Historian Natalie Davis: “Our goal is to understand the significance of the sexes, of gender groups in the historical past. Our goal is to discover the range in sex roles and in sexual symbolism in different societies and periods, to find out what meaning they had and how they functioned to maintain the social order or to promote its change.”—Natalie Zemon Davis, “Women’s History in Transition: The European Case,” Feminist Studies, 3 (Winter 1975-76), 90.
One pattern that repeats itself in relation to the study of gender and sex is the notion of binaries. China is no exception, and the male/female split is reproduced through at least two other important dichotomies:
Separately but relatedly, there are common tropes of elite positioning and imperial intrigue, namely:
All of the above factors collide in the story of Wu Zhao’s grandson, the Emperor Xuanzong (玄宗), whose “long reign, from 712 until 756, marked both the high point of Tang power and Tang culture as well as the dramatic beginning of a long and tortuous period of decline. In the early years of his reign, Xuanzong seemed to embody all the virtues of a great Chinese emperor, a philosopher-king who was both a conscientious administrator and a brilliant intellectual. Xuanzong’s court became the center of high culture in the mid-Tang. He established schools and libraries, presided over elaborate and beautiful state ceremonies, and patronized poets and artists, all without forgetting his duties in setting fair taxes, keeping government expenses under control, and maintaining social order and peace on the borders.” —Paul S. Ropp, China in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 59-60.
So what changed? The An Lushan Rebellion broke out (755-763):
What did Yang Guifei have to do with this?
“Clearly Yang Guifei’s is a myth of womanhood that conflates the collapse of the empire with the sexual fall of the ruler, comparing the seductive powers of a woman to the treacherous powers of a general, and rendering the narration of the dynastic cycle in sexualized and even romantic language. Many historians, in fact, locate the major turning point in Chinese history at precisely this moment in time, the outbreak of the rebellion of An Lushan, placing Yang Guifei at history’s linchpin.”—Susan Mann, “Presidential Address: Myths of Asian Womanhood,” The Journal of Asian Studies 59, no. 4 (2000), 835-62.
As far as I know, if there had been a standard tune to accompany “The Song of Lasting Regret” (Chang hen ge 長恨歌) by Bai Junyi (白居易), it has been lost through time. However, YouTube contributors are doing their best to recreate the feel. Let’s listen to about a minute of the opening lines.
Next, take a moment to process what you have heard from Chloe and from me. Review the poem with a peer to:
Finally, we will return around the table to consider these questions together and further explore the broader theme: