TheTang code was a set of laws in ancient China created during the TangDynasty. The term Tang dynasty was first established by Li Yuan, amilitary general who led a revolt against the existing Sui dynasty bydeclaring a parallel dynasty in 617. However, Li Yuan did not lastlong as emperor of the new dynasty as he was imprisoned by his ownson Li Shimin who took over the title Tang Taizon upon seizing thethrone. Taizon also killed his two brothers to make himself the onlyheir to the throne. His ambitions and desire to stick to the thronesaw him pacify dissidents cunningly and gain new territory in theregion through partnership with Turkish rulers. Throughout his reign(626 -649), he was interested in creating civil obedience to retainhis hold on the throne.1To ensure civil order, Tang oversaw the creation of the Tang Code in624which underwent several revisions to comprise about 500 articles. Theactual text of the code was written by Zhangsun Wuji (d. 659 CE), ahigh-ranking official and brother-in-law of Emperor Tang Taizong.2

Thecode addressed various issues largely distinguished into four mainareas namely: Lu(criminal law), Ling(institutional regulations), Ge(administrative rules) and Shi(formulas of official documents). This code, which is just one amongmany that were developed in ancient China by various dynasties, hasremained popular in modern studies as it is intact in its originalform while other ancient penal codes are available in bits. The Tangcode was a legal model for all subsequent dynasties up until the 20thcentury when the republic of China was founded.3Generally, the code was applied universally in deference toConfucian’s social hierarchies, moral standards, cultural and legalstandards. The code thus stated laws and their respective punishment.The code held in high regard social hierarchies to such an extentthat punishment meted out to offenders of a given crime differed withsocial hierarchy.4In the same manner, gender issues as recognized by Confucianism wereupheld by the code. According to Confucian ideas, women should besubservient to men as natural and proper order. At the same, menshould always honor and respect their mother and mother-in-law. Thelaw thus largely reinforced specific issues of this highlypatriarchal society that largely discriminated against women to anextent of containing some contradictions that were impractical tofulfill as this paper discusses.

Oneof areas that the code surmounted women was in marriage. Marriageheld a central place in the social life of the Chinese society in theTang Dynasty. Marriage reconfigured kinship boundaries, class, ritualobligations and law applications. It was viewed as a union thatensured continuity of family, life and society. The family alsoplayed an integral role in creating a chance for the practicing offamily rituals as enshrined in the huhunin the annotated Tang code.5In all these, marriage under the Tang code presented several newchanges to the place of women in society. The code meant that marriedwomen would no longer be exiled for life from society for crimescommitted but were instead subjected to corporal punishment.6The secondary role that women played to men also meant that theyreceived lenient punishment compared to men. For instance, if a womanled a crime, she would not be liable to punishment if any male wasinvolved in the crime as the code already assumed that womenexclusively take orders from men and not the other way round.7In terms of educating women, the Tang dynasty and specifically theTang code provided better conditions and room for women to receiveeducation which was a break from the traditional upbringing of womenwhich centered on the virtues of being docile and obedient.8The code also dictated clearly the virtues expected in women throughthe seven feminine virtues developed by Ban Zhao (Pan Chao).

Thesevirtues have been perceived both positively and negatively. Thepositive approach views the virtues, which were part of the fourqualifications of a woman (womanly virtue, womanly words, womanlybearing and womanly work), as a sure way to offer guidance and moraleducation to ancient Chinese women.9On the other hand, the negative approach to these virtues sees themas a way and method or perpetuating or institutionalizingdiscrimination of women despite the law being drafted by a fellowwoman. These virtues dictated every aspect of women’s lives fromhow they interacted with one another and even how they interactedwith their children and spouses. Deviance from the said virtues wasnot acceptable and consequences included among others divorce.

Thefirst feminine virtue was meekness and humility. A woman was expectedto be meek and humble in front of her husband and male relativesincluding her sons.10While Zhao as a woman identified the importance of this virtue, itwas the role of the father of a young girl to teach the virtue ofmeekness and humility though a ritual performed when girls were justthree days old. It involved the placing the child under the bed alonewith a spindle as a first toy. This was done to teach her about herinferior position in the household and the importance of hard workrepresented by the spindle. The father was expected to fast and dopenance and report to the ancestors the arrival of a female child inthe family. This prepared the girl for a place and acceptance tooffer ancestors sacrifices in forms of food and wine. Women played anintegral role in these sacrifices and their acceptance by theancestors at a tender age through the intervention of the fatherallowed for the acceptance of the sacrifices made in family ritualsonce they got married.11

Thesecond virtue related to a woman’s relationship with her husband12or what was commonly known as the “Husband as Guidance”doctrine.13This doctrine was aimed at guiding the relationship between a husbandand a wife with the woman playing the submissive and timid femininerole and the husband playing the masculine and respect-demandingrole. For this reason, each young boy had to be taught how to be aman and a good husband and the same for each and every girl. Thedoctrine also reiterated the place of women in a family hierarchy bystating that “The father is the god in the eyes of the son, so isthe husband in the eyes of the wife…..A woman treats her father asthe god when single and treats her husband as the god when married….and “Be obedient to your father before marriage, your husbandafter marriage and your son when the husband dies”.14This view was also highly supported by the state which used malemembers fo the society to maintain order in families and thus thelarger empire.

Thethird virtue called for a differentiation of the conduct betweenmales and females. This view according to Pan Chao was borrowed fromthe yangyinphilosophy which states that despite masculine and feminine forcesbeing apparently opposite, they should work in a complementarymanner. In this case, man is the yang which represents hardness whilea woman is the yin that represents softness. Therefore, a man shouldalways be strong and the woman soft and not the other way round.15This virtue also recognized the need for mutual affection and respectbetween couples as a key pillar to the marriage institution. Althoughhusbands were allowed by the code to beat and scold their wives incase of disrespectful behavior or contempt towards the husband, suchactions were viewed to undermine the institution of marriage.

Thefourth virtue pertained to a woman’s conduct. There were fourrecognized standards or elements that were used to judge the conductof a woman namely ethics, words appearance and domestic work.16The basic idea behind the setting up of these standards was toindicate to women that they need not be superhuman or super-talentedto be considered a woman. The standard was just meant to guide theiractions, and behavior to be consistent with custom and convention.17For instance, in terms of appearance, a woman should be neat andclean to acceptable standards. Nonetheless, the different socialclasses of the society implied that the expectations varied acrossthe levels. In a similar manner, the punishment for violation of theset standards varied across the social classes but the code ensuredthat the variation was just and fair.18

Thefifth feminine virtue called for women’s devotion to their spouses.A wife was expected to be devoted to the husband even after hisdeath. The notion that the husband was a “god” to the wife asmentioned earlier in the second feminine virtue implies that a womancannot abdicate her religion or switch allegiance from her god toanother.19Therefore, a woman was not expected to remarry after the death of thehusband whilst a man was not expected to marry a widow. On the otherhand widowers were allowed to remarry in order to ensure continuityof the family and the society at large. This dominance and favoritismof men in this ancient society was also evident in the fact that thecode gave articulate instructions in how wives would meet the needsof their husbands but minimal instructions on how husbands would meetthe needs of their wives. In one instance, it is noted that a womanshall not at any moment violate the principle of righteousness andpropriety or even gather with other women for parties or funpurposes.20In short, women were there to meet the needs and obey their husbandsor fathers and meet cultural and society expectations of themenshrined in the Tang Code.

Thesixth feminine virtue called for a woman to bend her own will toaccommodate the will of others.21She was required to bend her own will to win the joy and favor of herhusband and the in-laws. In regards to parent in-laws, women wereexpected to obey the wishes of their parent in laws especially wheredispute with husband was involved and divorce was being contemplated.Additionally, women were expected to show recognition of theConfucian family and social hierarchy as upheld by their husbands.While husbands regarded sons as more important than daughters in thatera, the reign of emperor Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor,brought confusion. With Zetian promoting the course of women, girlchildren were favored and even baby boys killed. This alone was incontradiction of the Tang code which placed males higher than womenin the social hierarchy and required women to be timid at in anempire ruled by a woman.22

Theseventh and last feminine virtue emphasized on the need to maintaincordial relations with husband’s siblings. The woman was requiredto recognize and appreciate the acceptance given to her by the inlaws as part of her adopted family. Given that the family was a veryimportant part of society then, a husband might have received inputfrom his family choosing a spouse or even divorcing her. It wastherefore the role of a woman to ensure that she was accepted andretained in her adopted family through marriage by continuallyimpressing the in-laws and in the process impressing the husband. Itwas very hard for a man to divorce a woman he was married to if hisparents and family were very fond of her.23A wife was also required to strengthen the relationship between herhusband and his siblings and parents. Special interest was given tothe relationship between a wife and the husband’s younger sisterwho was assumed to have a closer relationship with the husband thanwith other siblings. Therefore, a woman was required to befriend thisyounger sister to cover her weaknesses and highlight her strengths inthe belief that as her ally, she would praise her in front of thehusband or curse her in front of the husband.24

TheTang Code also bound women through the ten abominations law. Theselaws were largely grouped into two categories-abominations againststate and abominations against family and society. These Abominationsare the most severe offenses under the Tang Code. Abominationsagainst the state included leading rebellion, plotting greatsedition, plotting treason, great irreverence and unrighteousness.Abominations that undermined the basic family unit includedcontumacy, depravity, lack of filial piety, discord, and incest.25Filial piety was considered the most important in that it comprisedof respect to parents (in-laws), elders and ancestors. Ancestors inChinese culture were accorded utmost respect and commemorated throughancestor worship, rituals and the Qingming Festival. This was drivenby the belief that the ancestors had influence on the lives of theliving.

Marriagewas an important social practice for the Tang dynasty both for theliving and the dead. The ancestors were involved in marriages throughseveral rituals that aimed to sanctify the union and even allowancestors to accept a new wife into the family. Some marriages wereeven performed posthumously with a person being married to the soulof an ancestor.26The act of marriage also played a critical role in reinforcing theinferior position of women in that particular society. For one,marriages were arranged by parents of a man and a woman through anintermediary known as matchmaker. The family of the man had morecontrol on the choice of spouse than the girl’s family. The womanhad no choice in deciding about divorce. Again, the woman had no sayin dictating her relations with the in-laws. For this reason, somemarriages were not guided by perceived match-up or love but the needto continue with a social system that ensured continuity and genderhierarchy.27The wedding process was also evident of the suppression of women.

TheTang code authorized the use of matchmaker. Prospective bride andgroom were not allowed to meet before marriage or court in the beliefthat it would encourage premarital relations which were against theTang Code.28The code also set the legal marriage age for males at 14 and forgirls at 12.29The marrying however varied widely by social class with upper classmarrying earlier while the lower class married late at around 20-30.30The law was strict on the age or couples with a man only allowed tomarry a girl not less than half his age. However, the state was notinvolved in issuing wedding ceremonies though there was clear need toensure the legal age was observed and that incest was not practiced.Incest was punishable to both wife and husband with the severity ofpunishment varying with the proximity of family relations. There wereother marriages that were prohibited. For instance a woman was notallowed to marry a close kin of her deceased husband. Again marriagesconsummated during the mourning period for a parent or husband orduring incarceration of a close relative were all condemned.Additionally, marriage between people with a similar surname was notallowed same as marriage across the rigid social classes. One of thereasons that marriage between people who shared surnames was becausewomen and monks, who were regarded lowly in Tang China were onlyreferred to by their surnames.31A concubine was also not allowed to be elevated to a wife.32

Thetang code also recognized that marriages could end in divorce. Assuch, a man and a woman were allowed to divorce through mutualconsent on various grounds. While a man was allowed to divorce awoman, a woman was not allowed o divorce a man even if the groundsset out for divorce were committed by the man. There were sevenconditionsunder which a man could divorce a wife which comprised of (1)unfilialnessto her parents-in-law, (2) bearing no son, (3)adultery,(4) jealousy, (5)malignantdisease, (6)talkingtoo much, and (7)stealing.33

Theseconditions were deemed irreversible once committed by a woman butthey could contest divorce on three conditions. First was havingnowhere else to go such a lacking other close extended family membersto support her. Second was having contributed significantly toincreased wealth of her husband. Third, for having mourned for herparents in law.34However, as earlier aforementioned, the conditions did not apply tomen as women were not allowed to divorce women. These conditions werealso largely contrasted against the six desirable qualities noted inprominent pre-Han period women. They include (1) motherhood, (2)honesty and intelligence (3) kindness and wisdom, (4) chastity andsubmissiveness, (5) righteousness and (6) speech and writing.35

TheTang Code though meant create civil order gave undue attention towomen. This confirms a clear indication that the society believed orthe Tang Dynasty as the government f the day believed that women weremost culpable to committing offences hence needed to be given clearguidelines. In fact, one of the most popular poems from the TangDynasty by Bao Si claims in part “Disorder is not sent down byHeaven, It is produced by women.&quot &quotThose who cannot betaught, cannot be instructed. These are women and eunuchs.&quot36As such, even books such as the Nu Tse (principles for women, 630 AD)were published aimed at guiding women on the best behaviors andconducts as extolled in the Tang code. This book in particularhighlighted the virtues of historical Chinese female figures whichwomen of the Tang dynasty were expected to emulate. The bookcomprised of thirty volumes in total.37

Onlooks, women were expected to be beautiful to be admired by suitorsand their husbands. One of the most controversial and contradictorylaw allowed by the Tang dynasty pertained to the practice offootbinding. While the code sought to somehow liberate women fromrepressive laws, the footbinding process which aimed at achieving asmall beautiful feet was self defeating. This is because it hamperedmovement and even the productivity of women who were expected to workhard as part of a feminine virtue.38

Itis clear that women of the Tang dynasty were weighed down by veryhigh standards of moral and behavioral expectations with some beingimpractical. The inability to bear a son being a ground for divorceis simply absurd given that modern science has shown that it is menwho determine a child’s gender. The women of that period werebrought up to be seen and not heard. Though there are cases that thelaws were disobeyed during to their impracticality, women stillremains largely the lesser gender. The desire to have children asyoung as 12 marrying only served to suppress women. Such knowledge isimportant to understand the history of Chinese culture and thecultures view on women in the modern world where gender equality isongoing issue.


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1 Ropp, Paul. China in world history. London: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 53

2 Wuji, Z. The great Tang Code: Article 6, “the ten abominations”. In Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom (eds) Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2nd ed., vol. 1, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, 549-552., p. 549.

3 Wang, YuFan. 2009. The triumph of Confucianism: how a subjugated legal system is failing a generation of Chinese women and girls, 699.

4 Ropp, Paul. China in world history. London: Oxford University Press, 2010., p.54

5 Pee, Christian. The Writing of Weddings in Middle-Period China: Text and Ritual Practice, New York: SUNY Press, 2012., p. 187

6 Johnson, Wallace. Status and Liability for Punishment in the T`ang Code. Chicago-Kent Law Review. 71(1): 217-229, 1995, p.226

7 Johnson, p.226

8 Lee, Wong Yin.“Women`s education in traditional and modern China.” Women`s History Review,

4:3, (1995)345-367, p. 345.

9 Lee, Yeun. 2012. Ban Zhao: Scholar of Han Dynasty China. Retrieved from, http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/9.1/lee.html

10 Zhao, Ban. The seven feminine virtues. P. 95

11 Zhao, p. 97

12 ibid, p.96

13 Lee, p. 305

14 Ibid p. 347.

15 Ibid, p. 347

16 Zhao p.98

17 Zhao p. 98

18 Johnson, p. 220

19 Lee, W. p. 347.

20 Zhao p. 99.

21 Ibid, p. 99

22 Ropp, p.55

23 Benn, Charles. Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty. New York, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. 247-248.

24 Zhao, p. 101

25 Wang, YuFan. 2009. The triumph of Confucianism: how a subjugated legal system is failing a generation of Chinese women and girls. Cardozo Women`s Law Journal vol.11 no.3 (2005), 691. p. 701

26 Benn, p. 243

27 ibid. 243

28 Dull, Jack. Marriage and divorce in Han China: A glimpse at “pre-Confucian” society. In Bauxbaum, D. (ed). Chinese family law and social change. 1969.p. 39

29 Benn, p. 244

30 Dull, p. 27

31 Tung, Jowen, Fables for the Patriarchs: Gender Politics in Tang Discourse, New York, Rowman &amp Littlefield, 2000. p. 180

32 Pee, Christian. The Writing of Weddings in Middle-Period China: Text and Ritual Practice, New York: SUNY Press, 2012., p. 190

33 Wong, Linda. Family Reform through Divorce Law in the PRC. Pacific Basin Law Journal 1 no. 2, (1982) 265-285. p.269

34 Hinsch, Bret, Women in Early Imperial China, New York, Rowman &amp Littlefield Publishers, 2010. p. 43.

35 Swann, trans, Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China, (New York: Century Co., , 1932), pp. 82-90

36 Raphals p.64

37 Yao, Esther. Chinese women, past &amp present. New York, Ida House, 1983. P. 50

38 Goucher, Candice, Charles LeGuin, and Linda Walton, In the Balance: Themes in Global History, Boston, McGraw-Hill, 1998., p. 119.