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  • Gender, Power, and Talent: The Journey of Daoist Priestesses in Tang China by Jinhua Jia
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 drop [End Page 32] in the ocean when compared to the fact that, as Jia notes, "from the Kaiyuan reign period (713–741) 550 of the total 1,687 Daoist abbeys (32.6 percent) were convents, meaning that about one-third of the Daoist priesthood were females" (p. 50). Chapter 4 explores the religious function and ritual practice of these figures, while chapters 5 and 6 shift focus and examine two influential female Daoist thinkers and innovators of the period: Liu Moran 劉默然 (773–840) and Hu Yin 胡愔 (fl. 848), the former of which Jia argues may have composed the influential Zuowang lun 坐忘論 (Treatise on Sitting in Oblivion) while the latter is associated with an innovative commentary on the Huangting neijing jing 黄庭内景經 (Scripture of the Inner Refulgences of the Yellow Court). Finally, chapters 6 and 7 consist of literary explorations of poetry by and about Daoist priestesses, much of which derives from Cai Xingfeng's 蔡省風 Yaochi xinyong ji 瑤池新詠集(Anthology of New Poetry from the Turquoise Pond), which has been reconstructed from later sources and fragments discovered in Dunhuang. It is in this latter literary approach that Jia's study is at its most effective, as she displays great command of the material, reconstructing life-events, familial relations, and exploring the emotional lives of her subjects as presented within their compositions. The results are striking and support one of Jia's primary goals: the rehabilitation of these female writers—women who had been branded as licentious courtesans by Song (and later) critics—as pioneers rather than as pariahs. Women such as Yu Xuanji 魚玄機(ca. 843–868) and Li Jilan 李季蘭 (d. 784), she argues, rather than rejecting comparisons as goddesses or transcendents, instead embraced them in order to forge new independent literary voices. As a result, she claims, "their poetry started to transform a woman's image from a desired object into a desiring subject" (p. 161). Her evidence on the point is persuasive, well researched, and serves as an excellent example of how to apply a broad range of material (such as poetry, tomb-epitaphs, anecdotes, etc.) to reconstruct specific subjects (or, in this case, individuals).

Jia draws upon a variety of sources for her analysis. She employs epitaphic and monastic inscriptions, manuscripts from Dunhuang (consisting of essays, poems, historical documents, anecdotes), gazetteers, and lastly, the aforementioned poetry written by the priestesses themselves. Though she is rightfully cautious in employing traditional collections of hagiography such as Du Guangting's (850–933 c.e.) Yongcheng jixian lu 墉城集仙錄 (Records of the Assembled Transcendents in the Walled City), she does reference it throughout and provides a detailed appendix wherein she examines the surviving hagiographies of female Daoist practitioners from the collection. However, her drive to "restore this forgotten and disparaged female tradition to the historical landscape and to reveal their true, gendered identities and activities" (p. 193) makes her largely unwilling to examine the potential impact of Daoist practice on these figures outside of specific social factors (such as greater social freedom, interaction with literati, increased literacy, etc.). For example, while [End Page 33] she briefly touches on an awareness of female lineages of practice during the Tang (visible in the re-establishment of shrines to the Shangqing 上清 goddess Wei Huacun 魏華存, for example) she does not explore what impact these divine figures may have had on contemporary conceptions of self among Daoist priestesses.

Tao Hongjing's 陶弘景 (456–536) Zhen'gao 真誥(Declarations of the Perfected), for example, features poems composed by goddesses with the aim of spurring on their future-husbands to continue cultivating themselves in the Dao. Given the fact that figures such as Li Jilan were no doubt familiar with this work (and other depictions of female deities in the Shangqing pantheon), it would be illustrative to see if and how these priestesses played the role of Daoist divinities in their exchanges with friends and potential suitors, and whether such exchanges were drawing upon already established models outside of the mainstream literary oeuvre (such as Yang Xi's interactions with his divine female visitors). In addition, while she eschews Du Guangting's hagiographies for more contemporary biographical accounts, by excising the majority of elements that speak of religious practice (no matter how unbelievable) we run the risk of following in the footsteps of skeptical imperial historiographers and eliminating the transcendent in favor of the mundane. While that may be in line with modern sensibilities, it denies the more fantastical elements of the tradition such as divine intervention, mediumistic practice, and scriptural revelation in the name of recovering "the truth." As Stephen Bokenkamp has shown in his study of the Daoist priestesses Xie Ziran 謝自然 (d. 794) and Tian Yuansu 田元素 (d. 829), by examining poetry as well as hagiography, we can infer a variety of practices such as external alchemy (waidan 外丹)—the popular ingestion of elixirs and substances—that may have led to at least one of their untimely deaths, as it did to numerous emperors in the first half of the ninth century.1

Such nitpicks aside; this work provides the reader with an excellent foray into the world of Daoist priestesses in the Tang. It will serve a valuable role in the classroom as an introduction to the lives of female practitioners; a useful summary of social changes in the medieval period through a gender-critical framework, and a helpful aid to scholars engaging with Tang literary and religious works. Although Jia's assertion that Tang Daoist priestesses "may to a large degree be credited with [the] beginning of women's culture" (pp. 162–163) may be a tad hyperbolic, no one can deny the importance these figures had on the later development of Chinese literature and religion in the imaginations of poets and practitioners alike. [End Page 34]

Lucas Wolf

Lucas Wolf is a PhD candidate at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. His research focuses on Daoist ritual practice during the late Tang and into the Northern Song dynasty.


1. See Stephen Bokenkamp, "Sisters of the Blood: The Lives behind the Xie Ziran Biography," Daoism: Religion, History, and Society, no. 8 (2016): 7–33.

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