Feb 28, 2017
Last month, women’s marches swept through cities across the globe as protests against U.S. President Donald Trump’s incendiary, sexist rhetoric escalated. Donning lurid pink “pussy hats” and calling some demonstrations “Pussy Grabs Back” — a rejoinder to one of Trump’s most misogynistic comments during his campaign — the participants took to the streets to express their powerful rejection of hateful politics.
How would Chinese Taoism interpret the marches? This may not be a very frequently asked question, but examining the movement from such a different cultural perspective endows it with new political meanings. Most of these meanings center on the body; the demonstrators, if considered as a singular, collective “body” of individuals, overtly celebrate women’s power and demand the protection and development of gender equality.
Observing events from a Taoist angle sheds light on this unique political tactic and engenders a form of citizenship — something I call “body citizenship.” Body citizenship is an innovative way of engaging with politics through dissidence rather than compliance. Borrowing insights from the fourth century B.C. Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, body citizenship hinges upon continual processes of political engagement that keep disrupting the established social order imposed upon women’s bodies.
For Zhuangzi, the body is characterized by opacity. It is an influx of flowing energy — qi — that is constantly converging and diverging in order to bind together everything in the universe. This energy morphs and mutates, transforming ineffably into various forms without ever being reducible to a single paradigm. The political meaning of the body, according to Zhuangzi, is its enormous capacity for bringing forth new relationships with external sources of energy. Constantly fluctuating relationships, in turn, have the power to upset existing systems.
In perhaps his most famous allegory, Zhuangzi dreams that he is a butterfly. Yet because he casts the demarcations between objects in the universe as vague and porous, he eventually concludes that he cannot know whether it is he who is dreaming of a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of him. To me, we can see in this parable the emergence of a new political subject: someone who is by nature at odds with the ossified bodies we see embedded in established discourses of power — such as the patriarchal American political system.
Zhuangzi’s citizenship is thus defined by its extraordinary potential to overcome the supposed superiority of one type of body over another. Whether we speak of homosexuals or heterosexuals, black people or white people, the disabled or the able-bodied, men or women, the Zhuangzian body questions the dualistic relationships between these groups. By abolishing boundaries between them, it bespeaks a oneness that binds everyone together. Zhuangzi’s ideal form of citizenship, then, is one that challenges restrictive definitions and embraces us all, regardless of social status. It is a forceful refutation of social segregation of any kind, and is constantly vigilant against any attempt to isolate one body from another.
Trump’s hatred for women is essentially a gender-based ideology of body isolationism. It intends to further entrench women’s downtrodden position in an already patriarchal society by drawing a clear division between the center’s privileged male supremacy and the periphery’s subjugation and suffering. His campaign’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” concretizes male dominance into perverse, backward-looking patriotism. It fortifies the parallel between loving one’s country and loving Trump himself.
By conflating patriotism with patriarchy, Trump sanctifies his misogynistic political creed and exempts it from challenges from the periphery. At its core, his patriarchal politics aligns state sovereignty with the male sexual prerogative, which oversees women’s body as its judicial territory. By this logic, the roles of women are limited to a few cursory bodily experiences to serve the libidinal desires of men — sex, motherhood, housekeeping, and so on. Any form of bodily transgression is condemned first as un-American, and then, by association, as undemocratic.
Zhuangzi would have staunchly opposed such views. However, I think he also would have been encouraged by the successful new politics of women’s marches. The collective protest of hundreds of thousands of women across the world demonstrates the immense power of rewriting the social script endorsed by the current American leadership. In contrast to traditional citizenship — which postulates a sort of contract between law-abiding adults and the state — body citizenship is removed from existing judicial and political systems. It incorporates a wholeness encompassing all participants for whom differences in race, religion, sex, gender, language, and age simply melt away.
The women’s marches allow us to transcend the confines of our own bodies. We are more than ourselves when we are the bodies of others as well. Streets become new political sites in which notions of, for example, “male,” “gay,” “Hispanic,” or “old” are not only unimportant, but also nonexistent. Momentarily, at least, we become women’s bodies — and in doing so, we turn ourselves from prescriptive sexual objects into objects of patriarchy-challenging power.
This, in essence, is the beauty of the Zhuangzian body. Zhuangzi probably would have surmised that by claiming “Pussy Grabs Back,” citizens are translating their bodies into new forms of political resistance. Against the backdrop of a magnificent protest scene, citizenship is no longer something granted and controlled by law; instead, it is something won by the dissident body, something that disrupts old rules and constantly hankers for the new.
This reimagined form of citizenship, if allowed to reach its full potential, brings about a different kind of social life — something I call the “life of indeterminacy.” Unlike our prior lives in civil society, a life of indeterminacy finds a new mode of social existence based on citizens’ corporeal lives in the public realm. Through the marches, the body becomes a powerful end in itself, infinitely morphing, fluctuating, and extending to accomplish progress in other areas — a form of politics impenetrable to Donald Trump’s outdated, patriarchal reasoning.
(Header image: Women hold up slogans during a march held to support women’s rights and protest against U.S. President Donald Trump in Manhattan, New York City, Feb. 21, 2017. Lynn Goldsmith/IC)