2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

The Phenomenon of Adultery of Single Women in Tang Society

Tung-hwa Lo

Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica

In the traditional society the chastity of men and women was treated quite unequally. As reflected in the law, there were two types of adultery: the adultery of single women and the adultery of married women.  This article discusss the occurrence, causes, and characteristics of adultery of women without husbands in the society of the Tang dynasty.  It further analyzes the nature of such relationships in terms of the high culture.  Adultery committed by single women generally referred to the sexual congress of women who were not married, a status that applied to four distinct categories: unmarried virgins, mistresses who were not not legally married, widows, and Buddhist nuns and Taoist priestesses.  The unmarried women might not be unaware of virtue, but sometimes could not control their sexual impulses. On the scale between ritual propriety and emotions, men could chose to lean toward the side of emotions, while women were always required to follow proper moral conduct. Women who failed to follow this social discipline were considered unchaste and accused of committing adultery as single women.   The social roles of the Tang Dynasty were strictly defined; for instance, mean and low status prostitutes were not able to marry into rich and powerful families, so they became mistresses.  Widows were allowed to remarry, but were still required to preserve their chastity before being remarried.  If a widow remained unmarried but did not keep her chastity, she would still be despised by people.  Some Buddhist nuns and Taoist Priestesses did not seek enlightenment through their religion; instead, they pursued emotional ties with the opposite sex.  This behavior not only broke their vow of abstinence, but also constituted adultery.  The crime of adultery by single women was mainly designed to prevent women from losing their chastity. In a society where men were the predominant gender and the main force that molded the cultural and social system, sex discrimination was the product of a culture in which women’s chastity became an important standard of ritual morality.


Keywords: Tang dynasty, adultery by single women, adultery, chastity, sex discrimination