Palace Women in the Former Han Dynasty (202 BCE–CE 23): Gender and Administrational History in the Early Imperial Era

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In the chapters concerned with palace women, the Hanshu provides a detailed description of the administrational structures of the hougong (Rear palace) in the Former Han dynasty, the earliest information of this kind to survive for any Chinese regime. This includes an account of the twenty-one official ranks granted to women at this period, and the information given here has parallels in other contemporary historical texts. Thanks to the excavation of Han dynasty legal codes at Zhangjiashan, the Hanshu account can now be understood in much greater detail, not only with respect to the salaries paid to women, but also their right to hold tracts of land – a legal right shared with other women heads of household at this time. This paper examines the developing institutional structures of the Han dynasty hougong, and the impact of promotion within this hierarchy on the social and economic status of women inside and outside the walls of the palace.

Palace Women in the Former Han Dynasty (202 BCE–CE 23): Gender and Administrational History in the Early Imperial Era





 Erving GoffmanAsylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books1961).


 Bret HinschWomen in Early Imperial China (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield2002) 101 argues that these women did not receive sufficient education to be able to actually run any aspect of the administration of the hougong and hence their positions were entirely nominal with all the real work being done by men specifically eunuchs. This argument is not followed by other scholars who assume as I do that they received their salaries for genuine hard work; see for example Gu Lihua Handai funü shenghuo qingtai 266.


 Wei HongHanguan jiuyi44.


 In 1993a late Former Han dynasty text the Donghaijun liyuanbu 東海郡吏員簿 (Register of officials in Donghai commandery) was excavated with a number of other administrative documents concerning the same region at Yinwan 尹灣 in Jiangsu province; see Lianyungangshi bowuguan 連雲港市博物館 et al. eds. Yinwan Hanmu jiandu 尹灣漢墓簡牘 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju 1997). These texts describe various aspects of the internal administration of these lands. Liao Boyuan 廖伯源 Jiandu yu zhidu: Yinwan Hanmu jiandu guanwenshu kaozheng 簡牘與制度: 尹灣漢墓簡牘官文書考證 (Guilin: Guangxi shifan daxue chubanshe 2005) 198–200 has suggested that at least some of these documents were originally prepared with a view to keeping women in the hougong up to date with the situation pertaining to their property. Han dynasty historical texts do record empresses and princesses receiving revenues from their tangmu yi 湯沐邑 (bathing benefices); for a study of this system see Xue Ruize 薛瑞澤 “Handai tangmu yi yanjiu” 漢代湯沐邑研究 Jiangsu shifan daxue xuebao (Zhexue shehui kexue ban) 江蘇師範大學學報 (哲學社會科學版) 39.5 (2013): 99–105. It is possible that women with official rank received an income from their land-holdings in a similar way.


 Sima QianShiji49:1972.


 Ban GuHanshu63:2762.


 Ban GuHanshu30:1754. Here the commentary by Yan Shigu again identifies the ruzi as a concubine in the household of a zhuhouwang – in this case presumably the king of Zhongshan; cairen is understood as her job title.

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