The Tang Dynasty ( 618 - 907 BC )

A Women of the Tang Dynasty

DURING China's feudal epoch, society was male-centered. There was consequently a pervasive belief in man's superiority over woman that continued as the ruling ideology throughout feudal society. Women were thus regarded as little more than bond servants in feudal China.

At this time, male dominance was guaranteed and maintained by certain norms. The three cardinal guides (ruler guides subject, father guides son, and husband guides wife) and the five constant virtues (benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and sincerity) defined social behavior, and the three obediences (in ancient China a woman was required to obey her father before marriage, her husband during marriage, and her sons in widowhood) and four virtues (women's fidelity, physical charm, propriety in speech and proficiency at needle work) guided the family order.

In feudal China, women had no say at all as regards their marriage partner, being expected to comply unconditionally with their parents or brothers' arrangements. Women had neither the right to divorce their husbands, nor to remarry. Whether or not a woman outlived her husband, she was permitted to marry only once in her lifetime. On the other hand, a husband could lawfully abandon his wife if she committed one of the seven sins: being unfilial, barren, lascivious, jealous, succumbed to a repellent disease, meddling, or stealing.

Having such a low social and familial status, women could not even dream of filling a place within the political and economic realm.

During the long, dark period of Chinese feudal history that lasted more than 2,000 years, however, there was a brief and sunny respite for ancient downtrodden Chinese women. This was during the 618 to 765 zenith of the Tang Dynasty. Scholars from later ages agree that, compared to the majority of ancient Chinese women, those of the Tang Dynasty were blessed to have lived at this propitious time.

Lucky Ladies of the Tang Dynasty

Women of the Tang Dynasty were fortunate to live at a time characterized by open-mindedness and liberal ideas.

After Emperor Taizong (Li Shimin) ascended the throne, Chinese politics, economics, culture, and national and foreign relations all underwent great development. National cohesion, and foreign spiritual and material civilization wielded great influence on the Tang Dynasty, greatly accelerating its progress. Li Shimin and other capable emperors adopted a series of guidelines and policies that could enrich the country and benefit the people, thus laying firm foundations for the later prosperity of the Tang Dynasty as embodied by the Zhenguan Governance and the Splendor of Kaiyuan.

At the peak of the Tang Dynasty, advanced productivity and a strong economic basis were also reflected in the fields of philosophy, politics, culture, art, social ethics, and, most significantly, female social status.

Shortly after the establishment of the Tang Dynasty, the imperial court decreed a favorable land allocation and taxation system in order to resume and develop agricultural production, which at the time took a leading role in the national economy. According to the new system, the government allocated land to both male householders and widows, the latter being given a greater share of land if they had dependants. With their own land on which to live, women could be more economically independent.

According to the Tang Code, a couple wishing to divorce on the basis of mutual consent and a peaceful process were not to be punished. This signifies that the law protected people's right to divorce through consultation. Historical records show that it was not unusual for women to divorce or remarry at this time. As a contrast to the prevailing attitude of other feudal dynasties, a widow was not considered to be "unchaste" if she remarried. A Tang Dynasty divorce agreement, unearthed from Dunhuang, reads: "Since we cannot live together harmoniously, we had better separate. I hope that after the divorce, niangzi (a form of address for one's wife) can be as young and beautiful as before, and may you find a more satisfactory husband. I hope that the divorce will not plant hatred between us in the future." This divorce agreement reflects not only the Tang women's equality within marriage but also the general open-mindedness of the Tang people.

Women of the royal family were not subject to marital restrictions or constraints either. From the reign of Emperor Gaozong to that of Emperor Suzong during the early and middle Tang Dynasty, there were altogether 98 princesses, of which 61 married, among whom 24 remarried, and four married three times. This trend shook the very foundations of traditional feudal ethics.

During the Tang Dynasty, it was common for the Han to intermarry with other ethnic groups or foreigners, and there was a law protecting Sino-foreign intermarriage. According to historical records: "Many huren (people of non-Han origin) who had lived in Chang'an for a long time married Han women and produced children." "Huren intermarry with the Han people, and now many youngsters in Chang'an are of mixed blood." Female members of the royal family were also married to other nationalities. Seven of Emperor Gaozu's 19 daughters were married to men of other nationalities, and eight of Emperor Taizong's 21 daughters took foreign husbands. In the 15th year (641) of the Zhenguan era, Princess Wencheng was married to the king of Tubo. She brought many advanced production techniques to Tubo, making a great contribution to the friendship and cultural exchanges between the Han and Tibetan people.

The Tang Dynasty attached great importance to education, and Tang women were granted the same rights to, and opportunities for, education as men. This splendid dynasty is probably most celebrated for its wealth of great poets. The Complete Poetry of the Tang contains over 50,000 poems written by more than 2,000 poets, of whom at least 20 were influential figures in the history of Chinese literature. There were also many famous poetesses, of whom Shangguan Wan'er is representative. Shangguan's poems were in a style of all her own -- the Shangguan style, which provided much inspiration for Li Bai, the most famous of all ancient Chinese poets. In the Tang Dynasty, writing poetry was not merely the privilege pursuit of noblewomen but was also practiced by those of common origins.

Tang women also had the chance to learn history, politics, and military skills. At the founding of this dynasty, Princess Pingyang personally participated in battles, having led a detachment of women to help her father, Emperor Gaozu. Princess Taiping, daughter of Emperor Gaozong, twice suppressed mutinies inside the imperial court at critical times.

Living within a relaxed social environment, and having an independent social status, the behavior of well-educated Tang women was obviously quite different from that of the women of former dynasties. They could drink wine to the limit of their capacity, and sing loudly in taverns; gallop through the suburbs with abandon; or even compete with men on the polo field. In the Tang Dynasty, women conducted social activities and carried on business independently. They even distinguished themselves within the political arena, a prime example being Empress Zhangsun -- the most virtuous empress in China.

Virtuous Empress

Empress Zhangsun was the wife of Emperor Taizong (Li Shimin). She was of Xianbei (an ancient ethnic group in China) origin. Zhangsun grew up on the central plains and received a very good education there, having a particularly good command of literature and history. At the time of Li Shimin's rivalry for the throne with his royal brothers, Zhangsun repeatedly cleared Li Shimin before Emperor Gaozu of the misdeeds with which he had been falsely framed. During the Xuanwumen Mutiny (in which Emperor Gaozu's sons fought for the throne), Zhangsun made a personal appearance in order to raise the army's morale, thus ultimately helping Li Shimin get rid of his political enemies.

After being crowned empress, Zhangsun continued to live a simple life and prevented her relatives from obtaining official ranks through her influence. She would often advise Li Shimin to solicit useful suggestions and advice from courtiers. Wei Zheng, the prime minister during the reign of Emperor Taizong, was frequently blunt when remonstrating with the emperor. Sometimes Emperor Taizong was so infuriated that he threatened to behead Wei Zheng without further ado, but each time, it was Empress Zhangsun who poured oil on the troubled waters and protected the loyal prime minister.

As mistress of the imperial harem, Empress Zhangsun was very considerate to the emperor's concubines, treating their children as her own. On hearing that any one of the concubines was ill, she would dose her with her own medicine. All concubines deeply respected Empress Zhangsun, and they lived together harmoniously, thus giving the emperor optimum time to handle state affairs.

At the 10th year (636) of the Zhenguan Era, Empress Zhangsun died of illness at the age of 36. Before her death, she left a will asking for a simple burial, and advising Emperor Taizong to take heed of earnest advice and to be good to the common people. Emperor Taizong deeply mourned Zhangsun's death, and built a high platform inside the royal palace, from where he could see the Zhao Mausoleum where his beloved empress had been laid to rest.

Empress Wu Zetian

The ultimate Tang Dynasty woman was undoubtedly Wu Zetian. There were altogether 243 emperors during the 2,000 years from the beginning of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC) to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1911), and Wu Zetian was the only female monarch among them. Wu Zetian was the most legendary and controversial figure in Chinese history. She lived to be 82, and held power for 50 years.

Wu Zetian was born into an official's family in Wenshui, Shanxi Province. She was not only beautiful but also very intelligent. Although bestowed with strong female charm and grace, Wu Zetian was firm and unyielding in all her dealings. She entered the palace at the age of 14 and was assigned to wait upon Emperor Taizong, who gave her the name Mei, meaning charming and lovely, in acknowledgement of her beauty. But she did not like this name. After taking over power, she changed her name to Zhao (meaning the light of the sun and the moon illuminating every corner of the land). Wu Zetian was an uncompromising woman. At one time there was a wild and savage horse in the palace stables that no one could tame. Wu Zetian said that the way to deal with it was first to beat it with an iron whip, and if that did not work, to kill it. Wu Zetian was initially conferred the title of cairen (concubine of medium rank), but was unable to win much favor with Emperor Taizong. She worked as his secretary for 12 years, but she was neither promoted nor able to give birth to his child. Emperor Taizong's son, Li Zhi, however, was deeply infatuated with her. After the death of Taizong, Li Zhi was enthroned and Wu Zetian became empress. The emperor and empress ruled the country jointly. Since Li Zhi had delicate health, Wu Zetian was the actual ruler of the country. When Li Zhi died, Wu Zetian managed to stabilize the political situation based on her abundant experience of political intrigue. In 690, Wu Zetian ascended the throne and changed the title of the dynasty to Zhou. She disposed of all her political enemies and established the Wu family court. As monarch, she was a hardworking, sagacious and caring ruler. During Wu Zetian's reign, the country maintained its prosperity and the people lived in peace. The tribes who lived at the time of the newly established Zhou Dynasty all pledged allegiance to the empress.

Having worked as Emperor Taizong's secretary for 12 years, Wu Zetian was very familiar with the former emperor's main priorities in his management of state affairs, many of which she followed, for example, his stress on agriculture, reducing tax and corvee, practicing a peaceful foreign policy, and widely soliciting advice and suggestions.

The empress took great care to select talented people and put them in important positions. She also encouraged and supported female participation in politics. Shangguan Wan'er is a perfect example. Both her grandfather and father had been killed for opposing Wu Zetian's accession to power, and the young Wan'er and her mother were employed as maidservants at the palace where Wan'er received a very good education. She not only wrote beautiful poetry, but also gained an intimate knowledge of state affairs. Wu Zetian greatly appreciated her ability, and appointed Wan'er as her personal aide. Shangguan Wan'er proved her worth to the empress, not only through her ability to participate in the decision-making required by the memorials to the throne, but also by drafting imperial edicts for the empress. Shangguan once even acted as chief examiner of the final imperial examination. After Wu Zetian died, Shangguan Wan'er remained at court to assist Emperor Zhongzong in governing the country.

Wu Zetian was very tolerant of different opinions emanating from her subordinates. Xu Yougong was the official in charge of the judiciary, but would often confront the empress with his dissatisfaction at some of the court verdicts. On one occasion, Wu Zetian became so incensed that she issued an order to behead Xu, but just as the execution was about to start, she pardoned him, instead demoting him to a commoner. When her anger had abated, she continued to solicit Xu's opinion, and reinstated him as head of the judiciary. In conclusion, Wu Zetian was an empress of status, power, and outstanding achievement.

Merits or Demerits, History Has the Verdict


In order to maintain social stability, just before her death Wu Zetian decided to return state power to the Tang Dynasty. However, the shock waves caused by her behavior have never subsided. Even today, there are still opposing opinions as regards her conduct and her personality. No matter whether the epithet "iron hand empress" is complimentary or pejorative, no one can deny the history she created. During Wu Zetian's reign, the achievements of her predecessors were carried forward and further developed, eventually bringing the Tang Dynasty to the peak of its Kaiyuan splendor. Within the Tang Dynasty's centuries-long prosperity, 50 years can be accredited to Wu Zetian. It was the Tang Dynasty that created Empress Wu Zetian, and this indomitable woman reciprocated by devoting her life and energies to her people.

Wu Zetian left orders that upon her death a tablet should be erected in front of the tomb in which she and Emperor Gaozong were buried, but that this tablet be left blank. In Wu Zetian's view, the merits and demerits of her life were subject to the evaluation of history alone. As empress she enjoyed emperor status and the people's support, but as a woman she had sacrificed almost everything -- relatives, friends, love, and ultimately, her life. How could a few words inscribed on a tablet hope to reflect the joys and woes of her life and the fickleness of the world she inhabited?

As well as being an outstanding politician, Wu Zetian was also a great poetess and calligrapher. Versatile as she was, however, her passing nevertheless filled her subjects with a sense of desolation.

Yang Yuhuan was another unforgettable woman of the Tang Dynasty. She was extremely beautiful and also proficient in dance and music. Yang Yuhuan was very much in love with Emperor Xuanzong, and the two were inseparable. This, however, incurred strong disapproval from the emperor's subordinates, and in the end, as the pair fled from the rebel army, Yang Yuhuan was forced to hang herself.

Unlike Wu Zetian, Yang Yuhuan had no hand in politics, despite being the highest-ranking imperial concubine, yet, whether or not they entered into the politics of the time, both women were strongly discriminated against on the basis of their gender. Although Wu Zetian and Yang Yuhuan both lived in the open-minded Tang Dynasty, they could still not completely shake off the prejudice and bigotry that the feudal ethical code directed at them, especially within political struggle.

In retrospect, the so-called lucky women of the Tang Dynasty may not have been fortunate enough to inspire the envy of today's women, but the Tang women's contribution towards advancing historical progress is undeniable and admirable.

By staff reporter HUO JIANYING November 2001 China Today