Building power: Conspicuous consumption, projection of identity, and female power in the late seventh and early eighth centuries

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This article explores propaganda and self-portrayals among women rulers in seventh and eighth century Tang China, a unique era in which court politics were dominated by female leaders. I analyze the way in which these leaders themselves wished to be rhetorically constructed, the images and allusions with which they desired to be figured, and the way in which they were rhetorically reconstructed by later writers after their deaths. I focus on the theme of auspiciousness-in particular, the definition of the "natural" in relation to gender identity and power. Female imagery is deployed in late seventh- and early eighth-century works to create the image of a particular brand of far-reaching, generative power possessed and/or desired by the leaders of the time. Beyond revealing the images and allusions with which the female power-holders wished to hear themselves be described and exalted, and what occasions were deemed worthy of exalting, these works offer a fascinating counterpoint to materials which retroactively defame this image. The rhetorical strategies and images later used to delegitimize and denigrate the power of these women often represent opposite treatments of themes present in the court literature from the Zhou-Jinglong era. This paper argues that reconstructions of these women's identities as female power-holders indicate the prerogative of later writers to reshape their images in accordance with their own judgments, conceptualizations, and fears of female power.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)472-489
Number of pages18
JournalFrontiers of Literary Studies in China
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Empress Wu
  • Tang culture
  • Tang women
  • court literature
  • gender roles

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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