We all wish that life came with an instruction book sometimes, right? Something to let us know how to act in various situations, and especially if we were going to be in the presence of royalty. Pictures for quick reference would make such a book even better! The ladies of the imperial harem in the Tang Dynasty period of China had just that: a scroll featuring text and pictures entitled “Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies.”
The British Museum is home to this beautiful scroll, which is on display for just eight weeks each year. The Museum acquired the scroll in 1903 when it was purchased from Captain C. Johnson. Though it is now over 1500 years old, the curator notes that it is still in good condition. As seen in the picture, the painted silk is faded and yellowed, but many of the pictures are still quite clear. Displaying the scroll for short periods of time will help to preserve it and prevent damage.
The content of this “instruction manual” includes quotations from Zhang Hua, a poet and official from the Jin Dynasty. These written instructions are followed by painted pictures. One example of this shows a court lady moving towards the Emperor and he waves her away. Other images include illustrations of grooming and gatherings of women. There is little background detail in the pictures, but there are decorative paintings of trees and flowers elsewhere on the scroll.
This object tells some of the story of the young women who served in the imperial harem of China hundreds of years ago. The tapestry gives insight into the way that these girls lived, but it also leaves many questions unanswered. Where was this scroll located? How were the ladies trained? How were they chosen to be part of the harem? Was it against their will? Often in history, girlhood is a mysterious time and this relic adds to that mystery.
I am always fascinated by objects made of such delicate materials that have survived for centuries. Seeing a scroll like this, still in readable condition, makes me wonder what is still out there waiting to be found, and what has already been lost that would tell more of the story. I wonder about the girls pictured in the scenes of the scroll and what their daily lives were like.
Sometimes, when life gets confusing I wish there was an instruction manual telling me what to do, but after learning about this object, I’m not so sure. The girls in the imperial harem had strict rules to follow according to the Admonitions Scroll, and they likely had little choice in their lives. Would you want a silk tapestry to instruct your every move?
Girl Museum Inc.
This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Each week during 2017, we explore a historical object and its relation to girls’ history. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time.