paternal Uncle. Neither of them is very literate. The family was blacklisted during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan because Great-grandfather Liu was a Chinese medicine veterinarian and Great-grandmother Liu was a Chinese medicine midwife/pediatrician. The great-grandparents worked with the anti-Japanese resistance movement, treating the fighters’ injuries. This did not go over well with the Japanese, and their sons and grandsons were not allowed to go to school. Great-grandmother Liu taught the eldest son of each of her sons to read; Eldest Paternal Uncle learned to read in this way. When Pa was old enough to go to elementary school, Great-grandmother Liu pushed Grandpa Liu to see if the family could bribe his way in. Pa was the only child in his generation to attend formal schooling. He went to three years of Japanese school, and three years of Chinese school. Great-grandmother Liu oversaw his homework and tutored him. Although neither man was very educated, both respected education and encouraged their children to get as much education as they could. This was their wen (literary) aspect. In their wu (martial) aspect, they excelled at their manual labor. Eldest Paternal Uncle was (he passed away in 2007) an excellent farmer; Pa became a master mason. Among the working class of Taiwan, the phrase I mentioned last time of wen wu shuang quan “perfect in all things literary and martial” frequently is used to refer to someone who can read and write and who has manual skill or dexterity. So for their social class and generation, Pa and Eldest Paternal Uncle were balanced on the wen-wu binary.

The yin-yang binary of Chinese masculinity, as I see it among traditional working class/peasant men in Taiwan, is a combination of patriarchal responsibility with an ability to express emotions, especially grief. Both Pa and Eldest Paternal Uncle were stern patriarchs and took their masculine duties as head of household very seriously. Yet I have seen both of them touched to tears, even to the point of weeping, especially during socially acceptable occasions, such as funerals, or upon hearing of the death or injury of a child. Had they been truly literary men, they would probably have written eloquent poetry. Instead, they allowed themselves the freedom to embrace and express appropriate emotions. But they were balanced; when expressing anger, they shouted a lot, but they never beat women, and I have only seen Pa push or strike a person in self-defense. 

In the Confucian-Buddhist/Taoist binary, of course, the responsible patriarch comes out again. This seems to be the principal yang and Confucian role. In this binary, the diligent patriarch is balanced by a reluctance to harm sentient beings, a harmony with nature, an acceptance of fate, and a sense of humility. Both Pa and Eldest Paternal Uncle followed Confucian mores to work hard to better the family’s fortunes, attempting to make their generation better than the one before it. Yet, they also realized that no matter how hard they labored, they could not control everything. When fate gave Pa an apprentice who cheated him out of everything and forced him into bankruptcy, he did not lose heart. He rallied the family and worked hard to recoup. If Eldest Paternal Uncle had a bad year due to drought, he took it in stride. They did not feel like failures because of life’s setbacks. I do not know if this was because they spent their childhoods under the Japanese occupation with the constant threat of being taken by the Japanese army and sent to fight during WWII. Or perhaps, it is because they grew up as peasant farmers without the benefits of electricity and running water, and so they had deep first-hand experience of living at the mercy of Nature. Maybe it was a combination of both. 

Within their balance, I found Pa and Eldest Paternal Uncle very constant in matters of filial piety; loyalty to family, friends, and country; and diligence in their work. Eldest Paternal Uncle never missed a ritual sacrifice at the family tomb, which is on the ridge above where he lived. Pa always sent him money to ensure that the sacrifice was bountiful. When Eldest Paternal Uncle had a bad year, Pa sent him money (even if his family was tight) and employed his son in Pa’s construction business. When Pa was in bankruptcy, Eldest Paternal Uncle sent rice and produce from his farm to feed Pa’s household. They took their voting rights very seriously, and Pa would discuss politics with Eldest Paternal Uncle to keep him up-to-date on the latest news from off the mountain, so that he could vote intelligently. They were both diligent and did excellent work. 

Because they were peasants, farming their own land and owning their own business, they were able to maintain this traditional masculinity even into the twenty-first century. Pa is extremely comfortable in his masculinity. He does not question his right to rule his household. He does not need to bully the women. He did not do great things, but he feels that he accomplished the important things in life for a man of his class. And so, he expresses pride in what he sees as a life well lived. He is not at all worried about comparing himself to men of the West.

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