The Infinite Compassion of the Doctor

When it was first announced by the BBC that Doctor Who had cast the first woman in the title role, a great many ridiculous assertions were made on the internet. One of the silliest among them was that the casting of Jodie Whittaker in a role usually associated with a man would damage a deal that the BBC had recently made for the distribution of Doctor Who in China. I laughed. I know one should not laugh at the ignorance of others, but I couldn’t help it; for above all other nations, China is the one least likely to be offended by a character changing gender from a male to a female.

Why, you may ask? In our Western arrogance, we often think of nations like China as being behind in such matters; but gender fluidity has a place in Chinese culture that is more ancient than our Western civilisation. Let us take a look at the Goddess Guanyin, alternately known as Kuan Yin or the Bodhisattva Avalokitasvara. In the Chinese Buddhist tradition, a Bodhisattva is a person who has achieved Bodhicitta, a compassionate determination to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all living things. In the West, we consider Guanyin to be a Goddess, because that is the nearest Western equivalent to that state of being.

Guanyin is one of the most popular Gods in the Chinese Buddhist tradition and is often depicted in traditional folk art as either female or male. The suggestion is that Guanyin was possessed of such infinite compassion that his/her manifestation transcended gender. Guanyin is seen in Chinese Folk Religion as a protector of children and a champion of the poor and the sick.  It is not hard to see elements of the Doctor in the character of Guanyin. If you were young in the 1980s, you’ll have most likely seen Guanyin in the Japanese television series Monkey, adapted from Journey to the West, a book of folklore tales about Sun Wukong ‘The Monkey King’, written by Chinese writer Wu Ch’êng-Ên in the 16th century and successfully translated into English by Arthur Waley in 1942.

In the early episodes of Monkey, the unruly title character is aided in his quest by the Goddess Guanyin who appears not only in the form of a crow, but also in the body of a man, referred to in the English translation as the Goddess’s ‘male aspect’. Monkey also performs a gender change on Tathāgatta Buddha, usually portrayed as a man, here played by a woman. “I always thought you were a feller!” gasps Monkey in the cheeky English translation, commenting not only on the fluidity of gender in the Chinese pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, but also on the men-as-women tradition of Japanese Kabuki (and conversely women-as-men, as demonstrated by the boy-priest Tripitaka being portrayed by an actress in the series).

Guanyin is not the only gender-fluid deity in Chinese mythology though; the Taoist religious tradition has Lan Caihe, one of the Eight Immortals and a character who started as a low-life drunkard and wandering street entertainer, but achieved immortality through an act of selfless benevolence. Lan Caihe is the patron saint of the poor and the needy and is often represented as either a woman or a man, or a combination of the two, wearing only one shoe and dressed in tattered women’s clothing. In certain legends, the story of Lan Caihe is tied up with that of Sun Wukong, with the latter bestowing centuries of magical powers upon the vagrant. This meeting is not shown in the Monkey TV series, but has appeared in a number of Chinese TV and film productions, with Lan Caihe variously played by both an actor and an actress.

We in the West do a great injustice to think of the attitudes of an ancient culture like the Chinese as being less progressive than our own. They were praying to gender-fluid Gods and Goddesses when we were still worshipping muscle-bound barbarians, so I don’t think they’d have any problem at all with the Doctor being a woman. The idea of men playing women and women playing men has only survived in Great Britain as the campy tradition of Pantomime, but it’s long been a serious theatrical art form in the East. So, if you’re the kind of guy whose masculinity is so fragile that the idea of a woman playing the Doctor is anathema to you… y’know, just suck it up, because our friends on the other side of the world have been being happily not-offended by the concept for centuries.

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