Gender, Power, and Talent

The Journey of Daoist Priestesses in Tang China

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Jinhua Jia
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , March
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jinhua Jia’s new book is the culmination of her many years of work on Tang dynasty (618-908) Daoist priestesses. In previous articles on these fascinating female figures, Jia has utilized literary, religious studies, and gender studies approaches, and here, she weaves all of them together to offer a rich portrait of her subjects. Though a number of scholars have explored female Daoists of the Tang dynasty—particularly the two most notable Daoist priestesses of the period, Princess Jinxian 金仙 (Golden Transcendent) and Princess Yuzhen 玉真 (Jade Perfected), the eighth and ninth daughters of Emperor Ruizong 睿宗 (662–716) respectively (also addressed by Jia 32-48)—Jia takes a more comprehensive approach to consider the institution of Daoist priestesses, in her words, a “gendered, religio-social group” (xvii), which arose under a unique confluence of factors during the Tang dynasty. In the latter half of the book (chapters 4 to 7), Jia provides in-depth portraits of individual priestesses, their writings, and their place in the broader religious and social culture of the Tang period and beyond.

One of the most important contributions of this book is Jia’s exploration of a variety of new source materials, chief among them funerary epitaphs (muzhiming 墓誌銘), but also Dunhuang manuscripts, poems, essays, anecdotes, and monastic gazetteers, which she uses to provide a more balanced picture of the priestess class and expand our understanding of their roles and contributions. Previous work on Tang Daoist female figures, such as that of Suzanne Cahill or Catherine Despeaux, has relied heavily on Du Guangting’s 杜光庭 (850–933) collection of female hagiographies, the Yongcheng jixian lu 墉城集仙錄 (“Records of the Transcendents Gathered in the Walled City”). While still an important source, Jia eschews this text, arguing that it presents Du’s own biased view of female religious figures filtered through his own personal Confucian patriarchal lens and religious convictions, as well as the political conditions of the time (see the appendix). Nevertheless, Jia does not uncritically try to recreate the “real” experiences of Daoist priestesses from an extended range of sources; rather, she seeks to contextualize their lives and give voice to aspects of these lives that have been shrouded in other sources. In using different sources, she is also sensitive to the inherent problems with each kind of text, their values, judgments, and potential motives for composition. Her attention to the conventional standards of the epitaphs, for example, allows her to sift through these sources for critical information on the priestesses and others’ perceptions of them. Moreover, Jia works deftly with these new sources, often not relying solely on their narratives and content, but integrating them with other contemporary materials to create a composite picture of the Daoist priestess class. 

Expanding the range of sources also yields interesting details about the priestesses, their roles, and their contributions. Among the many significant religious and social contributions that Daoist priestesses made during this time, as heads of convents, preachers, mentors, commentators, theorists, poets, artists, and in other roles, their role as ritual specialists is a notable addition to our understanding, one which only comes through exploring such a diversity of sources, in this case court literati essays and lyric poetry that include descriptions of these public ritual performances. Epitaph inscriptions, some unearthed as late as 2008, others collected and published in modern multi-volume collections, and more that Jia culled from transmitted premodern collections, carry essential biographical details on priestesses—names, dates, residences, positions, family background, and reasons for ordination—aspects that are frequently absent from standard histories or other collections. For scholars of Chinese religion, Jia’s work serves as a helpful reminder of how valuable this repository of funeral epitaphs can be for future studies of Chinese religion.  

Jia’s new book is of course an important contribution regarding Chinese religions and gender. In chapter 3, she explores how Daoist abbesses drew on images of Daoist goddesses and other historical Daoist women as inspiration. And in chapter 6, she examines the poetry of three Daoist priestesses, showing that the poets fashioned their own female literary voices by portraying themselves not as passive, objectified women, but as desirous subjects who reflected a conscious awareness of their own subjectivity and empowerment (see 179-85). Moreover, these priestesses continually exchanged poems with each other, sowing the seeds for an early female literary culture, and engaged with their male literary contemporaries. In considering these issues, Jia seeks to break down earlier barriers to our understanding. First, as mentioned above, the book moves research away from a primary reliance on Du Guangting’s hagiographies of female religious figures, a source heavily colored by male stereotypes. But just as important, Jia also pushes back against earlier pre-modern characterizations of Daoist priestesses as courtesans or licentious women, which have been perpetuated in some contemporary scholarship. With such a diverse body of sources, she readily demonstrates how versatile and accomplished Daoist priestesses were during the Tang period, forging their own gendered identities as an independent, self-aware class. 

The book undoubtedly would be a welcome addition to a course on gender and Chinese religions, along with other more recent scholarship on the subject, such as Jia’s co-edited volume Gendering Chinese Religion: Subject, Identity, and Body (SUNY Press, 2014)For such a course, the first three chapters of Jia’s book are likely most appropriate, as some of the discussion in the latter half of the book gets bogged down in textual details such as authorship or editions. Moreover, chapters 6 and 7 are predominantly concerned with literary analysis and close readings of poetry written by priestess poets. Nevertheless, Jia has written an incredibly important book for both scholars and students, one which will remain for years to come a pivotal resource for classrooms and related studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tyler Feezell is a doctoral student in East Asian Languages and Civilizations (Chinese) at the School of International Letters and Cultures at Arizona State University.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jinhua Jia is Professor in the Department of Chinese Culture at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She is the author of The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism in Eighth- Through Tenth-Century China (2006) and coeditor of Gendering Chinese Religion: Subject, Identity, and Body (2014).



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