“Evil” Xena Isn’t Evil: Lao Ma and the Tao Te Ching

Originally published in 2010.
Republished at Sharonda.net on March 17th, 2017.
Added to SMWoodfin.WordPress.com on October 30th, 2017.

How much authority would you say the character Lao Ma was given in the Xenaverse?

From my perspective, the answer to that question would be “Plenty.” She took in a Xena that had lost her way, been crucified and broken, kicked to the curb by Borias, and hunted by dogs. She hid Xena from Ming Tzu by answering with the truth when asked if she was hiding her. She healed Xena’s crippled legs, patched things up between Xena and Borias, ruled a kingdom in Chin at a time when a woman could not have ruled a kingdom in Chin, turned her tyrant husband into a beloved ruler, taught Xena t’ai chi and chi balls and how to break stuff by simply surrendering her will. The woman could do no wrong, and only died because she didn’t want to harm her son, even though he treated her horribly. In a universe where even the heroes are massively flawed, I’d say that’s a lot of pure win packed into one temporary-use character.

And Lao Ma, who could “see into the souls of others” did not see Xena as evil, despite Xena’s kidnapping of Lao Ma’s son, and despite Xena’s attempt to kill Lao Ma, herself.

Why the Hades not?

Because Lao Ma, in the universe of Xena: Warrior Princess, was not only the wife of Lao Tzu, but the true author of his book, the Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing, if you are so inclined). With Lao Ma becoming such a strong influence on Xena, Taoist philosophy inevitably became a part of her make-up, too. And since this is Xena’s world — with proper halvsies to Gabrielle — the Xenaverse must, to some degree, be viewed through a Taoist lens.

And what does the Tao Te Ching say about good and evil? Let’s take a look at the first section of Verse 2 of the Tao Te Ching, as interpreted by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English:

Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other:
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.

The most important line here is “All can know good as good only because there is evil.” Because the two are comparative states, one cannot exist without the other. Since good cannot exist without evil, evil is serving its purpose by enabling good, and that which enables good is good, itself. Once evil is negated by the realization that it, too, is good, all things have become good; and good can no longer exist, because there is no evil to compare it to. A more practical way of viewing this perspective on good and evil is that both are illusions, classifications we’ve drawn in order to process the world around us, but which are ultimately meaningless.

So, the next time you’re watching the series finale, with the commentary turned on, and you hear Lucy Lawless acknowledge that “evil” Xena isn’t really evil, know that she’s speaking the truth. And can we stop calling past Xena “evil”, and maybe just call her “pre-Conqueror”, instead?

PS Two lines from Verse 20, because they also speak to good and evil, but mostly just because I like them:

Is there a difference between good and evil?
Must I fear what others fear? What nonsense!