Concepts of women's social rights and social status during the Tang era were notably liberal-minded for the period. However, this was largely reserved for urban women of elite status, as men and women in the rural countryside labored hard in their different set of tasks; with wives and daughters responsible for more domestic tasks of weaving textiles and rearing of silk worms, while men tended to farming in the fields. There were many women in the Tang era who gained access to religious authority by taking vows as Daoist priestesses. The head mistresses of the bordellos in the North Hamlet of the capital Chang'an acquired large amounts of wealth and power. Their high-class courtesans, who likely influenced the Japanese geishas, were well respected. These courtesans were known as great singers and poets, supervised banquets and feasts, knew the rules to all the drinking games, and were trained to have the utmost respectable table manners. There were some prominent court women after the era of Empress Wu, such as Yang Guifei (719–756), who had Emperor Xuanzong appoint many of her relatives and cronies to important ministerial and martial positions. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Although they were renowned for their polite behavior, the courtesans were known to dominate the conversation amongst elite men, and were not afraid to openly castigate or criticize prominent male guests who talked too much or too loudly, boasted too much of their accomplishments, or had in some way ruined dinner for everyone by rude behavior (on one occasion a courtesan even beat up a drunken man who had insulted her). When singing to entertain guests, courtesans not only composed the lyrics to their own songs, but they popularized a new form of lyrical verse by singing lines written by various renowned and famous men in Chinese history. +

It was fashionable for women to be full-figured (or plump). Men enjoyed the presence of assertive, active women. The foreign horse-riding sport of polo from Persia became a wildly popular trend amongst the Chinese elite, and women often played the sport (as glazed earthenware figurines from the time period portray). The preferred hairstyle for women was to bunch their hair up like "an elaborate edifice above the forehead", while affluent ladies wore extravagant head ornaments, combs, pearl necklaces, face powders, and perfumes. A law was passed in 671 which attempted to force women to wear hats with veils again in order to promote decency, but these laws were ignored as some women started wearing caps and even no hats at all, as well as men's riding clothes and boots, and tight-sleeved bodices. +

Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Empress Wu womeninworldhistory.com ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ;

Analects for Women

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Confucius had very little to say about the roles and expectations of women in the family or in society. Thus it was left for Confucian scholars to apply the principles enunciated by Confucius and Mencius to the task of prescribing expectations and behavioral norms for women in a Confucian family and a Confucian society. To these scholars also fell the task of justifying the education of women and the task of laying forth the parameters and techniques for the education of girls and women. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Two of the most influential scholars in this area were women of the Tang dynasty: Song Ruohua and her sister, Song Ruozhao. Both were daughters of a high-ranking Tang official, Song Fen. Ruohua wrote the text below, while her sister, Ruozhao, propagated it. Ruozhao did not marry, but dedicated her life to the instruction of women, being invited to the court of the Tang Dezong Emperor in the late eighth century to serve as instructor of the royal princesses. The “Analects for Women” was one of the most popular texts for women’s education in pre-modern China.

Song Ruozhao wrote in “Analects for Women”: “To be a woman, you must first learn how to establish yourself as a person. The way to do this is simply by working hard to establish one’s purity and chastity. By purity, one keeps one’s self undefiled; by chastity, one preserves one’s honor. [Source:“Analects for Women by Song Ruozhao, A.D. 8th Century, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 827-831 ]

“When walking, don’t turn your head; when talking, don’t open your mouth wide; when sitting, don’t move your knees; when standing, don’t rustle your skirts; when happy, don’t exult withloud laughter; when angry, don’t raise your voice. The inner and outer quarters are each distinct; the sexes should be segregated. Don’t peer over the outer wall or go beyond the outer courtyard. If you have to go outside, cover your face; if you peep outside, conceal yourself as much as possible. Do not be on familiar terms with men outside the family; have nothing to do with women of bad character. Establish your proper self so as to become a [true] human being.

Analects for Women: On Chores and Work

Tang dancer

Song Ruozhao wrote in “Analects for Women”: “Learning How to WorkTo be a woman one must learn the details of women’s work. Learn how to weave with hemp and ramie; don’t mix fine and rough fibers. Don’t run the shuttle of the loom so quickly that you make a mess. When you see the silkworms spinning their cocoons, you must attend to them day and night, picking mulberry leaves to feed them. … Learn how to cut out shoes and make socks. Learn how to cut fabric and sew it into garments. Learn how to embroider, mend, and darn. [Source:“Analects for Women by Song Ruozhao, A.D. 8th Century, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 827-831 ]

“Do not learn the ways of lazy women who from an early age are silly and shiftless and who have a distaste for women’s work. They don’t plan ahead in making clothes to fit the needs of each season and hardly ever pick up a needle to sew. … Married, they bring shame upon their new family, who go around in ill-fitted, patched, and ragged clothing, so that meeting others they are pointed to as the laughingstock of the neighborhood...Their inconsiderate manners are displayed to all their neighbors, to the humiliation of theirparents-in-law. Talked about by everyone, how can they not be overcome with shame!

“Rising Early [to Begin Household Work]: To be a woman one must learn to make it a regular practice, at the fifth watch when the cock crows, to rise and dress. After cleaning your face and teeth, fix your hair and makeup simply. Then go to the kitchen, light the fire, and start the morning meal. Scrub the pots and wash the pans; boil the tea water and cook the gruel. Plan your meals according to the resources of the family and the seasons of the year, making sure that they are fragrant and tasty, served in the appropriate dishes and in the proper manner at the table. If you start early, there is nothing you can’t get done in a day!

“Do not learn the ways of those lazy women who are thoughtless and do not plan ahead. The sun is already high in the sky before they manage to get themselves out of bed. Then they stagger to the kitchen, disheveled and unwashed, and throw a meal together, long past the hour. What is more, they are overly fond of eating and compete to get the tastiest morsels at each meal. If there is not enough of the best to go around, they steal some to eat later on the sly.

“Managing the Household: A woman who manages the household should be thrifty and diligent. If she is diligent, the household thrives; if lazy, it declines. If she is thrifty, the household becomes enriched; if extravagant, it becomes impoverished … If your husband has money and rice, store and conserve them. If he has wine or foodstuffs, save and keep them for the use of guests when they come; do not take any to indulge your own desires. Great wealth is a matter of fate and fortune; a little wealth comes from persistent thrift… Thus a couple may be blessed with riches and enjoy life.”

Analects for Women: Proper Etiquette

Song Ruozhao wrote in “Analects for Women”: “Ritual Decorum: Learning Proper Etiquette: To be a woman one must learn the rules of ritual decorum. When you expect a female guest, carefully clean and arrange the furniture and tea implements. When she arrives, take time to adjust your clothing, and then, with light steps and your hands drawn up in your sleeves, walk slowly to the door and with lowered voice, invite her in. Ask after her health and how her family is doing. Be attentive to what she says. After chatting in a leisurely way, serve the tea. When she leaves, send her off in a proper manner.[Source:“Analects for Women by Song Ruozhao, A.D. 8th Century, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 827-831 ]

“If you are invited to someone’s house, understand your female duties and help with the preparation of the tea. After having talked for a time, rise to leave. Don’t overstay your welcome. If your hostess presses you to stay longer to share a meal, conduct yourself with propriety. Don’t drink so much that your face turns red and you get sloppy in the handling of your chopsticks. Take your leave before all the food is gone and before you forget your manners.

“Entertaining Guests: Most families have guests. You should have hot water and clean bottles, and keep the table clean and neat, ready for guests. When a guest arrives, serve him tea and then retire to the rear of the hall and await your husband’s orders about the meal. Don’t learn the ways of the lazy woman who doesn’t attend to household matters anyway, so that when a guest arrives, the place is in a mess and she is unprepared to offer him tea right away. She is so flustered that she loses her head. If her husband asks the guest to stay for a meal, she is annoyed and loses her temper. She has chopsticks but no soup spoons, soy sauce but no vinegar. She scolds and slaps the servants around, to her husband’s great chagrin and the guest’s embarrassment.”

Analects for Women: on Parents-in-Law and Husbands

Song Ruozhao wrote in “Analects for Women”: “Serving One’s Parents-in-Law: Your father-in-law and mother-in-law are the heads of your husband’s family … You must care for them as your own father and mother- Respectfully serve your father-in-law. Do not look at him directly [when he speaks to you], do not follow him around, and do not engage him in conversation. If he has an order for you, listen and obey. [Source:“Analects for Women by Song Ruozhao, A.D. 8th Century, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 827-831]

“When your mother-in-law is sitting, you should stand. When she gives an order, you should carry it out right away. Rise early in the morning and open up the household, but don’t make any noise that would disturb your mother-in-law’s sleep. Sweep and mop the floors, wash and rinse the clothes. When your mother-in-law wakes up, present her with her toiletry articles, withdraw while she bathes until she beckons you. Greet her and then withdraw. Prepare tea and broth; set out spoons and chopsticks. As long known, the aged have poor teeth, so you should be especially careful in the preparation of food for them, so that they might enjoy their old age with all sorts of delicacies, cooked in a manner that allows them to be easily chewed and swallowed. At night before retiring, check to see if they are comfortably settled for the night. Bid them good night and then go to bed.

“Serving a Husband: Women leave their families to marry, and the husband is the master of the household [they marry into]. … The husband is to be firm, the wife soft; conjugal affections follow from this. While at home, the two of you should treat each other with the formality and reserve of a guest. Listen carefully to and obey whatever your husband tells you. If he does something wrong, gently correct him. Don’t be like those women who not only do not correct their husbands but actually lead them into indecent ways. … Don’t imitate those shrewish wives who love to clash head on with their husbands all the time. Take care of your husband’s clothing so that he is never cold in winter, and of his meals so that he never gets thin and sickly from not being fed enough. As a couple, you and your husband share the bitter and the sweet, poverty and riches. In life you share the same bed; in death the same grave.

Analects for Women: Instructing Sons and Daughters

Song Ruozhao wrote in “Analects for Women”: “Most all families have sons and daughters. As they grow and develop, there should be adefinite sequence and order in their education. But the authority/responsibility to instruct them rests solely with the mother. When the sons go out to school, they seek instruction from a teacher who teaches them proper [ritual] form and etiquette, how to chant poetry, how to write essays. [Source:“Analects for Women by Song Ruozhao, A.D. 8th Century, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 827-831 ]

“Daughters remain behind in the women’s quarters and should not be allowed to go out very often. … Teach them sewing, cooking, and etiquette. … Don’t allow them to be indulged, lest they throw tantrums to get their own way; don’t allow them to defy authority, lest they become rude and haughty; don’t allow them to sing songs, lest they become dissolute; and don’t allow them to go on outings, lest some scandal spoil their good names.

“Worthy of derision are those who don’t take charge of their responsibility [in this area]. The sons of such women remain illiterate, they poke fun at their elders, they get into fights and drink too much, and they become addicted to singing and dancing. … The daughters of such women know nothing about ritual decorum, speak in an overbearing manner, can’t distinguish between the honorable and the mean, and don’t know how to serve or sew. They bring shame on their honorable relatives and disgrace on their father and mother. Mothers who fail to raise their children correctly are as if they had raised pigs and rats!”

House Instructions of Mr- Yan: On Instructing Children

Yan Zhitui wrote in “House Instructions of Mr. Yan”: “Those of the highest intelligence will develop without being taught; those of great stupidity, even if taught, will amount to nothing; those of medium ability will be ignorant unless taught. [Source:“House Instructions of Mr. Yan (Yanshi Jiaxun)” by Yan Zhitui, A.D. 531-591, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 541-546 ^=^]

“The ancient sage kings had rules for prenatal training. Women when pregnant for three months moved from their living quarters to a detached palace where they would not see unwholesome sights nor hear reckless words, and where the tone of music and the flavor of food were controlled by the rules of decorum [rites]. These rules were written on jade tablets and kept in a golden box. After the child was born, imperial tutors firmly made clear filial piety, humaneness, the rites, and rightness to guide and train him. ^=^

“The common people are indulgent and are unable to do this. But as soon as a baby can recognize facial expressions and understand approval and disapproval, training should be begun so that he will do what he is told to do and stop when so ordered. After a few years of this, punishment with the bamboo can be minimized, as parental strictness and dignity mingled with parental love will lead the boys and girls to a feeling of respect and caution and give rise to filial piety. I have noticed about me that where there is merely love without training this result is never achieved. Children eat, drink, speak, and act as they please. Instead of needed prohibitions they receive praise; instead of urgent reprimands they receive smiles. Even when children are old enough to learn, such treatment is still regarded as the proper method. Only after the child has formed proud and arrogant habits do they try to control him. But one may whip the child to death and he will still not be respectful, while the growing anger of the parents only increases his resentment. After he grows up, such a child becomes at last nothing but a scoundrel. Confucius was right in saying, “What is acquired in infancy is like original nature; what has been formed into habits is equal to instinct.” A common proverb says, “Train a wife from her first arrival; teach a son in his infancy.” How true such sayings are! ^=^

“Generally parents’ inability to instruct their own children comes not from any inclination just to let them fall into evil ways but only from parents’ being unable to endure the children’s looks [of unhappiness] from repeated scoldings, or to bear beating them, lest it do damage to the children’s physical being. We should, however, take illness by way of illustration: how can we not use drugs, medicines, acupuncture, or cautery to cure it? Should we then view strictness of reproof and punishment as a form of cruelty to one’s own kith and kin? Truly there is no other way to deal with it. …As for maintaining proper respect between father and son, one cannot allow too much familiarity; in the love among kin, one cannot tolerate impoliteness. If there is impoliteness, then parental solicitude is not matched by filial respect; if there is too much familiarity, it gives rise to indifference and rudeness. ^=^

women preparing silk

“Someone has asked why Chen Kang [a disciple of Confucius] was pleased to hear that gentlemen kept their distance from their sons, and the answer is that this was indeed the case; gentlemen did not personally teach their children [because, as Yan goes on to show, there are passages in the classics of a sexual kind, which it would not be proper for a father to teach his sons.] … In the love of parents for children, it is rare that one succeeds in treating them equally. From antiquity to the present there are many cases of this failing. It is only natural to love those who are wise and talented, but those who are wayward and dull also deserve sympathy. Partiality in treatment, even when done out of generous motives, turns out badly.” ^=^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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