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 various roles that women played in Tang society is something I explore in both The Sword Dancer, my upcoming June release, as well as The Lotus Palace, coming in September.
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.
Ooh, I didn’t know that! What a VERY cool post, Jeannie! I can’t think of any one woman, but I remember reading biographies of Marie Curie, Clara Barton, and other women who persevered in careers when those weren’t really the thing to do… And we just read the children’s book about the woman who served as a soldier and spy during the Civil War (Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds). I do think that a lot of women had to just forge ahead whether other people were accepting or not, whether other people even knew about them or not! So thankful for all those unnamed women who’ve led the way!
I’ve heard of that book. I must look up Sarah Edmonds now.
Such a fascinating post thank you!!! I really don’t think that women have been highlighted for their accomplishments enough.
I remember learning about Florence Nightingale in school. She led the way to making nursing a very respectable & professional occupation.
I love Madame Curie. I also love Mother Teresa. These women exemplify women having a vision and sticking with it. I am always amazed that throughout history, being a courtesan was a way for a woman to have a little independence.
Some very great ladies there. I did a report on Mother Teresa back in high school. I think it must have been Women’s History month.
THANKS FOR THE GIVEAWAY AND GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR BOOK! [email protected]
Interesting post. Hilary Clinton
bn100candg at hotmail dot com
I know that there were periods in different places when women had more freedom than others, but never heard that it was this expansive. If I remember there were Japanese female warriors as well. I would say that Cut Nyak Dhien is an admirable female character. She continued the fight for independence against the Dutch after her husband was killed.
I will need to check these books out. Love the cover by the way!
Oh, this post is super interesting! I took an intro class to East Asian Art and learning about the Tang and Sui Dynasties were fascinating. And learning about your book just perked up more of my interests.
Jane Addams is who I remember making a difference. Did a research paper on her in middle school and she made way for women suffrage movement.
Wonderful! I find the artwork is really fascinating and gives such an amazing window into the period. One of the beauties of the Tang Dynasty is there is so much surviving literature and artwork, so it’s easy to spark the imagination
Joan of Arc would be my independent woman. She was a warrior and strategist. She united France by sacrificing herself. She wasn’t a princess. She was born a peasant. She unknowingly made a name for herself and as well became will known in history.
The two other women that stood out is Mulan and Eleanor Roosevelt.
They had a Deadliest Warrior episode where it was Joan of Arc vs. William the Conqueror. Joan won. 🙂
Adding Cleopatra to the list of storied women. Nobody told her what to do!
Cleopatra is one of my all-time faves. Waiting anxiously right now for the 3rd installment of Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile series about her daughter, an equally fascinating woman
Aloha! This is a great question! Despite the “macho warrior” image Hawaii may present, there have been several strong, stubborn, and effective wahine (women) to name. But I share a personal favorite – Princess Ruth Luka Keanolani Kauanahoahoa Keʻelikōlani. She was the great-great-granddaughter of King Kamehameha the Great. Princess Ruth served as the Royal Governor of Hawaii (the Big Island). She was fluent in English and educated by missionaries, but Princess Ruth embraced her Hawaiian roots by speaking the language and practicing the culture. As such, the citizens of Hilo called for Princess Ruth when Mauna Loa erupted and lava flowed toward the town. Princess Ruth camped in the path of the lava and chanted to Pele (the volcano goddess) to spare Hilo. The lava stopped short of Princess Ruth’s camp. What a woman!
I’ve heard the story of the lava changing course, but I don’t think I had heard that Princess Ruth was involved. Thank you for the tale. 🙂
This story sounds fascinating. I am currently reading a novel set in the late Ming Dynasty about two brothers traveling to Peking so that Second Brother can sit for the Imperial Exams (The Examination). He has a habit of quoting Du Fu.
Any fan of Du Fu….
What’s the title of the book? I have a yen for the imperial exams…
Aung San Suu Kyi.
Helen Keller. So amazing that she achieved so much given her disabilities.
Fascinating article! Perhaps the graph of women’s liberation in China resonates with their contemporaries in Heian Japan/pre-10th century India, where women enjoyed careers are poets,courtiers,scholars- before degenerating in the medieval ages.
My favorite kickass women are Nakano Takeko & the Joshitai; those who took up arms & fought shoulder- to -shoulder with their menfolk at Aizu Wakamatsu. Imagine having to run at unexploded cannonballs with wet straw mats in the castle courtyard,and cover them lest they go kaboom!
I like Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was very powerful in her time.
everyone loves a great story but jeannie lin tells you one that you can never stop reading 🙂