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

August 20, 2012

A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization, by Brian Griffith.   Ashland, OR : Exterminating Angel Press, 2012.

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.

In his first chapter, Griffith explains why he choose to write on a topic about which he had little initial knowledge. He grew up in Houston, an outsider listening to ham radio from other countries and becoming curious about them. Working in Ghana and India, he was impressed with the strength and wisdom of the peasant women. He has written two books on “alternative versions” of Christianity. This book was his first in-depth exploration of Chinese history and culture.

A Galaxy of Goddesses is meant to be a popular book, not a scholarly one, which is fine. But if its audience is to be a general one, the lack of clear organization and analysis is particularly problematic. Griffith uses abundant sources, many of them academic, but he uses them uncritically and unmethodically. He consistently interrupts his narrative about China to insert debatable information about European history and myths or present-day Chinese practices as if they are universally known to be true. Certainly scholarly books have their own flaws, but the lack of rigor about sources and structure in this book show the problems caused by their absence.

The sections of Griffith’s book that I enjoyed and appreciated most were the actual stories of ancient goddesses and of historical Chinese women who were made into goddesses. I wished that Griffith had focused more sharply on such stories and limited himself to shortened, clearer accounts of relevant economic and dynastic shifts and the overall shape of Chinese myths and religions. I would also prefer a book that provides valid reasons to belief what I am being told. And most of all I would like a book that does not depend on vague and culturally limited understanding of “women’s nature” as a determining factor in history.

I read a review copy from LibraryThing.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2012 7:14 pm

    Thanks Marilyn for taking time and energy to critique my book. You are probably right that I included more on history etc. than most people want to deal with. The book is probably too ambitious and includes too much. I see it as a bunch of stories strung together, showing the kinds of heroes and values that many Chinese women have found inspiring over the centuries. The stories and the women themselves do not really offer definitions of women’s nature, or theories of what “yin” consists of. They seldom stress essential differences between men and women, and their main value about relations between the sexes tends to just endorse partnership rather than superiority of one gender over the other. As for valid reasons to believe what the book tells, there are none. It’s a book about women’s folklore, and there’s no more reason to “believe” the stories than there is to believe descriptions of the Grail myths, Robin Hood, or the lore of Krishna. It’s just a question of if people like the folklore and find it inspiring or not.

    • August 27, 2012 9:14 am

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my criticism of your book. I wish you had made the points you make here more clearly in your book. If you you had done so, I think I would have had different expectations and have been more favorable in discussing it. Despite my complaints, I did learn lots from it.

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