Religious and Other Experiences of Daoist Priestesses in Tang China


In: T'oung Pao

Most previous studies relating to women in Tang Daoism have relied heavily on Du Guangting’s (850-933) Yongcheng jixian lu, despite the fact that Du’s acknowledged hagiographies are idealized versions of the women’s lives. The present article seeks instead to gather information about historical priestesses from a wide range of contemporary sources, including most importantly epitaphic inscriptions, as well as other materials such as manuscripts from Dunhuang, various poems, essays, anecdotal accounts, and monastic gazetteers. Even while taking account of the possible urge of the authors sometimes to overpraise or exaggerate the merits of their subjects, we discover a surprisingly broad gamut of abilities displayed and activities engaged in by these women. Records relating to fifty-two named individuals are surveyed here, yielding much information of a quotidian nature about the varying roles and religious experiences of Daoist priestesses.


La plupart des études existantes concernant les femmes dans le taoïsme des Tang recourent d’abondance au Yongcheng jixian lu de Du Guangting (850-933), alors que cet ouvrage délibérément hagiographique offre une version idéalisée de la vie de ses héroïnes. Le présent article cherche plutôt à rassembler des informations sur des prêtresses ayant historiquement existé en parcourant un vaste ensemble de sources contemporaines: en premier lieu les inscriptions funéraires, mais également les manuscrits de Dunhuang, les poèmes, les essais, les anecdotes, ou les monographies monastiques. Même en admettant une tendance de la part des auteurs à exagérer les mérites de leurs sujets, l’on découvre chez ces femmes un éventail de talents et d’activités étonnamment large. Les sources examinées ici concernent cinquante-deux personnes et livrent quantité d’informations de nature quotidienne sur les différents rôles et sur les expériences religieuses des prêtresses taoïstes.


  • 2

      See Despeux and Kohn, Women in Daoism (Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2003), 118-27.

  • 7

      See Valerie Hansen, “Inscriptions: Historical Sources for the Song,” Bulletin of Sung-Yuan Studies 19 (1987): 17-25.

  • 11

      See Stephan P. Bumbacher, The Fragments of the Daoxue zhuan: Critical Edition, Translation, and Analysis of a Medieval Collection of Daoist Biographies (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2000), 290-306, 501, 522.

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  • 18

      Kirkland, “Huang Ling-Wei,” 64.

  • 29

      Han Yu, “Huashan nü,” Quan Tangshi 全唐詩 (1707; rpt. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1960; hereafter QTS), 341.3823-24. The “Huashan maiden” of the poem is based on a real figure of Han Yu’s time.

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  • 47

      Yao Ping, Tangdai funü, 257-69; Gao Shiyu 高世瑜, Zhongguo funü tongshi: Sui Tang Wudai juan 中國婦女通史: 隋唐五代卷 (Hangzhou: Hangzhou chubanshe, 2010), 222-26.

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  • 48

      See Gao Shiyu, Zhongguo funü tongshi, 80-82, 225-27.

  • 54

      See mainly Wu Chi-yu, Pen-tsi king: Livre du terme originel (Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1960); Yamada Takashi 山田俊, Tōsho Dōkyō shisōshi kenkyū: Taigen shinʾichi honsaikyo no seiritsu to shisō 唐初道教思想史硏究——太玄眞一本際經の成立と思想 (Kyoto: Heirakuji shoten, 1999); Wang Ka, comp., Taixuan zhenyi benjijing 太玄眞一本際經 (Zhonghua Daozang edition), vol. 5, no. 15.

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  • 58

      Shixue, “Longheshan Cheng lianshi zhi songbai bei,” in QTWBB 36.442.

  • 64

      Li Fang et al., eds., Wenyuan yinghua (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1966), 472.8b–14a.

  • 77

      See Susan Calef, “Charting New Territory: Religion and ‘the Gender-Critical Turn,’” Journal of Religion and Society 5 (2009): 2. Of course we should also keep in mind the dark side of religious traditions concerning women, as Calef also indicates.

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