The Last Classical Female Sovereign
Joan R. Piggott
Our task in this volume is to investigate the influence of the classical discourse of Chinese civilization, loosely termed “Confucian, ” on women's lives across geography, class, and time in premodern East Asia. My focus is on the latter days of female kingship at Japan's Nara-period court (710–84). Using the framework of the Japan-China dialectic discussed in the introduction, I explore facets of the dialectic at work as it redefined kingship as a fully gendered male script during the era of Shōmu Tennō's daughter and successor, Kōken-Shōtoku Tennō (r. 749–58, 764–70).
Historians of Japan writing in English—including James Murdoch, George Sansom, and John Whitney Hall—have argued that Kōken-Shōtoku Tennō discredited female rulership by her “scandalous” partnership with the monk Dōkyō, who is generally portrayed as plotting to seize throne and state. The fact is, however, that such scenarios ignore the crisis that faced Kōken-Shōtoku's reign as a female Heavenly Sovereign (tennō). Eighth-century Japanese attempts to institutionalize the Chinese practice of royal patrilineal succession resulted in female sovereignty, but at the same time deepening acculturation of Sinic ideals of male rulership was steadily delegitimizing female monarchs.
Some prefatory remarks on what can be termed the male script of Chinese rulership are needed before I proceed. The doctrine of rulership developed in Han China (third century b.c.e. to early third century c.e.) was a cosmological vision that privileged the male in politics and society. Han Ru discourse established the cosmological significance of the Son of Heaven (tenshi) as the linchpin linking the three realms of heaven, earth, and human society. This vision of political and social order elided the spheres of state and family and glorified the virtue of filiality shown to both fathers and rulers, as Sekiguchi Hiroko shows elsewhere in this volume. Filial piety was the virtue that legitimized the familial and the state hierarchy, and it gave precedence to males, whether rulers, fathers, or elder brothers. As