The Journey and Its Goal in Chinese Women’s Religions

Okay, here's something on what's different about Chinese women's religions

In the Middle East, ancient deities were usually portrayed as superhuman kings. Their instructions to mortals were like commands from rulers to subjects, given in books of holy law. The main practice of these religions was to fully obey the laws. That was one story of life’s meaning. And China had its own versions of this tale, with a Jade Emperor in the sky, his appointed ruler on earth, Confucius as a prophet of heaven’s will, and a priestly bureaucracy to enforce the holy law.

But most goddesses of China have been saint-like or guru-like figures. They were “masters” who attained some sort of enlightenment, taught groups of friends, and were reported returning in spirit after they died. To their devotees, these women were perfected beings. But since their followers could learn what the teachers taught, most goddesses were examples to be learned from, not eternally superior beings to be obeyed. The lives of most divine women were not just images of perfected womanhood, but biographies of goddesses in the making. The boundary lines between “mortal and immortal” or “human and divine” were permeable. People were all these things at once. In a sense, any person might become a deity. As Judith Simmer-Brown described the dakini goddesses of Tibet, “She may appear in humble or ordinary form as a shopkeeper, a wife or sister, or a decrepit or diseased hag. If she reveals herself, if she is recognized, she has tremendous ability to point out obstacles, reveal new dimensions, or awaken spiritual potential” (2002, 4). Such divine women appeared, or did not appear, seemingly at random over the course of Chinese history. The authorities tried to control their people’s loyalties. They tried to tell the villagers which leaders to follow. But nobody managed to control who the people considered holy.

from A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization