The Tang dynasty has been described as a golden age for women, in contrast to the Neo-Confucianism of the later Song dynasty that saw practices like foot-binding, widow suicide, and widow chastity become socially normative.
This image of women’s freedom comes from the fact that the Tang Empire was governed by several powerful women for half a century. Wu Zetian rose from the position of Emperor Gaozong’s concubine to govern the country in various roles, first as his empress consort, later as regent for his heir, before declaring herself emperor of a new Zhou dynasty in 690. Other major female players in politics at this time included Empress Wei and Princess Taiping.
Attitudes towards women could be derisive, however, as demonstrated in diplomacy between the Tang rulers with female sovereigns of other states.
Emperor Taizong famously told the ambassador from Queen Seondeok of Silla that he would solve the problem of her aggressive neighbours by sending a Tang prince to rule Silla, reasoning that the kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo were clearly emboldened by facing a female monarch.
Tang society followed the traditions of Northern China, which interacted closely with the nomadic peoples of Central Asia and the Eurasian Steppe. In these societies, women and men were more equal than had been permitted during the Han dynasty, with women recorded as handling legal disputes, involved in politics, and participating in warfare.
Princess Pingyang, a daughter of the first emperor of the Tang, was instrumental in founding the Tang dynasty, raising and commanding an army of 70,000 soldiers to assist her father’s campaign.
In addition, women continued to occupy powerful positions in the social consciousness, appearing in tales as powerful spirits responsible for a household’s fate, as well as shamans, despite the fact that a secular class of physicians existed during the Tang.
The frequency of marrying female relatives to foreign rulers to forge political alliances increased during the Tang. In contrast to earlier dynasties, the princesses sent by the Tang court were usually genuine members of the imperial house.
Far from being passive objects traded between states, the princesses were expected to act as Tang ambassadors and diplomats to the courts they married into. This could be in the role of a cultural ambassador, as in the case of Princess Wencheng, who, along with her co-wife Bhrikuti of Licchavi, is credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet.
An example of a princess acting as a political diplomat is seen in the marriage of Princess Taihe to the head of the Uyghur Khaganate. After being widowed in 824, Princess Taihe was kidnapped twice during conflict with the Yenisei Kirghiz and made to petition Emperor Wuzong of Tang to formally acknowledge the rebel leader. The message sent to her by Emperor Wuzong, recorded in the Zizhi Tongjian, reveals the political expectations placed on these female diplomats.
Originally, the empire lost its beloved daughter for a marriage that would make peace with the Uyghur Khaganate and cause them to assist in stabilising and defending the empire’s borders. Recently, the actions of the khaganate have been thoroughly unreasonable and its horses have come south. Do you, Aunt, not fear the anger of Emperor Gaozu and Emperor Taizong’s spirits! When the empire’s borders are disturbed, do you not think of the love of the Grand Empress Dowager! You are the mother of the khaganate and should be powerful enough to issue orders. If the khaganate does not follow your orders, this will end the relationship between our two states and they will no longer be able to hide behind you!
The Tang saw an increasing perception of women as a commodity. Although previously only the upper classes had concubines in addition to one wife, Tang legal codes set out the formal differences between wives and concubines, as well as the children born by each.
A man was legally only allowed one wife, but could, “purchase as many concubines as he could afford.”
The legal status of a concubine was very far from that of a maid, with maids needing to be ‘freed’ to change their position. However, a concubine was expected to serve the wife in the same way as a maid, her sons were required to treat the wife as their legal mother, and, on her husband’s death, she had no claims to the property he left.
Though wives were not supposed to be sold, the perception of women as marketable goods made it simple for husbands to sell their wives to brothel madams, such as those found in eastern Chang’an.
The courtesans of Chang’an were employed to sing, converse with, and entertain customers, similar to the Japanese geisha. The girls had often been beggars or indentured to poor families. On entering the brothel, the girls took the madam’s surname.
A way out was to either marry a client or become a concubine. Venereal diseases were recognised during the Tang and physicians document one similar to gonorrhea that was spread through sex.
The level of education required of courtesans, coupled with their frequently literati clientele, meant that many wrote poetry commenting on current society and events.
Li Ye was so famed for her literary talents that she was summoned to the court of Emperor Dezong of Tang to compose poetry for him. Dezong was known for his appreciation of female scholars and talent, as he had previously summoned the five Song sisters and been so impressed with their knowledge of the Classics and poetry that he employed them as court poets.
Several other poets of the time, like Li Ye, bridged various social divides, being at different times courtesans and Taoist nuns. Examples of such women included Xue Tao and Yu Xuanji. Not all female poets during the Tang were courtesans, however, and women writers were common enough that the scholar Cai Xingfeng edited a collection of poetry written exclusively by women, known as the Collection of New Songs from the Jade Lake.
Examples of occupations pursued by women include trade (selling foodstuffs), weaving, tending silk worms, singing, dancing, acrobatics, street performance, storytelling, and secretary to officials.
Joining a religious institution was also a career choice taken by many women. Chang’an alone reportedly had 27 Buddhist nunneries and six Taoist temples with priestesses in the early 8th century.The nuns participated in religious processions, such as the arrival of a Buddhist relic to Chang’an, when nuns and monks walked behind the vehicle conveying the Buddha’s finger bone.
The Tang taxation system calculated the amount owed by every adult male to the state; women were not taxed. However, part of a male’s tax included 20 feet of silk or 25 feet of linen woven by the women of his household.
In short, the government presumed that a women would be represented in official bureaucracy by a male guardian. Charles Benn notes that some Tang women adopted a cloak that covered their bodies from head to foot, with only a small gap for their eyes, from the Tuyuhun.
The intention was to avoid men’s gazes when out and about. The fashion began to fade in the 8th century, which Emperor Gaozong of Tang found distressing, as women’s faces were exposed when venturing outside.
Gaozong issued two edicts attempting to revive the style, but the headwear was soon replaced by a wide-brimmed hat with a gauze veil hanging from the brim to the shoulders.