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  • Gender, Power, and Talent: The Journey of Daoist Priestesses in Tang China by Jinhua Jia
  • Lucas Wolf (bio)
Jinhua Jia. Gender, Power, and Talent: The Journey of Daoist Priestesses in Tang China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. xxvi, 324 pp. Hardcover $70.00, ISBN 978-0-23118-444-1. eBook $69.99, ISBN 978-0-23154-549-5.

Whether lauded as divine transcendents or celebrated as objects of unearthly beauty, Daoist priestesses (nüdaoshi 女道士 or nüguan 女冠x) occupied a favored space in the imagination of Tang (618–907) literati and often served as a source of poetic inspiration. Yet the resulting compositions—useful though they may be to scholars of social history and Daoism alike—present the lives of their subjects solely from the perspective of their male literati authors, relegating these important figures to tertiary roles in the religious and social life of medieval China. In so doing, traditional historiography has denied female Daoist practitioners a voice, whether secular or religious, during the Tang, one of the formative periods of Daoism and an age in which women enjoyed unprecedented power and influence in both political and social spheres. [End Page 31]

This lacuna has been steadily erased over the past several decades thanks to research from scholars such as Suzanne Cahill, Livia Kohn, Catherine Despeaux, Stephen Bokenkamp, and others. As such, it should no longer surprise us to learn that women too engaged in Daoist pursuits, were ordained in its highest mysteries, and experimented with dangerous elixirs in the aim of achieving long-life. Yet what of the personal lives of these practitioners? Why did they turn to the study of Daoism, over say, Buddhism, and what drove them to depart from their families and enter the convent in the first place? How did their identity as Daoist priestesses affect the ways in which they interacted with society and were, in turn, perceived by others? A great deal of work remains to be done to uncover the lived experiences of both male and female practitioners of Daoism, and to attempt to reclaim and record experiences both quotidian and transcendent. That said, Jinhua Jia's new study provides an intriguing approach to exploring these questions, especially in terms of how they relate to female practitioners, their relationship with society, and how prevailing gender norms during the Tang not only shaped the opportunities available to them but also influenced how they negotiated their own unique social spaces and literary voices.

The culmination of decades of research, this book marks a significant contribution to the field, providing a valuable study of the lives of select female practitioners of Daoism during the Tang dynasty—a critical period during which the religion enjoyed unprecedented imperial support leading to the institutionalization of Daoist ordination, state establishment, and support of monasteries, as well as the codification of liturgy and ritual. While Jia touches upon these broader phenomena, her primary focus is on the lived experiences of Daoist priestesses, a topic that she approaches through the lens of a "gender-critical framework" (p. xx) in order to provide a "full-length study of Daoist priestesses who distinguished themselves as a gendered religio-social group during the Tang dynasty" (p. xvii)—a group whose emergence, she claims, was "unprecedented in the history of Chinese women" (ibid). The rise of these women, she argues, depended upon four factors: a dynastic interest in Daoism (originally as a tool of political legitimization, but later as a point of curiosity), the resulting systemization and organization of the religion under imperial purview, the rise of Empress Wu and a subsequent emergence of a group of writing women, and finally the rising popularity of a "culture of romance" (p. xix).

Chapter 1 provides the reader with a useful overview of Tang imperial support for Daoism and the establishment of Daoist monasticism with its resulting impact on women, social conditions of the period that led to changing gender relations as well as a brief synopsis of ordination ranks and titles. Chapter 2 examines the uniquely Tang phenomena of imperial clanswomen entering Daoist convents while chapter 3 surveys the lives of 53 female practitioners for whom biographical details are extant—a mere...


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