“Those Poor Women”

Funie Hsu on the intersection of patriarchy and white supremacy in Buddhism.

Funie Hsu3 April 2021
Photo by Wonderlane.

Years ago, I was at a professional dinner, chatting with a young visiting researcher from China. In discussing her job-search process, she shared that Chinese women had an earlier mandatory retirement age than men. This piqued my curiosity, as I’d heard about this gender-based difference in another context. I asked if she could explain the rationale behind this system.

Before she could answer, an older white male academic interjected, “It’s because women are oppressed in China.” This man was neither a scholar of China, nor a scholar of women’s issues. Yet he was certain of his explanation. So much so that he felt compelled to rescue the conversation from someone with actual lived experience as a woman in China, whose life was being directly shaped by the policy. What began as an interesting discussion quickly became an illuminating one. It revealed that nowhere in this senior colleague’s mind was there room for any interpretation besides his.

Patriarchy is a global system. It is also a deeply racialized system.

In graduate school, while volunteering as a birth coach for Asian Health Services in Oakland, I provided translation and general comfort for immigrant, Mandarin-speaking women during their labor and delivery. In a conversation about the astonishing price of hospital deliveries in the U.S., one mom-to-be shared that in China, women’s labor (that is, childbirth and both waged and unpaid work) was respected and resulted in an earlier retirement age. I was fascinated by this perspective and found it meaningful to hear a Chinese woman’s own interpretation. Though I would later read debates about the intention and impact of the retirement policy, her comments stayed with me.

What an educational experience it was, then, to be told quite matter-of-factly by a white American male that the gendered retirement policy was simply another example of female oppression in China. Clearly, deeply held assumptions about other groups, especially when liberal humanist ideas of women are at stake, can make even “learned” individuals unaware of their own biases—their own racial and gendered behaviors. So invested was this professor in his ideas of Chinese gender oppression that he could not see his own role in usurping a conversation between two young Asian/Asian American women, ultimately speaking for and silencing the female Chinese researcher.

My intention in sharing this story is not to argue that there is no gender oppression in China, nor is it to sing the praises of the Chinese Communist Party. Rather, the experience highlights how often in North American contexts, when it comes to discussions of women’s equality, patriarchy is racially reduced to something that happens “over there”—imposed by “those people” upon “those poor women”—rather than understood as a global system. As part of this racialized othering, certain forms of Buddhism (all the Asian ones) have been cited as perpetuating retrograde gender dynamics.

When talking about increasing the role of women in Buddhism, there is a troubling pattern of people assuming that the problem lies with Asia (and Asians) itself. Asia, according to racialized fantasies, is a den of patriarchy, where women are made to be submissive and passive. Such Orientalist thinking often accompanies a broader ideological partner: the paternalistic idea that Buddhism needs saving from its “traditional” Asian heritage.

In a since deleted section of their website, one U.S.-based sangha—founded by a white male practitioner—once explained the seemingly inherent relationship between Asian Buddhisms and patriarchy thusly:

“Much of traditional Buddhism, in both northern (Mahayana) and southern (Theravada) is in an awful state of degradation, corruption, and delusion. We now have a chance to leave behind the problematic issues of the sexist, classist, and racist politics that have corrupted the wonderful non-oppressive teachings of the Buddha.”

In this logic, Asia and its degeneracy has tainted Buddhism, ensnaring it in a premodern stronghold. It is the white Buddhist expert who is then positioned as the ultimate hero, salvaging the worthy parts of Buddhism from the grasp of a backward, all-consuming Asian patriarchy and general oppressive provincialism.

In addressing the question “Why American Buddhism instead of Tibetan Buddhism or Zen or Vipassana?” the organization’s statement further rationalized: “Because we don’t live in Tibet or Japan or Burma. We live in America…Here is our chance to create an American tradition. Plus the Asian Buddhist traditions have all been corrupted on one level or another. Perhaps we can do better, sticking to the core teaching of the Buddha and leaving behind the other cultural traditions that have come to be associated with Buddhism.”

In addition to asserting American exceptionalism and promoting the white supremacist erasure of Asians/Asian Americans in American Buddhism, the statement reifies several interconnecting, implicit assumptions, the foremost being the idea that patriarchy is inseparable from Asian cultures. As Natalie Quli has noted, white authority in Buddhism has been built through such racial logic. “The rejection of Asian authority based on its assumed universal toxic patriarchy runs deep,” she writes.

“Most of those with whom I’ve discussed patriarchy in Theravada are completely unaware that certain Asian American bhikkhus and their Asian American lay supporters spearheaded the bhikkhuni movement in the United States, and that many Asian Americans (by no means a monolithic group) support women’s higher ordination,” Quli explains. “By labeling all Asian and Asian American-led groups as irredeemably patriarchal they can be safely excluded, ignored, and ultimately erased.”

To its credit, that aforementioned U.S.-based sangha did recognize that “we will probably fuck it up too,” but was dismissive, and accepting, of its own potential to perpetuate oppression. Ultimately, the acknowledgment served as an excuse for the sangha to reaffirm its self-appointed authority and leadership in the crusade of normative liberal equality. “But so be it,” the sangha concluded, “we still have to try.” In a rather unsurprising development, the white male founder of this group was recently accused of sexual assault by several women. Following an independent investigation, he was stripped of his authorization to teach.

Patriarchy is a global system. It is also a deeply racialized system. To advance the place of women in Buddhism, we must first establish this foundational awareness and recognize that gender oppression is also deep-seated in North American sanghas. We have a responsibility to honestly examine our embedded assumptions about different Buddhist communities, especially Asian/Asian American sanghas, and interrogate the ways that some American Buddhists have established their prestige and privilege by perpetuating racialized tropes of Asian patriarchy. Only in so doing can we open ourselves up to listen to the experiences and needs of diverse Buddhist women. Their voices should determine Buddhist reforms, not a devotion to deeply entrenched Orientalist narratives.

Funie Hsu

Funie Hsu

Funie Hsu, PhD, works as an assistant professor of American Studies at San Jose State University.