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A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization (edition 2012)

by Brian Griffith

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198537,190 (3.75)11
Member:streamsong
Title:A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization
Authors:Brian Griffith
Info:Exterminating Angel Press (2012), Paperback, 336 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
Tags:non-fiction, women, history, China, LTER, mythology, spirituality

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A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization by Brian Griffith

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I was very excited by the concept of this book and was looking eagerly forward to reading it. I gave a huge cheer when I won it as a Library Thing Early Reviewer.

This book is a very ambitious overview tracing Chinese goddesses/women in Chinese religion and by doing so, tracing not only women’s roles in religion, but their roles in Chinese society.

Strong points: It is good overview. It has tons of footnotes—sometimes 4 or 5 per page, showing the huge amount of scholarly research that went into this project. The footnotes and bibliography will be an excellent reference.

Weak points: It badly needed an editor. The flow was odd. It could not decide whether to be an academic reference or a pop-nonfiction book on the subject.

Half a dozen academic footnotes per page made the flow too choppy to be read as a non-academic popular read. The style tended to be fact/footnote/fact/footnote/fact/footnote. Personally, I would have liked to see more discussion, but, as I describe below, some of the discussions were the weaker parts of the book.

The author apparently tried to make this book more readable by throwing in modern references. These included, but were not limited to: what he refers to as the game of Survivor (the US TV show?) (p115), Harry Potter (p118), and Chicken Soup for the Soul (p 229). In my opinion, these will make the book seem very dated in only a few years as well as hurt its credibility as an academic reference.

Some of the discussion arguments are odd. For example, in most schools of Confucianism, there are five important relationships that consist of one group being subservient and showing deference to another. One of these is wife to husband. Griffiths argues that while women had little power under Confucianism, since some of the Confucian ideals had aspects that westerners call feminine, Confucianism shows respect for women.

Unfortunately, he goes on with this argument for several pages. (P127) “The virtues praised in these ancient legends seem patriarchal because they are typically ascribed to men. But actually these virtues resemble a list of traditional Western ideals for women. ….They embody ‘feminine qualities of kindness, harmony and selfless giving.’” And so you see, dear reader, (sarcasm is all mine) Confucian ideals cannot be considered sexist because the men embodying them had some qualities that Westerners think of as feminine.

Within this argument on page 123: “Rather than resisting warlords by force, most Confucianists argued like women, trying to flatter their ‘lords’ into behaving with ‘humanity’.” In this one discussion, Griffiths not only managed to mix Confucianism with western schools of thought, but threw in a good bit of sexism at the same time. Wouldn’t you think that an editor would catch sexist remarks, especially in a book focusing on the distaff?

A minor point is that there is also some odd word usage. For instance, the Mandarin word translated as ‘cow herd’ or ‘cow boy’ is not the same word as the American ‘cowboy’. Since many legends do feature cow boys and maidens/goddesses, I now have an odd image of John Wayne meeting various Chinese goddesses at pre-destined times throughout the year.

This one will stay in my library due to the references and bibliography. It was a worthy, ambitious project that badly needed a knowledgeable editor. ( )
1 vote streamsong | Mar 2, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received this book through the Early Reviewers program. I am a big history buff and enjoy mythology as well. Having very little experience reading about Chinese cultural history, this was an interesting subject to take a look into.

Author Griffith takes the reader through various eras of Chinese Civilization, carefully examining the role of various mythological entities and the effects they had on believers and practitioners. He presents a wide-ranging view of these characters and the people who worshiped them. The history of cultures, of the people, and of the dynasties is clearly the strength here, and Griffith does a good job introducing the reader to each era through the eyes of people worshiping 'immortal women'.

However, unfortunately there is a great deal of 'character word salad' going on throughout. The book is quite dense with various deities, goddesses, people and places, and it can make for a tough slog attempting to digest it all. I found myself rereading large sections of various chapters just to understand the points being made. Perhaps this was unavoidable given the thousands of years of history the author has attempted to cover, but it left the text feeling very dense throughout.

I'm glad to have read the book and perhaps retained some of the nuggets of history contained therein. Recommended for those with a healthy stomach for foreign mythology and culture, but be prepared to be challenged to keep straight all of the characters involved in the narrative.
1 vote IslandDave | Sep 20, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
An information-filled introduction to Chinese prehistory and history, Chinese women’s lives, and stories of the goddesses that inspired them.

Brian Griffith has attempted a great deal in this book. Drawing on archeology, history, religions, and literature, he combines mythical and historical accounts of China from prehistoric times to the present. In addition to tracing dynastic changes, he writes about Chinese religions, geography, and palace and village life. He tells the stories of Chinese goddesses and surveys changing patterns of life for various Chinese women. Griffith is to be commended for bringing information about these subjects to general readers. He tells us of dynastic wars and peasant rebellions. Including so much has a price, however. The book is somewhat overwhelming. A blurb on the book claims that the book is a combination of Howard Zinn, Joseph Campbell and Gloria Steinem. If that was the author’s intent, no wonder his book lacks clarity and coherence.

“The Yin side of Chinese Civilization,” according to Griffith, is “an alternative civilization”, “a beautiful, powerful culture made by Chinese women.” He claims that it is “the greatest counterculture in the world.” Yet what he means by “yin” is not clearly defined. At times it seems to refer to the Chinese goddess, Chinese women, or peasants’ attempts to recapture prehistorical village life.

Griffith is very impressed with The Blade and the Chalice, by Riane Eisler, and explicitly uses it as a model for his book. Although many readers have found Eisler insightful, others question her approach to understanding cultures, gender roles, and “civilizations.” Critics raise questions about whether the search for universal female and male characteristics perpetuate particular gender stereotypes and ignore important differences between cultures. Griffith’s equation of the Chinese understanding of yin with Eisler’s European concept of chalice reveals the problem. For Chinese, yin may include women, submissiveness, and passivity, but it is a relational term to understood and balanced with yang.

Read more...http://wp.me/p24OK2-pH
  mdbrady | Aug 25, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A review of female deities and heroes and the place of women in Chinese culture from prehistoric times to the present. The author is not a professional Sinologist, but he has read widely in English-language sources on Chinese culture and on the whole adopts a common-sense attitude. He is on the New Age/feminist side of the spectrum but not to the point of overlooking the realties, such as that Empress Wu was a very cruel woman or that modern temples to goddesses are often rakng in the money from tourists, or that the current Chinese government has been permitting wholesale abortions of girls. ( )
1 vote antiquary | Aug 19, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This extravagantly named book covers women’s position in China from prehistory to current times. While China is usually thought of by the west as a solid patriarchy, Griffith proves that it just isn’t so.

Excavations from prehistoric ages show no difference in the graves of men and women; the bodies are treated the same and buried the same way. Early rural villages show the same pattern. Female deities were as powerful and important (if not more so) than the male ones. It isn’t until the nomadic tribes invaded that we find clear male dominance and female suppression. And for the most part, even when China was ruled by a strong patriarchy, control was sparse. China is a huge country, with lots of people spread out thinly for the most part. The female shamans kept on being the village wise people, and women ran businesses as often as men did. The move to general female suppression was slow.

While we in the west tend to think of foot binding when we think about Chinese women, it was actually only practiced by the upper classes. Rural women and poor women needed to be able to work, and that required unbound feet. The Confucian system, that puts women on the bottom of the heap, was actually changed through the centuries to mean that- and changed in a lot of other ways, too.

Griffith takes us through each era in Chinese prehistory and history, first explaining the society of the time in general, and then women’s place in it. He tells us of the empresses, the concubines, the myths, the businesswomen, the peasants, and the goddesses. Even today, a goddess is at the heart of Chinese spirituality- Kwan Yin (Guanyin, and many other names), the goddess of mercy.

While not fast reading, it’s interesting reading. I was made aware of a whole side of Chinese history I had never seen before- despite taking Chinese history in college. I think this book will become a classic in Oriental studies. ( )
  dark_phoenix54 | Aug 11, 2012 |
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