Four things you never thought women in seventh-century China would do

Today’s article comes from Weina Dai Randel, author of The Moon in the Palace (don’t you love that title?) and the The Empress of Bright Moon releasing respectively in March and April 2016. We’re in for a treat as she tells us about women in 7th century China. Over to you, Weina.

When we talk about heroes and athletes, we seldom think of ancient Chinese women, and certainly not Chinese women in seventh-century, Tang Dynasty. After all, Chinese women in Tang Dynasty did many things European women had done, such as embroidery, child rearing, farming, cooking, etc. But there are a few things that ancient Chinese women were known for but seldom mentioned, and I think they might interest you.

(Court ladies making silk, painted by the Song dynasty Emperor Huizong, a remake of an 8th-century original by Tang dynasty artist Zhang Xuan.)
Court ladies making silk, painted by the Song dynasty Emperor Huizong, a remake of an 8th-century original by Tang dynasty artist Zhang Xuan.


When we talk about ancient China, the first thing coming to mind is probably silk, the bargain for peace offering and the gift to women’s heart. The more-than-one-thousand-year-old Silk Road is a testament of its popularity and importance to China and the rest of the world.

How was silk made? What was the process of silkworm farming? Who were responsible to make silk?

You know the answer already. Silkworm farming, after all, was a breakneck job that required intensive labor and vigilant care, and all women, the old and the young, the weak and the strong, were required to take part in caring for silkworms. If a girl was too young to take care of baby silkworms, she would be picking leaves; if a woman was too old to weave silk threads on a loom, she would be feeding baby silkworms around the clock, and if a woman was too noble to stir cow dung to keep the fire at a consistent temperature, she would have a job of measuring bolts of silk.

Silkworm farming, after all, was vital to many households and of course to the economy of China, and women, the hands that fed the silkworms, were the invisible threads behind the precious cloth.

(photo copied from:
Source: tang-polo-players-horse-tl-test-archeology-galerie-golconda/


Polo, a popular sport originated in Persia, came to China from Tibet. It was very popular in the seventh-century China, especially among the elite aristocrats. As you might have imagined, women were not encouraged to play, but smart women, and those born of noble birth, always found a way.

The palace had an enormous polo field which court ministers and imperial family members frequented, so many palace women had excuses to show up there. They only watched, and gossiped most of the time, but occasionally, they itched for a chance to play as well since many of them, related to the nomadic tribes in the north, had excellent horsemanship. This sentiment was observed by Empress Wu, who had every intention to elevate women’s status in the kingdom. After Empress Wu established her power in the court, she saw to it that women could take part of this game.

As a result, many painters and artists were inspired, and many murals, paintings, ceramic figures were made to describe women playing polo. They appeared in people’s houses or important buildings such as shrines. To this day, we can still find many artifacts and painting of Tang women playing polo.

(Left: mural of Woman Playing Go (Tang Dynasty c. 744), discovered at the Astana Graves.
Left: mural of Woman Playing Go (Tang Dynasty c. 744), discovered at the Astana Graves.

Weiqi Chess (the game of Go)

The board game enjoyed by many people today was also popular among women in the seventh-century China. It looked easy, with few rules, and the only goal was to encircle the opponent’s pieces and capture the stones. To play that game one requires a board and and round stones pieces. The board has a grid of nineteen vertical and nineteen horizontal lines with 361 intersections and 361 stones: 181 black and 180 white.

But as you might have known, the game was considered a highly intellectual game, which originally was used as a training method for generals on battlefield. Once a man in Tang Dynasty was hired at the imperial academy because he was good at playing this game.

Noble women and the women in the palace were encouraged to play the board game since it did not involve blood or gore. It was also a good pastime and used as social invitation for many noble families. During Empress Wu’s reign, because of her encouragement of women scholars and their participation in the court, women’s intelligence was highly valued and promoted, and playing weiqi was another way to spread one’s reputation.

However, we can also imagine that stones were not the only items captured during the game, many betrothals were proposed as people played, rice wines were consumed, and some men and women’s futures, even children’s, were determined, since their betrothals were often made well before they came to age.

Another similar board game, called Double Fields, was enjoyed by women around the same time as well.

The game weiqi later spread to Japan, where it was called Go, and Korea, where women were seen playing weiqi against men.

photo copied from:
Source: w/wholesale-chinese-sword-dance.html


Perhaps this is the most unique feature about the women in seventh-century China. Have you seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Or The House of Flying Daggers? It’s true, women in Tang China practiced swordplay. It’s a tradition that many have followed since Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), and believe it or not, these women have left their mark, and their names, in the history.

Emperor Tang Taizong, the second emperor of Tang Dynasty, came from a large family with many strong women. One of his aunts, a princess, was skillful with her sword and military experience. When Emperor Gaozu revolted against the Sui Dynasty, she led cavalry and decisively defeated the Sui army, which eventually crumbled and led to the demise of the Sui Dynasty.

Another wellknown female swordsman is the assassin Nie Yinniang in late Tang Dynasty. Legend said she was trained by a nun when she was abducted at a young age.

Princess Taipin, the only daughter of Empress Wu, was also said to be fascinated with swords. It was said that when the princess was young, she befriended Buddhist monks who practiced kung fu and swords. Under their influence, the princess was often seen strutting in the palace with a sword hanging on her belt. She got away with that, as you can imagine, since her mother was the ruler of the kingdom.

Of course, true swordsmanship does not only involve fiddling with the metal, and it is doubtful how many women would be allowed to keep a sword in her hands in her own home. But such was a life that some women in ancient China have lived, and the fact that they were given a certain power to be above many men in ancient China was certainly worth mentioning.

And we should not forget that after Tang Dynasty, Chinese women were never given the sword again. Neither could they fly or run freely as they wished as the women after Tang Dynasty were forced to break their toes and bind their feet for one thousand years.

The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon are set in the 7th-century China. They describe the journey of the famed Chinese Empress Wu, also known as the Chinese Cleopatra, who survives court intrigues, rebellion, and other tragedies to become the woman who controls her own destiny. She was the first and only female ruler in China who ruled legitimately for almost fifty years.

Library Journal gave a starred review of The Moon in the Palace. It says, “The eloquent first novel…of a woman who made her own destiny and has been often vilified is a must for historical fiction fans, especially those fascinated by China’s glorious past.”

Elizabeth Chadwick, the New York Times bestselling author, says, “I absolutely loved Weina Dai Randel’s The Moon in the Palace, which is a truly immersive experience and a rare and beautiful treasure. All I want now is to read the next novel!”

Fascinating information, Weina. Many thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. Your novels sound wonderful and I wish you great success with them.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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10 Responses

  1. Thank you for this fascinating post about Chinese culture, Weina. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see “Princess Returning Pearl” yet, but it’s a brilliant rendering of Chinese court life as well as life outside the walls with good characterization. Good luck with your novels. Looking forward to reading them!

    1. Hi, Sophie. Thank you so much for your good wishes! I haven’t got a chance to see “Princess Returning Pearl.” I’m going to google it and see what it is about! I love dramas, stories about ancient China!

  2. I had no idea the women were able to train in swordplay! Princess Taipan sounds like a fascinating character in her own right. Thanks for all the wonderful information on Chinese culture. I wish I could be at your launch in Dallas!

    1. The main factor that women had that much freedom had to do with Empress Wu and her promotion of women’s status in the country. One of her prime ministers was a woman as well.

      But as you know, after Tang Dynasty, women no longer enjoyed the freedom like their predecessors. They were forced to break their feet and bind them.

  3. Such interesting topic. It is devastating to know that soon after the practice of feet binding came into use. What a brutal way to force women to stay put in “their place”.

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