Xena, “Debt,” Lao Ma, and feminine virtues.

I just finished a two-episode storyline from season 3, in which Xena travels to “the Empire of Chin” in order to repay a debt to an “old friend.” It’s a beautifully-done storyline showing Xena in her rougher days, and what started her on her journey to her new self. But as much as I adored Xena’s “old friend” Lao Ma, I was left wondering what it meant that her Taoist values just happened to coincide with a lot of “virtues” that silence women.

Some explanation: Lao Ma is supremely kick-ass; she’s physics-defying Jiao Long levels of kick-ass. She can throw people across the room with a gesture. She explodes vases with her mind. She can fly! KICK. ASS.

She achieves these feats through a zen-like transcendence of the Matrix worldly realm.

Lao Ma: The entire world is driven by a will – blind and ruthless. In order to transcend the limitations of that world, you need to stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating.
Xena: How do I do that?
Lao Ma: Heaven endures, and the Earth lasts a long time, because they do not live for themselves. Therefore, she who would live a long time, should live for others, serve others.

She then goes on to say that you cannot achieve this by serving those you love– it is easy to serve them, since you hope it will make them love you more; it is like a good business investment. Instead you must serve those whom you hate. Under Lao Ma’s guidance, Xena serves Lao’s rival, the man who had recently hunted her for sport (well, as revenge for her kidnapping his son…it’s a delightfully complicated story). Short version: Lao Ma wants to form an alliance between her house, her rival’s house, and Xena’s former partner-in-crime (important because of his huge army and his quest to conquer Chin), and she makes Xena integral to the alliance. Her hope is that Xena will learn to put aside her hatred, her desires, her very will, and that the whole Empire will live in peace.

Instead, Xena murders the head of the rival’s house, and nearly kills his son (who is also Lao Ma’s son). The little boy becomes a tyrant, ruling in fear and ultimately executing Lao Ma. (This is why Xena’s back there– Lao Ma’s dying request was to tell Xena that “the green dragon [her son] has grown too large,” and Xena sets off to kill him.)

I’m making a muddle of this, and you really ought to watch the episodes yourself, if you haven’t already. Here’s the thing: the source of Lao Ma’s awe-inspiring power is her ability to completely negate her self. She keeps her husband– a cruel tyrant– in a coma, ruling in his stead because “it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. What matters is that good is done.” She says it is her gift to him– he was a terrible ruler, but by ruling in his name, she ensures he will be known for having a great kingdom. She is also writing down her wisdom, also in her husband’s name, because, again, she is beyond such petty desires as “recognition.” Her husband is Lao Tzu.

Yes, that Lao Tzu. The founder of Taoism.

In other words, here we have a supremely intelligent, powerful woman who is the brain behind a great philosophy, but she refuses to own her own experience, to even make it possible for people to credit her. And I found myself wondering, is it because she’s such an awesome Taoist, or because she’s such an awesome Obliging Oriental Wife?

Because not taking credit for one’s rightful work is a female thing to do; self-sacrifice is practically expected of women; pacifism is distinctly feminized in a lot of political discourse…and it’s still enforced in society today, with the always-looming spectre of being a “shrew” or a “nag” or a “bitch” or just “selfish” keeping a lot of women in line. I mean, it works on me, too– I get a nice, soft, friendly voice when I talk on the phone, I buffer all my criticisms with a compliment before and after, I phrase my suggestions as questions. More than once, I’ve declined to insist upon credit, being happy just that the work was being done well. It’s a habit I’m fighting, but it’s a habit I have to fight.

What complicates this observation is, of course, the fact that all this non-aggression and selflessness is also a very Taoist way to behave. I’m not aware of Taoism being particularly gendered in terms of requiring these traits from its followers– after all, in every universe but Xena’s, it was created by a man. And they’re all principles I agree with. So I can’t say “this perpetuates the idea that women are less important than men, by demanding that they sacrifice their own desires for the ‘greater good’ of mankind!” Because I think, really, it’s trying to get across the idea that hatred is counter-productive, and that all people must learn to serve others before themselves.

Ultimately, I do think Lao Ma’s just a really excellent Taoist, nothing nefarious going on. It’s clear that she intends her teachings to be universal human values, and that they are to be respected. This one line really clinches it for me– Lao Ma repeats it twice, and it’s the line that gives Xena the power to finally break free at the end, and avoid her execution.

Lao Ma: To conquer others is to have power. To conquer yourself is to know the way.

I’d say that’s Taoist, all the way.

(for more posts on Xena, look here!)

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2 Responses to Xena, “Debt,” Lao Ma, and feminine virtues.

  1. […] example: in “Debt,” I was a little worried that Lao Ma was being glorified for being an excellent woman, rather than an […]

  2. Nikki says:

    A feminist scholar myself, I appreciate your critique, but I disagree with some of your points. I can see you working through some of this, but I think that you might be thinking about Lao Ma’s teachings incorrectly if you think that they are the principles which “keep women down”.

    First, interlocking systems of oppression (sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, colonization) and exploitation are what work to silence women. They all involve a network of ideologies inherent to which are ownership, desire and will. The internalization of those principles keep the systems in tact.

    “Virtues” alone, don’t do the trick. It’s the systems which build them so whether you buy into them or not, they work on your body.

    Black feminist poet and scholar Audre Lorde says, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. You actually have to come up with new tactics to “fight” those battles you mentioned that are ongoing for you.

    You should understand that there are some women who serve those they hate everyday. Women who, like Xena had to do, serve those who wouldn’t even look them in the eye. My ancestors did it as slaves in America. If they hadn’t, I would not be here today. They live in me, and will do so for a long time because of the service they gave not to their “master’s” but to me.

    You talked about “credit” — Lao Ma’s giving credit to her husband, you “declining credit”. Well those are two different projects.

    Instead of seeking credit or declining credit, Lao Ma does something that traditionally only men have been able to do. She bestows credit. First of all, wisdom belongs to no one. So, like Lao Ma says, “What does it matter if it’s Lao Tzu or Lao Ma who get the credit”.

    Perhaps you should insist on bestowing credit onto the collective body who produced the product.

    Lao Ma’s real power was not in her ability (the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house) but was in her creativity and wisdom. The only thing she desired was to do good. She even caught herself in her feeling ownership over her son saying that just because you give birth to them does not mean you own them.

    Gender, race, other categories of classification have no place in a world where ownership and desire and will are not at the core. We don’t live in that place, but Lao Ma showed Xena what that place looked like. It’s that glimpse of possibility that motivates her to do the good that she does. I think that’s what she taught Xena.

    I’d be interested to see what the Chinese Sister Feminists would say about this episode of Xena.

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