TANG DYNASTY SOCIETY, FAMILY LIFE AND SLAVES

SOCIETY, NOBLES AND SLAVES DURING THE TANG DYNASTY


court ladies pounding silk

A government system supported by a large class of Confucian literati selected through civil service examinations was perfected under Tang rule. This competitive procedure was designed to draw the best talents into government. But perhaps an even greater consideration for the Tang rulers, aware that imperial dependence on powerful aristocratic families and warlords would have destabilizing consequences, was to create a body of career officials having no autonomous territorial or functional power base. As it turned out, these scholar-officials acquired status in their local communities, family ties, and shared values that connected them to the imperial court. From Tang times until the closing days of the Qing empire in 1911, scholar officials functioned often as intermediaries between the grassroots level and the government. [Source: The Library of Congress]

In the Tang Dynasty era, the nobility's power was eclipsed by scholar-officials. The The Li family of Zhaojun, the Cui family of Boling, the Cui family of Qinghe, the Lu family of Fanyang, the Zheng family of Rongyang, the Wang family of Taiyuan, and the Li family of Longxi were the seven noble families between whom marriage was banned by law. The prohibition on marriage between the clans issued in 659 by the Gaozong Emperor was flouted by the seven families since a woman of the Boling Cui married a member of the Taiyuan Wang, giving birth to the poet Wang Wei. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ Tang China was not a slave society in the sense of having an economy that relied on chattel slavery along the lines of the economies of the Roman Empire or the ante-bellum American south. However, slavery did exist. Poor men and women might sell themselves into slavery, and poor families might sell children into slavery. During the Tang dynasty, slavery was hereditary, and slaves could be bought and sold. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday 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 ; Books: “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty”by Charles Benn, Greenwood Press, 2002; "Cambridge History of China" Vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press); "The Culture and Civilization of China", a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); "Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor" by Ann Paludan.

Land Reform Efforts by the Tang Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “A new land law aimed at equalizing ownership, so that as far as possible all peasants should own the same amount of land and the formation of large estates be prevented. The law aimed also at protecting the peasants from the loss of their land. The law was, however, nothing but a modification of the Toba land law (chun-t'ien), and it was hoped that now it would provide a sound and solid economic foundation for the empire. From the first, however, members of the gentry who were connected with the imperial house were given a privileged position; then officials were excluded from the prohibition of leasing, so that there continued to be tenant farmers in addition to the independent peasants. Moreover, the temples enjoyed special treatment, and were also exempted from taxation. All these exceptions brought grist to the mills of the gentry, and so did the failure to carry into effect many of the provisions of the law. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Before long a new gentry had been formed, consisting of the old gentry together with those who had directly aided the emperor's ascent to the throne. From the beginning of the eighth century there were repeated complaints that peasants were "disappearing". They were entering the service of the gentry as tenant farmers or farm workers, and owing to the privileged position of the gentry in regard to taxation, the revenue sank in proportion as the number of independent peasants decreased. One of the reasons for the flight of farmers may have been the corvée laws connected with the "equal land" system: small families were much less affected by the corvée obligation than larger families with many sons. It may be, therefore, that large families or at least sons of the sons in large families moved away in order to escape these obligations. In order to prevent irregularities, the Tang renewed the old "pao-chia" system, as a part of a general reform of the administration in 624. In this system groups of five families were collectively responsible for the payment of taxes, the corvée, for crimes committed by individuals within one group, and for loans from state agencies. Such a system is attested for pre-Christian times already; it was re-activated in the eleventh century and again from time to time, down to the present.

“Yet the system of land equalization soon broke down and was abolished officially around A.D. 780. But the classification of citizens into different classes, first legalized under the Toba, was retained and even more refined.

Deed of a Sale for a Tang Dynasty a Slave

The following document records the sale of a female slave. “A contract executed on the 12th day of the eleventh month of 991. On this day the functionary, Han Yuanding, having expenses to meet and lacking sufficient stores of silk, sells his household slave Jiansheng, aged about twenty-eight. The slave is being sold to the monastery dependent, Zhu Yuansong, then to Zhu’s wife and sons, etc. The price of the slave has been fixed at a total of five bolts of silk, consisting of both finished and unfinished goods.1 This day the buyer has remitted three bolts of unfinished silk. The fifth month of next year has been established as the deadline for the delivery of the remaining two bolts of finished silk. [Source: Translated by Patricia Ebrey and Clara Yu; “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”, edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey,” 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 126-127. Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]


“After the woman and the goods have been exchanged and the sale completed, it is agreed that the sons and daughters of the Zhu family shall be masters of this slave forever and ever, from generation to generation. If in future a relative of the seller should reclaim this slave, it is ordered that Han Yuanding and his wife, Seventh Daughter, seek out an adequate slave as a replacement. If an imperial amnesty should be declared subsequent to the sale, it may not be used to reopen discussions among the negotiants.

“The two parties to the contract have met face to face and have reached their agreement after joint discussions. If one of the parties should default, he shall be fined one bolt of decorated silk and two large rams — all to be turned over to the non-defaulting party. In light of the chance of this contract’s not being made in good faith, the following persons have witnessed it and will serve as its guarantors: The woman whose person is being sold, Jiansheng The seller of the woman, her mistress, Seventh Daughter; The Seller of the woman, her master, Han Yuanding; A relative by marriage, who has participated in the discussion, Fuzhen; A witness, Monk Chouda of Baoen Monastery; A witness, Monk Luo Xian of Longxing Monastery.

Note: 1 Bolts of plain silk of standard size and quality were used as a unit of currency for larger transactions in the Tang and even formed a part of the standard tax payment. In place of one of the bolts of finished silk it has been decided to furnish six lengths of Zhu serge and six lengths of white serge, making a total of twelve lengths, each measuring between ten and twenty feet. These goods are to be delivered by the fifth month of next year. In case this woman should prove to have a sickness, a waiting period of ten days has been agreed upon. Beyond this time withdrawal from the agreement will be impossible.)

House Instructions of Mr- Yan

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “It was common for successful men in China and elsewhere in East Asia to write down “House Instructions” for the benefit of their heirs and descendants... This particular set of house instructions was written by Yan Zhitui (531-591), who was from a leading family of scholars and officials of the period of north-south division (317-589). Accordingly, he served four different, short-lived dynasties, including several whose rulers were foreigners — men of Turkic warrior clans who ruled northern China. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Yan Zhitui wrote in “House Instructions of Mr. Yan”: “Of books written by sages and worthies that teach men to be sincere and filial, to be careful in speech and circumspect in conduct, and to take one’s proper place in society and be concerned for one’s reputation, there are more than enough already. Since the Wei and Jin periods prudential writings have reiterated principles and repeated practices as if adding room upon room [to the household] or piling bed upon bed. In doing the same now myself, I do not presume to prescribe rules for others or set a pattern for the world, but only to order my own household and give guidance to my own posterity. [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 habits and teaching of our family have always been regular and punctilious. In my childhood I received good instruction from my parents. With my two elder brothers I went to greet our parents each morning and evening to ask in winter whether they were warm and in summer whether they were cool; we walked steadily with regular steps, talked calmly with good manners, and moved about with as much dignity and reverence as if we were visiting the awe-inspiring rulers at court. They gave us good advice, asked about our particular interests, criticized our defects and encouraged our good points.. always zealous and sincere. When I was just nine years old, my father died. The family members were divided and scattered, every one of us living in dire straits. I was brought up by my loving brothers; we went through hardships and difficulties. They were kind but not exacting; their guidance and advice to me were not strict. Though I read the ritual texts, and was somewhat fond of composition, I tended to be influenced by common practices; I was uncontrolled in feelings, careless in speech, and slovenly in dress. When about eighteen or nineteen years old I learned to refine my conduct a little, but these bad habits had become second nature, and it was difficult to get rid of them entirely. After my thirtieth year gross faults were few, but still I have to be careful always, for in every instance my words are at odds with my mind, and my emotions struggle with my nature. ^=^

“Each evening I am conscious of the faults committed that morning, and today I regret the errors of yesterday. How pitiful that the lack of instruction has brought me to this condition! I would recall the experiences of my youth long ago, for they are engraved on my flesh and bone; these are not merely the admonitions of ancient books, but what has passed before my eyes and reached my ears. Therefore I leave these twenty chapters to serve as a warning to you boys.” ^=^

House Instructions of Mr- Yan: On Family Governance

Yan Zhitui wrote in “House Instructions of Mr. Yan”: Beneficial influences are transmitted from superiors to inferiors and bequeathed by earlier to later generations. So if a father is not loving, the son will not be filial; if an elder brother is not friendly, the younger will not be respectful; if a husband is not just, the wife will not be obedient. When a father is kind but the son refractory, when an elder brother is friendly but the younger arrogant, when a husband is just but a wife overbearing, then indeed they are the bad people of the world; they must be controlled by punishments; teaching and guidance will not change them. If rod and wrath are not used in family discipline, the faults of the son will immediately appear. If punishments are not properly awarded, the people will not know how to act. The use of clemency and severity in governing a family is the same as in a state. [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 ^=^]


“Confucius said, “Extravagance leads to insubordination, and parsimony to meanness. It is better to be mean than to be insubordinate.” [Analects 7:35] Again he said, “Though a man has abilities as admirable as those of the Duke of Zhou, yet if he be proud or niggardly, those other things are really not worth being looked at.” [Analects 8:11] That is to say, a man may be thrifty but should not be stingy. Thrift means being frugal and economic in carrying out the rites; stinginess means showing no pity for those in poverty and urgent need. Nowadays those who would give alms are extravagant, but in being thrifty are stingy. It would be proper to give alms without extravagance and be thrifty without being stingy. ^=^

“A wife in presiding over household supplies should use wine, food, and clothing only as the rites specify. Just as in the state, where women are not allowed to participate in setting policies, so in the family, they should not be permitted to assume responsibility for affairs. If they are wise, talented, and versed in the ancient and modem writings, they ought to help their husbands by supplementing the latter’s deficiency. No hen should herald the dawn lest misfortune follow. ^=^

“The burden of daughters on the family is heavy indeed. Yet how else can Heaven give life to the teeming people and ancestors pass on their bodily existence to posterity? Many people today dislike having daughters and mistreat their own flesh and blood. How can they be like this and still hope for Heaven’s blessing? …It is common for women to dote on a son-in-law and to maltreat a daughter- in-law. Doting on a son- in-law gives rise to hatred from brothers; maltreating a daughter-in-law brings on slander from sisters. Thus when these women, whether they act or remain silent, draw criticism from the members of the family, it is the mother who is the real cause of it. ^=^

“A simple marriage arrangement irrespective of social position was the established rule of our ancestor Qing Hou. Nowadays there are those who sell their daughters for money or buy a woman with a payment of silk. They compare the rank of fathers and grandfathers, and calculate in ounces and drams, demanding more and offering less, just as if bargaining in the market. Under such conditions a boorish son-in-law might appear in the family or an arrogant woman assume power in the household. Coveting honor and seeking for gain, on the contrary, incur shame and disgrace; how can one not be careful?” ^=^

House Instructions of Mr- Yan: On Brothers

Yan Zhitui wrote in “House Instructions of Mr. Yan”: “After the appearance of humankind, there followed the conjugal relationship; the conjugal relationship was followed by the parental; the parental was followed by the fraternal. Within the family, these three are the intimate relationships. The other degrees of kinship all develop out of these three. Therefore among human relationships one cannot but take these [three] most seriously. [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 ^=^]

“When brothers are at odds with each other, then sons and nephews will not love each other, and this in turn will lead to the cousins drifting apart, resulting finally in their servants treating one another as enemies. When this happens then strangers can step on their faces and trample upon their breasts and there will be no one to come to their aid. There are men who are able to make friends with distinguished men of the empire, winning their affection, and yet are unable to show proper respect toward their own elder brothers. How strange that they should succeed with the many and fail with the few! There are others who are able to command troops in the thousands and inspire such loyalty in them that they will die willingly for them and yet are unable to show kindness toward their own younger brothers. How strange that they should succeed with strangers and fail with their own flesh and blood!” ^=^

Record of Family Division in The Tang Dynasty


Emperor Taizong

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The ideal for pre-modern Chinese families was the extended family of “four generations under one roof.” In practice, this was rarely achieved. Family structure changed over the life of a family, with parents raising children, children marrying out, some children living with and supporting their parents, elderly parents dying and leaving their children and grandchildren as a two.generation family and so on. Furthermore, whereas daughters generally married out of the family, brothers remained and, for various reasons, might want to divide the family property and set up households on their own. Family property was held in common, and thus, when brothers desired to divide the property on the death of their parents, each had an equal share: the Chinese did not practice primogeniture. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“The document below is a blank deed of family division — in other words, it is legal boilerplate — from the Tang dynasty, preserved in the caves of Dunhuang in the extreme northwest of China proper. Ir reads: “Brothers come from the same womb, share the same vital essences, and have strong affections toward each other. They complement each other like luxuriant leaves and stately boughs, and think that they will stay together forever. Little do they realize that one day they will part like birds that fly in different directions — each to a corner of the four seas. Just as winters and summers alternate, the bramble shrubs become withered and branches detach from each other, their time for parting eventually comes. [Source: “Record of Family Division in The Tang Dynasty”, Tang dynasty, preserved in the caves of Dunhuang; “A Sourcebook, edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 126 +++]

“Elder brother, A, and younger brother, B, now have, in the presence of neighbors and relatives of various branches, meticulously divided into two parts their estate and fields outside of the city. The details are clearly itemized below...Afterwards, each brother is in charge of his own share of the family property, and there are to be no complaints or quarrels over it. Should either of them violate this agreement, he will be fined a bolt of fine silk for government use and fifteen bushels of wheat as ration for the military. +++

“This document is drawn up as evidence of the agreement. From now on, each of the brothers has his own household. When the tree has grown too big, its branches will part. When the leaves become scattered, the attachment will be lost. Even the four black birds of the Heng Mountain have to fly their separate ways when their feathers turn dark. This agreement on the division of family property is based on the same principle.” +++

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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