Gender and Religion in Catherine Lim's The Bondmaid

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

Right from the very beginning of the novel, Lim makes clear the many connections that exist among religious belief, practice, sexuality, and gender in the traditional Chinese culture within which the narrative unfolds. According to the rules of this imaginative cosmos, the gender divide obtains in Heaven. Female divinities, like earthly women, have less power than men, who may beat and abuse them. Similarly, "gods should not be by-passed for goddesses but might feel no slight if occasionally prayers were re-directed to their female counterparts, understandably occupying smaller temples or shrines.

According to Han's crude, irresponsible father, the male Sky God even assigned and reassigned the biological markers of gender.

Sometimes he liked to gather his children around him to tell them stories.

Long, long ago, it was the men who bled every month, not the women. The men obviously could not use the cloth pads worn by the women but protected their penises with long bamboo shields. These proved very inconvenient in their work of ploughing, sowing and harvesting. So they begged Sky God to take away the inconvenience and give it to the women instead. Sky God pitied them and granted their request.

"Siau, siau," muttered his wife. "Telling such stories to children." [8]

For children remember such stories, make them part of their world, and replay them in their dreams.

Having assigned the curse and blessing of menstruation to women, the Sky God also granted them a share of ultimate power. Twice in the novel Han has dreams in which she intervenes on behalf of her Forgetful Goddess to save her from the Sky God, but although she saves her, Han ends up tragically each time -- once in the world of dreams, and once in that of physical reality. In her first dream vision, which constitutes all of the ninth chapter of the third or "Goddess" division of the novel, she finds herself, puzzled, "sitting on a goddess' throne," surrounded by joss-sticks and other offerings when her "goddess with no eyes or ears" -- the Forgetful Goddess -- approaches as a supplicant, complaining that Sky God, who turns out to be responsible for her forgetfulness, "gets worse and worse. He makes me deaf for one hundred years. Then he beats me'" [278-79].

Sky God came up just then, looking at her. He looked far more ferocious in person than as a statue or effigy in his temple. His eyes were like burning coals. His mouth, rich, red and moist, opened to flash long, white teeth. His breath stirred the black pennants of his beard. The sunburst of gold spears on his back gleamed menacingly.

Still puzzled and unable to understand how she, a mere mortal, can help, she learns from the impatient deity that because her thread bracelet bears "the jade image of Sky God" -- "Foolish god, to allow himself to be graven in stone and gold and jade, and be at the mercy of women" -- they have occasion to hope, and then the goddess asks, "Is it the right time of the month?"

"It is," cried Han joyfully. "I can help you after all."

So she availed herself of her secret blood and brought down the jade image to the secret place.

Sky God screamed, "Not that! Please not that!" But the blood was already on his image. Sky God fell, still screaming,

"Not that! Show mercy!"

"Did you show mercy when you made me deaf and trampled on me?" cried the goddess, advancing upon him.

She laughed to see the golden spears collapse into a useless, tangled heap and the great god trapped in their midst.

"Where are your thunderbolts? Where is your lightning flash? Destroyed by the blood of woman!" [279]

At the point of victory, the goddess persuades her to surrender the pen knife she wears around her neck -- her only gift from Wu -- and with this knife she cuts off the Sky God's penis. Han's participation in this savage battle between the sexes, which seems a dream of female empowerment for her at least, quickly turns even darker, as the victorious goddess persuades her to emasculate Wu, but she only nicks him in the shoulder, and he and all the absusers of women -- Sky God and the Old One -- rape the women they have abused, in the process killing poor Spitface, who has tried to rescue Han.

In the second dream vision, which she has while ill and delerious after the birth of her son, she catches sight of Sky God "harassing the goddess" near the lakeside shrine Han has herself restored.

'Hey!' she shouted at him. 'You have no right to be here!' She had thought this was one spot on earth where his power could not intrude.

'I can be anywhere I like,' laughed Sky God, and continued to torment the goddess, using one of his golden spears to prod her here or poke her there, so that she skipped about helplessly, like a much bullied child.

In answer to Han's query why her Goddess doesn't resist, she is told, "'I can't!' wailed the goddess. 'It is not the right time of the month.'"

Once a month, she had dominance over the god, frightening him with the potent discharge from between her legs. Even goddesses benefitted from the power of woman's biology.

"I can help you, Goddess!" cried Han, and she moved quickly towards Sky God. True enough, he began to show fear and cry out, "No, no, stay away from me! Please stay away!" For a woman's parturitive power was many times greater; the opened womb, discharging child and blood, frightened men into staying away.


As Han advances triumphantly to save her goddess, he flees. "But it was too late, for the god, before he fled howling, picked up the goddess and hurled her into the pond. she fell with a big splash and the dark waters closed over her." [338] Han wades into the pond to save the goddess, who tells her to return to the world: "My work is finished. Yours is about to begin. Go back" [339]. Wu, who has been frantically searching for Han, pulls her out of the water, and they declare their love before Han dies, while Spitface looks on, in what is essentially the tragic finale of a romantic opera by Verdi or Puccini.

As the epilogue tells us, the local people deify Han as "the Goddess with Eyes and Ears" [iii], giving her credit for many miracles while the two wealthy families who have entangled themselves in Han's life suffer increasingly severe misfortune, including the death of the children, until they return to China on the advice of a seer. Only Wu remains:

He said she would come eventually for him, and he would wait for her. The pond dried up, and the shrine fell into decay, but he remained where he was, living in a little ramshackle hut that he had built near the pond, unwaware of the passing of years, and believing, right to the end, that the goddess would one day come for him and that they would be united, not in water and storm, but the splendour of fire. [342-43]

As, in a sense, they are, when Wu finally dies in a fire, probably set, we are led to believe, by property developers whose projects the old man's presence has delayed.


Lim, Catherine. The Bondmaid. [1995] London: Oriel, 1997.

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