The Status of Women in the Song and Tang Dynasties

  • March 27, 2013
  • Editor: Sun Xi
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The Tang Dynasty was one of the most magnificent periods in China's feudal history. Artists paid close attention to the richly colorful society, and were especially interested in displaying the idle and carefree life of aristocratic women. [news.artron.net]

The Tang Dynasty was one of the most magnificent periods in China's feudal history. Artists paid close attention to the richly colorful society, and were especially interested in displaying the idle and carefree life of aristocratic women. [news.artron.net]


While it's no secret that men and women in ancient China were not equal and that men were afforded far more privileges than women, few are aware that the status of women differed from dynasty to dynasty.

During the Shang Dynasty (17 BC-11 BC), Fu Hao [*note], wife of Emperor Wu Geng, stood out as a woman general who led other female warriors in protecting the empire. And during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the government made the unprecedented move of allowing women to sit for the imperial examination and serve as government officials. This was largely because of the female emperor, Wu Zetian. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Yang family was famous for its women generals, so much so that their stories live on in movies and television series until today.

In the book The Course of Sexes: From Song to Qing Dynasty, author Wang Wei compares the status of women in the Song and Tang dynasties. The following opinions are all from his book.

Wang defines the Tang Dynasty as an aristocratic society and the Song Dynasty as a civil society.

"For instance, the prime minister of the Song Dynasty might take a bath in the same public bath house as every one else, which would have been unthinkable in the Tang Dynasty," Wang writes.

He adds that while the Song government didn't intervene much in people's lives, the Han Dynasty government forbade civilians from drinking together or eating meat on days other than holidays.

Although the Tang Dynasty was better than the Han Dynasty in terms of ruling people's lives, the law during the Tang Dynasty still had too many stipulations restricting civilians' daily life, and all the laws were designed to cater to the nobility.

The Tang Dynasty law stipulated that if a man promotes his qie [*note] to the status of wife, they will both be sentenced to jail for one and a half years. And after they get out of jail, they will be forced to divorce, as qie will always be considered a lower class of human being.

When the low class is always the low class, naturally, the nobility will always be the nobility. This discriminative law also ruled that slaves and maidservants could only marry slaves and maidservants, and their children were also destined to be slaves.

Such laws were abolished during the Song Dynasty. If that is not enough to prove that women enjoyed higher social status in the Song Dynasty than in the Tang Dynasty, Wang provides another piece of evidence by discussing the fate of courtesans (*note) during the Tang Dynasty.

In the Tang Dynasty, officials were allowed to openly indulge in dallying with courtesans and the fate of both state-owned prostitutes and prostitutes for the army was extremely unfortunate. According to the law, in certain circumstances, army commanding officers could kill army prostitutes and not be punished, something that would not happen in the Song Dynasty.

The book Zhongwu Jianwen (The Record of the Suzhou Prefecture) states, "When the poet Bai Juyi was ruling the prefecture, he often brought ten courtesans to take a night tour of the Huqiu Temple beside the West Lake of Suzhou, east China's Jiangsu Province. He wrote a lot of poems based on these nights. It can be seen that officials back then had a lot of leisure time and the environment was more tolerant of officials' behavior. If he had done that during the Song Dynasty today, he would have been punished."

During the Song Dynasty, with the rise in their status and less discrimination, prostitutes could attend many large-scale social events. The book Mengliang Lu on people's lives in Linan City, the capital of the southern Song Dynasty, records that one family invited courtesans to help them celebrate a wedding. The courtesans played instruments, read poems and held lotus-shaped candles to guide the carriages and horses to fetch the bride.

Although people today remember the Tang Dynasty for its prosperity and strength, and criticize the weakness of the Song Dynasty, Wang states that the latter dynasty was better in every way, from the lands it ruled to the status of its social members.

"In judging a society, we need to see if the statuses of its social members are equal in society. And the most basic one is gender equality, in which the Song Dynasty was clearly superior to the Tang Dynasty," Wang writes.

He goes on to describe the respect accorded to mothers during the Song Dynasty, beginning with the royal family.

According to him, the Song Dynasty had the most empress dowagers who attended to state affairs. In most dynasties of ancient China, the imperial harem was not allowed to interfere with state affairs. But one of the Song empress dowagers made such significant contributions that she was honored as a 'Female Yao Shun', Yao and Shun being the two heads of famous tribes established along the Yellow River, whose virtue and integrity were praised by generations of scholars. It was an accolade not even accorded to the famous female Emperor Wu Zetian.

In short, it had become a tradition during the Song Dynasty to have empress dowagers involved in state affairs. Because of these women leaders, society sympathized with women, understood them and recognized them as independent individuals.

Historical records also contain accounts of a domestic violence case in which a man beat his wife to death. When the incident was brought to the attention of the empress dowager, she said angrily, "Husband and wife are one body. What could possible make him beat his wife to death?"

The situation was also the same in officials' families. The famous aphorism 'The son wants to serve his parents in their old age, but they are no more,' was actually written by an official in a tribute to his late mother. Many officials during the Song Dynasty wrote similar tributes grieving for their mothers.

Despite the overall feudal environment, many Chinese women in history still lived good lives and managed to shine in the society of their time. It is in part thanks to their efforts that Chinese women today have been accorded the opportunity to achieve great accomplishments in so many aspects today, from the arts to the business world to space exploration.

Note:

Fu Hao (Chinese: 妇好; died c. 1200 BC) was one of the many wives of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty and, unusually for that time, also served as a military general and high priestess. Her tomb was unearthed at Yinxu, the site of one of the major, ancient historical capitals of China near to the Hebei and Shanxi province borders. It was intact with treasures such as bronze and jade pieces. Inside the pit was evidence of a wooden chamber 5 meters long, 3.5 meters wide and 1.3 meters high containing a lacquered wooden coffin that has since completely rotted away.

Qie (in Chinese 妾):In ancient China, a man could marry many women, who were classified according to different family and social status. Usually in a civilian family, a man could only have one wife and the other women they married could only be Qie, who could never be compared to the wife in every aspect of life. The wife would be in charge around the house and she had the right to sell Qie to others. And a Qie's social status might be no higher than a maid, with no personal freedom. Her children were also considered to be inferior to the children of the wife.

Ancient China's courtesans: In ancient China, courtesans were not necessarily involved with the sex trade. Many of them provided company to their guests and entertained them with their skills in instrument playing, dance, I-go, calligraphy, literature, and painting.

Bai Juyi (Chinese: 白居易; 772–846) was a Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. Many of his poems concern his career or observations made as a government official, including as governor of three different provinces.

(Source: ifeng.com/Translated and edited by womenofchina.cn)

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  • The Status of Women in the Song and Tang Dynasties2013-03-27   Editor: Sun Xi

    The Tang Dynasty was one of the most magnificent periods in China's feudal history. Artists paid close attention to the richly colorful society, and were especially interested in displaying the idle and carefree life of aristocratic women. [news.artron.net]

    The Tang Dynasty was one of the most magnificent periods in China's feudal history. Artists paid close attention to the richly colorful society, and were especially interested in displaying the idle and carefree life of aristocratic women. [news.artron.net]


    While it's no secret that men and women in ancient China were not equal and that men were afforded far more privileges than women, few are aware that the status of women differed from dynasty to dynasty.

    During the Shang Dynasty (17 BC-11 BC), Fu Hao [*note], wife of Emperor Wu Geng, stood out as a woman general who led other female warriors in protecting the empire. And during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the government made the unprecedented move of allowing women to sit for the imperial examination and serve as government officials. This was largely because of the female emperor, Wu Zetian. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Yang family was famous for its women generals, so much so that their stories live on in movies and television series until today.

    In the book The Course of Sexes: From Song to Qing Dynasty, author Wang Wei compares the status of women in the Song and Tang dynasties. The following opinions are all from his book.

    Wang defines the Tang Dynasty as an aristocratic society and the Song Dynasty as a civil society.

    "For instance, the prime minister of the Song Dynasty might take a bath in the same public bath house as every one else, which would have been unthinkable in the Tang Dynasty," Wang writes.

    He adds that while the Song government didn't intervene much in people's lives, the Han Dynasty government forbade civilians from drinking together or eating meat on days other than holidays.

    Although the Tang Dynasty was better than the Han Dynasty in terms of ruling people's lives, the law during the Tang Dynasty still had too many stipulations restricting civilians' daily life, and all the laws were designed to cater to the nobility.

    The Tang Dynasty law stipulated that if a man promotes his qie [*note] to the status of wife, they will both be sentenced to jail for one and a half years. And after they get out of jail, they will be forced to divorce, as qie will always be considered a lower class of human being.

    When the low class is always the low class, naturally, the nobility will always be the nobility. This discriminative law also ruled that slaves and maidservants could only marry slaves and maidservants, and their children were also destined to be slaves.

    Such laws were abolished during the Song Dynasty. If that is not enough to prove that women enjoyed higher social status in the Song Dynasty than in the Tang Dynasty, Wang provides another piece of evidence by discussing the fate of courtesans (*note) during the Tang Dynasty.

    In the Tang Dynasty, officials were allowed to openly indulge in dallying with courtesans and the fate of both state-owned prostitutes and prostitutes for the army was extremely unfortunate. According to the law, in certain circumstances, army commanding officers could kill army prostitutes and not be punished, something that would not happen in the Song Dynasty.

    The book Zhongwu Jianwen (The Record of the Suzhou Prefecture) states, "When the poet Bai Juyi was ruling the prefecture, he often brought ten courtesans to take a night tour of the Huqiu Temple beside the West Lake of Suzhou, east China's Jiangsu Province. He wrote a lot of poems based on these nights. It can be seen that officials back then had a lot of leisure time and the environment was more tolerant of officials' behavior. If he had done that during the Song Dynasty today, he would have been punished."

    During the Song Dynasty, with the rise in their status and less discrimination, prostitutes could attend many large-scale social events. The book Mengliang Lu on people's lives in Linan City, the capital of the southern Song Dynasty, records that one family invited courtesans to help them celebrate a wedding. The courtesans played instruments, read poems and held lotus-shaped candles to guide the carriages and horses to fetch the bride.

    Although people today remember the Tang Dynasty for its prosperity and strength, and criticize the weakness of the Song Dynasty, Wang states that the latter dynasty was better in every way, from the lands it ruled to the status of its social members.

    "In judging a society, we need to see if the statuses of its social members are equal in society. And the most basic one is gender equality, in which the Song Dynasty was clearly superior to the Tang Dynasty," Wang writes.

    He goes on to describe the respect accorded to mothers during the Song Dynasty, beginning with the royal family.

    According to him, the Song Dynasty had the most empress dowagers who attended to state affairs. In most dynasties of ancient China, the imperial harem was not allowed to interfere with state affairs. But one of the Song empress dowagers made such significant contributions that she was honored as a 'Female Yao Shun', Yao and Shun being the two heads of famous tribes established along the Yellow River, whose virtue and integrity were praised by generations of scholars. It was an accolade not even accorded to the famous female Emperor Wu Zetian.

    In short, it had become a tradition during the Song Dynasty to have empress dowagers involved in state affairs. Because of these women leaders, society sympathized with women, understood them and recognized them as independent individuals.

    Historical records also contain accounts of a domestic violence case in which a man beat his wife to death. When the incident was brought to the attention of the empress dowager, she said angrily, "Husband and wife are one body. What could possible make him beat his wife to death?"

    The situation was also the same in officials' families. The famous aphorism 'The son wants to serve his parents in their old age, but they are no more,' was actually written by an official in a tribute to his late mother. Many officials during the Song Dynasty wrote similar tributes grieving for their mothers.

    Despite the overall feudal environment, many Chinese women in history still lived good lives and managed to shine in the society of their time. It is in part thanks to their efforts that Chinese women today have been accorded the opportunity to achieve great accomplishments in so many aspects today, from the arts to the business world to space exploration.

    Note:

    Fu Hao (Chinese: 妇好; died c. 1200 BC) was one of the many wives of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty and, unusually for that time, also served as a military general and high priestess. Her tomb was unearthed at Yinxu, the site of one of the major, ancient historical capitals of China near to the Hebei and Shanxi province borders. It was intact with treasures such as bronze and jade pieces. Inside the pit was evidence of a wooden chamber 5 meters long, 3.5 meters wide and 1.3 meters high containing a lacquered wooden coffin that has since completely rotted away.

    Qie (in Chinese 妾):In ancient China, a man could marry many women, who were classified according to different family and social status. Usually in a civilian family, a man could only have one wife and the other women they married could only be Qie, who could never be compared to the wife in every aspect of life. The wife would be in charge around the house and she had the right to sell Qie to others. And a Qie's social status might be no higher than a maid, with no personal freedom. Her children were also considered to be inferior to the children of the wife.

    Ancient China's courtesans: In ancient China, courtesans were not necessarily involved with the sex trade. Many of them provided company to their guests and entertained them with their skills in instrument playing, dance, I-go, calligraphy, literature, and painting.

    Bai Juyi (Chinese: 白居易; 772–846) was a Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. Many of his poems concern his career or observations made as a government official, including as governor of three different provinces.

    (Source: ifeng.com/Translated and edited by womenofchina.cn)

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