CLP 81: 2002 “Passages of Felt Life: A Genre Shift in Ming-Qing Figure Painting.” (Or: “Paintings Done for Women in Ming-Qing China?”) Christensen Lecture, Stanford

Christensen Lecture, Stanford, May 16, 2002:

“Passages of Felt Life: A Genre Shift in Ming-Qing Figure Painting.” (Or: revised title: Paintings Made for Women in Ming-Qing China) Shortened version

I’ll begin by outlining very briefly the background of this lecture. In the course of revising for publication my 1991 Getty lectures on images of women in late Chinese painting, I was drawn off into what was to be a chapter but ended by growing into a separate book, about the kinds of artists who produced these pictures, and what other kinds they painted: occasional and decorative and narrative and auspicious and otherwise functional pictures that were kept and used somewhat apart from the “fine art” paintings that made up serious collections. That book, now more or less completed and accepted for (long-delayed) publication, is titled Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Urban Studio Artists in High Qing China. Most recently I’ve been pulled off onto a more focused pursuit growing out of that one, a hypothetical category of paintings done principally for a clientele and viewership of women, and that’s what I’ll talk about tonight. Occupying the center of this still-blurrily-defined category is a small, very modest eight-leaf album of paintings kept in the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst in Cologne, a work not only unpublished and unnoticed, but one that any traditional Chinese connoisseur would close quickly after glancing briefly into it. Later I’ll show the leaves of this album while talking about some large questions that it raises, and new directions of investigation that it points.

In the course of all this, and in describing how virtually all the materials I’m now working with are outside the perceived mainstream of Chinese painting, I find myself arguing against the very positions I espoused in my early writings and lectures. One might see my career as taking a shape like, for instance, Hindemith’s piano suite Ludus Tonalis, in which the last section repeats the first, only backwards and upside down. In early writings I tried to elucidate the theories of the Chinese literati, the culturally dominant male elite who wrote virtually all the Chinese literature on painting, and to use those ideas in interpreting literati or scholar-amateur painting, which at that time was not well understood in the West. When my recent writings touch on literati painting at all, they are more likely to question and undermine the literati ideal, to the dismay of some colleagues and former students.

S,S. (Tianjin Leng Mei, 1724, w. detail.) When I delivered the Getty lectures in Los Angeles, and repeated them in Berkeley and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, they were generally well received, but a few people--three, as I recall, one of them my daughter Sarah--criticized them as presenting too exclusively a male viewpoint: how might women have responded to these pictures? I said I would like to have evidence for answering that question, but didn’t know of any. (The painting on the screen, done in 1724 by an artist named Leng Mei, can represent the category of male-oriented meirenhua or beautiful-women paintings that were a major topic in my lectures. Her pose, her come-hither look, touching her pinky to her lips, etc.)

S --. (Another detail; almost blatant in its erotic implications.) The question I’m now pursuing is not exactly the same as the one that Sarah and others raised, but it's closely related: how were women involved, in the late Ming and Qing period, as viewers, owners, consumers of paintings? What kinds of paintings did they prefer? And, still more pointedly, were there kinds of painting particularly addressed to them, intended for their acquisition and enjoyment? Now, with some new materials and new ways of looking at old materials, I feel ready to attempt a provisional answer. I believe, in short, that just as we can infer an intended male viewership through an informed reading of a painting such as this one, we can infer a female viewership through informed readings of some at least of the paintings I’ll show tonight. We do this always with suitable cautions (to which I’ll come back), such as that we don’t suppose any neat division, or aim at fitting every painting into one or the other category, as though all Chinese figure paintings were gender-specific; they obviously weren’t.

A few bits of literary and pictorial evidence can be brought to bear on the paintings-for-women question: they include four mentions of paintings of women hanging in the rooms of characters in the 18th century novel Hong Lou Meng, the Dream of the Red Chamber. I’ve dealt with these in two published articles, and to save time, will say only that they indicate a practice of men hanging provocative, up-to-date pictures of beautiful women like this one in their bedrooms,

S,S. while women hung older, cooler pictures of women by famous artists of the past, especially pictures of women outdoors, or, in one case, a picture of the Nymph of the Luo River. (Identify slides.) The women presumably chose these paintings for themselves, on the market or from dealers; they did not, on the other hand, take part in building the family collection of prestigious, name-artist paintings; that was the man's prerogative. That women were mostly excluded from the male world of connoisseurship and collecting can be judged from Dong Qichang’s listing of five conditions under which calligraphy and paintings should not be shown: the fifth, following on bad weather and vulgar guests, is “in the presence of a woman.”

The paintings that I now believe enriched the cultural lives of guixiu or cultivated women of the late Ming and Qing, along with certain kinds of literary writing to which we know they were often passionately devoted, were decidedly outside the male world of connoisseurship, and consequently have had no respected place in histories of Chinese painting, either Chinese or ours. Very little of what I’ll show has been reproduced in any serious scholarly or museum book, nor is it, with a few exceptions, to be found in any major collection, except in neglected corners of old collections. It’s mostly unpublished, or taken from auction catalogs and similarly obscure sources. What I believe must once have been a large and popular body of painting, then, now has to be reconstructed from scraps that have somehow survived the scornful dismissal by literati critics, the failure of collectors to value and preserve them, and the dealers’ practice of turning them into “fakes” by adding false signatures and attributions--the only way, within the Chinese system, they could be given any commercial value at all.

S,S. With all that as introduction, I’ll begin showing leaves from the album, and talking about it and the larger issues. I saw the album at the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst (Museum for East Asian Art) in Cologne. It bears a false signature of Qiu Ying, the great professional master active in Suzhou in the first half of the 16th century, who was the leading practitioner at that time of the conservative, representational style of figure painting: much of what I’ll show today is by followers of his, and quite a lot of it is similarly misattributed to Qiu Ying himself. The album appears to be late Ming or early Qing in date--that is, early to mid 17th century--and by some follower of Qiu Ying. It will appear unimpressive to most viewers at first sight, and it would. as I say, be quickly closed and dismissed by any traditional Chinese connoisseur. But as I looked at it longer, I realized that it offered what may be a first foothold on the project of determining a body of painting intended primarily for an audience of women.

This is one of its eight leaves, with a detail. As a maid brings tea, a woman looks up from embroidering something--a cuff?--more study will be needed to identify exactly what is going on in these pictures. All of them represent women in domestic interiors, and all are quiet, unassuming portrayals of women’s occupations. And they are portrayed, I believe, in ways that suggest the pictures are directed toward women viewers, for reasons I’ll try to bring out as we look at them. I can’t remember seeing any other album of just this type, but the absence of other known examples is probably a matter of survival and identification--most haven’t been preserved, and those that have survived go unnoticed, as this one was. It would be hard to imagine that this was a singular creation; it probably represents a type of which more examples are probably buried in museum storage rooms, private collections, or dealers’ stocks.

S,S. Another leaf, in which a woman is having her hair done by a young maid. Books, an inkstone, and other objects are seen on a desk in the farther room. The album is an intimate form, to be looked at in private by one person or two. (It was also the chosen form in the late period for erotic paintings, about which I’ll speak later.) The drawing is precise, in its way elegant; the compositions are spacious, not constricting the women so severely as some later paintings of women in their boudoirs (such as the one I showed at the beginning) were to do. Close attention to sparse but telling details reveals the pictures to be of higher quality than one might suppose on first looking--designs on textiles, touches of gold on the flowers, the archaic bronze beaker, the painting on the fan, all reveal a high level of technical finesse. One is reminded of the great Suzhou tradition of handicrafts, some of it such as embroidery practiced by women.

What this album represents and why it is important can perhaps be best understood through some parallels, inexact but suggestive, with developments in Chinese literature of this same period. The late Ming-early Qing is now recognized in all fields of Chinese studies as an age of great economic and social changes, which affected every aspect of the culture. Rising prosperity, along with urbanization, meant more widespread literacy, an expanded readership that stimulated the production of popular and vernacular forms of literature to meet a new demand. Similarly, a great increase in the number of families sufficiently well off to aspire to elegant living created a demand for “pictures for use and pleasure,” as I call them in my forthcoming book to distinguish them from paintings intended for aesthetic contemplation.

The writers of the new fiction and drama turned away from the high-minded themes of classical Chinese learning (while often echoing or even parodying them), as well as from the unnaturalness of the literary language, to explore a “low mimetic” mode--in Northrup Frye’s definition, “a mode of literature in which the characters exhibit a power of action which is roughly on our own level, as in most comedy and realistic fiction.” The painters of our pictures, as we'll see, similarly break out of the limited thematic range of traditional painting, devoted as that was to edifying and symbolic subjects, all deliberately distanced from quotidian life. They create their own version of a low mimetic mode for painting, portraying scenes and situations that could be imagined as occurring, not as defining moments in the careers of Confucian exemplars or historical personages, or in the ideal lives of “lofty scholars” inhabiting an unreal realm, but as small events and epiphanies in the everyday lives of the real people who made up their audience. At their best, they can convey that quality that Susanne Langer, in a memorable phrase describing the real content of a work of art, calls “a passage of ‘felt life.’” (She doesn’t apply it especially to works with ‘low mimetic” subjects, but I’ve appropriated it in that meaning.)

S,S. Here the woman has simply dozed off into a nap, at a table on a garden terrace. A cat under the table looks out at us; on a plate at the far end are unidentified red and blue objects, perhaps rolls of cloth. Reading these leaves requires more work; but work that will be repaid with a better understanding of women’s lives in mid-17th century Suzhou. The pictures persuade us that nothing here is faked, or lightly invented. It is exactly this basic shift in mode, in effect creating a new genre, that opens Chinese painting, at least the kinds with which we are concerned, to wider participation by women. Ian Watt, noting the importance of women readers in the rise of the English realistic novel, quotes Henry James’s tribute: “Women are delicate and patient observers; they hold their noses close, as it were, to the texture of life. They feel and perceive the real with a kind of personal tact. . . .” David Johnson, writing about the readership for popular Chinese literature, points out that women “must have remained much closer to the main currents of non-elite culture; they had not been taught to prefer the monuments of the great literary tradition, the subtleties of classical scholarship, the systems of the approved philosophers. These literate, well-to-do women must also have formed a significant audience for popular written literature.” The same assumptions can be made--short of positive proof, but compelling--about the likelihood of women having been engaged in choosing and using popular paintings, which similarly presented familiar materials in traditional representational styles, free of allusions to the old masters and the like. It may well have been the wife or the matriarch of the household who selected paintings for family occasions, with the artists responding to her understood taste, while the dominant male chose the more prestigious name-artist paintings for the family “collection.”

S.S. The pictures in the album, which appear at first to be simple in subject and very traditional in style, and so of small interest, turn out to be much more than that. Here the woman, one leg bent with her foot on a stool, leaning on a side table, gazes pensively at what appears to be a short sword. (No, sorry, forget about Artemisia Gentileschi and Judith.) I’m sure that some in the audience will have ideas about what is represented in these, and I’ll welcome suggestions afterwards. I would guess also that some of the situations depicted probably wouldn’t have been clear to male viewers even in the artist’s time--if I can take my own responses as representative--another indication that the intended audience was women, who would recognize the implications of what is shown in them. The pictures belong, that is, to the somewhat mysterious feminine world from which we men are partly barred.

David Johnson continues, “It is not surprising, therefore, that . . . one of the hallmarks of true popular literature in China is the heroine who initiates actions, who is one of the moving forces of the plot, and who is not submissive but who, on the contrary, struggles against the restrictions of conventional domestic morality.” Again, something similar can be said of the paintings I’m showing: unlike the meiren (beautiful woman) and erotic genres intended primarily for male viewers, which treat women as objects of desire, the ones I’ve tentatively accepted as belonging to our category depict women with more dignity and individuality than they had commonly enjoyed in traditional Chinese painting. The women in this album, while not idealized or made noble, appear self-sufficient and secure in their domestic realm.

That being so, one might ask, why would women take pleasure in looking at such pictures as these? Because they present aspects of their lives in a way that valorizes them, treating them as equal in importance to the didactic and idealizing images of women in older paintings. Vignettes of everyday life, besides evoking pleasurable twinges of recognition, take on significance when artists and writers and their audiences have the sense that something extraordinary is happening in their lives. What this was has been explored in recent writing by scholars in Chinese women’s studies such as Susan Mann, Dorothy Ko, Victoria Cass, Ellen Widmer, others. Women’s lives were opening up, some old shackles were relaxing; they could participate more broadly, although still within limits, in the cultural life of the time.

S.S. Four of the leaves depict pairs of women who don’t seem to be in the simple mistress-servant relationship, but in one closer to equality. Here one woman carries what appears to be a bundle of scrolls? and approaches another, who looks up, resting her forearm lightly on a tao or case of books. Indications of literacy and culture are seen in most of the leaves; this is an upper-class household, and the women are cultivated people, representatives of the gui xiu, “talented gentry women of the boudoir,” who became more prominent in late Ming, along with a general rising prosperity. One would like to link such a picture to the literary networks, women writing for a readership of other women, which have been studied in recent years for just this period. Or to poetry clubs formed within large scholarly households, with all the women of the household, mothers and daughters, wives and concubines, taking part.

Whether that’s the right reading or not matters less than that the pictures allow, even encourage, such readings; they are evocative, subtle, their themes understated but rich and original. They don’t follow old conventions, so far as I can see, but depict up-to-date situations. I don’t think they illustrate a text, and we aren’t meant to read them in any sequence, or to find the same people appearing in successive leaves. A new type of painting album was coming into existence at this time, as I’ve argued in recent writings, a type best represented in certain erotic albums. Albums of this new type have no narrative or other program, but are made up of what can be termed vignettes--individual, non-sequential pictures that invite quasi-narrative readings: what is happening? what went before, and what will follow? What is the relationship between the women?

S.S. The theme of footbinding appears to underlie two of the leaves, if I’m reading them right. This is another hot topic--two recent books about it (Dorothy Ko, Wang Ping), both discussing this in the context of women’s bonding, which is exactly what appears to be happening in these leaves. In one, at right, two women of a household--possibly concubines--gaze at each other through a window between an interior room and what I take to be a verandah overlooking a garden. The one outside leans on a shelf, holding a fan; the one indoors, a book beside her, is holding her right foot with both hands, as if massaging it, perhaps preparing to unwind the cloth binding. The two women smile, as they might over some shared, private understanding. The space opens back in upper right to the indoor woman’s bedchamber. Although pictures of women in their boudoirs were sometimes done as turn-ons for men (as in the example I showed first), these are very different; the male viewer feels, again, somewhat shut out.

S,S, In the other leaf, one woman leans against a pillar to raise her foot and massage it? or simply to exhibit it to the other, who leans over to look. What is passing between them, as in all these leaves, must be inferred from their postures and situations. (I am sure that wheels are whirring in the minds of any Chinese women’s studies scholars in the audience, as they should be. The pictures invite more informed readings than mine.) The complete absorption of the women in their quiet concerns, in the objects of their gazes, in their relationships, is extended by the viewer to imbue the whole paintings and deepen their resonances.

S -- If we try to think of predecessors for this mode in earlier Chinese figure painting, they will all, I think, turn out to be very different. The figures in the Qingming cityscape, which might appear to be a genre scene, are in fact bit players in a grand tableau with a political theme, “a prosperous city in a well-ruled empire.” Quasi-genre pictures of beggars or happy farmers are presented as subjects interesting to the viewers but somewhat removed, not as having direct relevance to the viewers’ lives or as conveying truths about them. That capacity was new in paintings such as the album we’re looking at, and some related things I’ll show--as new to painting as the vernacular fiction was to literature.

-- S. To continue with this digression for a moment: it would not be difficult, on the other hand, to think of developments in late Ming and later painting that are somehow related. We can observe intricate plays between classical and mundane: Chen Hongshou replaces one of his “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove” with an absurdly modern personage, probably the man for whom the scroll was done; Ren Xiong, in his self-portrait, makes the mismatch between the heroic image and his all-too-human self the very point of the painting.

S,S. Pictures that at least present themselves as portraying everyday-life scenes and common people appear in Qing painting from this time on--Hua Yan of the mid-18th century, Ren Bonian of the 19th. But even those, while not unrelated, seldom if ever convey the kind of intimacy and immediacy of the scenes of women in the album we are looking at, to which I now return.

S.S. Finally, a leaf in which we look from outside at two women in the moon window of a house, the older one with her arm around the younger and gazing fondly at her; the younger one, chin resting lightly on the back of her hand, looking at a pair of ducks in the lower left corner, a motif that in more usual contexts would stand for marital happiness. I don’t think we would be over-reading to detect lesbian overtones in certain of these pictures, including this one. But if so, it‘s presented from the women’s perspective, not displayed for the titillation of men, as in some erotic album leaves. Whatever the relationship, the picture is again subtle, evocative, elegant. And all of this is, as I say, quite unprecedented in Chinese painting. (One can, of course, find pictures of palace ladies leaning on each other and so forth in earlier paintings; but these belong, again, within a classical thematic, and offer nothing so particularized, so immediate as this. The many pictures of palace ladies and their activities with which we’re familiar are very different in character.) And all this is accomplished by an artist so obscure that his or her name was obliterated and replaced with that of Qiu Ying, so that the album might have some commercial value, as it otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Now, I would make this album a centerpiece of my hypothetical group of paintings done for women, and try to work outward, paying special attention to 17th century Suzhou figure artists, followers of Qiu Ying, in whose time and place the production of these paintings appears to have been concentrated.

S,S. If we look for paintings similar in compositional type and style, these present themselves: an album of eighteen scenes of sericulture or silk production, preserved in Japan (former Sumitomo Collection). The same spare compositions with the women drawn small, in what appears to be a similar style. But I know these leaves only from bad auction-catalog reproductions, and can't pursue the relationship further. (If anyone knows the whereabouts of the album, please tell me.) One could argue that unlike the other album, these represent a classical subject, of which earlier depictions exist; one could reply that they appear not to follow conventional designs, and may well be first-hand renderings of activities that did indeed figure in the daily lives of women of this time, especially those in Suzhou.

S,S. An early Qing Suzhou figure painter named Wang Qiao painted in 1657 this picture of a high-born, cultivated lady (note the scrolls and books) in her boudoir. The long inscription was written by an 18th century woman poet named Zhou Qi. Women in their boudoirs had been the most frequent image in Chinese love poetry from the pre-Tang period on. But where the poems usually imply a male viewer gazing voyeuristically at the woman in her bedroom, and many later boudoir paintings (such as the one I showed) suggest the same by presenting the woman as the focus of erotic desire, the earliest examples of the type in painting known to me, such as this one, may not have been done with that implication, and might well have hung in women’s chambers. The woman here, with her maids, is engaged in her morning toilette, perhaps after a night of lovemaking, as is suggested by the rumpled bedclothes and quickly discarded garments on the stool, as well as by her weary posture and a general effect of disorder in the picture. Or it may be not disorder but the aftermath of passion that the artist meant to convey, with the taut, supple fine-line patterns serving as a graphic articulation of qing, emotion.

S --. That everything in the picture, including the drawing, is to be read as distinctively feminine can be demonstrated by comparison with another work by the same artist, painted, as it happens, only a few months later (they differ in size, and are not a pair). This one represents a male scholar, his clothing drawn in heavy, angular brushstrokes strongly fluctuating in breadth, gazing at a hanging-scroll representation of a Buddhist figure (probably Guanyin) held by a boy servant. Everything in this composition is specific to the scholarly male subject: antique bronzes (not serving as flower-holders, but for antiquarian appreciation), the wrapped qin (zither) he holds, the bronze wine-pot and tipped winecup, the un-neat, looser drawing of the bundle of scrolls--and, of course, the high-mindedness implied by his absorption in an emblem of spirituality. The absence of the rectilinear frame set up in the other by the heavy furniture allows him a freedom of movement not enjoyed by her; and when we recall that the women in the album were similarly framed, we recognize in these compositional types a formal counterpart to the social duality of inner (nei) and outer (wai), feminine and masculine. Whether these stylistic distinctions imply different intended audiences for the two pictures is harder to say.

I should make it clear once more before going on that I’m not arguing for a sharp distinction, or supposing that all pictures of women were made for one gender-defined audience or the other; lots of them could have appealed more or less equally to both. I’m only trying to discern a general, very loose and tentative distinction between intended audiences for some kinds of figure painting, and to recognize how artists adapted their pictures to the tastes and preferences of the people who were expected to acquire and enjoy them, using gender, among other criteria, as a guide. I’ve lectured and written quite a lot already on the types that obviously were made for male viewers, with subtle or unsubtle turn-ons and invitational signals--they were treated at length in my 1991 lectures. Now we can begin to define another group that just as clearly appears directed more toward an audience of women.

S,S. Paintings of women in gardens make up another frequently-encountered type. The garden, as an extension of domestic space, allowed scarcely more mobility than the interiors, if we can believe the paintings. This one, representing a woman playing a flute before a tall screen, was painted in 1616 by another Suzhou minor figure master, Wang Sheng. From his hand we have also an erotic album, the earliest I know that can be ascribed to a particular artist, and a few other works. The style is enough like that of the album of pictures of women as to make Wang Sheng a candidate for having painted that.

S --. For the greatest contrast, I show an example of a late Ming painting of a woman in a garden, done in 1640 by a Fujian artist named Huang Shifu, that was decidedly aimed at a male viewership. The artist inscribes on it a sexy poem about the girl, dedicates it to a certain “old Mr. Can,” and notes that it’s the 18th scroll in a series, perhaps depicting Mr. Can’s concubines.

--S. She is placed up close to the picture plane, drawn in provocative dishabille, and looks directly out at us, touching her little finger to her lips in a winsome gesture often seen in meiren paintings of the pinup type.

-- S. It will no doubt sound simplistic to suppose that among paintings of women, the more sexy the picture, the more likely it was done for a male audience, while cool and unsexy ones were aimed at women; but I believe that approximates the true pattern. This is another painting of a woman in a garden, for which seals recently discovered on it allow an attribution to the early Qing master Yu Zhiding, an artist from Yangzhou. (Describe: poignant theme that might have appealed to women; no turn-ons of any kind. Very original, moving work.)

S --. Face (etc.)

S,S. (Dong Qichang, Mt. Qixia, Shanghai Mus.; Wang Qiao again) Already we can discern a body of painting arguably or assumedly done for women and definable by subject and style, and locate it mainly in 17th century Suzhou. The very center of both professional and scholar-amateur painting through most of the Ming, Suzhou by the late sixteenth century had slipped into decline, in the eyes of influential critics, cast into shadow by nearby Songjiang, where Dong Qichang and his adherents were creating and promoting a powerful new mode of literati painting, chiefly landscape, that quickly came to be accepted as the touchstone for high-level, prestigious painting, the kind that collectors should seek and artists aspire to. Suzhou painting was cast, in this scenario, as the survival of an outmoded tradition, commercialized, trivial or vulgar in its subjects, conservative in its styles. Painting production in late Ming Suzhou was dominated, in the critics’ view, by the numerous followers and imitators of the great early sixteenth-century professional masters Tang Yin and Qiu Ying. Many of these followers devoted their skills to producing what Chinese connoisseurs dismissively call Suzhou pian, Suzhou pieces, made up mostly of copies and forgeries of earlier masters. The term is commonly extended to include also original paintings by Suzhou small masters of the late Ming and early Qing: most of what we have seen so far (such as the work by Wang Qiao, at right) belongs, for Chinese collectors, in this scorned category of Suzhou pian. S,S. What has gone unremarked in this standard, dismissive account is a high-level continuation in late Ming-early Qing Suzhou of figure painting as it had been practiced in that city earlier in the Ming by Qiu Ying and his daughter Qiu Zhu (also known as Qiu Shi, “Miss Qiu,” since her given name is uncertain). Qiu Ying’s wide repertory had encompassed sensitive portrayals of women, including “women waiting” themes (describe) and Qiu Zhu had made a specialty of them: pictures of the “woman waiting” genre, of literary and cultivated women, of women engaged in leisurely pursuits in gardens. At left is a detail from Qiu Ying’s well-known painting in the Boston MFA, a woman in the open room of a riverside house awaiting the return of her husband or lover. The formula of opposing a rectilinear frame to open space, her constricted space opening onto his expansive one, is already used here with some subtlety. In the other, painted in a more conservative style, a woman gazes at a pair of mandarin ducks and again thinks of her absent husband. When we recall how Ming-Qing women had to endure long separations from their spouses, who were away on official postings or commercial travel, we realize how pictures of this kind would have sounded a familiar and poignant chord in their emotional lives.

S, S. From Qiu Zhu we have quite a few pictures of women in gardens and interiors, some in the traditional fine-line and color manner, others in refined baimiao, line drawing without washes of ink or color. Whether or not these were done with an audience or clientele of women in mind is unclear; I would hypothesize that many of them were. In any case, the beginnings of the phenomenon I’m investigating can be located here.

S,S. A few Suzhou women painters in early Qing, notably Fan Xueyi, carry on what Qiu Zhu had begun; these are two works by Fan Xueyi, one a leaf from an album of narrative pictures in which notable women of the past figure prominently, the other of a woman about to put brush to paper, perhaps composing a letter or a poem. Women artists are not our subject tonight, although a few of them made pictures that belong within our category, and we can assume that what Ellen Widmer writes for late Ming literature is equally true for painting: “It seems likely that the newly emerging woman writer, the newly emerging woman reader, and the appearance of writings about women are three aspects of a single trend.”

S,S. In some erotic albums produced in early Qing Suzhou, where the development of this genre as potentially a high-level art began, the openly erotic leaves are interspersed with others closer in theme and mood to the Cologne album of women in domestic interiors with which we began. There they serve to contextualize the amorous events, persuading the viewer that those events occur within passages of everyday life, as do the non-erotic narrative materials in high-level erotic fiction beginning with Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase. In this example (known only in an old reproduction album), again attributed to Qiu Ying but really early Qing in date, only two of the eight leaves contain scenes of lovemaking, and even in those it’s shown indirectly, as the dream of a sleeping woman or as reflected in a mirror.

S -- Other leaves portray the lovers in quieter moments, here gazing at their reflections in the garden pond.

S,S. In another erotic album known only in old reproduction, this one by Gu Jianlong, most versatile and interesting of the Suzhou figure artists of early Qing, portrayals of sexual couplings are relatively discreet--sex in the garden, for instance, with no display of genitalia. Another leaf depicts a group of wives and concubines playing cards. I’m not arguing that these albums necessarily belong in our category of paintings done for women, although the delicacy and restraint they exhibit, the prevalence of themes with overtones of qing, feeling or emotion, more than se, lust, suggest that they might not have been aimed exclusively at male viewers either--they could have entertained viewers of either gender, appealing to sensibilities of a kind not particular to either, and might well have been enjoyed by couples before lovemaking, as happens sometimes in Chinese fiction. We can only speculate. S,S. A recorded complaint by a mid-nineteenth century Suzhou prefect about how the book market in his city is filled with “lascivious books and pictures” that “inflame people with lust” adds that “The filth extends into the women’s quarters, increasing evil and licentiousness. There is nothing worse than this. The pictures that stimulate heterodox licentiousness are worse than lewd books, since books can only be understood by those with a rough knowledge of letters, while the pictures are perceptible to all.” This point about pictures being accessible to the illiterate or semi-literate is important for understanding the nature of the paintings done for women, since women were more likely to be semi-literate or illiterate. As for “pictures that stimulate heterodox licentiousness” in women, if we try to imagine how they might have looked, an album acquired recently by the Boston MFA would appear to supply an answer; two leaves from it are now on the screen. But I do not mean to get into the question of erotica for women, although I believe we now have evidence and materials for investigating it.

S,S. That Gu Jianlong’s “Cardplaying” leaf exists also in a hanging-scroll version allows the attribution of that picture to him, and introduces the large category of hanging-scroll representations of groups of women in rooms or gardens. These can plausibly be added to our group, since they concentrate attention on the women’s pastimes and occupations rather than on their physical selves, as male-oriented paintings tend to do. There is nothing of the seductive in these, except in the beauty of the picture itself.

They may echo classical compositions, as the one on the left does, a well-known picture in Tang style of palace ladies playing Double Sixes. But the costumes and the furnishings, including the bonsai and the kitten, are up-to-date, and the work reads, not as antiquarian but as low mimetic. The painter is a certain Sun Xiang, unrecorded, as are the artists of many of these.

-- S. Hanging-scroll pictures of ladies enjoying leisure-time pursuits in gardens survive in some number; few have been published, still fewer have received any attention. This one is by the Suzhou woman artist Fan Xueyi, an up-to-date scene in the garden of some spacious villa. There the women write and paint, play the board game weiqi and make music--the traditional Four Accomplishments, usually performed in paintings by men. Such pictures would be appropriate for the chambers of cultivated upper-class women.

S,S. In this one, attributed to Qiu Ying himself and perhaps by him or a close follower, the setting is a palace garden. It is a much-elaborated woman-waiting picture: the highest ranking woman, perhaps an imperial concubine, sits in the foreground, melancholy and bored, turning away from the book and other diversions spread before her. The inclusion in the foreground of pine and plum, deer and cranes, show this to have been designed as a birthday picture. The woman in the doorway behind may be her favorite companion--pairs of women, representing the theme of women’s friendships and bonding, make up one of the sub-categories worthy of exploration that I’m leaving out tonight, for lack of time.

S.S. I will show only a single example, an anonymous mid-18th century work, in which one woman, the older, gazes at the moon while the younger one beside her (not a servant) watches her and waits patiently. They take the same roles, that is, that men frequently do in landscape paintings, such as

S -- the pair at the base of Shitao’s well-known “Waterfall on Mt. Lu.” The appearance of women in places that had been reserved for men in more traditional paintings is one aspect of the large phenomenon this lecture is about. S,S. I’ll only mention three other types, before going on to our final category. One is domestic scenes with children, in which the woman is seen instructing her children, or watching them play, or, as here (an anonymous picture with the usual false Qiu Ying signature), watching from inside while two other women dicker with a knick-knack peddler. S,S. Another is the theme of women alone, sometimes in landscape settings, sometimes looking out from windows or doorways, not especially waiting for lovers but engaged in private reveries, their feelings subtly conveyed. In this picture the woman’s gaze is absorbed in a light spring rain. The artist is Yü Ji, active in the late 18th century, one of the very few in that late period who could still portray women with this sympathy and sensitivity.

S,S. A third is the category of imaginary portraits of notable women of the past. Quite a number of these survive and can be identified; they are decidedly worthy of study as a group, and will figure in the long-delayed book based on my 1991 Getty lectures. This one, painted in the 1730s-40s by the Northern figure master Cui Hui, represents the Song poet Li Qingzhao in her study, standing behind her desk, pulling back a chair and gesturing to it as if inviting a fellow poet to sit down. This cool, elegant picture is as unlike the conventional meiren image as any could be; her posture and facial expression, her placement in middle distance, project an impression of poise and dignity. It would be ideal for hanging in the chambers of an educated woman.

S,S. The theme of groups of women in gardens is treated also in numerous handscrolls or horizontal scrolls, most of them painted by Suzhou followers of Qiu Ying, and in many cases furnished with the master’s signature; this one was sold at auction as Qiu Ying, but is a later work. As everyone knows who has gone through drawers and cabinets in old museum collections, handscrolls by followers and imitators of Qiu Ying survive in large numbers; usually, we look at them briefly before thinking “another forgery” and rolling them up again. They make up a major part of the scorned category of Suzhou pian, a term introduced earlier that could almost be rendered, in its common usage, as “Suzhou fakes,” since the original works among them by Suzhou small masters of the late Ming and early Qing, of the kind with which this lecture is largely concerned, are not regarded much more highly than fakes. I have suggested that those should be reexamined with more sympathy, and now I will appall some of my colleagues, no doubt, by suggesting the same for these, which, by contrast, are mostly not original works but copies of older compositions.

S,S. Another section; and scroll depicting “The Return of Lady Wen-chi.” Two points should be made initially about what we can call Suzhou pian handscrolls: first, that they were produced in multiples, copied and recopied from sometimes distant originals, so that even today popular compositions are likely to survive in several or many versions; and second, that their subjects are disproportionately of a kind that would have held a special attraction for women. Often they are subjects charged with intense, poignant feeling; for these the handscroll form, both because of its special fitness for narrative presentation and because it permits privacy in viewing, is ideally suited.

S,S. Let me emphasize again that I am by no means arguing for a viewership exclusively female for some subjects and exclusively male for others; the appeal of these paintings was broader than that. Numerous copies of Qingming cityscape; entertaining for both. Another subject of Suzhou-pian handscrolls, the Imperial Hunt in the Shanglin Park, which survives in numerous versions, all attrib. to Qiu Ying (no slide), might seem to be a subject directed at males, with its sometimes bloody scenes of animals being slaughtered. But in fact we know that the original was done for a woman: Qiu Ying painted it over a period of several years on commission from a rich man, who paid the artist the highest price recorded for a Chinese painting, and who wanted to present it to his mother on her eightieth birthday.

S,S. As we might expect from the immense popularity among both women and men readers of the romantic drama Xixiang Ji, “The Story of the Western Wing,” painted illustrations to it, often accompanied by long passages of the text signed with the names of famous calligraphers, exist in some numbers. This one is from a series in the Freer Gallery, with Qiu Ying seals and signature.

S -- The writing at left, which accompanies another so-called Qiu Ying scroll, is by his contemp. Wang Chong. With their substantial texts and series of pictures elaborate enough to hold one’s attention over extended periods, the scrolls were in some respects more like illustrated books than like works of art in handscroll form. Other texts that were made into illustrated handscrolls in this way included the Nü Xiaojing or Women’s Classic of Filial Piety (for which I have no slides), and the story of Lady Wenji’s exile among the “barbarian” Hsiung-nu and her return to Han China. It makes sense that narrative and illustrative handscrolls would have been especially acquired and treasured by women: they can be enjoyed in private, and read quietly like a book, unlike literati landscapes which often demanded performances of cultivated connoisseurship before an audience of one’s fellows. Moreover, those who could not read, or only in a limited way, could skip the texts in handscrolls and simply read the pictures. S,S. Another popular theme in these handscrolls, and again one of special appeal to women, is Lady Su Hui and Her Palindrome, of which this is an example. Su Hui was a learned woman of the fourth century who, while her husband was away fighting a battle, composed palindrome poems and embroidered them on silk to send to him. Two women writers, Wu Zitian in the 7th century and Zhu Shuzhen in the 13th, wrote accounts of the story and interpretations of the poems; copies of their texts are sometimes included in the scrolls. In this one, the writing is supposed to be by Guan Daosheng, the Yuan-period woman artist and calligrapher, and the paintings by Qiu Ying. Neither is likely. Famous names were attached freely to these paintings, and shouldn’t be taken seriously, except as indications of style or tradition.

-- S. A detail from another version of the so-called Qiu Ying, in which the husband, far from home, is presented with Su Hui’s work; this one is in the Central Academy of Art in Beijing; and

S – here is still another in the old Laufer collection of the Field Museum, Chicago. I’m certainly not arguing against making judgments of relative quality, or of proximity to an assumed original, among the versions we encounter; that’s still a legitimate pursuit, and I believe no less than before in good paintings and bad paintings. But even if none of them qualifies as truly from the hand of Qiu Ying, that may not be sufficient reason to dismiss them all as simple fakes.

S,S. The last series I’ll show is made up of imaginary portraits of women of antiquity who were famous for particular arts and achievements. I know of four or five versions of this series, all attributed to Qiu Ying, who presumably did a scroll of this kind on which these are based. The one at right is in the Shanghai Museum, and has been published several times in mainland Chinese books as a Qiu Ying original. Again, it makes best sense, I think, to assume that women were most often the purchasers or recipients and “consumers” of these scrolls, which honor their predecessors who somehow managed to distinguish themselves within a male-dominated society.

The women are not differentiated in facial features, but follow, as they mostly do elsewhere in Chinese figure painting, a type of feminine beauty current in the artist's time and place. Some of us have written about this phenomenon negatively, as reflecting a failure of artists to attribute individual character to the women; but it may also have been what women viewers wanted: women distinguished in the pictures by postures, attributes. and accompanying texts, but alike in their conventionally beautiful faces. It may be time, that is, to move this practice, like footbinding, from the "victim account" to the "agent account."

S,S. Two more sections of the scrolls, with only one image corresponding. The images are not in the same order from scroll to scroll, and sometimes are not even identified as the same woman in the inscriptions. We are made to wonder: was it not only authorship, but also the identity of the woman in the image, that was of small concern to the viewers? How can we understand this? And those are not the only serious charges that might be raised against these scrolls. Those of you familiar with Chinese painting will have realized long ago that the paintings I’m speculating were done for women are nearly all in the technically finished, representationally meticulous styles that for Chinese critics would be taken to indicate a lower level of taste in the women consumers. One major reason why such paintings were consigned to the lower levels was that they required less literacy and cultivation for their enjoyment--male literati artists were careful to keep their works free of engaging narrative detail. We are in danger, then, of turning our perception into a put-down, as it would be in our culture to point out that popular novels of the kind called “romances” are mostly read by women, as those of the western and bloody-action genres are mostly read by men. But this misreading could be countered by arguing in the opposite direction, following David Johnson, pointing out that Chinese women were less tied to the taboos and compulsions that dominated the male world of connoisseurship, which included a scorn for most subjects outside the narrow literati repertory, and for color, and for fine workmanship and entertaining detail. We are not obliged to share those taboos and compulsions.

As for copies, they are ordinarily discussed in purely pejorative terms. Critics and connoisseurs from Song and Ming times to the present have taken special delight in identifying copies and fakes in other people’s collections; they are like preachers rooting out heresies, trying to cleanse the painting world of what they see as contaminations. But what if all this were beside the point? What if authenticity were not the main issue? What if the people who bought and enjoyed these paintings didn’t care whether they were really by Qiu Ying or not? (“Qiu Ying” by their time having become in any case a kind of generic designation. . .)

S,S. (Two more sec’ns of the version in Chicago.) Thinking further in that direction: why should a carefully-worked-out, popular composition be allowed to exist only in a single version? According to conventional values, only one person could own the “real” one (unless the artist did it more than once); others had fakes, which should be detected and exposed, to the shame of their owners. But what if we think of the scrolls produced in multiples as tu, pictures, rather than as hua, paintings (in Gong Xian’s distinction)? In an age without mechanical means of reproduction, if someone admired a certain picture and desired one of her own, where was the harm? And the benefits were clear: numbers of women who wanted an entertaining, instructive set of pictures illustrating a story or an historical incident, or an imaginary portrait of some famous woman to hang in their rooms, or pictures and text for some popular subject of special interest to them--and if they wanted it with the prestigious name of Qiu Ying associated with it--they could have it. The scrolls were not kept as “collection pieces,” for which the value depended on authenticity; they were kept as pictures--hanging scrolls hung in their rooms, handscrolls unrolled and the pages of albums turned, and enjoyed as interesting, attractive, instructive, stimulating, and otherwise desirable images or sets of images.

To see them this way is, in the common view, to move them out of the “fine art” category and into the category of Suzhou high-level craft objects. But again, what is the harm in that? especially if we remember how deeply women were involved in those crafts, both as makers and as consumers. We ourselves, trying to occupy a more removed vantage point outside the biases we have learned from Chinese texts and colleagues, can recognize some of these paintings, at least, as estimable or even excellent works of art as well (as indeed are many of the things that the Chinese have traditionally regarded as craft objects, such as blue-and-white porcelains and lacquer wares.)

S, S. Finally (and I near my conclusion), for some insight into this practice of replicating painted images, we can look at a particular type: the production and transmission by copying of imaginary portraits of heroines of fiction and drama. In Peony Pavilion, the late Ming romantic drama immensely popular (along with Western Wing) among woman readers, Du Liniang (“Bridal Du” in Cyril Birch’s translation) paints her own portrait, to record her beauty before dying (as shown in a print, of which I couldn't find the slide; this is another illustration); Liu Mengmei, the scholar she loves, finds it and, worrying about its fragility, has a copy made “by some eminent painter.” Tina Lu notes that nothing of the efficacy of the original was lost in the copy--”nothing unique to the original that the copy could not share.” (p. 45) In the “Three Wives Commentary,” an early Qing period writing (subject of an important study by Judith Zeitlin), the youngest of the three wives, Qian Yi, after re-enacting a scene from the play (to which all three wives are obsessively devoted), has a dream in which she and her husband encounter Du Liniang; when she wakes and learns that her husband has had an identical dream (again replicating an episode in the play), he advises her to paint the likeness of Du Liniang as she appeared to her in her dream. She does this, depending for her style on a portrait of a Han-period woman poet by You Qiu, Qiu Ying’s son-in-law; and copying, for her image, a portrait in the family collection of Cui Yingying, the heroine of Western Wing. Images seem to be both replicable and more or less interchangeable, without becoming any the less “true.”

-- S. The painting now at right, our last slide, is Tang Yin’s portrait of Cui Yingying, which, according to his inscription, he has copied after Wang I of the Yuan period, who copied it, he writes, from Chen Juzhong of the Song, who copied it from an anonymous Tang painting. (This work itself exists in several versions, of which this is the best, the most likely to be by Tang Yin himself.) The original, putative Tang-period painting was presumably taken to be a “true image” of this fictional woman, “done from life”; successive copies preserved her visage, her loveliness. It was the image that mattered, a true image, in a mystical or spiritual sense. Her likeness, in this sense, can be transmitted in copies, even from dreams. No one involved in this production and transmission and appreciation of somehow eloquent imagery worried about whether or not it was art.

Can we begin to discern, in the profound gulf between this way of thinking about painting and the elite literati way, a gendered distinction? Not entirely, because a similar way of thinking pertains as well to the much larger body of functional paintings my book is about--it is not, that is, exclusively a woman’s response, nor was there any obstacle to a person of either gender enjoying both kinds of painting. At the same time, one could characterize the two kinds, loosely, as belonging respectively to the domestic and the public spheres--and to say that, of course, brings us back to inner vs. outer, with implications again of gender. A parallel could be made to the argument of the late Chino Kaori for the gendering of Japanese painting, especially that of the Muromachi period: a succession of prestigious male scholars such as Shimada, Matsushita, and Tanaka, she argued, had skewed scholarship toward the Chinese-derived, ink monochrome landscapes of artists such as Shûbun and Sesshû, to the neglect of the older tradition of outline-and-color paintings of figural subjects, including the narrative and historical, or birds-and-flowers, derived from the native Yamato-e lineage, which in its origins was associated more with women. The parallel is provocative, even though the social correlatives differ in the two cultures. One might similarly argue for Chinese painting that an over-emphasis on literati painting and landscape, not only by Chinese writers but also by foreign scholars such as James Cahill in a previous incarnation . . . I will leave the thought unfinished.

From my use throughout this lecture of such terms as provocative parallel and reasonable assumption, it’s obvious that it isn’t a lecture of the kind that allows me to say at the end, q.e.d., I’ve proved my case. What I’ve presented doesn’t pretend to constitute real proof; my hope is only that it will be accepted as a strong and persuasive case. I’ve attempted to build around this body of paintings a cluster of factors or correlative circumstances like the cluster that Michael Baxandall presented, in a memorable lecture and book chapter, as surrounding the construction of the bridge over the Firth of Forth, taking care not to argue for any particular factor standing in a simple causal relationship to any particular part or aspect of the bridge. I’ve taken that as a model in my later work, along with a continuing conviction that the answers to the most interesting questions can most often be reached primarily through careful and informed readings of the paintings themselves and the relationships between them, and often cannot be reached in any other way.

I’ve tried to identify a substantial body of paintings that may have been enthusiastically acquired and enjoyed by late Ming and early Qing women, and may have penetrated deeply into their emotional lives. But for social and economic reasons well recognized in Chinese painting studies, this body of painting was so discredited by dominant male arbiters of taste and quality that it slipped later into the situation of being regarded as low-class work by minor artists or out-and-out forgeries, and lies neglected when it survives at all, enjoying no respectable place within the great corpus of surviving Chinese paintings. If my lecture is successful, it will stimulate some colleagues, especially younger ones, to change this situation.

Thank you.

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