16 An Unfamiliar Outlook: The Partnership of Ecofeminism and Daoism
Hi there! My name is Ashlyn Hu and I wrote my chapter when I was a Junior at Ohio State. During my time at this University, I studied Environmental Policy and Decision-making with a specialization in Policy and Governance. At the time I was coming up with a topic for my chapter, I had just accepted an internship at Environmental Defense Fund’s China program. This opportunity, along with my interest in religious studies, sparked my decision in exploring Daoist philosophy and its interconnections with Ecofeminism, which was an area I wished we had discussed more about in class. Throughout the time of my research, I began to realize more and more that I have incorporated aspects of Daoist ecofeminist philosophy into my own life, regardless of my religion. I hope that in reading my chapter, readers can identify with the Daoist ecofeminist thought through their own spiritual journey with the natural world.
It’s not clear how many Daoist ecofeminists are in the world, but I think I may be one of them. Though I was raised as a Baptist Christian, I have found the insights of Daoism, the predominant religion of the homeland of my family, and ecofeminism, the perspective that centers women’s relationship to nature, as complementary to my Christian faith and concern for the environment. I have been able to incorporate this philosophy into my life and found that they are interrelated. My interest in these thoughts was partly sparked by applying to the China Program summer internship with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which piqued my interest in learning more about Chinese cultural beliefs. Daoism has played a huge role as a philosophy within Chinese culture for thousands of years, and I am interested in ecofeminism because it is a topic that strongly resonates with me being a woman and its relation to the earth. As someone who grew up having a spiritual and personal relationship with the natural world, I find that many of my values align with the Daoist ecofeminist perspective.
As it turns out, I got the position at EDF, and perhaps not surprisingly, Daoist Ecofeminism was not a focus of the program or of my work, but I remained intrigued. Notably, my research led me to get in contact with several ecofeminist Daoist scholars who shared their personal perspectives of integrating Daoist and ecofeminist practices into their own lives.
Originating in China, the traditional religio-philosophy, Daoism, has been around since the 6th century BCE and continues to shape Chinese values. Daoism and ecofeminism interrelate on several key ideas. Daoism acts as a support for ecofeminist analysis against Western dualism. With the Dao’s emphasis on non-dualist and cosmological ways of thinking, it aligns with ecofeminist thought as a transformative philosophy. Keeping in mind that unification and cooperation are central to ecofeminist ideology, ancient Chinese philosophy is amenable to the incorporation of ecofeminist scopes to introduce a more holistic approach to environmental and social issues. Since ecofeminism and Daoism are transformative philosophies, they provide more perspective on how the relevance of both can lead to a more integral path to global environmental ethics.
Ecofeminism has been around since the mid-19th century. The term began to rise after ecofeminist, Francoise d’Eaubonne published her book, Feminism or Death. The main discussion within the novel was that both the environment and women shared a commonality: Both are oppressed in Western patriarchal society. Nature is subjugated to anthropocentrism while women have to live in an unfair, androcentric world. With that being preached in the novel, it was also emphasized that there is a clear connection between the liberation of women and the liberation of the environment. The destruction and unfair treatment of both is evident within profitable incentives and gain.
It is important to understand that ecofeminism contains the goal of having a transformative philosophy. Similar to Daoism, there is a critique of dualistic frameworks such as female/male, materialist/spiritualist, and nature/nurture. From a feminist perspective, these comparisons are seen as masculinist. The ecofeminist argues that one always seems to overarch the other because one is seen as more desirable. This is seen to be the push behind certain social constructs and structures, where one is deemed superior, which often allows for oppression. However, a more important concern of ecofeminism is the transformation of beliefs and the self, leading to a transformation of how we act in this world. Regardless of whether it has to do with one’s spirituality, political beliefs, culture, or personal values, ecofeminism has a commitment to a transformative process that ultimately moves us to a non-dualist way of thinking. Though ecofeminism generally focuses more on gender distinctions, it also focuses on how that aids in obtaining an equilibrium between humanity and the natural world. This is where the Daoist religio-philosophy plays a crucial role in providing a framework for the concept of transformation in ecofeminism.
It is necessary to explore ancient Chinese Daoism philosophy and its prevalence in Chinese culture before understanding the role it plays in ecofeminist analysis. The religious and philosophical thought of Daoism has been embedded in Chinese culture and way of life for around 2,000 years. A French Daoist, Lindenblith Franck states, “The spirit of Daoism is full of tranquility with a very gorgeous and profound culture” (citation). Daoism has a very harmonious and euphoric stance on nature and all other aspects of life. It underlines the concept of co-existence and the awe nature enraptures. According to the sacred text, Tao Te Ching, “Tao engenders One, One engenders Two, Two engenders Three, Three engenders the ten thousand things.” (Laozi via Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, 2001). This excerpt underlines how Dao does not centralize itself and does not compete for superiority. Daoism’s philosophy welcomes a more holistic perspective instead of falling into the arena of centrism. Holism is a key focus in Dao, especially when relating to ecology and the natural world. It goes against anthropocentrism and a dualism that pits opposing binaries against each other. From an ecofeminist focus, the binaries would be male and female.
The harmonious and pleasant attitude towards nature is demonstrated within traditional Chinese life. The euphoric characterization of nature can be seen in classical Chinese arts such as poetry and stories. Author Lin Yutang writes with an idyllic style to fully capture nature’s essence. Within one of his pieces, My Country and My People, he personifies nature as a female and characterizes nature’s gentle and nurturing qualities. Nature is also apparent in personal everyday choices as well. For instance, an observation made in Daoist literature described how women’s dress does not serve to reveal bodily forms, but more-so to “stimulate nature.” It delves into this comparison further when the excerpt states that the Western art of the female form serves as inspiration and demonstrates a “perfected rhythm.” On the other hand, the Chinese arts represent the female body through the inspiration of “nature’s rhythm.” With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that the traditional Chinese mind incorporates a holistic and integrative approach to environmental concerns.
Daoism underlines the idea of becoming one with the way of the universe, where everything is unplanned and natural. The Chinese term ziran is notable within the religion. The word is a literal translation for “so of itself,” or spontaneity and natural. The founder of Daoist philosophy, Laozi, uses the concept of ziran to describe the natural flow of the universe by which we should live. However, this does not mean that the exploitation of the natural world is justified. A central focus of what the Dao preaches is the beauty to nature and harmony. In Daoist sacred text, Tao Te Ching, it says, “…Respect the world as yourself… Love the world as yourself.” (Laozi via Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, 2001). This quote asks us to treat nature with respect instead of dominating and oppressing it. To draw from an ecofeminist view, Laozi refers to the yin/yang and praises the feminine yin’s power. He states that the Dao is the mother of the heaven and earth. Going further into the feminine connotation of nature, “the valley spirit” of Daoism is analyzed as a metaphor for female fertility. This is an instance where Daoist thought links femininity to nature, which is a fundamental notion within ecofeminism. Another excerpt from Tao Te Ching says, “…Tao’s presence in this world is like valley streams” (the metaphor of female fertility), “flowing into rivers and seas” (the male aspect of the process) (Laozi via Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, 2001). This highlights the bigger idea of non-dualist Dao and how that aligns with harmonious and complementary relationships with all things.
Daoist thought places emphasis on the integral approach to unity and peace. The well-recognized yin/yang symbol represents this idea of a harmonious non-dualism in Daoism philosophy. The yin/yang offers an illustration between two binaries that serve as complementary instead of seeing them as unequal. The symbol represents an interconnectedness and balance found in all things. A way of observing the yin and yang would be that it illustrates two mountains differing in the way they are lit, due to the sun’s movement. This supports the idea that the binaries complement each other towards one process of development. In other words, there is no stronger emphasis placed on one of the two pairings. It has even been said that the Chinese tradition can be seen as representing an androgynous ideal. There is an example that perfectly explains this Daoist thought: A woman who is an employer has to tap into the yang in relation to her employees. This same woman who is also a wife, may touch upon the yin towards her husband. Both yin/yang can be utilized in both wife and employer depending on the specific activity. The symbol goes against essentialism and absolutism with androgyny bridging between ecofeminism and a holistic yin/yang perspective. With this attitude, ecofeminism can be led out of Western dualistic limitations and into transformative liberation.
The strive toward harmony is definitely a point that interconnects ecofeminism and Daoism. From relationships between humans or between humans and nonhumans, it is rooted in ecofeminism that harmony be established within society. To get to this, the idea of transformation is emphasized and is prevalent within classic Chinese texts, such as the Zhuangzi, which supports the goal of ecofeminism. There is a Daoist story within the Zhuangzi that accurately demonstrates what the transformative process entails and the attitude we should uphold while living in this world. A student named Liezi followed the Dao under Master Huzi. However, later he was captivated by a shaman’s impressive abilities. He wanted to learn from this renowned shaman and so he took him to Master Huzi. After several sessions between the three, Master Huzi revealed himself a different way from what the shaman insinuated. Liezi’s humility makes him realize that he did not learn anything from this famous shaman. Liezi goes home and stays there for three years where he begins to develop a humbler lifestyle. Instead of his wife cooking, he cooked. Additionally, he fed his pigs as if he was feeding people. Liezi began to adopt a simpler way of living. This is a transformative representation of Liezi, showing how he lived a life that was driven by socially prescribed desires. By the end he changes into one that intimately connects to all that is around him. The story resonates with the feminine yin area of existence rather than the yang, which previously steered Liezi’s life. In his new way of living, he cooks, feeds, and looks after this new lifestyle which can be perceived as living the life of a traditional woman. Through Liezi’s actions, it is evident that he is revaluing the “feminine space” which represents how he lets go of outside desires and ambitions. By retreating to the home, he becomes self-aware and leads a harmonious existence. For Daoists, this reflects the term of ziran, going back to the idea of natural and spontaneous living. In essence, this story correlates to yin/yang dynamics where both can take form within an individual, regardless of gender and sex. It is this Daoist non-dualism that opens the door to a harmonious transformative life that ecofeminists advocate for.
After digesting the peaceful and unifying focuses of Daoist ideology, one can connect this approach to the ecofeminist standpoint on oppression and dominance. Indeed, the ecofeminist’s main argument is against the oppression of women, however, there are many other incorporations of subjugation that ecofeminism is concerned with. This idea also resonates with the mistreatment of minority groups. Theorists Mary Rogers and Philip Lott look into the “Matrix of domination.” This concept explains how the poor and ethnic minorities experience a similar way of oppression that women face (citation). Similarly, one could correlate this to environmental treatment as well. Daoism comes into play when we go back to the yin/yang symbol. Characterized as androgynous instead of dualistic, the yin/yang carries a wide amount of combinations that lead to a more holistic outlook.
It seems that once one adopts a Daoist philosophy, then the tenets of ecofeminism are more easily integrated and practiced. An ecofeminist, Marti Kheel, describes ecofeminism as a “deep philosophy” that pushes for “an inward transformation in order to attain an outward change.” This same characteristic can be found in Daoism. The Dao is the process of constant change where everything ends up coming together. The inward transformation that results from following the Dao works toward a broader change that Daoism advocates for. Daoism’s message is for us to change fundamentally. On an individual level, this self-transcendence is the inner growth in the way we view the world, leading to how we choose to treat it. It’s the change within our way of treating other people and how we go about our goals. While Daoism does not specify any specific change, it focuses more on the fact that how we transform interrelates to a bigger overall picture. All things are constitutive and interrelate to one another. Within the traditional Chinese philosophy, it evokes messages from Laozi, where feminine frameworks are utilized in metaphors that spur transformation within every individual. It is frequently seen in the world today that the yang portion of the yin/yang is more pronounced. With that said, Daoism is pushing for each person to unlock the yin, where “feminine” behaviors seem more appropriate for environmental protection. According to Daoist thought, it is the yin where characteristics such as caretaker and gentleness reside. This portion of the yin/yang is a key point in Daoist ecofeminism because it paves way for creative and spontaneous change that Daoism delves into, which leads to the very reality ecofeminism aims for.
There are several ways the Daoist ecofeminist philosophy can be linked and applied to real life experiences. After contacting Cindy Minarova-Banjac, one of the authors of “Ecofeminism in a World of BRICS: Opportunities and Challenges,” she was able to share her thoughts on the incorporation of the philosophies in this world. She said, “On an individual level, one could follow the principles of respect for nature, but also resisting (indirectly) against state and corporate environmental destruction.” After speaking with Dr. Rosita Dellios, another author of the journal article, she adds how ecofeminism can say that there needs to be a balance in natural resources being exploited for economic gain. Additionally, Ms. Minarova-Banjac mentions how there is also great potential in expanding the Daoist ecofeminist complement in practice. An idea she mentioned was to organize a Daoist meditation workshop led by female Daoist nuns/priests/other practitioners. Specifically, the workshop could include breathing practices in outdoor spaces. This could give individuals a chance to have an immersive experience within the female Daoist community and can even serve as a spiritual bridge to connect with nature. This seems to be one of many ways to apply Daoist ecofeminist thought into practice.
To better understand how Daoist ecofeminist philosophy can be incorporated into everyday life, I asked Dr. Rosita Dellios, an Associate professor of International Relations at Bond University and one of the authors of “Ecofeminism in a World of BRICS: Opportunities and Challenges,” if she has been able to apply complements between Daoism and Ecofeminism into her own life. Truly, Rosita lives a life where areas of Daoist ecofeminism are emulated. She described to me how she is mindful of the balance between the yin and yang. Providing examples of where this has been resonated within her life, she mentions how this can be practiced while she gardens, cooks or eats out, and in health. Rosita lives harmoniously and immerses herself with nature due to her frequent exposure to forests, mountains, and the sea. Rosita recognizes the importance in revitalizing one’s qi—energy flow—as she does exercise such as Tai Chi, yoga, or even exercises in the garden. Looking at the ecofeminist facet, one can emulate that area when they show confidence in their own feminism, such as embracing the Daoist wu-wei. Appealing to one’s yin, wu wei is a concept that translates to inexertion and welcomes relaxation. For this particular concept, Daoism is highlighting the importance between the balance of the yin and yang, which is the very notion ecofeminists are advocating for. Dr. Yi Chen—a professor who specializes in philosophy, literature, and ethics—highlighted beauty when asked the same question. Agreeing with Rosita’s life attitude, she added that seeing beauty within the world is crucial for ethical decision-making. Keeping in mind that beauty comes from the integration between yin and yang, Dr. Yi Chen explains, “By ‘beauty’ I mean the sensibility towards what we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel; how we are able to open our senses to embrace the wonder of being’s lives, as well as nonliving elements as well.” When asked to draw upon an ecofeminist angle of Daoism, she mentioned love and how ecofeminism can “remind us of our common origin and love for each other.” Dr. Yi Chen’s perception of beauty is similar to novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch who preaches the unselfing, transformative element of seeing beauty in nature.
Dr. Dellios and Dr. Chen provide nice examples of cultivating complementary philosophies in our own lives. Personally, I have been able to apply a Daoist ecofeminist philosophy into my own life. Though I grew up as a Baptist Christian, I have still been able to foster the two philosophies and its complements. Recollecting times where I have connected with the natural world, I realize that beauty acted as a catalyst in helping me embrace the Daoist ecofeminist philosophy. Growing up in a family who loved the outdoors, there were countless hiking adventures and a couple of camping trips. As my father drove my mother and me to areas surrounded by mountains, rivers, fields, and the seaside, it was easy to see the world for its incandescence and splendor. By appreciating and understanding the beauty of Mother Nature and her wonders, I have learned that I can find solace and peace from the natural world. I remember the first night during my stay in Alberta, I found that whatever worries and anxieties I had surrendered to the mountains and the celestial light. The mountains and stars provided a moment of clarity, humility, and liberation for me. They reminded me how small I am along with my worries and problems.
I realized that some of these elements pertain to the Daoist Ecofeminist philosophy and interrelate with my Christian beliefs as well. One of the few biblical accounts I remember the most, is the Genesis creation story. Here, it repeatedly states the series of God’s creations and highlights at the end of each one that He stops and sees that each creation was good. In Bible study, I remember that after analyzing Genesis 1, my Sunday school teacher told us that God wants us to treat His creations with love, care, and respect. This is the very idea Daoist ecofeminism conveys. There is an emphasis on fostering a courteous and harmonious relationship with nature. Drawing from the complement between the philosophies, one would say that tapping into the feminine yin of the yin/yang, unlocks the nurture and care needed to protect the environment. My admiration for the natural world has helped me embrace and apply this philosophy to my own values.
Both ecofeminism and Daoism play a role in environmental ethics. Ethics and morals emerge after one gains a sense of humility that ultimately serves to provide a humbler outlook on how to live life. This new mentality is reflected through a respectful and appreciative attitude towards nature, humans, and nonhumans. As stated in Daoist ecofeminism literature, “…humility acknowledges the limits of human worth within a wider scheme of all things, and the limited potential of human knowledge and action.” (citation). This theme is shown in various tales about Daoist figures who face self-transformation after a sense of humility— usually occurring in a kitchen or in the woods. This ideology really speaks volumes against the social construction of domination and oppression, whether it’s between man and woman, or human and nature. As seen in the story previously told about Liezi, the concept and theme this story provides is what ecofeminists encourage. As the hierarchal structures built between binaries are shed, it opens the window to harmonious balance in everything.
However, within the culture of a power-hungry world, Daoism philosophy can be twisted to advocate for these dominating practices. This is evident within some parts of Chinese culture, where men carry more power over women. However, ecofeminism aims to be the catalyst in the transformative process that changes others to be caretakers to the natural world. The clear analysis and critique ecofeminism pits against oppressive practices is necessary in Daoism’s all-embracing perspective on diversity. But, all of this relies on the spread of transformation in humanity. The Daoist ecofeminist perspective says that in order to appeal towards a global environmental ethic, everyone needs to play their part in environmental protection. Specifically, ecofeminism seeks more support and growth, while striving for a global alliance as well. According to ecofeminist Charlene Spretnak, who researched non-dualist philosophy, ecofeminism’s argument against dualistic patriarchal systems needs to embody pluralism. This helps us understand the “complexity of embodied and embedded existence” and can facilitate self-transcendence process. Daoism’s beautiful perspective on cosmology and nature underlines the ideology Spretnak discusses. It delves into what environmentally ethical decisions to make as a result of a radical transformation of the self. Of course, this is not an easy feat due to the modern era we currently live in. Based on Daoist journals, in order for this process to have a lasting impact on nature, one has to significantly reduce their prioritization of socially constructed modern desires.
The complementary perspectives of Ecofeminism and Daoism lend themselves to a single, holistic perspective on the environment. Not only can the values and ethics being voiced serve to mitigate environmental degradation, but they also enhance the individual consciousness that streamlines ethical decision-making. As stated previously, Daoism underlines that we do not have control over the fate of the earth. Incorporating ecofeminist tones pushes us to develop a humbler mindset that helps make small contributions that ultimately make a difference. This perspective frames the way that I view myself in the world and has been a helpful guide as I think about my relationship with nature. As a Baptist Christian, I feel that Doaist ecofeminsm helps me better understand and practice my religion and its attitudes towards environmental stewardship.
Dellios, R., Bhattaacharyya, A., Minarova-Banjac, C. (2019). Ecofeminism in the World of BRICS: Opportunities and Challenges. Culture Mandala: The Bulletin of the Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies, 13(2).
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