The Development of a Feminist Religious Consciousness: Women Reclaiming Their Minds and Bodies Through Religion in the Stories of Xu Dishan


In 1973, during turbulent years of social upheaval in the United States, radical feminist Mary Daly (1928-2010) published what is perhaps her most well-known work, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. While the arguments of the book are complex, her driving point is that there is no way for women to achieve liberation within the structures of established religion, particularly Christianity.  She argues that such institutions are founded upon and perpetuate patriarchal forces that manipulate the bodies and minds of women. Such forces mean that “women come to disbelieve in our own powers. The assualts against our ability to Realize our own Presence come from the media, education, all of the professions. Degraded caricatures of women…instill self-loathing, woman-hatred, and terror” (xxiii). The insidious patriarchal structures of established systems, including not only religion but those institutions mentioned above such as media and education, constantly reinforce to women their inferiority and their failings. Daly believes that in order for women to achieve what she calls “Be-ing,” a total awakening of the self’s potential and capabilities, they need to completely break away from society. The patriarchy is too far embedded for women to stage a successful war against it from within mainstream social structures (xiv-xvii).

She rejects all of the Judeo-Christian religions because they center around the word “God,” which is connotative to most in those faith traditions of a male deity. It is hopeless to expect to ever be truly liberated, Daly contends, in a system where the ultimate reality of our existence is conceptualized as an unchanging male. In this paradigm, male-ness will always be the principle attribute toward which people and society will want to strive. She therefore calls for a new method of conceiving ultimate reality, or in other words a new religion. The term introduced above, “Be-ing,” is her replacement for the term “God,” a play on the use of “being” as a noun to connote a living or religious entity. Daly adds the  hyphen in order to emphasize instead the word’s meaning as a verb. That is, women will only be liberated if they conceive of their ultimate reality as the ongoing process of existing and developing their full potentials. Liberation cannot occur if they continue their misguided efforts to develop some kind of female power and authority in a system where the ultimate reality is, conversely, simply a static and unchanging male figure (xvii-xx). Because of this, they must break apart from mainstream society and form their own community, what Daly terms a “sisterhood,” completely separate from anything related to men (xxvi-xxix). Furthermore, she explains that this “Be-ing” and sisterhood must occur in a biophilic context. Because existing frameworks driven by the patriarchy invoke in women self-loathing and other self-directed negative emotions, only by breaking from the structures of mainstream society can women develop a love of their bodies, which is naturally a necessary component of coming into “Be-ing” (xiii).

As the heyday of the radical Feminism of the 1970s in the United States recedes ever farther into the past, Daly’s work has come to appear dated, and not without reason. It is riddled with concepts that, while they may have been appealing in the 1970s, stand out immediately as problematic to the contemporary reader. Most of these merge into one central concern—to portray women as totally powerless to change their situation within the existing social and cultural institutions of the human race, to suggest that all they can possibly do is to start a new social system, is still to portray them as in some respect weak and manipulable. It is to suggest that the patriarchy Daly detests so much has won, and is totally insurmountable by women. Of course, this is Daly’s precise point, but it is not a very flattering one to members of the female sex.

Notwithstanding Daly’s extremist solution, the contemporary reader may nevertheless feel that she is correct in pointing out a significant problem, one that is as relevant today as it was when she wrote her book. Religion continues to come under critique regularly for promoting beliefs and practices that condescend to and are sometimes even hostile to women and their bodies. Yet, despite this reality, many women continue to join the ranks of various religions. In the face of this apparent incongruity, it is pertinent to recall what Daly has pointed out and to question whether it in fact ever can be possible to achieve “Be-ing” from within such male-centric institutions.

It is useful, in asking such a question, to turn to three short stories of Chinese Republian-era author Xu Dishan [许地山] (1893-1941), in which each one of the female protagonists experiences an epiphany that resembles Daly’s “Be-ing,” all in conjunction with some form of religious belief or education. As an author whose female characters outwardly seem to defy Daly’s conclusion that such coming into “Be-ing” is impossible within a religious framework, Xu Dishan’s stories address the particularities of how such a transformation might be achieved within the boundaries of a male-centric system. I will examine three of Xu Dishan’s short stories in particular, which include “Birds Fated For Each Other” [命命鸟] (1921), “The Merchant’s Wife” [商人妇] (1921), and “Yü-Kuan” [玉棺] (1939).[1]  As the first two stories and last story respectively that Xu Dishan wrote, they have been chosen for this analysis because they are his most well-known fictional works.[2]

Incidentally, the choice to use Xu Dishan’s work as an aid to resolving the dilemna of how a woman is to achieve “Be-ing” within a male-dominated institution also addresses another concern of Daly’s work. Scholarship has tended to move away from making vast generalizations about a given group of people worldwide, such as all women everywhere, in the way that Mary Daly does. There is a greater focus on the particular today, a greater awareness that to generalize is generally to impose Caucasian, middle-and-upper-class, Western lived experience onto people throughout the world who do not fit into one or more of those categories. At the beginning of her work, Daly exclaims that because women are universally oppressed, her book speaks for all of them (1-2). However, there is little denying that a common woman from a village in rural China, were she even able to read Daly’s book, which is unlikely, would probably not have the slightest clue as to what Daly was talking about.

Furthermore, though she makes it clear that her argument applies to all structured religion, she only specifically addresses Judeo-Christian faiths. Her critique of the use of the word “God” as center makes no sense when applied to non-Western religions such as Daoism, Buddhism, and so on. This clearly weakens her claim that her book speaks for all women everywhere. [3] An important side effect of using a Chinese author to thus re-examine and re-work Daly’s conclusions about the relationship of women to religion is thus that the comparison enables the conceptualization of this relationship to encompass at least one group of people in addition to elite, Caucasian Western women—in this case, two Fujianese peasants and one native of Burma.

The female protagonists in each of Xu Dishan’s short stories—Minming, Xiguan, and Yuguan, respectfully—all experience distinct awakenings that reveal to them the cause of their suffering and oppression. Through these semi-religious experiences, the three women come into a fuller understanding of themselves and their potentialities, and begin to lead independent lives free from the control of males. In fact, their religious experiences frequently allow them to exercise authority and power over males that they would not have been able to without such a background. In short, they seem to exemplify the very supposed impossibility that forms the premise of Daly’s theory. Though in each case male-centric forces, whether religious or otherwise, initially attempt to work upon and manipulate the bodies and minds of these three women, they nevertheless seem able, through their exposure to religion, to transform themselves and come into “Be-ing.”

 The female characters in his stories achieve this not by succumbing blindly to the tenets of religion imposed on them, but rather by using religion as a framework off of which to develop their “Be-ing.” Religion provides a venue through which, unexpectedly, they learn to take control of their own minds, thusly enabling them to exert agency over their own bodies as well. Religion gives these women a space in which to begin to develop independently for the first time their religious consciousness, or in other words their cosmological philosophies and worldviews. Developing such complex inner lives, the three women in question cannot be bothered with the limitations imposed on them in society. Their minds occupied with higher-level questions and their capabilities made clear to them through the very act of formulating such individual worldviews, they simply ignore and thus overcome the attempts of men to control and regulate them from the outside. In this way, through the reclamation of their minds, these three women reclaim their bodies as well.

The most important point to highlight in all of this is that Xu Dishan’s female characters do not find the key to “Be-ing” within religion, but rather selectively pick and choose certain aspects of the religious experience to use as tools in developing their self-awareness. Perhaps this, then, is the key to achieving “Be-ing” within the realm of male-dominated structures, as opposed to outside of them. Xu Dishan’s female characters do not blindly accept what is taught them, but rather determine which aspects of religion are most useful in guiding them along their own, highly individualistic, paths of self-discovery. In essence, the female characters in Xu Dishan’s stories do not allow their identities to be assimilated into some mass identity of a given religious group, but rather maintain highly individualized paths of self-actualization.

The Stories Under Examination

 “Birds Fated For Each Other” is the story of two lovers, Minming and Jialing, whose parents do not want them to marry. Minming’s father wants her to devote her life to helping him in his acting troupe, while Jialing’s father wants him to become a Buddhist monk. Although the young couple initially plots to run away and defy their parents, Minming has a Buddhist revelation in which she finally truly understands that everything in the world is an illusion, including her love for Jialing. She convinces him that they should commit suicide in order to reach Nirvana more quickly, and thus the two of them jump into a lake and drown together at the end of the story. In “The Merchant’s Wife,” Xiguan is sold by her husband, who has remarried, to a merchant from India. There, she gradually begins to become educated, first by her new husband’s third wife and eventually on her own. After her husband dies, she runs away and begins to lead an independent life. Finally, “Yü-Kuan” is almost the entire life story of the title character, who works for Christian missionaries in order to support her son but struggles internally throughout her career with discerning what religion she truly identifies with.


 “Birds Fated For Each Other”

            The story “Birds Fated For Each Other” opens with an image of the main character Minming sitting reading the Eight Noble Truths of Buddhism, while the golden light of the sun washes over her—the narrator uses language that specifically describes various parts of her body, such as her face and hair, as tinted gold (1). Right away, the story opens with an idealized image of a woman educating herself on religious doctrine, her body bathed in golden light to connote the noble nature of the act in which she is engaging. Despite this initial display of agency, Minming’s father later tries to dupe her into falling out of love with Jialing by hiring someone to enchant her, in what is clearly a display of male powers conspiring to suppress Minming’s natural desire. Though she finds out and resists, she appears helpless to do anything about the fact that her father is unwilling to let them marry (8-9). However, immediately after unsuccessfully confronting her father about his plans to secretly enchant one of her possessions to control her body and feelings, she stumbles into a prolonged and vividly-detailed Buddhist vision, in which she comes to understand the illusory nature of earthly sentiments such as love (10-13). The sheer length of this episode, combined with the narrative’s impressively meticulous description of what Minming sees, indicates the significance of this experience to her spiritual development.

In fact, her religious mentality seems totally transformed. She returns to reality convinced of the need to commit suicide in order to reach Nirvana more quickly, a decisive action which enables her to break free of her father’s attempt to regulate her mind and body (16). It is important to note, however, that her decision to commit suicide is not strictly Buddhist—though not as automatically condemning of suicide as Christians, Buddhists normally also discourage the act (Keown). Minming’s decision exposes her naivete, but it also exposes that her “Be-ing” is not exclusively religious. Rather, the “Be-ing” she experiences in the wake of the vision, in which she frees herself from the fetters of her father by ending her life, is intensely personal. Though she has fallen short of obtaining “Nirvana” in a religious sense, she reaches a true awareness of her own inner feeling, via a Buddhist vision, that ending her life is better than allowing it to be constrained by her father. She thus does not achieve “Be-ing” in the way that a Buddhist achieves “Nirvana,” but rather uses Buddhist tools to come to her own, individual perspective.

It may seem drastic and uncalled-for that the only way for her to escape her father’s tyranny is to kill herself. Her solution invites the question of whether or not escape from male control via suicide is really a symbol of freedom, as opposed to simply a reflection of Minming’s lack of options. However, a close analysis of the passage reveals that as she prepares for her death, Minming is calm, happy, and assured that she is doing what she should in order to achieve Nirvana. As Jialing spies on her praying in preparation for her passage to the next world, the words he overhears all concern Minming’s genuine desire to grow spiritually in the next realm, and to leave the illusions of this material world behind. Not once does she utter as much as one word about her father and his scheme (15-16). These pre-suicide prayers therefore prove that Minming does not conceptualize of her parting as a last resort to avoid the control of her father—in fact, her father’s attempts to regulate her mind and body are far from her thoughts as she rejoices in what she thinks of as her imminent reunion with the Buddha.

Her religious piety is so great that Jialing is persuaded to bound over to her from his hiding spot and plead to let him come with her (16). Minming, whose laughing demonstrates that she is in nowhere near a disturbed state of mental health, inquires, “You want to leave together with me; are you sure that you are not just world-weary?”[4] Jialing replies emphatically, “I am not world-weary. Because you are leaving, I am willing to leave together with you. You and I are inseparable. If you go there, I also go there” (16). Minming’s genuine religious fervor is so powerful that, in a reversal of stereotypical gender roles, it persuades Jialing to do whatever it takes to remain with her for the rest of eternity. It stems from her own independently-evolving religious consciousness, and to suggest that it has anything to do with her petty conflict with her father is to diminish its importance in her eyes. Additionally, the fact that Minming wants to double-check that it is not because Jialing is depressed that he wants to leave the present world indicates that she is also not leaving the earthly world for this reason. She is going through with her plans completely of her own volition, and not because she feels that it is her only option other than obeying her father. It is thus possible for her suicide to represent her fully-actualized religious consciousness, however far off it may be from the actual practice of Buddhists, rather than simply a desperate, last-resort attempt to escape the clutches of her father. It is the ultimate act in which Minming proves her control over her mind and body.

“The Merchant’s Wife”

In “The Merchant’s Wife,” the masculinist controls working on Xiguan’s body and mind are obvious. When she travels of her own will to Singapore to see what has become of her husband, he punishes her for this act of bodily agency by selling her as a wife to a Muslim Indian merchant without her knowledge (42-45). The reduction of her body to a mere object to be exchanged between men indicates the complete lack of control Xiguan exerts over her own person. Furthermore, the Indian merchant, Ahuja, forces Xiguan to forsake her own culture by dressing like a Muslim Indian woman, practicing Islam, and going by an Indian name instead of her own (45). In imposing upon her body and identity as though she were simply an object for him to dress to his satisfaction, Ahuja symbolizes the masculine institutions that inscribe themselves upon the bodies of women in Daly’s theory.

However, like Minming, Xiguan too has her moment of self-awakening. While the main females in each of the three stories all have distinct moments of coming into “Be-ing,” Xiguan’s epiphany is the only one that is related to religion neither directly nor indirectly. In Xiguan’s moment of transformation, she looks up at a lone shining star in the sky and remembers that Ahuja’s third wife had once informed her of it, “…that star was the transformation of a woman who had been a siren good at bewitching men…” (48). While Xiguan’s revelation is not as explicitly religious as the other two, it does still involve interaction with some kind of higher entity or power, since there had to be some force responsible for the siren’s transformation into the star at which Xiguan gazes. It is reasonable to argue that the very concept of a siren actually reinforces stereotypical gender roles, giving women power over men only through their highly sexualized bodies. Xiguan demonstrates no concern that this star might represent sexual objectification, though—indeed, her tone in describing it is filled with nothing but admiration. Thus, its message to her must be seen as empowering—it inspires Xiguan as proof of the capability of strong women to exert power over men, overturning the social constraints that restrict them in the process. The conclusion of her musing on the star is her decision to become a financially independent woman, freed from dependence on any other living person.

As she tells her story to the narrator, who is male, she only hints at her religious experiences a few times. To begin with, she discusses the teachings she received both in Koran studies and in Bengali and Arabic by her Indian husband’s third wife, Akolima, during the years she lived in his household (45-46). This transferral of religious knowledge from woman to woman, without any male intermediary, in itself reveals the empowering ability of religious understanding. In this intellectual and spiritual exchange, the two women are both able to develop their religious consciousnesses, and thus their self concepts, independently of any external pressures from men.

Xiguan reveals in an anecdote about her pregnancy with Ahuja’s son her attitude toward these Koranic texts. At one point, when she is in much pain from carrying the child, Akolima reassures her by citing a parable from the Koran and imploring Xiguan to seek mercy from Allah. Xiguan remarks of this memory, “She helped me a lot when I was about to give birth. Even today I cannot forget her kindness to me” (46). Thus, Xiguan does gain a certain kind of energy and power from hearing these stories. However, it appears that she does not invest any religious power into the text, in the way that a devout Muslim would, but rather uses it in a secular manner. She does not sing the praises of Allah directly, nor does she even talk explicitly about the theological aspects of the stories. Instead, she simply chooses to understand these parables at face value, as comforting stories to provide her with moral support as she endures her suffering. She is thus choosing to use the stories in a particular way that is not necessarily equal to the way orthodox Islam demands they be read.

The second time she mentions religion, it is after she has already established herself and is living independently in India as a single mother. She explains that next door to her lived a community of Christians whom she became involved with, remarking, “In this period of about six or seven years, not only did my knowledge progress, but my beliefs also changed,”  without expanding upon this brief sentence (48). Although her comment implies that her religious development led her to prefer Christianity to Islam, her quietness on the subject makes it difficult to infer anything specific about the transformation of her beliefs. This is perhaps because it is here not the conversion itself that is important, but rather simply the fact that she has had one. It is an indication of the ongoing development of her religious consciousness, which enables her to discover her full intellectual potential. She also mentions to her listener that the two books that most inspired her in her studies are The Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe. While the first of these books is a Christian allegory, the second is secular. The fact that she mentions them both in the same breath indicates that it is not religion alone that has contributed to the development of her worldview. Rather, religious thought is simply one component of her intellectual and ethical coming-into-“Be-ing.”

At the very end of the story, she says to the narrator with a smile, “Yesterday, as I related my experiences to you, you felt they were painful. If I recall them myself…none of
these events are without happiness. So you needn’t feel sorry for me” (50). In this passage, Xiguan reveals that in spite of all of the suffering she has undergone, she emerges at the end of the story as a strong woman who has learned how to process this pain and move on with her life. She reassures the male narrator, her listener, that there is no need for him to pity her—she does not require pity. She has learned to cope. The narrator tells her that, far from pitying her, her story and the way she has recovered from her suffering has filled him with admiration (49). Xiguan has used religion as one tool in developing her self-awakening, but her “Be-ing” does not mirror religious epiphany—it is her own, individual affair.

            There are a number of ambiguities in Xiguan’s case that are important to take into account, however. First of all, she bought her home using the diamond nose ring Ahuja had forced her to wear as a symbol of a married woman in his culture (48). In other words, he marks her body as his own with this material object. Therefore, her financial independence is seemingly founded upon a reminder of her subservient role to men. It is important to recognize, though, that the sale of her diamond nose ring for her house actually signifies her agency. In effect, she is exchanging a life of servitude to men for independence and a space of her own. At the end of the story, she informs the narrator that she is returning to Singapore to search for her husband, which also seems counterintuitive for a woman who has freed herself of the grasp of men. However, she does not claim to be returning to Singapore in order to reclaim her husband, exactly, but rather explains that she wants to sort out whose idea it was exactly to sell her, her husband or her husband’s wife (48-49). Her return to Singapore can thus be seen as an attempt to rectify her past; in a sense, she is trying to retroactively gain control over an act she had no power over at the time it occurred.

The one remaining ambiguity regards the form with which the short story “The Merchant’s Wife” is told. Basically, the work is a story within a story, wherein a male traveler on a ship to Singapore engages in conversation with an interesting-looking woman and relays, word-for-word, the story she tells him. Thus, even though Xiguan’s story is in her own words, it is ultimately framed by the discourse of a man. There is no reason to suspect that this framing suggests an inability of women to narrate their own stories, however. After all, the main female protagonists in both “Birds Fated For Each Other” and “Yuguan” require no such interceding male narrator. Furthermore, though Xiguan’s story is framed on either end by the narration of the man who listens to her, the bulk of the short story is her narrative, told word-for-word as she recites it to him. Therefore, he is not in any way speaking for her. It seems, rather, that the story is narrated from the perspective of a male to reinforce the fact that Xiguan has broken free from male oppression. As usual in Xu Dishan’s stories, stereotypical gender roles are reversed in their exchange. The narrator himself is not nearly as fleshed-out as Xiguan, but rather mostly sits and listens to her tale, invisible in the greater part of the story. When he does speak, it is almost always in reference to her, mostly to describe his interest in and admiration of her life experiences. In this way, even though her narrative is technically framed by his, the differing characteristics of their two narratives and their roles in relation to each other emphasize her power and agency.


            Perhaps the most fully-fleshed-out development of a highly individualized religious consciousness in Xu Dishan’s literary work can be seen in Yuguan, the title character of his final story. Throughout her life, Yuguan struggles to develop her system of religious belief. Eventually, at the end of the novella, she comes into “Be-ing,” establishing her own worldview in which she recognizes that for her, life has no meaning if it is not conducted selflessly. She believes that up until this point, she has suffered because every decision she has made has been selfish at its root, part of her calculated plan for material gain and prestige for her and her son. She thus determines to lead a humble, generous, and compassionate life henceforth, and becomes happy and admired by others as a consequence (84-87). Although this sounds like a religious revelation, and has been framed by scholar Lewis Robinson as specifically Christian in its nature, the truth is that it cannot accurately be categorized as belonging wholly to the influence of one religion on her life at all.[5] While it is true that she spends most of her life working for Christian missionaries promulgating the faith, she never becomes entirely convinced of the theological aspects of Christian belief herself. Early on after she joins the Church, she opines:

Sometimes when she had some problems with Christian doctrine, she did not dare bring them up with the foreign missionaries; when she did ask, she was not satisfied with their answers. She thought to herself, since the church was trying to teach people to do good and to lead them to the right path, who cared whether what one believed in was a son born of a virgin or a goblin who popped out of a crack in a rock? (58).

At this early stage of Yuguan’s engagement with Christianity, it is clear that she finds little to admire or believe in the otherworldly, spiritual doctrines of the faith. She describes a central sacred belief of Christians, the resurrection of Jesus, superstitiously and disrespectfully with the reductive expression “…a goblin who popped out of a crack in a rock,” demonstrating her distaste for and lack of conviction in the idea. To be sure, she has joined the Church only because the benefits, which include good pay, free education for her son, and the possibility of the Church paying for him to go abroad and study in the United States someday, outweigh her doubts about the philosophy she is forced to preach as a consequence. In stubbornly resisting internally the Church’s efforts to impose its worldview, she retains authority over her own mind, building her own brand of religious consciousness even while in theory a Christian.

            Further evidence of the fact that she is not totally assured of Christianity’s validity as a religion can be found in the fact that she continues to incorporate aspects of other religious systems into her belief. For instance, she never ceases to worship her ancestral tablets. After she converts, observers say of her:

While nobody knew when and where she had moved the family shrine in the living room, it was almost certain that she had wrapped up her ancestral tablets and put them in a bag and hung them somewhere under the beams of the bedroom. The door to that room was often closed, as if it were a sacred place. She would not destroy the ancestral tablets, because she believed that it would be sacrilegious to do so, and it would also bring bad luck to her son (58).

The reverent tone with which ancestral tablets are treated in this passage versus the curt dismissiveness of Christianity in the preceding passage is clear. Yuguan keeps the door to her bedroom where she stores the ancestral tablets closed, treating it as a “sacred” place, which is evidence of her esteem for them. These are also the only religious objects in the story that she ever expresses fear of destroying because such an act would be “sacrilegious.” Thus, Yuguan’s belief in her ancestral tablets is much deeper than that in Christianity. She never doubts them the way that, many times in the course of her life, she questions the teachings of the Christian church that it is nevertheless her job to teach to others.

Furthermore, a night that Yuguan spends in a haunted house establishes that she does not accord the Bible the force and power with which orthodox Christianity mandates that she view it. As she sleeps that night, she prays the Psalms over the Bible she always carries with her, but nevertheless remains quite afraid of the sounds and atmosphere that surround her. The following day, she determines that a Christian Bible probably would not be of much use in defending her against Chinese ghosts, since they would be unlikely to be afraid of it. She therefore determines to also carry with her a copy of the Yijing. From that point on, she never fears potential ghosts that may be lurking again, thinking herself totally protected by the combination of the Bible and the Yijing (60-61). This instance reveals that Christianity is by no means an infallible or all-powerful force in Yuguan’s life. Because it remains in her mind unequivocally foreign, she cannot accept the premise of the Christians that their faith is in fact universally applicable. Instead, she assumes that its reach extends only so far as the culture in which it was created, and that the ghosts of her traditional beliefs would thus be unmoved by the presence of a Bible or any other Christian artifact.

While it is true that all of the above exhibitions of Yuguan’s lack of total faith in Christianity occur before her transformation in which she decides to lead a selfless life, there is no evidence that she abates any of these actions after that change. She does not pray to the ancestral tablets in the narrative after her coming into “Be-ing,” but they are not explicitly decried either—there is simply no more mention of them. Furthermore, she admits toward the end of the story, long after her epiphany, that she continues to carry around both the Yijing and the Bible with her (87). This indicates that even after she has supposedly made the conversion to a true missionary lifestyle, she continues to believe in traditional Chinese ghosts and in the Bible’s incapability of taming them. For that matter, she seems in a broader sense not to ever accept the theological doctrines of Christianity that she has found difficult to accept from the moment she joined the church. In her moment of coming into “Be-ing,” she says only that she must truly lead a missionary lifestyle, which emphasizes the worldly, moralistic aspects of Christianity, such as acting generously and compassionately toward others. She says nothing about ever coming to terms with the theological tenets of the Church.

Yuguan has spent her life developing her religious consciousness and taking control of her beliefs, not allowing herself to be taken in by any one religion. Her incorporation of multiple religious beliefs from different traditions, primarily the combined use of ancestor worship and Christianity, indicate that she has developed an ethical scheme that is completely her own, independent of any one religious framework. As with the female protagonists in Xu Dishan’s other stories, Yuguan’s confidence stemming from the ongoing process of developing her own worldview enables her to hold power and authority over men that she would not have otherwise. At one point, during a Communist raiding of her village, she finds herself imprisoned with a number of other women by the soldiers, and innocently assumes that they have been captured in order to mend clothes for the men. However, she discerns the true reason for their capture that night when some of the men rush into the room the women are kept in with lust-filled eyes and outstretched arms. In the next, fable-like scene, Yuguan stands to her feet, citing her authority as a missionary, and uses all of the preaching skills she has honed from her day job to sermonize to the men on the evil of taking the bodies of women without their consent. In an unbelievable and miraculous turn of events, the men actually listen to her, some of them so taken in by her speech that they sit down to hear her out at length. When the next group of soldiers barges in and tries to take advantage of the women, the first group actually stand to their feet and defend Yuguan and the others (74-75). Whether believable or not, this scene clearly signifies that Yuguan’s experience with religious doctrine imbues her with an ethical underpinning that makes her a figure of authority to men and women alike. Without such credentials and experience, Yuguan surely would not have been able to capture the attention of the soldiers.  


In the 1970s in the United States, Mary Daly published a radical book in which she claimed that for all women everywhere, there was no way to ever obtain power and agency through organized religion. Daly insists that religion is too saturated with male-centric concepts to be of any use in the women’s liberation movement. In making such sweeping statements, however, she unabashedly speaks for women throughout the world who do not share her particular experience and environment. Secondly, in her own way, she also belittles the capability of women, by suggesting that there is nothing they can do about existing patriarchal systems. Their only solution, she cries, must be the radical choice of breaking off from mainstream society and creating anew a “sisterhood” akin to the matriarchal cultures of ancient times. Although the conclusion of Daly’s work is extreme by contemporary standards, her comments nevertheless invite careful reflection in a time where many organized religions are constantly criticized for promoting beliefs and practices that are chauvinistic and even hostile to women. Daly’s work raises the question of how it might be possible to do what she claims cannot be done—that is, for women to establish authority and agency within the bounds of organized religion.

Xu Dishan’s literature is a useful tool in answering this question because his female protagonists, who are all portrayed as independent, intelligent, and free-willed, manage to achieve self-actualization with the aid of religion. Xu Dishan’s female characters reclaim their bodies and their lives through their semi-religious transformations, and thus it is tempting to argue that his short stories demonstrate that Daly is wrong. However, having conducted a close reading of Xu Dishan’s works, it is safe to say that in a sense, he would agree with Daly—there is no way for women to come into “Be-ing” within the structures of organized religion.

As I have tried to show above, none of Xu Dishan’s characters are orthodox believers of the faiths they lay claim to. Rather than following to the letter the dictums of whatever religion they adhere to, these women use certain aspects of religious faith as tools in the development of their own “Be-ing,” their fully-realized intellectual and personal potentials. Their development of a rich and complex religious consciousness both lends them societal power and authority and endows them with the confidence to see through male-dominated social structures and to choose instead to lead independent and purposeful lives. Of the three women surveyed, Minming is more invested than Xiguan and Yuguan in the actual law, or dharma, of her religious system of choice, Buddhism. The aspects of religion Xiguan and Yuguan choose rather to incorporate into their own, highly individualized ethical systems are those dictums that have more to do with day-to-day living and treatment of others than with otherworldly realms. While Minming’s decision to kill herself reflects her own, personal worldview, rather than that of Buddhism, it cannot be denied that beliefs and imagery that are inseparable from Buddhism itself do play a large role in her awakening. She is the most conventionally religious of the three.

It thus seems that as his writing develops, Xu Dishan moves away from his characters achieving enlightenment through otherworldy visions, and instead writes female characters who achieve “Be-ing” in the here and now. They utilize tenets of religion that express how to live everyday life in formulating their worldviews, rather than those that attempt to instruct them in cosmological frameworks. In a sense, then, Xu Dishan might share Daly’s mistrust of the male-centric theology of most organized religions of the world. Indeed, a published memoir of Xu Dishan claims that he was always somewhat mistrustful of the formal doctrines of religions such as Christianity, despite being a professed Christian himself (Zhang 13-14). His female characters from Minming onward, in any case, find little of value in such abstract beliefs. They thus achieve their “Be-ing” not through believing without question in a pre-planned map of faith, but rather by selecting those aspects of various religions that most appeal to them in constructing their own worldviews and ideologies.

In a larger sense, though, Xu Dishan ultimately disagrees with Daly, because he is making a larger claim about what “religion” means in general. To Daly, religion cannot be useful to the project of women’s liberation because its institutionalized codes and dictums impose limitations on the female body and mind that impede her development and coming into “Be-ing.” While Xu Dishan seems to actually agree with, or at least not contradict, this view of formal religion, the major difference in his work is that he allows for the power of another kind of “religion”—that is, not the formalized, theoretical religion that is written down in texts and promoted by religious figures from imams to popes, but rather the highly individualized religious identities that not just women, but all humans form.

In other words, Xu Dishan’s female characters find total adherence to institutional religion limiting, but appeal rather to what Leonard Primiano identifies as “vernacular religion”—that is, religion as it is practiced and thought of in the minds of individuals, rather than as it is preached from a pulpit (37-44). It goes without saying that the two often bear little resemblance to one another, as in the case of Yuguan, who considers herself a Christian by the end of her life, but whose beliefs are hardly in line with orthodox Christian views. By admitting the existence of this more-hidden, less-often discussed, highly individualistic kind of “religion,” Xu Dishan acknowledges what Daly overlooks—it is possible for women to reclaim their bodies and minds using religion, through the very fact that their existence as independent thinking individuals allows them to shape the belief systems available to them in ways that are uniquely their own.

There is nothing inherent to the female experience in this. All humankind engages in the ongoing development of individualized ethical codes that in many cases borrow from and rework, but never exactly replicate, religions in their high, dogmatic forms. Therefore, Xu Dishan’s message is one for all of mankind. This makes his choice to use female characters stand out all the more—for once, it is women who represent the experience of all of humanity, and not men. It is valuable to read Xu Dishan’s work after Daly’s, then, because at the very least, it returns power to women in a very prominent space of society, a space where Daly was convinced they no longer had any place.

Works Cited

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston:
            Beacon Press, 1973. Print.

Keown, Damien. “Buddhism and Suicide—The Case of Channa.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics.
            Vol. 3 (1996). 9-31. Web. 12 May 2014.

Primiano, Leonard. “Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife.”
                    Western Folklore.
54.1. Jan. 1995. pp. 37-56.

Riep, Steven. “Xu Dishan (Luo Huasheng).” Chinese Fiction Writers, 1900-1949. Ed. Thomas
            Moran. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 328. Detroit: Gale, 2007. 250-256. Web.
            17 March 2014.

Robinson, Lewis. Double-Edged Sword: Christianity & 20th Century Chinese Fiction. Hong
            Kong: Tao Fong Shan Ecumenical Centre, 1986.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture.
            University of Illinois Press, 1988. Print.

Xu Dishan. “The Merchant’s Wife.” Trans. William H. Nienhauser, Jr. Modern Chinese Short
            Stories and Novellas 1919-1949.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1981. 41-50.

Xu Dishan. “Mingming Niao” [“Birds Fated For Each Other”]. Ed. Yue Qi. Shenmi, Qite,

            Yiyuqing de—Xu Dishan Xiaoshuo Quanji [Mysterious, Singular, and Exotic: Xu
            Dishan’s Completed Fiction]. Beijing: Zhongguo Wenlian Chuban Gongsi, 1996. 1-17.


Xu Dishan. “Yü-Kuan.” Trans. Cecile Chu-chin Sun. Modern Chinese Short Stories and
            Novellas 1919-1949.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1981. 51-87. Print.

Zhang Zhuling. “Duiyu Xu Dishan Jiaoshou de yi ge Huiyi” [A Memory of Professor Xu
Dishan]. Zhuidiao Xu Dishan Xiansheng Jinian Tekan [Volume of
Commemorating Xu Dishan].
Hong Kong: Guoji Shangye Yinwu Gongsi, 1930.








[1] When “Yü-Kuan” was initially translated, it employed an older method of romanizing Chinese, the Wade-Giles system. For the simple sake of ease of typing, however, the title character of this story will be referred to by this author as “Yuguan” throughout the rest of the paper, employing the system of Chinese romanization most in use today in the United States, Pinyin.

[2] For example, in Steven Riep’s short essay on Xu Dishan’s life and impact on the Republican Era, these are the only three stories he deems important enough to comment on (252-256).

[3] For a more complex analysis of the problem of (mis)representation in academia, see Gayatri Spivak’s seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, without whose influence the recognition of this problem in Daly’s work would most likely not be possible.

[4] This and all citations from this short story are rough translations by the author

[5] See Lewis Robinson’s monograph Double-Edged Sword: Christianity and 20th Century Chinese Fiction, p. 183-201.