• Sharon

Partying in the Tang Dynasty

Updated: Jun 2, 2018

We successfully concluded our first Tang Dynasty Hanfu Salon in December and had a wonderful time with our guests!

Life in one of the most culturally sophisticated periods in Chinese history was hardly dull, and the Tang Dynasty ancients certainly knew how to have a good time. Apart from full on banquets with dancing, music and other forms of lavish entertainment, hosting parties at home was commonplace among the scholars and noble ladies, who paired their wine and food with good company and conversation.

If you ever time-travel to a party in the Tang Dynasty, here’s how not to stick out like a sore thumb:

1) Makeup

Perhaps you could get away attending parties with a bare hint of powder in the earlier dynasties, when a pale face with defined brows was in vogue. But definitely not in the Tang Dynasty, especially if you've ended up time-travelling to the latter half of the period.

Respectable ladies then were extremely creative with their makeup and often experimented with new styles bred from foreign influences, especially those in court who wanted to win the favour of the emperor. A fashionable look would require close attention to the brows and lips, as well as a generous dabbing of rouge to give the face a ruddy flushed appearance.

First, apply white powder evenly across your face, then put on rouge in concentrated circular patches, or smear it out across the cheeks below the eyes.

Continue by drawing on your brows. Trends in eyebrow shapes fluctuated wildly across the period, ranging from the unibrow style, to exaggerated oval brows that required one’s original hair to be shaved off first, before being painted on. These shapes also had poetic names like the “Far-away Mountains” (远山眉),” Cloud-touching Brows” (拂云眉) and “Brows with 3 Peaks” (三峰眉). Brows were even coloured at times, though these appear to be more infrequent.

Next, you can adorn your forehead with shapes and patterns. Ladies often stuck or painted on intricate shapes on their forehead which resembled flowers or small animals. This practice apparently originated from an occasion where a plum blossom flower fell on Princess Shouyang’s forehead and was regarded as beautiful by other palace ladies. These shapes were often coloured and were sometimes even cut from gold and silver paper.

You may also wish to draw on small shapes called mianye (面靥) on either side of your mouth. The most common shape was to do a pea-sized red dot, however, this grew in size towards the end of the period and ladies were eventually painting coin shapes, almonds, and even flower shapes near their lips as well. If this is not enough, you can continue drawing red crescents called xiehong (斜红) on both sides of your temples. This trend came about as one of the palace ladies injured herself and gained a crescent shaped scar on her temples, but still earned the affection of the emperor. Of course, other ladies were quick to imitate it in hopes of appearing equally desirable.

Finally(!) paint on a small rounded lip shape – much smaller than your natural lips, to create the appearance of a delicate butterfly.

If you've followed these seven steps, your makeup routine is complete and you’re ready to go to the party!

Assuming, of course, that your maid has already done up your tresses in the latest fashionable hairstyle. It was entirely unbecoming for women in the Tang Dynasty to go about with loose locks and their hair let-down, but also rather unacceptable for them to leave the home with a small bun or simple up-do. While younger girls could get away with two adorably pleated buns on both sides of the head, older noble women frequently sported complicated hairstyles featuring bee-hive bouffants, or a thick knot of hair twisted into various shapes on top of the head. Wigs were used to help achieve the intended effect, and hair soon became a status symbol towards the end of the dynasty; the bigger the hairstyle, the higher your social status, since you could afford more wigs.

Some of our participants trying out period-appropriate looks:

2) Speak appropriately

Socializing is a prerequisite at every party! So how would you begin to strike up a conversation with others at the host's mansion?

Leaving aside the syntactical inversions of Mandarin in the Tang Dynasty, you must at least be able to introduce yourself and address others appropriately.

For a start, in place of “我”(wo) for “I”, ladies should refer to themselves as“儿”(er). This term was generally used by both noble ladies and commoners, even when conversing with someone of a different social status. When necessary, ladies (especially servants) could however refer to themselves as “阿奴”(ah nu) to come across as being particularly humble and respectful when speaking to others of a higher status.

When addressing others, it was common to use“娘”(niang) or “娘子”(niang zi) to refer to other ladies, and“郎”(lang) or “郎君”(lang jun) for men. These terms could generally be used to address anyone regardless of familiarity, except when referring to one’s elders, or someone unfamiliar with an official title. For example, a vendor peddling wares on the street may address a passing noblewoman as“娘子”, a servant may address her mistress the same way, and a noble lady may also refer to her sister with the same term. It was only in the later dynasties where the term “娘子” became used exclusively to refer to one’s wife. On another note, one’s mother could be respectfully referred to as “母亲”(mu qin) or more intimately addressed as“娘娘”(niang niang), which was not used to refer to palace concubines at this point in history.

The honourific term for fathers was a lot more interesting. Apart from “爹” (die), children could also call their fathers “哥”(ge), a term only used to refer to older brothers today. To make matters more confusing, one could also address one’s elder brother using the same term during the period, even though “兄” (xiong) was more commonly used.

To differentiate individuals, people hardly referred to each other by their actual names, but had to be mindful of each other’s position in their family. The second daughter of the Li family would be precisely addressed as such by both friends and family – “李二娘”. It was slightly more complicated for men – the fourth son in the Gao family may be called “四郎”by his elder sister and “四哥”by his younger brother, but he could be also addressed formally by his official title if he has one (e.g.“高使君”). Interestingly, sons could also address their fathers by their position in their own family (e.g. “大哥” if their father was the first son in his own family).

As a general principle, a safe way to address others would be:

Family name + Position in the family + 郎 for men / 娘 for ladies


Family name + official title.

Here’s some more interesting trivia:

In period dramas, we often hear commoners addressing officials as “大人”(literally translated, big man), and referring to themselves as“小人”(small man), to respectfully belittle oneself in relation to someone of higher status. This was actually not the case in the Tang dynasty. Commoners could also address officials directly by their titles without performative subservience through language (e.g. “林使君”), while officials could also refer plainly to themselves as “某”(mou), when addressing a higher-ranking person. More surprisingly, if commoners spoke with the king, they could also refer to themselves as “臣”(chen), meaning “your subject” instead of “草民”(cao min), which literally translated to “grass person”, indicating one’s common status which was akin to insignificant weeds. While the king should be addressed as “圣人”(sheng ren), which means wise and holy one, certain liberal-minded rulers like Emperor Xuanzong apparently also did not mind being fondly addressed by close friends and family as 三郎。

From these terms of address, we can conclude that the Tang dynasty seemed like a period of greater equality (at least linguistically) among members of the various social classes, especially when compared to the more decorous Ming and Qing dynasties that followed. Additionally, the societal obsession with family positions suggests perhaps that one’s status in the home was valued more than even titles and social standing. With individual names pretty much under-utilised and forgotten, self-identity became inextricable from family during the period.

3) Know your food 

If you get tired from socialising and politely request for a cup of tea, don't be surprised if everyone thinks you are joking, or being pretentious. In the Tang dynasty, tea was never served at tea houses or even in the homes of the average noble family. If you are craving a cup, you could try heading to a well-to-do temple, or making friends with rich Southern nobles from the highest echelons in society to get yourself invited to their homes for a drink.

Even then, if you manage to find a cup of tea, it would look and taste very different from what you'd expect. It was frequently cooked like a soup, where the leaves were boiled with an assortment of other ingredients like garlic, ginger, dates, berries, orange peel, fermented milk and even meat. At the very least, the tea would be brewed with salt, and various types of alcohol might also be blended into the mix. Instead of drinking tea (喝茶), it therefore made more sense to refer to tea consumption as "eating" tea (吃茶), and regard it as a medicinal soup.

Towards the end of the dynasty, two forms of tea culture emerged: 1) a highly ritualised art form exclusive to the palace and monasteries, with tea-brewing receptacles crafted from silver and gold; 2) a more down-to-earth, poetic appreciation of tea favoured by scholars and philosophers, who felt that the tea was best presented in celadon vessels which the Tang dynasty was famous for. A less refined form of glass was also used to make teacups during this period.

A replica of a palace tea set unearthed in 1987.

Don't fret if you can't find any tea to drink - at least wine, fermented milk, and juice (e.g. grape, peach, sugarcane) would be readily available. Ladies were often served the latter two, while the men would have an assortment of alcoholic beverages to choose from - but don't be envious, these were really a lot less potent than our modern equivalents, and were sometimes fermented in strange ways with ants and insects.

The snacks served at parties were perhaps a lot more palatable than drinks, and similar to some traditional snacks that we still see in China today.

Pastries filled with bean pastes, tea-pastes and scented with flowers were presentable snacks to serve at parties, with richer households preparing meat-filled pastries for their guests.

Fruit was also a frequent favourite at parties. The poorer households served their guests common fruits like oranges and pears, while noble families could afford exotic fare like cherries, berries and melons, which had to be specially procured from cooler parts of the country and delivered directly via express horse-riding. In order to ensure that the fruits remained fresh, horsemen were well-paid for travelling day and night to get these fruits to the nobles in the shortest possible time.

Another popular practice was to serve cherries with fermented milk (which tasted somewhat like yoghurt). We can understand the appeal of this combination after trying it out ourselves; the sourness of the milk balances out the sweetness of the fruit, leaving a refreshing, sweet aftertaste!

One other Tang dynasty snack that we can still find today is Sangza (馓子), which remains popular in the Xinjiang region and Northwestern provinces of China. This is made from twisting wheat flour dough into thin ropes, before they are deep-fried. Bunches of the ropes are then shaped into rings, which are stacked into a pyramid before serving.

In conclusion, while these snacks may be less refined than what is found in modern bakeries today, they were not all that different in terms of taste. But drinking in the Tang dynasty would require greater courage and possibly, a reorganisation of your taste buds!

Aaaaand that's it! With these basic pointers, you will be safe from major embarrassment at parties and can work towards charming the guests.

Join us at our next Hanfu Salon on 3rd Feb to practice these party skills, and celebrate the Lunar New Year with us like the Tang Dynasty ancients. Watch this space for updates!

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