The lives of Chinese youth during the Tang Dynasty were largely determined by the history, the gender and family status. While there is little evidence of the everyday lives during that time, research regarding a number of areas provides some insight regarding opportunity paths, expectations and realities of children and young adults of the Tang Dynasty.
There is an artifact which provides insight with regard to life during the Tang Dynasty and that is population registers. Liao (351) has found in research of the population registers that complex, multi-generational households were not the norm as they are in China today, but neither was the nuclear family model that prevails in Western society. Household registers from the northwest region of the Tang Dynasty were preserved in the arid climate and brought to the West by the Hungarian-British anthropologist Aurel Stein in the early 1900s (Liao, 333). These household registers reveal that there were more young males, as a proportion of their gender, than females, however this was explained as a result of frequent military battles which tended to reduce the number of adult men (Liao, 337-338). Another interesting feature of households during the Tang Dynasty is the fact that some contained only males, and some contained only females, possibly indicating segregation by sex (Liao, 339). This may have had an impact on youth, particularly if indicated barriers to spending time with persons of the opposite sex or dating.
The story of Prince Li Chengqian provides some insight into the pressures on young males of high status families during the Tang Dynasty. Because of previous factors during the reign of Emperor Taizong, his father, such as the possibility of problems during the Zhenguan period and other influences, there was a prioritization to stability (Lei 14). The Prince became overwhelmed by this responsibility as the eldest son of Emperor Taizong (Lei 14). The Prince was introverted and suffered from disfigurement, which were both seen to contribute to what was referred to as a “spiritual collapse” at a young age (Lei 14).
Some young women were raised to become courtesans who received guests from wealthy families, an equivalent to modern day escorts (Benn, 65). Some were found begging as young girls, others were sold by their families (Benn, 65). When they became too old to continue in the profession they might become foster mothers to a new generation of courtesan girls, and this was reflected as a family to the extent the girls would take the surname of their foster mother (Benn, 65). The young courtesan girls had many rules of propriety that had to be followed, including specific days of the month that were allowed for visits to the monastery and how earnings were handled (Benn, 66).
It would appear that education was important, given artifacts, including children’s poems such as Maples in the mist: Children’s poems from the Tang Dynasty collected by Ho and published in 1996 indicate attention to ready and study materials for children and young adults of the time. Education, particularly in values and tenets of the culture, would have been an aspect of life for both genders regardless of social stature.
Together these factors have a number of implications, including the fact that those young women who married likely married older men due to the lack of men their own age, and they could not have expected their husbands to be faithful given the popularity of the courtesans. Further, there were many pressures on the population of the time given the nervousness and desire for stability. For children and adolescents this focus may have had impacts with regard to anxiety, particularly in the higher classes. Their expectations of the future may have been colored by this anxiety, and their values may have included certainty and stability.
- Benn, Charles D. Daily life in traditional China: the Tang dynasty. Greenwood publishing group, 2002.
- Ho, Minfong. Maples in the mist: Children’s poems from the Tang Dynasty. Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1996.
- Lei, M. A. O. “The Psychological causes of Prince Li Chengqian from Intelligent to self-abandonment and rebellion in the Tang Dynasty.” Journal of Xiamen University (Arts & Social Sciences) 5 (2008): 014.
- Liao, Tim Futing. “Were past Chinese families complex? Household structures during the Tang Dynasty, 618–907 AD.” Continuity and Change 16.3 (2001): 331-355.