Society and Identity
The focus of this interdisciplinary panel is on representations of women in medieval writings from the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589), through to the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279). These papers explore the way in which women’s experiences impacted the texts written about them, and how their lives and identities were in turn shaped by or reacted against the expectations embodied in these writings. This period was key to the creation of many lasting stereotypes about women; although women’s lives had been the subject of prescriptive or moralistic texts for many centuries, the expansion of acceptable topics to write about that occurred during the medieval period (not to mention the increased survival of writings from this era) ensured a plethora of new texts which would delineate, define, and reclassify women’s experiences.
Soojung Han’s paper explores the role of Empress Dowager Lou in securing dynastic identity and stability for the Northern Qi dynasty, as described in early historical texts. In spite of the expectation of the authors of such writings that powerful women would disrupt the smooth working of government by sexual immorality, jealousy, or corrupt incompetence, the Empress Dowager would confound her critics. Therefore, this paper focuses on the documentary clash between misogynistic, patriarchal beliefs and the successful intervention by an imperial woman in the history of the dynasty.
Olivia Milburn’s paper is concerned with the development of literature purporting to tell the truth about life in the imperial harem, a genre which seems to have developed in the late Tang dynasty. In the absence of any real information, writers outside the palace walls created powerful literary representations reporting bizarre sexual antics and blighted women’s lives, all taking place amidst circumstances of the utmost luxury. Works like the Zhao Feiyan waizhuan were instrumental in creating this image, which was seen as definitive of the lives of palace women throughout the imperial era.
Hsiao-wen Cheng’s paper focuses on the representation of Song dynasty female mystics found within anectodal and religious accounts. Such women had a long tradition of performing healing rituals in China, and the role they played could be crucial for the sick, but their work was frequently greeted with suspicion. This paper explores the way that written texts, and the values these texts articulated, continued to impact the lives of women, even as contexts and practices changed.