Difficult decisions by women from the Tang dynasty
By Annika Pissin
Paper given at the V Congresso della Società Italiana delle Storiche, Naples (2010)
Introduction: Adult women during the Tang dynasty were, before all, mothers. To be a mother, especially the mother of legitimate sons, was the most important role for women throughout Chinese history. This presentation focuses on two decisions of mothers that had, and in fact still, have a great emotional, and socio-economic influence in their lives. The decisions are:
1.) taking the life of an unborn child, abortion;
2.) and granting life to an illegitimate child.
Women in my sources are presented to take these decisions privately, in the absence of men, while all authors who noted the events around such decisions are men.
The focus of these two decisions: taking life from and granting it to unborn children or infants also allows me to discuss several other related topics:
a.) female freedom and dependency during the Tang period;
b.) integration of women into communities, their rights and problems and their relation to ‘alien’ families, such as their natal families;
c.) male (his)tory telling and their fears.
Images of abortive mothers and mothers who raise their illegitimate sons (never daughters) are a combination of several ideas about women that were common during the Tang dynasty. I will first introduce these common ideas and also discuss the problems of female integration and alienation in medieval communities, before I present a range of motherhood images. After this lengthy discussion I will tell several narratives that deal with abortion and illegitimate sons which I will then embed in a concluding remark about decision making by and freedom of women during the Tang dynasty.