Jeannie Lin Guest Post: Feminism in the Tang Dynasty

Please welcome my guest Jeannie Lin, Golden Heart finalist for her historical romance novel Butterfly Swords, which has, as of 7/15/09, sold to Harlequin Mills and Boon!

My muses — four extraordinary women of the Tang dynasty. The characters at the top of each panel mean roughly: literacy, beauty, domination, heroism.

Feminism in the Tang Dynasty: The Footbinding Dilemma

I write historical romances set in Tang dynasty China. The period has always fascinated me: court intrigue, sensual silk costumes and dashing swordplay. But readers want historical accuracy and because this period is not well known to romance, I have received this one question so many times in contests and critiques: How can these strong, independent women exist in a society that dictated women’s feet were bound at an early age so they could barely walk?

The answer is easy historically, but not so easy on the written page when a reader doesn’t have the benefit of Google at their fingertips. Footbinding was not adopted until more than a hundred years after my story takes place and was only then practiced by a small portion of society. But how do I convey that within the context of the story? Because it hasn’t happened yet, I can’t even drop in some convenient infodumping to take care of it.

Each historical time period has its own challenges, its own “footbinding dilemma.” The challenge that every historical romance author has to face when writing for today’s women is the question of how believable are these feisty, headstrong heroines who seem to fly in the face of convention for their time? Many popular historical periods are male-dominated eras when women were allowed less freedom in society. Of course there are icons of feminine empowerment throughout all periods and across all cultures, but these are held up as exceptional women who defied convention and broke the mold. But I contend that the strong historical female is less of the exception than people believe.

It’s actually very easy to make that argument for the time period that I write in. The Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. – 907 A.D.) spanned three hundred years and is not only considered a Golden Age of Chinese civilization, but also a period of uncommon liberation for women.

Written records indicate that women not only were involved in business transactions, but held the highest offices in the empire. The most notable being Empress Wu Zetian, who eventually took on the title of Emperor and founded her own dynasty. Under her rule, her personal secretary, Shangguan Wan’er gained fame as a talented poet and writer and served as one of the most powerful ministers in the court. After Wu Zetian’s death, her daughter, Princess Tai Ping, and her scheming daughter in-law battled for power in the imperial court. Early Chinese history has women like Hua Mulan, Li Xiu and Liu Jinding fighting battles and leading armies. Notice how there’s much more than the one “Mulan” that we’ve heard about in Western culture, courtesy of Disney.

The interesting thing is that the Chinese heroine was already an icon during ancient times. She wasn’t romanticized by future, more liberated historians. There’s a reason you see so many females in movies as kick butt, kung fu hotties. Because they really were out there, appearing in legends and historical accounts from as early as 500 BC. The Chinese invented paper — they wrote all this down.

With so many fiery women to serve as role models for my heroines, it’s no wonder the Tang dynasty is such a muse for me! Considering the tradition and historical details, I find it very believable that my heroine Ai Li could forge her own path through the empire armed with a pair of butterfly swords. It’s one of my deepest wishes to share a piece of the glory that was. It wasn’t all about subjugation and footbinding. Historical research provides a richer, much more exciting picture of women through the ages.

But all the research in the world doesn’t matter if the writing can’t convince readers.

Writers need to deal with the commonly held view that women were marginalized throughout history. Knowing the facts does not exclude us from having to craft authentic characters and believability comes down to the very intimate relationship between the reader and the words. Which brings me back full circle. How did I solve the footbinding dilemma?

I didn’t.

I concentrated on improving my writing until, hopefully, this one roadblock wouldn’t stop a reader from being sucked into the story. In the end that’s all we can do. Write a compelling story that convinces people these characters are flesh and blood and real. Isn’t that what history is anyway? The accepted version of the story that got written down. And don’t tell me that recorded history, the serious textbook stuff, doesn’t always have a touch of romance.

Jeannie Lin’s website.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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17 Responses to Jeannie Lin Guest Post: Feminism in the Tang Dynasty

  1. Nora says:

    Fantastic, and fascinating to see how you've had to struggle against Western stereotypes more than the actual history. I've been looking for more romance writers to read, and yours sound smartly written and fun. I'll be checking you out ASAP!

  2. Inez Kelley says:

    OKay, the footbinding thing never occured to me because frankly, I assumed it just wasn't part of your story. Like not all western heroines lose their families to Indian attacks, it was something yu just didn't have happen. Weird that some readers think or expect ALL chinese women to have the same elements.

  3. Jeannie Lin says:

    Nora: Thanks for the comment! I'm still an aspiring author hoping for my first sale. The exciting response from potential future readers is always good to see.

  4. Jeannie Lin says:

    Inez – Interesting point. I'm sure Regency authors struggle with their own set of expectations. It's part of the fun and the challenge of writing in an unusual period.

  5. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Fabulous blog, Jeannie! Not a nerve showing.

    I can empathize with the "foot binding" dilemma. My hero uses the word Keeping in naming his demesne in the fifteenth century, and one judge lambasted me for not calling it a "Keep." Fact is, Keep as a fortified domicile didn't exist until the Renaissance, but there is no way to get that info across–especially in the face of authors who have used it "out of time." Ah well.

    I'm looking forward to reading your book *when* it gets published!

  6. Lisa Marie Wilkinson says:

    Fascinating history, Jeannie! I enjoyed your blog post very much and I'm looking forward to reading your work!

  7. Amanda says:

    It seems that a lot of the focus on history has always been what war was fought when and when did we reach significant milestones. Everyone knows about corsets and footbinding as the historical beauty is pain. I could see how one would expect to find foot binding in a Chinese historical as one would expect corsets in European historicals.

    I love that you have taken a different area and brought it to life in romance. While I'll always love my scottish and english lords, I could definitely crush on some Chinese nobles.

  8. briaspage says:

    Great Post Jeannie – and so true…It's such a balancing act to not talk down to the readers while still staying true to history, NOT historical stereotypes. I had someone nick me once for something…in my made up world!

    As always, you amaze me!

  9. Kimberly Killion says:

    Facinating post, Jeannie! I've never heard of the 'footbinding' thing. How awful is that? And really, what reader is going to rush to google to challenge your research? OK…I take that back…some would, but you already have the answer.
    What most readers want is a compelling romance. Good luck to you and your endeavors as a writer. :)

  10. Jamie Michele says:

    Well-written and insightful post, Jeannie. I'm growing increasingly certain that "Butterfly Swords" will soon appear in print, and I look forward to purchasing my own copy. Best of luck to you!

  11. oyceter says:

    I didn't realize someone was writing romances set in the Tang Dynasty! That's always been one of my favorite eras of history, largely because I've had love of the poetry drummed into my head at a very early age.

    I also started reading Dorothy Ko's Cinderella's Sisters, which is partially a re-look at the history of footbinding but also a look at how that history and rhetoric came into being, so this is particularly fascinating. (The book goes chronologically backward, so I haven't hit anything earlier than the Qing Dynasty yet.)

    *goes off to find your books*

  12. Jeannie Lin says:

    Thanks for visiting and commenting. I'm excited to see such interest and it's always wonderful to see some friends as well as new names.

    oyceter – Thanks for the recommendation. Dorothy Ko's book sounds like a complex cultural study. As to finding my books — hopefully one day soon. ;)

  13. Authorness says:

    What a brilliant post, Jeannie! When I was at school, footbinding was given an awful lot of attention, so I'm glad to see you're highlighting the pivotal roles Chinese women took in those times. Can't wait to read your work!

    ~ Vanessa

  14. Ella Drake says:

    Wonderful post & definitely fascinating.
    I can't wait to buy Butterfly Swords and hold it in my hot little hands!

  15. Shelli Stevens says:

    Saw your post on twitter and came running! This book sounds completely fascinating! Kudos to you for tackling such a fantastic challenging period to write about!

  16. Evangeline says:

    Awesome, awesome post. This is why I love historical romance–it is empowering in its true, undiluted form. Through historical romance history is literally unmasked, and unfamiliar people and experiences are wonderfully conveyed. I too cannot wait for your novels to find a publisher (fingers crossed).

  17. Victoria Dixon says:

    Well said, Jeannie. I can tell you and your writing kick as much **** as your character. You know how much I look forward to reading your book. Thanks for this link! I'm following it now.

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