Hello my friends! As you see, we have Jeannie Lin back in in the house! She’s got an awesome post with us today. (And keep your eyes peeled; I hope to flood this place with posts, after my internet is sorted out. But anyway! I hope you find this post as interesting as I did!
It’s widely accepted that the era when most of my stories take place, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), was a remarkable period of freedom for Chinese women. Women of the past were just as multi-faceted, complicated, rebellious and liberated as women of today, a fact that many people tend to overlook since the depiction of women is often limited to wives, concubines and courtesans. But not so in the Tang Dynasty where the artwork shows women playing polo, entertaining scholars and politicians, even ruling the empire.
The Sword Dancer was inspired by a Tang Dynasty poem by renowned poet, Du Fu, who wrote “Observing a Sword Dance Performed by a Disciple of Madam Gongsun.” If you want to get an idea of the sort of imagery and drama that sparked my imagination, definitely check it out!
Not only did the poem start me thinking about the practice of sword dancing, but I was moved by the fact that the poet recognized that Madam Gongsun was not only beautiful, but very skilled. The dancer in the poem isn’t Gongsun, but a student that she’s trained. So Gongsun isn’t merely a famous and talented performer, but a teacher here.
Li Feng, the heroine of The Sword Dancer, opens the story as a swordswoman and a rebel. She takes up dancing as her profession as she travels through the province to search for answers about her past.
The icon of the warrior woman is a common on in Chinese history. In fact, one such woman warrior was instrumental in founding the Tang Dynasty. When Li Yuan was working to overthrow the Sui Dynasty, his dear daughter Zhao, aka Princess Pinyang, managed to convince several rebel leaders to join her, raised an army of over 70,000 men and basically kicked ass. There would be no Tang Dynasty without her. When she died, her father honored with a military funeral, the same as he would his highest generals.
But as Li Feng evades the hero, the infamous Thief-catcher Han, I noticed a pattern emerging. With each disguise, she takes on another role that allowed women a measure of autonomy during this time.
At one point, she masquerades as a courtesan. The Tang Dynasty saw the rise of the elite courtesan, the yiji, who were literate and trained in music and poetry; fit to be companions to the most powerful men in the empire. More interesting than that, was that courtesans occasionally earned enough to buy their own freedom. Once retired, former courtesans became owners and proprietors of pleasure houses and wine shops. So they were not just entertainers, but also businesswomen.
In another disguise, Li Feng wears the robes of a Taoist priestess in order to travel freely. Taoist priestesses operated outside of the norms of behavior for women and as a social class enjoyed even more freedom than courtesans. Unlike courtesans, they were no one’s property and unlike Buddhist nuns, they were not celibate. Many Tang princesses opted to become Taoist priestesses rather than marry and two famous female poets of the Tang Dynasty, Li Ye and Yu Xuanji, were Taoist priestesses.
So as Li Feng climbs over walls and runs over rooftops, celebrating the metaphor of physical freedom, I also wanted to make her journey an homage to all the fascinating and independent women of the Tang Dynasty.
Who’s your favorite independent woman in history? What about the ones who are not princesses or queens or empresses, yet still made a name for themselves?
One random commenter will receive a printed copy of The Sword Dancer.