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Analysis of textual differences, society vital to study of women’s history

JIAO JIE | 2018-03-22 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Women in the Tang Dynasty beat clothes in washing with wooden clubs to render the cloth soft and facilitate later dress making.


Preserved literature and unearthed documents form the basis of historical studies. Verifying the two types of materials is an effective way to discover historical truths.

In practice, however, we often find that accounts of the same historical event or figure vary in the two types of documents. Sometimes they even contradict each other. The phenomenon is especially common in literature about women.

An examination of documents about concubines and maid servants in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) reveals the origins of the phenomenon, and it is important to explore better methodologies for researching the history of ancient Chinese women.


Textual differences
Keeping concubines and maid servants was a common practice in the Tang Dynasty. They existed to satisfy the sexual desires of the man of the house and to entertain notable persons at banquets and parties. In preserved documents, the portrayal of concubines and maid servants focused on their good looks and artistry, highlighting their feature of serving others with beauty and accomplishments.

For example, it was documented that during the reign of Emperor Daizong (727-779), the powerful minister Yuan Zai had a favored concubine named Xue Yaoying who “was good at poetry, calligraphy, singing and dancing with good looks, fragrance and a slim body.”

During the reign of Emperor Dezong (742-805), Zhang Jianfeng, minister of rites and military commissioner of Xuzhou in modern-day Jiangsu Province, had a beloved concubine called Pan Pan. Pretty Pan Pan sang and danced well. When the guests were in a state of drunken ecstasy at banquets, Pan Pan would be called upon to provide entertainment.

Although fair-haired concubines in official and wealthy families lived an extravagant life, they had an extremely low social and family status as documented in preserved literature. They relied on their beauty to serve men, but as the beauty withered away, they were often cast aside like rubbish.

In some cases, they were bullied to death by the man of the house. Worse still, some would become sacrifices for their husband to express loyalty to the central court. The “Biographies of Loyalists” in the Old Book of Tang gives an account of Zhang Xun, the commander charged with the defense of Yongqiu in modern-day Henan Province, who was besieged by rebels led by An Lushan. When food began to run low and there wasn’t enough to feed the soldiers, Zhang killed his concubines in front of the army.

In addition, before the mid-Tang Dynasty, men of the upper class were largely henpecked, so it was commonplace for the principal wife to abuse concubines and maid servants to death.
However, in unearthed materials, mainly epitaphs, the lives and family statuses of concubines and maid servants differed from those recorded in handed-down documents.

First, epitaphs focused more on their moral qualities and dispositions while offering compliments on their good appearance and talents. According to the epitaph of Chen Taiyi, a concubine of the former mayor of Xingzhou, present-day Xingtai in Hebei Province, “Chen Taiyi was proficient in music and skillful in hand…she was good-mannered, kind to the elderly and the young, and handled everything properly.”

Moreover, it was rare to see epitaphs that depicted concubines  and maid servants being abused or tortured to death. In some families without the principal wife, the concubine was the de facto housewife, doing chores, dealing with various interpersonal relationships and gaining recognition of the family clan. Even in some families with the presence of the principal wife, the concubine got along well with the woman of the house.


The differences between the two types of documents on concubines and maid servants in the Tang Dynasty can be attributed to the nature and narrative features of the historical materials.

Preserved documents generally fall into three categories: state histories of the Tang Dynasty, anecdotes and excerpts of previous literature.

Examples of the first category include the Old Book of Tang and the New Book of Tang. Biographies therein recorded life experiences of the heroes--mostly major political, economic and military events--along with their daily lives once in a while, from which we can get a glimpse of the private lives of officials and nobles.

The second category of literature narrated either anecdotes of famous people or interesting and bizarre stories, so depictions of the romantic affairs between men and their concubines and maid servants were common. In the third category, some documents were extracted from national history or archives, while some kept track of what the author witnessed or heard.

Whichever category the document belongs to, the heroes were members of the gentry. Most nobles and high-ranking officials maintained a harem of concubines and maid servants. To them, the low-status women were nothing more than playthings to seek pleasure, so tragic endings were unavoidable for them.

Concubines and maid servants in unearthed epitaphs mostly committed themselves to the middle stratum of society. Their husbands usually got married late, many after gaining scholarly honor or official ranks, between 30 to 40 years old. Men of this type would take concubines prior to formal marriage for reproductive purposes and living needs. They valued virtues and housekeeping skills more than beauty and artistry. If the man of the house never got married formally, the concubine was the virtual housewife.

Some concubines were taken after the principal wife passed away. Under such circumstances, the concubine was almost identical with the principal wife. Men of the middle stratum were not as affluent as rich families to support troops of concubines. To them, the role of the concubine was not to provide entertainment in the banquet, but to obey moral principles, do house chores and bear children. Therefore, they were nice to concubines, paying respect to and growing old with them.

Furthermore, authors of handed-down literature normally lived in a later era than their subjects. Even if the two were contemporary, they were hardly related, so authors usually wrote based on facts, reflecting Tang society truly. For example, the upper class before the mid-Tang Dynasty featured jealous women and henpecked men, so it was common for concubines and maid servants to be abused by the principal wife. They swam in luxury when favored but were doomed when the husband turned against them, which reflected the master-slave relationship. That young and pretty concubines and maid servants suffered from torture and sexual assaults of other men, even shared and sold, was consistent with their low legal status.

Narratives of epitaphs are entirely different from that of handed-down documents. While epitaphs on men included ancestral lineage, official career and religious belief, those of women were much simpler and mostly pertained to marriage, fertility and family life. In most cases, it was their relatives, friends or husbands who wrote the epitaphs, so the texts were emotional and would avoid words that would damage their reputations.


Social background matters
Despite discrepancies of accounts on concubines and maid servants in the Tang Dynasty, the documents are reasonable and factual to some extent. This requires us to fully examine the historical materials and attend to gender differences when studying women’s history.

Investigating women’s history was an attempt made by Western feminist scholars to explain why women have been oppressed. Hence writing women’s history is not only about how to understand it, but also involves the construction of and reflections on future human society.

The study of women’s history has embraced such theories as patriarchy, social gender and power relations, group and individual differences, identity, discourse, experience, subjective initiative and oral history, as scholars try to find paths of how to change the status of females in reality.

Among others, subjective initiative and oral history have enjoyed popularity in recent years. Related studies focus on life experiences, emotions, state of life and family relations of women, how they used certain ethic relations and identities to exert influences on men in power, and how they maximized their interests in the patriarchal society.

These research methodologies and achievements have substantively advanced social gender equality on the global scale. However, because of differences in social and historical background and cultural traditions, the Western theories are not completely suited to research of ancient Chinese women’s history.

Based on textual differences in accounts of concubines and maid servants in the Tang Dynasty and reasons for the phenomenon, the study of ancient Chinese women’s history should pay full attention to Chinese history as well as the complexity and specific characteristics of women at the time.

In the case of Tang concubines and maid servants, they were not only sexual partners and playthings of men at the time, but also supplements to reproduce for the patrilineal family. Their different fates were inseparable from the clear distinction between the principal wife and concubines in ancient China, and from the social stratum they were in, even their personal life experiences.

Therefore, the study of ancient Chinese women’s history should not simply be grounded upon Western values and theories. Scholars should take into account the social structure and historical background of ancient China, social and family roles played by women, even the nature and narrative features of historical texts, thereby coming close to historical truths.


Jiao Jie is a professor from the School of History and Civilization at Shaanxi Normal University.

(edited by CHEN MIRONG)