Gender, History

The Tang Emperor and the first female mathematician: Legendary Chinese women (1)

The media named 2018 “the Year of Women”, and gender equality is also a hot topic in Norwegian politics. In China, despite being predominantly a patriarchal society and the stereotype that Chinese women are submissive, there had been famous historical female figures who managed to subvert the gender roles with extraordinary achievements surpassing men. While most people have probably heard of the Emperor Dowager Qixi and Mulan, here are three other lesser-known legendary women you may also find interesting:

Emperor Wu Zetian (624 to 705 AD)

Painting of Emporer WuZetian , source unknown

She was much more than the only female emperor in Chinese history: during her 22 years of reign, the kingdom had seen great economic and cultural advancement. Her rise to power was far from straightforward — it involved among others, marrying two emperors, father and son, assassinations, traps, and supressing a coup. She may be known for these stories which later became rich materials for hugely popular TV drama series, but one of her most consequential achievements was to strengthen the meritocratic “Keju” (科举) system to recruit the most talented people into government regardless of backgrounds, very much similar to the modern civil servant examination. She also lowered the tax rate for farmers and encouraged commerce. Her reign resulted in the flourishing of literacy and economy throughout the kingdom, and laid down the foundation for the Tang Dynasty to be the golden era of Chines culture, so much so that China Towns overseas nowadays are called Tang Ren Jie (The Tang People Street).

Scientist Wang Zheng Yi (王贞仪1768-1797AD)

Painting of Wang Zhengyi, source unknown

Fast forward to eleven centuries later, under the still restrictive feudal system of Qing Dynasty, Wang zhengyi totally broke the gender code and educated herself to become the first female mathematician and astrologer in China, and is admired as a feminist who strive for equal rights to education for girls and women. Taking advantage of her privileged background as the granddaughter of a high government official, she read widely from mathematics, astrology, to medicine, and also scientific knowledge that reached China from the west. In her short 29 years of life, she had authored books aimed at educating the public on mathematics in laymen terms, and to scientifically explain astrological phenomenon such as eclipses. In a famous line of poem she wrote “谁言儿女不英雄?” (Who says women cannot be heroes?) A superhero she certainly was, especially for insisting in her values despite tremendous social pressure against her gender. In the next post we will look at the third legendary – albeit a little controversial – woman character in the history of China. Stay tuned!