History as the rigorous and systematic study most of us Westerners know and either love or loathe began in ancient Greece, with Herodotus and Thucydides. Those early historians celebrated the great deeds of men (literally men) and their famous chronicles of war and triumph are touchstones in the tradition of Western Humanism. In the past two centuries, the study of history has become even more rigorous and scientific. Holy relics are subjected to carbon dating–our earliest beginnings are sought not just through anthropological evidence but through population genetics, DNA testing.
From the beginning of time, however, humans related to their past through a blend of myth, legend, and recollection of actual events. This is certainly true of religious traditions. I’ve recently learned that Taoism is sometimes called the “Huang-Lao Teaching,” after the “Yellow Emperor,” Huang Di, and the “Old Master,” Lao-tzu. In all honesty, I thought Taoism originated with Lao-tzu and his famous book of aphorisms about the Way, the Tao Te Ching, along with Chuang-tzu, both of whom lived and wrote in the 3rd or 4th Century. Like many proto-hippie seekers, I read the Tao Te Ching as a teenager and young adult, believing that the truth that flowed through it had a different density than the facts and views I picked up in college. The Tao was mystical. The Tao was like water. I had no trouble believing that the English translation I held in my hands (check out the superb Stephen Addis, Stanley Lombardo translation) represented a stream of secret watery mystical wisdom that stretched back to the dawn of Chinese culture–human culture. I knew that the Mysterious Female and Mother Earth ran all through it and as a woman I was all for it. It wasn’t every Eastern Way that told us that women just might “get it” a little more naturally than men.
But I don’t think I fully registered its prehistoric origins and the role of the feminine–expressed in the Tao Te Ching in symbols like water, darkness, the valley, the female, the babe–until now. The Yellow Emperor–the co-founder of Taoism, if you will– is said to have lived in the mid-third millennium B.C.E. He is said to have learned medicine and life extension from two male teachers, and to have learned sexology and magic from two female teachers. All of these “sciences”– and the prominent role of female teachers–are part of Taoism and Chinese culture. According to Taoist lore, Lao Tzu also had a female teacher. There is no hard archeological evidence of the first Hsia Dynasty. Scholars agree that Yellow Emperor, who is credited with introducing civilization to the Chinese people, was probably a local diety who came to be regarded as a historical figure through a process known as euhemerism. Indeed, most scholars doubt the existence of Lao Tzu (although the Chou Dynasty he allegedly fled was materially, historically real, lasting from 1045-256 B.C.E.).
But the Taoist tradition extends back way before the prehistoric Yellow Emperor, Huang Di. According to the Immortal Sisters, translated by Thomas Cleary, there is a “legend of a certain female tribal leader of high antiquity who is said to have ‘patched the sky with five-colored stones’ at some remote time when the pristine completeness of human life and harmony with nature had been lost. Using the traditional keys to Chinese symbolism, Cleary equates the sky with mind and the number five with the center–this prehistoric shamaness centered the minds of human beings at a time when who-knows-what knocked them out of balance and brought them to the brink of destruction. Cleary suggests that the importance of the “five elements” and “five forces” in Chinese thought is a mythic link to the deep past.
How amazing it is to think that there are traditions that flow to us from our earliest common human origins–to think that there may be One Truth or One Way that was first articulated in Neolithic times, based on observations of nature…(in Taosim, particularly important was watching the Yellow River flow). It is even more amazing to think that the secret wisdom of women has transcended and survived the harshest oppression.
Maybe it’s time to look back…for the future.