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    Tomb Readers: Epitaphs Tell the Tales of Tang Women

    Tombstones from the Tang dynasty offer insights into the era’s highs and lows, and the dramatic shift in attitudes toward the characteristics and behaviors of “good women.”
    Apr 04, 2024#history

    Epitaphs etched into ancient tombstones can sometimes tell stories overlooked by historians. This is especially true of epitaphs for women. A prime example are memorials from the Tang dynasty (618-907), a period that brought enlightenment, prosperity, and great tumult, as well as saw the rise of China’s first and only female emperor.

    More people had epitaphs in this era than any other dynasty, with texts often stretching well beyond simply recording the dates of birth and death or marital status. Some carried details of extraordinary lives.

    In her book, “Women’s Lives in Tang China,” historian Yao Ping writes about her research into 1,560 epitaphs for women, the vast majority of which were written for married women, with the rest largely commemorating singletons, nuns, and palace maids.

    Some capture high drama, such as the tombstone of Mrs. Jiang, who lived between 420 and 589 in what is today the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The mother of a general who rebelled against the emperor, Jiang was kept hostage for seven years, eventually convincing her son to lay down his arms by threatening to commit suicide. Her epitaph, which adorns a monument commissioned by Emperor Taizong at least 100 years after her death, recounts the tale in detail, calling her “courageous and brave.”

    Another epitaph, for Zhi Zhijian, a woman born to an aristocratic family, details how she became a Buddhist nun at age 9 only to be forced to convert to Taoism at age 37 during the Huichang Persecution, a campaign launched by Emperor Wuzong (840-846) to cleanse the country of foreign religions.

    Others are more trivial yet still offer a window into the era, such as the epitaph for a woman who was married off by her family at age 12, had two daughters, and later wed again after her first husband’s death — extremely rare in a time when widows were expected to remain chaste. In another, a girl called Yang is remembered by her brothers as a “beautiful, round-faced child” who was witty and sharp. It includes an anecdote involving her uncle accidentally knocking her head against a doorframe, to which she responded with a smile, and a quote from her grandmother: “This girl is extraordinary. Don’t marry her off casually.”

    However, being born a woman during the Tang dynasty still sometimes meant being forgotten after death. Yao, a professor emerita in California State University’s Department of History, estimates that the epitaphs of parents in that era on average omitted at least one daughter. However, this did gradually change over time, and some touching stories of filial love can be found on tombs from the late Tang.

    One father expresses deep emotion in writing about his daughter, who passed away at age 16, saying that she had hidden her sickness to spare his feelings, as he too was in ill health. Another tomb tells of a mother dying upon her return home after traveling a long distance to visit her precious daughter.

    Another sign of the shift in attitude was how women were identified on epitaphs, going from “Mrs.” or “Ms.” or “So-and-so’s daughter” in the early days to having their full name and title by the late Tang.

    One reason women were held in such regard in the Tang era, and therefore appeared in more epitaphs compared with those from other dynasties, could be the rise of Wu Zetian, China’s first and only female emperor, who reigned from 690 to 705. An influential political and cultural figure, Wu decreed that children should “mourn their mothers for three years even if their fathers are still alive,” which meant holding no celebrations of any kind, wearing colorless clothes, and eating only simple foods. Previously, it had only been required for one year.

    However, there was still usually little space on a tombstone to say much about the lives these women lived. “Chinese Funerary Biographies: An Anthology of Remembered Lives,” an earlier work that Yao co-edited, explains that the function of epitaphs was to “help the deceased transition from this life to the world of death, ensure their well-being in the afterlife, and inform the afterlife of their social status.” Therefore, a typical example would mention the woman’s children and husband, their education, academic achievements, and official positions. Even those for Buddhist nuns often tended to include information on their husbands and offspring, as many women would choose a pious life after becoming widows.

    Based on a sample of 605 epitaphs for women in the “Database of Epitaphs of the Tang and Five Dynasties (907-960),” only about one-third of the text actually talks about the deceased. In terms of word count, the longest epitaphs are for noble concubines and women from the royal court.

    The write stuff

    It is worth noting that most epitaphs in the Tang era were written by men. As such, experts say there was a propensity to extol talents and virtues considered signs of a “good woman” at the time, such as being respectful, faithful, and a reliable housekeeper. For example, one reads, “She was living with her husband’s other five wives, and they were all very harmonious.”

    This also subtly changed over time, with differences between texts from the early and “glorious Tang” (650-755) periods and the later part of the dynasty and its eventual decline. For one, mentions of “beauty” made way for terms like “natural appearance” and “simplicity.”

    A Study of the Inscriptions of Tang Dynasty Women’s Tombs, a 2017 thesis by a Chinese academic, points out that in times of stability, middle-class women adorned themselves with beautiful items, but when the country plunged into wars and crises in later years, they took a more conservative approach. At this stage, “intellectuals introduced a new requirement for women: Abandon extravagance and reject luxury,” it adds.

    In the late Tang, there was also a trend of epitaphs praising women for their strong character and integrity, marking a departure from the earlier preference for words like “gentle” and “obedient.”

    However, the wording often still reflected societal expectations of the time. For instance, an epitaph for Mrs. Zheng, a literary figure who died between 742 and 756, describes her only as possessing the “talent to qualify as a teacher,” a well-worn compliment at the time along with “born intelligent, grew benevolent” and a “model of virtue.” Many more tombstones simply carry “widowed and raised children,” with no elaboration on the hardships and obstacles they might have overcome.

    It was also not uncommon for women to write the epitaphs for their husbands. However, not all of them were gushing with praise. One writes, “Although my husband has passed away, we have land, and we have books to educate our sons. What is there to be sad about?” She later adds, “During our eight years of marriage, I was ignored by my husband.”

    While such candid reflections were rare from women in the Tang dynasty, more than 1,000 years on, thanks to the continuous efforts of generation upon generation, every woman in China now has the opportunity to write her own story.

    Reported by Shu Yi’er, Wang Yasai, and Wang Xushu.

    A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translators: Strapko Nastassia and Eunice Ouyang; graphic designers: Wang Yasai and Luo Yahan; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: A figurine found in a tomb dating to the Tang dynasty (618-907), from the collection of the Xi’an Museum. VCG)