I am a fourth year PhD student at the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in medieval Chinese literature and history, with a special interest in women’s social life and cultural activities in the Tang dynasty (618–907). Currently I am working on my dissertation exploring the literary practices of women in late medieval China (600–1000), a time when their social circumstances were increasingly connected to the written word.
During my visit to IDP in July and August 2013, I studied Dunhuang contracts, letters, wills and Buddhist sutras with colophons in which women were involved, as well as examining in detail the physical features of selected manuscripts. These documents reveal that, despite the fact that most of the women in the study were not literate, they successfully negotiated with written texts and responded dynamically to the challenges of a text-based society.
For example, in both Or.8210/S.527 (a lay-association contract from 959) and Or.8210/S.5871 (a grain loan contract from 782), each woman involved made a unique mark under her name listed in the contract where her signature was supposed to be given. Or.8210/S.526 is a letter to a certain monk by Lady Yin of Wuwei prefecture, in which rich details of Yin’s private life are given. One may guess that an elite woman in that period should be educated and therefore literate. This is perhaps the case for Lady Yin, who was obviously the wife of a high-rank elite in the Dunhuang area. However, her literacy is by no means to be revealed by this letter. Like those female commoners in Or.8210/S.527 and Or.8210/S.5871, Lady Yin did not sign her name but gave a seal mark instead at the end of this letter. Also, like many other documents made by scribes in the Dunhuang collection, the date of this letter was left blank. These details show that it was written by a scribe rather than the sender.
I also found that local residents in Dunhuang employed scribes in a wide range of occasions to compose texts for practical purposes, such as copying Buddhist sutras for prayer (Or.8210/S.736), composing elegiac essays for deceased relatives (Or.8210/S.381v) and making wills (Or.8210/S.2199) etc.