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The Eyes of the Empress Women in China’s Tang Dynasty

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By Lyn Reese






Reviewed by Helen Finken

The Eyes of the Empress guides secondary students in examining the diverse roles of women during China’s Tang Dynasty (618–906 C.E.). A wide variety of resources are provided which highlight women’s significant contributions to the cultural and political life of the period. An analysis of the role of Confucian ideology in defining the status and role of women extends students’ understanding of why Tang women are considered unique in Chinese history.

The primary teaching component of The Eyes of the Empress is a twenty-six page, original story based on true accounts of the lives of two Tang women: Yu Xuanji, a poet, and the Empress Wu Zetian. The fact that these women were not contemporaries compromises the historical accuracy of the account, but the Tang-period lifestyles and accomplishments of the women are effectively portrayed.

Changan, the setting for much of the story, comes alive through rich descriptions of its sounds, architecture, geographic layout, and the varied activities of its cosmopolitan population. When the characters travel beyond Changan, vivid details enable students to visualize rural life along the Huang He (Yellow River). Students can also picture themselves as members of Wu Zetian’s court, based on descriptions of court fashions, entertainment, foreign envoys and Buddhist ceremonial beliefs and practices. Throughout the story, the rich cultural and historical details of the Tang period provide the context in which the characters interact as they try to resolve the dilemmas posed by their individual dreams and circumstances.

Discussion questions, activity ideas, four in-depth essays (on the poet Yu Xuanji, Empress Wu Zetian, additional Tang real and legendary heroines, and a general historical overview of women in
the Tang dynasty), a glossary, background information on Confucian ideology, and a selected bibliography supplement the story.

Suggested activities require students to process important content. Students create an Effects Wheel by charting the potential impact of a specific Confucian belief on women’s lives, write biopoems using a provided format and model, and create dramatic scenes based on Tang heroines. Research options, with pertinent sources cited, encourage students to compare Tang and Han dynasty women.

The Eyes of the Empress concludes with two short plays which highlight the economic and cultural pressures on women today and modern Chinese women’s responses to those forces. The first play, “The Sawblade Shop Strike,” is based on a 1982 protest over factory working conditions in the village of Long Bow. The second play, “A Boy is Good,” explores the basis for China’s one-child policy and its impact on women. Discussion questions, supplemental information and suggested activities follow each play. They are springboards for a more in-depth study of the role of women in the post-Deng Xiaoping period.

The Eyes of the Empress is self-contained, research-based, content-rich, pedagogically versatile, clearly written, and easily reproducible. Historical prints or black-line graphics enhance each page.
The case study’s multiple perspectives assist students in developing an understanding of women’s diverse roles during the Tang dynasty. The plays and story foster student involvement; the content challenges students to examine and evaluate the political, cultural/philosophical, economic and social influences on Tang women’s lives.

The unit materials and activities can accommodate the needs of students with diverse learning styles in secondary world history or geography courses. Student progress can be assessed on the basis of the level of understanding students demonstrate through the unit assignments. The Eyes of the Empress allows for flexible implementation: it can support a one-to-two-day overview or a week-long instructional unit.

Students are intrinsically motivated to study and discuss the status and role of men and women. The Eyes of the Empress is an effective instructional resource for teaching about this topic. It enables students to explore the status and role of women during the Tang period and to analyze why Tang women had uniquely diverse roles. By examining the enduring impact of cultural beliefs and practices in China, students will be better prepared to analyze the development of status and role patterns in other historical and contemporary settings.