The Eastern Kingdom of Women in Tang China:  A Translation from the Old Tang History (Jiu Tang shu) - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

The Eastern Kingdom of Women in Tang China:


A Translation from the Old Tang History (Jiu Tang shu)

Shaanxi Normal University (China)


When men of the Tang dynasty (618−907)encountered an Eastern Kingdom of Women (Dong nüguo) that esteemed women and looked down on men in the western highlands of their far-flung empire, they viewed the peripheral society as highly idiosyncratic. Situated near modern-day northwest Sichuan and southeast Qinghai provinces, this unique, matrilineal, and non-Chinese polity featured a political system in which men only served as officials outside the court, presumably lower-ranked and subordinate to the women who dominated the inner court.

Historic buildings known as "diaolou" in the land of
Eastern Kingdom of Women, Ganzi, Sichuan Province

Even in the cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic Tang dynasty, the social and cultural orientation of the Eastern Kingdom of Women was not familiar to the Chinese mindset. Encapsulated in the phrase “men are venerated and women are denigrated” (nanzun nübei), cultural attitudes in traditional China were predominantly patriarchal and andocentric. Confucianism, the dominant social and cultural ideology in pre-modern China, “has a reputation for its degrading and repressive attitude toward women and for its history of women-oppressive politics.”[1] In this paradigm, the emperor ruled over the state and the father-patriarch presided over the family. Although the general mood of society in the Tang dynasty was open and the social status of women was relatively higher than in other periods,[2] Confucianism remained a deep-seated conservative ideological system in which women still had an inferior status overall.

These Confucian attitudes are clearly reflected by official historical records of Tang. One of the official histories dedicated to the Tang, the Old Tang History (known as Jiu Tang shu in Chinese, compiled in 945), contains a description of the aforementioned Eastern Kingdom of Women presided over by female rulers.[3]  To some extent, the account mirrors the paternalistic and protective attitude of the larger (male) Tang empire toward the small (female) tributary state on the fringes. What follows is a translation of the first part of the account of the Eastern Kingdom of Women in Chapter 197 of the Old Tang History.

A Translation of the “Eastern Kingdom of Women”

The Eastern Kingdom of Women is a splinter group of the Western Qiang.[4] Since a Kingdom of Women already existed in the Western Sea, this country was called the Eastern Kingdom of Women. By custom, a woman ruled the state. To the east, the country was bounded by Maozhou Prefecture[5] and Dangxiang.[6]  To the southeast, it bordered Yazhou Prefecture.[7] The kingdom is surrounded on either side by Luonüman and Bailangyi.[8] It takes nine days to walk across the country from the east to the west, and 20 days from south to north. There are 80 cities in total. The dwelling place of the female ruler was named Kangyanchuan.[9] The Ruoshui[10] River flows southward across the kingdom. People fashioned ox-hide boats to cross the river.

Tibetan singer Jiangyang
Zhuoma released her CD
entitled "Eastern Kingdom
of Women" in 2008

The population was greater than 40,000 households. More than 10,000 soldiers were arrayed in the mountains and valleys. The female ruler, the Binjiu, and female officials called gaoba jointly deliberated upon matters of state. Outside the court, officials were all male. Several hundred maids attended the ruler. Every five days the ruler held court.

When the female ruler passed away, people contributed an immense volume of strings of cash and gold. The royal family required that two exceptional ladies be chosen to inherit the throne. The elder was designated Greater Ruler; the younger, Lesser Ruler. If the Greater Ruler died, the Lesser Ruler would succeed her; and if the mother-in-law died, the daughter-in-law would succeed. There were no problems with usurpation.

All the people lived in multi-story dwellings. The ruler’s home had nine stories. Homes of commoners had as many as six stories. The King wore a cyan-colored woolen silk skirt, turtleneck and cyan cloak, its sleeves reaching the ground. During winter, the King wore a garment of silky patterned lamb wool.[11] The Queen's hair was put up in a bun decorated with golden ornaments. She wore hoop earrings and white footwear. By custom, people of this country esteemed women and looked down on men. Their written language was the same as India’s.

They made the 11th lunar month the first month of their year. Customarily, during the 10th lunar month, the shamans presented paper offerings in the mountains and scattered crushed grains. When the shamans hailed, pheasant-like birds would fly to their bosom. Thereupon, shamans would split open the bird’s crop. If grain was found within, the following year’s harvest would be plentiful. If frost and snow were found, the next year would be calamitous. People believed the prognostications, and this tradition was called “haruspicy.”

When one is in mourning, they never changed out of their funerary raiment. When one’s parents died, he or she neither bathed nor combed their hair for three years. When a noble person died, their flesh would be peeled away and buried. Their bones would be crushed and mixed with gold powder and preserved in a jar in the earth. When the ruler died, several dozen high officials and relatives were jointly inhumed.

In the Dayereign era (605−617) of the Sui dynasty (581−618),[12] Prince Xiu of Shu sent an ambassador to summon the Eastern Kingdom of Women to court but they declined the offer. In the Wude era (618−626), female ruler Tangpang began to send envoys with tribute to offer Tang Gaozu.[13] Gaozu richly rewarded them and sent them back. On their return journey, Tujueinvaders ransacked them at Longyou.[14]  When the Xieli Khan was pacified, they once again sent envoys to the Tang court.[15] Tang Taizong (r. 626−649) ordered his guards to protect them on their journey back and sent an official letter to reassure them imprinted with the emperor’s seal. In the second year of Chuigong (686),[16] Ruler Lianbi sent chancellor Tang Jianzuo to the Tang court to request an official title. [Grand Dowager] Wu Zetian conferred upon Lianbi the title Auxiliary General of the Left Guard of Jade Strategy[17]and bestowed on her a silkenfanfu garment.[18] In the third year of Tianshou (692),[19] ruler E Yan’er visited the Tang court. In the first year of Wansuitongtian (696),[20] envoys were sent to the Tang. In the 12 lunar month of the 29th year of Kaiyuan (741)[21] ruler Zhao Yefu sent her son bearing tribute for the Tang. In the first year of Tianbao (743)[22] the Tang emperor ordered officials to arrange a banquet near the Qujiang and invited ministers and officials to take part. Xuanzong also invested Yefu’s son as Prince of Guichang and bestowed him the official title Left General of the Imperial Insignia Guard.[23] He also granted Yefu’s son eighty bolts of silk and sent the delegation back. From this time forward, men occupied positions of power.    

Original Text from the Old Tang History


About the authors

Jingjing Zhao is a junior student majoring in English at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an, China. She just completed her one-year program as an exchange student at the University of North Florida.  Brought up in Xi’an, the capital city of the Tang dynasty, she has always been fascinated by Tang history. She is expecting to pursue her master's degree in the United States. Xueyi Yang, also a student from Shaanxi Normal University, studied in the same program with Jingjing. Ben Glaimo, a student from University of North Florida, encountered Jingjing and Xueyi in Xi’an on a trip. They all hope to promote cultural exchanges between China and the United States.

Recommended citation

Jingjing Zhao, Xueyi Yang and Ben Glaimo, “The Eastern Kingdom of Women in Tang China: A Translation from the Old Tang History (Jiu Tang shu),” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no. 2 (Summer 2011).


[1]Li Chenyang, “Introduction: Can Confucianism Come to Terms with Feminism?” in Li Chenyang ed., The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics and Gender (Boston: Open Court, 2000), 1.
[2]N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Longman, 2008), 11−15.
[3]Liu Xu, Jiu Tangshu (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1997), 197.5277-9. For the state, see also Tan Qixiang, Zhongguo lishi ditu ji, vol. 5 (Beijing: Zhongguo lishi ditu chubanshe, 1996), 76−7; Victor Cunrui Xiong, Historical Dictionary of Medieval China (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009), 128.
[4]The Western Qiang is an ethnic group of China who mainly live in Sichuan and Gansu provinces.
[5]Maozhou Prefecture: an old prefecture name for an administrative unit in the area of Beichuan, Wenchuan, and Qiang Ethnic autonomous county of Maowen in northwestern Sichuan—the region stricken by the 2008 earthquake.
[6]According to Victor Cunrui Xiong, Historical Dictionary of Medieval China (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009), 109, Dangxiang was a transliteration for Tangut, a term for the proto-Tibetan group that would later (in the Northern Song) move northeast and set up the Xixia regime.
[7]Yazhou Profecture: name of prefecture in Sichuan (modern-day Ya’an and Kangding) during the Sui (604−607) and Tang (618−742); now it is called Ngawa Zong. See Xiong, 619.
[8]Bailangyi: ancestors of the Pumi Ethnic Group, they settled in today’s south and west of Sichuan Province and live a lifestyle migrated toward water and grass.
[9]Kangyanchuan: the old name of today’s Changdu, in modern-day east Tibet.
[10]Ruoshui: name in the Sui and Tang for a river flowing through Qinghai and Tibet.
[11]Possibly shahtoosh or pashmina.
[12]The reign name during the rule of Sui Yangdi. The Sui Dynasty (581−618) was a short-lived imperial Chinese dynasty that unified China in the late 6th century. Preceded by the Southern and Northern Dynasties, it ended nearly four centuries of division between rival regimes. It was followed by the Tang Dynasty.
[13]Wude (618−626), literally “Martial Virtue,” was the reign name during the rule of Tang Gaozu, the founding Tang emperor.
[14]The Tujue were Turkic people in north and northwest China who established a Khanate in during the Sui and early Tang. A Second Turkish Khanate re-emerged from submitted Tujue, lasting from 679 to 745. See Xiong, 512, and Pan Yihong, The Son of Heaven and the Heavenly Khan (Bellingham, WA: Western Washington University, 1997), 168−79.
[15]Taizong pacified the Xieli Qaghan (r. Eastern Turkish Khanate, 620-630) in 630. See Pan Yihong, 176-179, Xiong, 579.
[16]Chuigong, 685−688. Chinese reign era name of Emperor Tang Ruizong (r. 684−690, 710−712). Actually, Grand Dowager Wu Zetian was in charge of the court and Ruizong had no real power. Therefore, this is generally regarded as Wu Zetian’s era name.
[17]See Charles Hucker, A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), 589, entry 8122.
[18]Fanfu: one of nine garments presented by the Chinese emperor to the ruler of a tributary state living furthest away from the capital.
[19]Tianshou, “Heaven Bestowed,” (690−692) was the reign era name of female emperor Wu Zhao, also known as Wu Zetian, at the beginning of her Zhou dynasty, 690-705.
[20]Wansuitongtian (696−697) was a later reign era in female emperor Wu Zhao’s Zhou dynasty.
[21]Kaiyuan (713−741) was a long reign era under Tang emperor Xuanzong (r. 713−756).
[22]Tianbao (742−756) was a later reign era under Xuanzong.
[23]See Hucker, 168, entry 1166.
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