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Chinese women in history - soldiers, pirates, scholars, sages and rulers

Xue Tao - celebrated poet and inventor

Xue Tao (758?-832) was born in Sichuan Province to Xue Yun, an official from Chang'an, and his wife Madam Fei.1 Xue Tao was composing poems by the age of eight. The child prodigy was also an excellent calligrapher and had extraordinary musical talent.2 When Xue Yun passed away, 14 year old Xue Tao and her mother were left without support and stranded far from their original home in Chang'an. For more than a year, Xue Tao worked as a poet-courtesan, gaining fame with her outstanding talent and beauty.3 Wei Gao, the military governor of Sichuan, invited her to compose poems at the governor's mansion. Impressed with Xue Tao's talent, he recruited her into the music department of the governor's office.4 During the Tang Dynasty, the women of the music departments of local governments were officially courtesans who may sometimes be called upon to provide personal services for officials although their primary duty is the performance of the arts.5 Wei Gao officially recommended her for a government position of jiaoshu - printing press corrector. The imperial government denied his recommendation but from then on, people called her Lady Jiaoshu.6

After 5 years in the music department, Xue Tao had accumulated enough resources to redeem herself from bondage. Once free, she launched her new career - paper-making. Xue Tao Paper was made using unique ingredients. In appearance and texture it was very different from the traditional, practical Chinese paper. Xue Tao was an accomplished calligrapher and invented this pinkish, finely-patterned paper paper with the needs of the literati in mind. The arrival of Xue Tao Paper revolutionized the Chinese paper industry. It is said that Xue Tao's paper had a greater impact on Chinese society than the much admired poems she left for posterity. Xue Tao also left a number of other inventions.7

However, Xue Tao is still much more famous as a poet than as an inventor. It was said, that when a poet composed a new poem, the first person s/he wants to show it to is the Emperor, and the second person s/he wants to show it to is Xue Tao. Xue Tao was the preeminent poet of her generation. The ten succeeding military governors of Sichuan after Wei Gao all made it a point to visit Xue Tao and pay their respects. Many of the literary giants of the time, such as Bai Juyi, Du Mu, Linghu Chu and Niu Sengru, came to compose poetry and music with her.8

Xue Tao eventually retreated from the world of literary entertainment to live her last 20 years in seclusion.9 She died at a ripe old age, never having married.10 Even though Xue Tao spent the last 20 or so years of her life out of public view, she remained an important public figure. Duan Wenchang, the military governor of Jiannan, personally wrote her tomb inscription: "The Tomb of Xue Tao, Lady Jiaoshu of Sichuan."11 To commemorate Xue Tao, the people of the Tang Dynasty built Wangjiang Tower (Tower for Viewing the River) beside her tomb in Chengdu.12 People of succeeding dynasties added more monuments to Xue Tao, in the vicinity of Wangjiang Tower, including Poem Reading Tower, House of the Five Cloud Fairies and Fragant Spring Pavilion.13 The Wangjiang Tower area remains a popular tourist destination to this day.14

X.T.


Notes
  1. Nu Jiaoshu Xue Tao (Chinese article)
    Sichuan Personalities - Xue Tao (Chinese article)
  2. The Collected Works of Xue Tao (Chinese article)
    Sichuan Personalities - Xue Tao (Chinese article)
  3. Nu Jiaoshu Xue Tao (Chinese article)
    Xue Tao - an inventor's life (Chinese article)
  4. Nu Jiaoshu Xue Tao (Chinese article)
    The Collected Works of Xue Tao (Chinese article)
  5. Sichuan Personalities - Xue Tao (Chinese article)
  6. The Collected Works of Xue Tao (Chinese article)
    Nu Jiaoshu Xue Tao (Chinese article)
  7. Xue Tao - an inventor's life (Chinese article)
    Wangjiang Tower - the eternal memory of Xue Tao (Chinese article)
  8. Xue Tao - an inventor's life (Chinese article)
  9. Nu Jiaoshu Xue Tao (Chinese article)
  10. Xue Tao - an inventor's life (Chinese article)
  11. Nu Jiaoshu Xue Tao (Chinese article)
  12. Wangjiang Tower - the eternal memory of Xue Tao (Chinese article)
    Wangjiang Tower - Sichuan Official Affairs site (Chinese article)
  13. Wangjiang Tower - the eternal memory of Xue Tao (Chinese article)
  14. Wangjiang Tower - the eternal memory of Xue Tao (Chinese article)
    Wangjiang Tower - Chengdu Tourism (Chinese article)