The Flower and the Mirror: Images of Women in Late Chinese Painting.

Ch. I.Meiren or Beautiful Women Paintings: A Survey

Foreword (note: text really begins below, p. 4. Following paragraphs were intended as beginning of rewrite.)

A painting of very high quality that is controversial in its subject, date, and authorship (Fig. I.1) is an ideal beginning for this study of representations of women in Chinese painting. An inscription on it identifies it as a portrait of "Mme. Hedong," another name for the famous courtesan-poet Liu Yin or Liu Rushi (1618-1664). My belief, for which reasons will be given below, is that it is not a portrait at all but a generic meiren or beautiful-women painting, one of the finest surviving, fitted out with an interpolated and misleading inscription. It was this work that first aroused my interest in the subject of representations of women, and attempting to come to a correct understanding of it will raise some of the basic issues with which we will be concerned throughout this book.

Acquired by the (then) Fogg Museum at Harvard in 197? (check), it was first published the 1971 catalog of an exhibition of Chinese painting of the late Ming period organized by a seminar of graduate students and myself.[1] We had seen it and were captivated by it on our trip to East Coast museums and collections to choose paintings for our exhibition. My teacher Max Loehr, then still active as a professor at Harvard, had been responsible for its purchase, and was rightly proud of it. Since the date in the interpolated inscription (written in lower left) corresponded with 1643, it fitted within the time limits of our exhibition, and its subject and style broadened the scope of our selection. Some time after the catalog was published, however, I began to have doubts about the identification of the subject of the work and about the inscription on which this identification depended, Through a series of comparisons with reliable portraits of women in Ming-Qing painting on the one hand, and on the other, with generic pictures of beauties that were not portraits of particular women at all, I reached the conclusion that the "Mme. Hedong" picture was misrepresented on several counts: the inscription was a later interpolation; the work was not a portrait of anyone, and it dated from somewhat later than the 1643 date in the inscription, probably from around the mid-18th century or a bit later. It was another example, that is, of the common case within Chinese painting in which an anonymous and generic work is fitted out with misleading trappings to make it "respectable" and worthy of a place in a serious collection.

Meanwhile, the painting had been published again, this time as a representation of "the liberated woman" in China.[2] More recently it has been made the centerpiece of a serious masters-thesis atudy of representations of women in Chinese painting. That it was slipping into general acceptance in its false guise troubled me, since the picture represented an unexplored subject area in our field, and an established misreading of it it might send future investigations off in wrong directions, Moreover, I felt responsible for having initiated this problem by giving credence to the false identification in our exhibition and catalog. My new conclusions about it were delivered in a number of places as a lecture titled "The Real Mme. Hedong" (the argument of which will be repeated below) and, in 1977, repeated at the Fogg Museum at Harvard. Max Loehr, by then retired, was understandably distressed; John Hay, his successor, mounted a vigorous counter-argument in favor of the reliability of the inscription and the attribution. I continued to gather materials and pursue the problems of possible contexts for this painting over the years that followed. In 1990 (?) I gave an extremely productive graduate seminar at the University of California in Berkeley that was attended by a number of very knowledgeable and engaged students who made valuable contributions, and in 1991,(? my short c.v. says 1994) two decades after the first publication of the "Mme. Hedong" painting, I delivered at the University of Southern California a series of five Getty Lectures titled "The Flower and the Mirror: Images of Women in Later Chinese Painting," which were the genesis of this book.

all below to be reworked

How it all started. Max Loehr, John Hay. Maeda's article. Another study. All reflect situation: no art-historical framework into which to fit it: period? genre? (portrait or generic meiren). My realization that we had given credence to a false identification, that this reflected our lack of understanding of the development and differentiations w/in this genre, and that this mistake needed to be rectified before the study of images of women in late Ch ptg could go forward on a solid footing, were the genesis of this project--in 1971. Thirty-odd years later---etc.

So, will use this as springboard for this study. Preceded by (etc.) In this first chapter, will attempt a charting of dev. of meiren ptg., mostly of type meant to appeal to men. In second, will present contrasting category of ptgs of women, these (I will argue) probably done for audiences and clientele of women.

The Case of the "Mme. Ho-tung Portrait"

Some of the issues with which this book will be concerned can be introduced through a painting that captures our interest immediately by its high quality and sheer beauty, and by the look of intelligence in the woman portrayed (fig. 1/1.) An inscription written small in the lower left corner reads: "In the autumn of [1643], Wu Zho of Huating painted this for Madame Hedong at the Fushui Shanfang." Madame Hedong was another name for the famous courtesan-poet Liu Yin or Liu Rushi (1618-1664); the Fushui Shanfang or "Wiping Water Mountain Villa" was the villa of her husband Qian Qianyi. The inscription would have us believe, then, that the painting is a portrait of this famous woman, done just three years after she had left her early life as a prostitute to become, after a brief dalliance with another litterateur, the second wife or concubine of one of the most renowned literary men of the time, Qian Qianyi (1582-1664). The well-known story of their love, of their few happy years at the end of the Ming dynasty of living together and collaborating on an anthology of Ming poetry, of Qian Qianyi's shift of allegiance to the Manchu invaders in 1645 immediately following their bloody conquest (reportedly against Liu Yin's pleas that he choose instead the loyalist course, as many others were doing, and retire from public life or commit suicide), and of her own eventual suicide after his death in 1664, surround the painting with an aura of romantic poignancy. It was first published in 1971 in the catalog of an exhibition of late Ming painting organized by myself and a group of graduate students;[i] in 1974 it was the subject of an article by Robert Maeda, who presented it as a Chinese representation of "what is currently called the 'liberated woman.'"[ii]

In the years that followed, I became convinced that Maeda and I had both been wrong in accepting the inscription as original: it must be spurious, a later interpolation on a painting that was not done by Wu Zho, that must date from around a century later than 1643, and that does not represent Liu Yin or any other particular person. It was, I had come to realize, a generic portrayal of a beautiful woman by some follower of Leng Mei, a specialist in paintings of women who was active in the early decades of the 18th century. I delivered these conclusions in a lecture given at the Fogg Museum in 1978, upsetting some in the audience, including, unhappily, my own teacher Max Loehr, who had been responsible for the acquisition of the painting. That lecture, repeated in various forms and expanded in the years since then but never published, was the genesis of a larger series, the Getty Lectures delivered at the University of Southern California in April, 1994, and eventually of this book.

Among the arguments I used in the 1978 lecture were the stylistic, that the style was impossible for 1643--the true stylistic position of the painting will be discussed later--and the identity of the artist, since the Wu Zho active in late Ming was a landscapist who did not paint portraits. Two other arguments I made then are more pertinent to the larger theme of representations of women in late-period China. The first is that Liu Yin in 1643 would not have allowed herself to be portrayed in this image. Both Stella Lee, who wrote about this painting in our late Ming catalog, and Robert Maeda recognized its frank erotic appeal--the woman's posture, with legs spread and one knee drawn up, and the cool enticement of her gaze, what we once called a "come-hither look." Lee described her posture as one "unwelcome to 'high-class' Chinese women with traditional moral sense"; Maeda writes that "the pose... identifies the sitter as a member of a lower class and of 'immoral' character," and goes on to speculate that the artist may have "caught her at a moment when she had not yet disengaged herself psychologically from her singing-girl background."

The problem with such an interpretation, persuasive though it may sound, is that it derives the expression of the painting from the character and feelings of the subject; and although Chinese writers on portraiture all insist that capturing the inner life of the sitter is the true aim of the portraitist, in practice they seem, like portraitists elsewhere, not so much to be revealing the true character of the sitter through penetrating portrayal as characterizing the sitter, attributing qualities to her through the conventional means of posture, setting, accessories, accomodation to established models. And they do this, normally, in collaboration with the sitter, so that the image produced is one agreed on between them. Liu Yin in 1643, I argued, would never have permitted herself to be portrayed in this sexually inviting guise. She had made the crucial move from the life of a courtesan to that of the concubine and literary companion of a famous man. Her feelings must have been like those described by Qian Qianyi's friend Mao Xiang in a memorial composed after the early death of his beloved concubine Dong Xiaowan. He writes: "She told me that having suddenly left the 'fiery clouds a myriad fathoms deep' [that is, life in the brothel] and entered upon a clean world of peace and quiet, she looked back upon the past five years in the 'wind and dust' as a bad dream, or a stay in a dungeon."[iii]

[i]James Cahill, ed., The Restless Landscape: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Period, Berkeley, University Art Museum, 1971, no. 82. For information on Liu Yin, see also (Fang Chao-ying in ECCP; my article on her as ptr.) Also Dorothy Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China, Stanford, 1994, p. 274-293.

[1] The Restless Landscape: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Period (Berkeley, University Art Museum, 1971.) The entry for this painting, #---, is by Stella Lee.

[2] Robert Maeda, “The Portrait of a Woman of the Late Ming-Early Ch’ing Period: Madame Ho-tung,” Archives of Asian Art, vol. XXVII (1973-74), pp. 46-52.

[ii]Robert Maeda, "The Portrait of a Woman of the Late Ming-Early Ch'ing Period: Madame Ho-tung," in Archives of Asian Art XXVII, 1973-74, pp. 46-52.

[iii]Mao Xiang's memorial is translated by Pan Tze-yen (Z. Q. Parker) as The Reminiscences of Tung Hsiao-wan by Mao P'i-chiang, Shanghai, Commercial Press, 1931.

Clues to how Liu Yin would have preferred to be portrayed in 1643 can be found in two portraits of her, both done long after her death and known only in old reproductions, but both bearing reliable inscriptions identifying her as the subject, and both acceptable, I believe, as indicating what her chosen image at that time would have been. In my 1978 lecture I referred to these as representations of "the real Madame Hedong." One of them (fig. 1/2), painted in the late 18th or early 19th century by Yü Ji, portrays her as she first arrived at Qian Qianyi's studio in the garb of a Buddhist nun, asking to be taken on as his poetry disciple. The other (fig. 1/3), painted by the famous portraitist Yü Zhiding in 1696, only about thirty years after her death, and quite possibly based on a portrait done during her lifetime, represents her seated on a platform in the garden (rather than, like the pseudo-Mme Hedong, on a bed in her boudoir), both feet firmly on the ground, with no real indication of an articulated body beneath her robes, no langorous or willowy pose, no enticements of any kind. This, I argued, and not the other picture, is the real "liberated woman," liberated from her past, no longer compelled by her social and economic situation to make herself alluring to men in general.

My other argument, anticipated already in the foregoing comparisons, was about genres: the pseudo-Mme. Hedong picture does not fit into the genre of portraiture, even portraits of courtesans (of which examples will be introduced in the fourth chapter), but into the non-specific, generic category of beautiful-woman or meiren paintings, in which no specific identification of the woman is intended. A great many paintings survive that belong to this genre--it is one of the large categories with which this book is concerned. A sub-group within the genre, which includes the "Mme. Hedong" painting, is made up of works in which the women are shown sitting or standing in interior settings, presumably their boudoirs, and typically gazing out at the viewer. A few of these can be introduced here in a quick exploration of the boundaries of the type. Another anonymous 18th-century picture (fig. 1/4) can represent it on a lower level--the same pose, the same inviting look as the would-be Mme. Hedong, but without her poise and air of cool intelligence. This would appear to be the work of a hack artist. In what is probably a 19th century example, signed by an unrecorded minor master named Huang Ming (fig. 1/5), the woman sits in roughly the same pose, fingering her hair and looking out invitingly at the viewer, with a comb, mirror, and cosmetics on the bed beside her. Her tiny bound feet are exposed. Pictures of this kind, low-class by Chinese criteria both artistically and in subject, account in some part for the low esteem in which the whole genre is held, and the lack of critical attention to it; and that judgment, in turn, suggests why better works of this type have frequently been furnished, as the "Mme. Hedong" painting has, with misleading attributions and misidentifications as portraits of particular women, with the aim of raising their status and monetary value. This is a treatment commonly given in China to paintings that were high in quality but considered to be undistinguished or unprestigious in their authorship and subject matter.

That these misrepresentations go unchallenged is itself significant: not only are foreign scholars unable to tell the portraits from the pin-ups; present-day Chinese mostly cannot either. The codes that must have allowed the artists' contemporaries to recognize distinctions of genre, class status, and role among portrayals of women have in large part been forgotten.[iv] What little has been written in Chinese about such pictures in recent times lumps them under the broad designation shinü hua or "gentlewomen" paintings, an all-inclusive category that covers virtually all the types we will consider, excepting only the overtly erotic.[v] Part of my project will be to reconstruct the codes so as to re-differentiate the paintings.

Some Meiren Paintings Before the 18th Century

That paintings of beautiful women, referred to as meiten and recognized as a separate genre from palace-lady pictures, were popular at least from the tenth century is attested by what an early Song text tells about an artist named Yang Weide.[vi] He was a court painter in the Later Shu state, in the modern southwest province of Szechwan, specializing in scenes of palace entertainments. But he also made scrolls of beautiful women of the local type, and merchants from the middle-Yangtze region competed in buying them to sell back home. The early history of meiren paintings, however, is beyond our concern, and what follows is only an outline of the development of this genre from the middle-Ming period, when beautiful-women paintings appear to emerge, especially in the cities of Nanjing and Suzhou, as a newly-flourishing sub-theme within figure painting, up to the18th century type represented by the examples with which we began.

The fully developed 18th century meiren paintings, as we have seen, mostly situate the women in elaborate interiors, which are to be understood as representing their boudoirs. Works from the middle Ming, the late 15th and early 16th century, if they provide any setting at all, are more likely to place them in gardens or otherwise outdoors. Paintings by middle-Ming figure masters such as Du Chin, Tang Yin, and Qiu Ying, some of which will be introduced later, are usually of this type, the popularity of which continues into the late Ming and early Qing.

The subject of a work painted in 1642 by the SuZhou artist Shen Shigeng (fig. I/22) seems at first traditional, even classical--in picking mulberry leaves to feed to silkworms, the woman is also enacting a seasonal ritual and confirming women's traditional involvement in sericulture and the production of textiles. At the same time, however staid the work may appear to us, it has taken on delicate hints of the erotic. The woman's figure is larger in size and her face is given greater prominence than in typical works of this genre from earlier in the Ming; she turns away from her task to look thoughtful. What occupies her mind is revealed below by a pair of dogs with collars. The white one, presumably the bitch, raises its tail and assumes an inviting expression; the other turns toward it, opening its jaws in what we can take to be an amorous snarl. Coupled creatures such as dogs and cats often appear in these paintings, observed by the lonely lady; more examples will be seen in the next chapter (fig. 2/21), and one by Qiu Ying in which she gazes at a pair of mandarin ducks in a later chapter (fig.5/4.) In a late Ming print (fig. 4/53) two women watch with expressions of amusement while the male cat mounts the female. The paired creatures, whatever their species, represent the sexual happiness of which the woman is deprived by the absence of her husband or lover, so that observing them arouses in her feelings of loneliness and loss, as well as desire.


A large painting bearing seals of the early Qing portraitist and figure master Yü Zhiding (1647-after 1709) presents this theme with greater directness and poignancy by setting it in a garden overgrown with weeds as a metaphor for the situation of the woman, who has, we are to understand, been abandoned by her lover (fig. 1/23.) The convention of the weedy garden as a setting for the neglected woman is an old one: we may recall the unfortunate Lady Suetsuguhana in The Tale of Genji. The theme is also long-established in Chinese poetry, where we read of how the excessiveness of women's love betrays them into being rejected, after which they lapse into passivity and decline, blaming themselves, retreating into seclusion.[vii] The woman in this painting is engaged in nothing more than sitting on a rock, one leg drawn up (like the "Mme. Hedong" figure and the others), sleeve-covered hands in her lap, addressing her melancholy gaze at three rabbits on the ground. Two white ones, presumably females, wrestle playfully, while the third, identified as the male by its larger size and darker color, looks intently and purposefully at them. The proliferation of weeds, and the way so many of them grow inward toward her from the rocks in an almost threatening way, denies her the comfortable surroundings that a garden customarily provides. At the same time, and despite the somber colors, the extraordinary decorative beauty of the painting, in which one reads the fading and wasted beauty of the neglected woman, strengthens its emotional impact.

What could be a companion picture [check sizes!], so similar in numerous points of style that the two can be considered as products of a single hand, or at least of a single studio, is catalogued as an "Anonymous Ming" work in the Palace Museum, Taiwan (fig. 1/24.) It can be reattributed here, on the basis of this close resemblance, to "studio of Yü Chih-ting," if not to Yü himself, and dated to the early Ch'ing period. The young woman in this work, sitting in a garden on a warm summer day, looks up pensively from her reading, idly distracted by two butterflies hovering above the flowers nearby, a [what bird? ident.] singing on a branch above, a white cat on the ground that watches the end of her sash flutter in the breeze. None of these disturbs her reverie; her mood is one of hopeful expectation, as the other woman's is of despair: her lover will come. The faces of the women in the two paintings are nearly identical, except that the one in the Shanghai Museum work knits her brows and turns down the corners of her mouth slightly in an expression of bitterness. The two could even be taken as a contrasting pair, representing fortunate and unfortunate love, negative and positive versions of the waiting-woman theme. Note: my yellow scribbled page (from Princeton) in Ptgs for Women problem folder, on Swallow Letter play: he paints her as "listening to oriole, chasing butterfly." Play bet. portrait and meiren--good to introduce here.Insert here: Yu's ptg in Xu Wei manner, woman & banana plant? to make points.

Moving as they are, these two paintings, along with the one from 1642 by Shen Shigeng (fig.1/22), appear relatively decorous and mild when seen beside those of the "Mme. Hedong" type from the 18th century with which we began. The earlier artists use oblique, poetic ways of conveying the romantic or erotic messages; the women, although their expressive postures and sizes within the compositions permit stronger feelings of empathy than did meiren paintings from still earlier in the Ming, are shown as self-absorbed, projecting no invitation to the viewer. The move from these to the 18th-century type is a process of "turning up the heat," intensifying the erotic appeal of the image, making it into a more overtly effective icon of the concubine-courtesan ideal. The difference can be seen once more by comparing the 18th century portrayal of Scholar Zhang and Cui Yingying from the "Western Chamber" story (fig. I/19), with all its nuances and intimacy, with an anonymous picture of the same or a similar theme, dating probably from the late Ming (fig. I/24A), in which the two principals sit, far apart, in a garden. The scholar, identified as such once more by his hat, reads to her from a book, probably a romantic novel; she sits pensively, her qin (zither) beside her, gazing at the familiar pair of rabbits in the foreground. Huge peony blossoms convey a blatant message (to be elaborated in a later chapter.) These are conventions which, while their content is erotic, distance the participants and their relationship from any engagement by the viewer.

Two more paintings of beautiful women from the 17th century, both dated or datable, reveal stages in the progressive "heating up" of these images, and help in the art-historical tracing of this change. Both, like many others that will be considered in this book, are solitary survivors from what must surely have been whole subject categories of paintings, types considered too low-class and popular to be suitable for collectors to own and preserve. One (fig. 1/25), titled "A Fairy Beauty at Quiet Rest," was painted in 1640 by a minor artist from Fujian named Huang Shifu, who inscribes on it a poem:

Dimly one perceives a wafting of faint fragrance--
Who knows what troubles the fairy beauty's heart?
A furrow on her brow turns the azure waters cold,
A smile on her face disperses the mist and wind.
She does not speak, yet her love is sincere;
She blushes but entices a tacit intimacy.
When shall we meet in the garden behind your boudoir,
And talk among the mists and crimson clouds?

The artist adds a dedication to a certain "old Mr. Can" and the note that this is the eighteenth scroll, presumably of a series. Was it, then, one of a set of paintings representing "old Mr. Can's" concubines, or were they famous courtesans of some pleasure district, or a catalog of types of beauty, like the print series designed by Utamaro in 18th-century Japan? Whatever the subjects of the pictures, they must have belonged to some Ukiyo-e-like genre of paintings that celebrated, presumably, the newly-risen culture of courtesans and romantic love. No datably earlier example survives that presents the woman so blatantly as a sexual icon, borrowing for the purpose some of the conventions of portraiture, a genre that was itself enjoying a great expansion and rise in quality during the late Ming.[viii]

[iv]The same is apparently true of studies of Chinese popular literature, in which the significance of crypto-erotic imagery has generally been forgotten or ignored by modern scholars. See Stephen H. West and Wilt Idema, trans., The Moon and the Zither: The Story of the Western Wing, p. 141. West and Idema point out that in China, the silence of scholars on erotic symbolism is due partly to their being "heirs to the neo-Confucian tradition" which had driven the "earthy voice" of Chinese vernacular literature into "a kind of silent limbo," and partly to the official policy of the Communist party, which attributes "an interest in sex . . . to bourgeois decadence."

[v]Ref. to Shan Guoqiang; what else?

[vi]Huang Xiufu, Yizhou minghua lu, preface 1006, Wangshi huayüan edition ch. 9 p. 32a-b.

[vii]Birrell, New Songs, pp. 14-16; also Dusty Mirror (in Expres. of Self) 57 ff.

[viii]Distant Mts. last chapter, Rick Vinograd's book.

The women in this painting and Huang Shifu's extend their little fingers to touch their lips, a winsome gesture that must have been sexually alluring for male Chinese viewers--one of the "Eight Beauties of the Hibiscus Terrace" (fig. 2/30) does the same. Both wear translucent jackets that reveal the upper body beneath. The young woman in Huang's painting, her hair slightly unkempt, her eyes narrowed, wears her see-through gauze jacket over the apron-like undergarment called mexiung that women had worn as a kind of brassiere since the Tang dynasty.[ix] This, and her dishabille in the presence of the beholder as he is implied by her gaze and gesture, are indications of her sexual availability. To expose so much of the body was indecent; that the parts exposed are not for us the most erotic zones is beside the point. Ann Birrell, writing about the portrayal of women in early love poetry, notes that "Although the nude form is never described, the presence of flesh suggested through diaphanous gowns. . . the arm is an erogenous zone, and is suggested often through descriptions of filmy sleeves. Since the sleeve is a piece of the woman's dress, to describe a woman's sleeves and her arms suggests entrée to more intimate parts of her body."[x] The question of the near-absence of nudity from Chinese paintings, except in outright erotica, will be raised in a later chapter.

These examples and others from the late Ming-early Qing period suggest that we are observing stages in the transformation of the traditional meiren genre through successive substitutions and additions that intensify its erotic charge, a process that reaches completion in the 18th century type represented by the "Madame Hedong" picture. Two of the artistic moves involved in this transformation have been touched on already. First, the later artists adopt techniques of shading and three-dimensional rendering, newly available from Western pictorial art, to impart to their images of women the illusion of real physical presence, of being all but palpable. Employing such illusionistic means to give an effect of corporeality to the depicted woman's body, turning visual apprehension of her into a vivid imagining of physical grasping, has similarly been a more or less constant strategem of western artists who have made provocative pictures of feminine subjects, from the masters of the Italian Renaissance (or before) down to those such as George Petty and Alberto Vargas who specialized in Esquire Magazine pinups in the 1940s. Secondly, the women are moved indoors, from the garden settings in which they are relatively inviolate, open only to removed admiration, to their boudoirs where they can be visually grasped. Serving to enable this easy apprehension are the devices of rendering the interiors in such a way as to draw the viewer's gaze back, space beyond space, for an effect of visual penetration that heightens the scopophilic pleasures provided by the picture; and the inclusion of an abundance of realistically rendered detail: furniture, decorative objects, and so forth. Both encourage the reading of the painting as an extension of the beholder's space, into which he can easily enter in imagination in order to apprehend the woman and her surroundings.

Enough dated or roughly datable meiren paintings have been introduced by now to permit an attempt at an outline of a developmental pattern leading up to this 18th century woman-in-her-boudoir composition. In the middle Ming period, the 16th century, portrayals of women in gardens or other outdoor settings were popular, along with pictures in which they are seen in the upstairs windows of houses, a type to be considered in a later chapter. The late Ming and early Qing works by Shen Shigeng (fig. 22, dated 1642) and Yü Zhiding (fig. 23) continue the outdoor type, as does the 1640 "Beauty Resting in Seclusion" by Huang Shifu (fig. 25), in which, however, the erotic appeal is sharply intensified. By the late 17th and early 18th century, another type had made its appearance, in which the woman is brought closer up and seen through a round window. The anonymous picture with an inscription dated 1696 (fig. 26) is an example; another is a painting ascribed to Gu Jianlong (1606-after 1686) in which we spy on the woman engaged in an erotic revery (fig. 5/44). Round windows become a frequent feature in meiren paintings, with twofold effect: the roundness underscores the equivalence of visual and sexual penetration, and also indicates that she is on the ground floor, where moon windows were always located, making her appear all the more accessible to the voyeur-viewer. In a painting probably from the 1720s by the Yangzhou artist Zhang Zhen (fig. 2/22) the window is not round, but the inclusion of a garden rock and flowering plant in front of it similarly locates the scene downstairs.

A few paintings known now only in old reproductions portray women in interiors as seen through windows or moon doors, and are ascribed to early periods and artists. But without access to the originals it is difficult to judge their real age and authorship, and thus whether they should be taken into account in tracing the development of the meiren genre. An especially attractive one (fig. 1/27) reveals the languishing woman through a moon-door, with the viewer located in a courtyard outside, as is indicated by a banana tree. She reclines limply on a couch, her head tilted in melancholy. Elements of the scene--the maidservant in foreground holding the woman's little son on her back, the parokeet perched above her--correspond iconographically with a painting by the late Ming master Chen Hongshou (fig. 5/26) and suggest a dating around the mid-17th century. The beautiful women in Ming-period meiren paintings are sometimes identified as wives by the presence of children (cf. fig. 5/5, 5/6); this type seems to disappear by the Qing, when glamour supplants domesticity and courtesans prevail over wives as the voyeur's image of choice. Some writing has been expunged at the top of the work, and probably a part of the picture as well, perhaps representing the woman's dream or vision of the absent husband, which might have been too openly erotic for reproduction.

Skip what follows, or rewrite: (in Ch. 5?)

Another part is to explore the richness of Chinese pictorial art and literature in sexual symbols and metaphors. One of these, the rabbit, is seen in a picture published (misleadingly once more) in an old dealer's catalog as a portrait of Lady Song Fu, wife of the third century warlord Liu Bei (fig. 1/6). Here the woman is standing, but in other respects the painting is obviously one of the sub-group under consideration. She holds an orchid flower in a gesture of sexual invitation (which will be explored in a subsequent chapter.) The rabbit has the same fully-deserved reputation in China as in the west, besides standing for the moon, which is yin or feminine as opposed to the masculine yang.

Pictures of this type even appear among the folksy popular prints called niamhua or New Year's pictures. In one of these (fig. 1/7, a proof from an old block--the colors would have been added by hand,) the sexy young lady stretches herself sensuously after a spring nap. The rabbit, absurdly small, functions merely as an emblem, and is scarcely intended as a truly pictorial element.

To move from this to the exceptionally fine work in the British Museum, catalogued there as "Portrait of a Lady" (fig. 1/8), is to move sharply upward in social and economic level; this is, among other things, a luxury product. It bears seals of Leng Mei, but they are probably not reliable indicators that the painting was done by him, since it appears to belong stylistically after his time, and the image of the woman, especially her face, does not belong to the distinctive type seen in Leng Mei's safely signed works. She looks, moreover, more urbane and complicated than Leng Mei's women, less innocent. The argument will be made later that many of the paintings bearing only seals of noted figure specialists active in the 17th and 18th centuries are probably studio works by the artists' followers. The time and care lavished on fine details such as the patterns on the woven cover of the couch and in the woman's robe (detail, fig. 1/9) suggest a studio mode of production. But to observe this is not to imply, as is commonly the case, that the painting is therefore cruder or more conventionalized than one from the master's own hand would have been; on the contrary, like others we will see with problematic Leng Mei seals, the work is of very high quality. The refinements of its conception and execution, along with the aristocratic bearing of the woman and the fact that she looks up from reading a book, must have encouraged the assumption, reflected in the title given to the painting (presumably in recent times), that it is a portrait of a particular lady of some status. But it cannot be; no respectable woman would have permitted herself to be portrayed in this manner, with clothing loosened, upper chest bare, and legs spread.

That the woman's face does not simply reproduce the Leng Mei facial type, and that her eyes, with the pupils sharp and piercing, give her a look of intelligence, are not arguments for the painting being a true portrait, but only mark the success of the artist, whoever he was, in achieving a major desideratum in paintings of this genre. A mid-18th century writer named Jiang Yi, in a note on paintings of beautiful women (one of the very few references to them in the literature), advises that "their eyes can be large or small, their eyebrows sparse or heavy; their faces are all unlike each other. But any of these can be the ultimate in beauty. You only have to capture their essence in their gaze."[xi] But few of the artists who did them, it would appear, took this advice seriously. Little differentiation of facial type or expression can be found, typically, among the figures in group pictures (to be considered later) such as the "Eight Beauties of the Hibiscus Terrace" (fig. 2/30) or series such as the so-called "Twelve Consorts of the Yongzheng Emperor" (fig. 1/30), or even from painting to painting within a given period and style.

More convincing as from the hand of Leng Mei himself, since it matches Leng's other signed works closely in the depiction of the face and and in certain features of style, is a painting dated 1724 (fig. 1/10). Here the woman leans on a table and kneels her right leg on a barrel-seat, striking a pose as provocative as that of "Mme Hedong." Her head is cocked and rests on her hand, the little finger touching her lips. The elegant pattern of curving lines created by her pose and the fall of her dress is set off against the crotchety outlines of the rootwood stand (the same contrast that is used in the British Museum "Leng Mei," fig. 1/8); the linear pattern creates in itself an effect of voluptuousness , quite apart from the slender and supple body implied beneath it. This is a kind of sensuality that has little in common with the warm and glowing masses of flesh of the Titian-Rubens-Renoir imagery of European painting. The woman holds a rolled book, probably to be understood (again as in the British Museum picture) as a romantic novel (No: it is a book of love poetry); pointed at her groin, it is obviously phallic in character. After we have investigated some of the more oblique erotic indicators to be seen in the picture--hibiscus flowers, flute, Buddha's-hand fruit in the dish beside her, the theme of putting down the book for a moment to gaze out as if abstractedly--we will be better able to read other implications in it. For now, what is especially striking is the pictorial illusionism that the painting displays: in its space, in the rendering of the furniture, in the shaded cylindricality of the flute, in the shadowy places beneath the table, inside the barrel seat, even in the recessed areas of her robe. There is more here of readable space and quasi-palpable objects than we are accustomed to finding in Chinese paintings. Similar illusionistic effects can be seen also, to greater or lesser degrees, in the other meiren paintings introduced above (all but the "real" portrait of Liu Yin by Yü Zhiding, fig. 1/2), and in most other examples of the genre from this period. The prevalence of illusionistic devices in 18th century meiren paintings and the reasons for their popularity in this genre, the forms they take, and their probable sources in European pictorial art are themes to which we will return frequently in this book.

An unsigned painting of the type (fig. 1/11) is similar enough to Leng Mei's work of 1724 that it can be ascribed to a close follower if not to himself. It is a night scene, and the woman, her sash already undone and clothing loosened, leans over to pinch out the lamp. Since her intimate gaze and slight smile seem to indicate the presence of a male companion, the message would seem to be: Shall I turn out the light, or will you? The illusionism here is in the depiction of the table, the woman's robes, the moon window (drawn so as to display the thickness of the wall) and the moonlit banana palms outside, as well as in the shading of the hands and face, with tinges of red along contours. However little these may resemble European practice in our eyes, they betray in the Chinese context some dependence on the semi-westernized or Europeanized mode developed both in the Qing imperial painting academy in Beijing and in the prosperous cities of the Jiangnan or Yangtze delta region, a mode that by this time had become available to any painter who chose, and had the necessary technical skills, to employ it. The art-historical circumstances of this development, insofar as they can be reconstructed, will be considered at some length in the second chapter

[ix]van Gulik p. 299; Eric Chou p. 183. Story (apocryphal) of how Yang Guifei first had it made for her, to conceal love-bites etc. made by An Lushan. See also Valery M. Garrett, Chinese Clothing, An Illustrated Guide, Hong Kong, 1994, pp. 22-23, where it is referred to as a "bib brassiere."

[x]Birrell, New Songs from a Jade Terrace, 12-13.

[xi]Jiang Yi, Duhua jiwen, in Huayüan biji, 3b.

B. Beautiful Women in Interiors

Another characteristic of the 18th century meiren pictures is that the women are typically placed in interior settings that are often richly appointed, and are to be read as representing the inner chambers or boudoirs within which, in the "waiting woman" myth, they spend much of their lives. Here they read books, or gaze into mirrors, or (as in another signed work of the kind by Leng Mei, fig. 1/12) have their hair done by a maid; or they simply sit waiting for their husbands or lovers to come. Chinese love poetry, especially in the early periods, is mostly about just that, beautiful women waiting in boudoirs for the return of their lovers.[xii] The theme was popular also in drama: in zajü plays of the Yüan period, for instance, the guiyüan or "boudoir repinings," defined as "upper-class ladies mourning the absence of their lovers," was a set role in which an actress might specialize, and the neglected woman, left behind by her traveling lover or husband, was the typical heroine of Ming drama.[xiii] Chinese love poetry, drama, and fiction, that is, instead of celebrating the fulfillment of love, typically dwell on the melancholy of its deferral or denial. These pictures can be read on the simplest level, then, as pictorializations of a common convention in Chinese poetry and drama.

The early occurrences of this theme in literature, however, are not paralleled in painting, where it does not appear until the early Qing period. The possibility or even probability that the formation of this genre in China, setting the woman in an elaborate interior and surrounding her with a rich array of objects, was in some part stimulated by contact with Northern European painting, specifically Dutch, is suggested by striking similarities in their themes and pictorial structures with paintings by 17th century Dutch artists--for example, one by Gerald Dou (fig. 1/13), or an anonymous work of the Utrecht School (fig. 1/14). In these, too, the women are placed in carefully-constructed, readable spaces, sometimes behind a drape that hangs from the top of the composition (cf. Leng Mei's painting, fig. 1/12); luxury objects of daily use are lovingly depicted on tables; the woman looks out at us, either directly or by way of the mirror. These and other close correspondences, together with the fact that paintings of this type begin to be made in China just around the time when Chinese artists were otherwise adopting a diversity of features of style and composition from European pictorial art, appear to rule out coincidence. But the channel of transmission is still unclear, and the question must be left open for now.

That the so-called "Madame Hedong" herself was originally set in a more elaborately furnished interior is suggested by the existence of a second painting with more or less the same figure (fig. 1/15, compare 1/1). It was exhibited by a Paris dealer in 1912; its present whereabouts are unknown.[xiv] Inscriptions on it identify it as a self-portrait of another famous courtesan-artist of the late Ming, Ma Shouzhen (1548-1604); but this, of course, is another deliberate misidentification. That the figure could be repeated from one composition to another suggests a multiple mode of production, and would in itself argue against either one being a true portrait. The "Madame Hedong" picture has been cut down in size--a 19th century collection catalog records it, with the inscription, but gives the dimensions as over 6' tall and nearly 3' wide, where in its present state it is less than 4' tall and a little over 2' wide.[xv] Moreover, the edge of another object, probably a piece of furniture, appears on the left margin of the painting, above the arm-rest, and a piece of silk has been inset further up to conceal an excision; also, something seems to have been expunged in the upper right.[xvi] It may well have been a round window opening onto a rear garden, as in the other, more complete compositions of this type, such as the "Ma Shouzhen" painting or the anonymous night scene (figs. 1/11, 1/15.) The present cut-down version appeals to the modern eye by bringing the woman close to the picture plane and eliminating what is for us distracting detail. But sumptuously furnished chambers and illusionistic openings into recessed spaces were clearly major desiderata, not distracting details at all, for the original audiences of these paintings.

Compositions inviting visual exploration of successive hollows of space, one opening into another, were not entirely new to China in the 18th century; a few architecture-and-figure paintings surviving from the tenth century testify to achievements of just that kind. In these, too, our gaze is drawn through openings, seemingly even around corners, into further recessed areas of the composition; the more we look, the more we seem to penetrate and discover. I discussed this compositional device in a 1989 article in the context of a proto-scientific exploration of the physical world and the beginnings of a great age of technological development in Five Dynasties and early Song China.[xvii] I only hinted then at another aspect of it: the erotic. The experience of visually probing a painting that invites imaginary penetration and apprehending the objects represented in it, although we customarily write about such experiences with regard to Sung-period landscape pictures as metaphysical exercises in communion with nature, already partakes also of the scopophilic, the sheer pleasure in looking. When the object of one's looking is itself erotic in nature, the pleasure is of course compounded. Chinese figure compositions of the kind popular at least from the eighth century in which the viewer is given visual access to the inner chambers of a palace and can observe intimately the lives of women sequestered there offer that kind of pleasure, and evocations of space in those compositions, the ones ascribed to such masters as Zhang Xüan and Zhou Fang, should probably be understood in that light.[xviii] They open the way for what must have been even more overtly voyeuristic paintings in the tenth century, the most famous, or notorious, being "The Night Revels of Han Xizai" by Gu Hongzhong, a court artist of the Southern Tang state. The artist painted it, the story goes, on the order of his ruler Li Houzhu, after having hidden himself in the villa of this supposedly dissolute minister to observe the scandalous goings-on at his parties, in which men of rank and women entertainers consorted freely.

The painting survives only in copies, the earliest and best (fig. 1/16) dating from the twelfth century, by which time the illusionistic rendering of interior spaces was no longer a serious concern of painters; the original work must have been much more persuasive in this respect. And the extant copy is probably incomplete--a longer version is recorded as having included openly amatory scenes.[xix] But even the copy preserves two passages in which we look into recessed bed-chambers through partly-open curtains and spy rumpled bedclothes presumably occupied by couples engaged in lovemaking (fig. 1/17, 1/18.) That these semi-concealed couplings are visible also to the fully-dressed people outside (and audible--notice the woman listening, we can suppose, to thumping beyond the partition) intensifies our own voyeuristic enjoyment: we partake of their excitement in viewing what is normally unviewable.

Paintings such as the Gu Hongzhong scroll were only distant models, however, for Qing-period artists, insofar as they knew them at all; virtually nothing with comparable spatial enticements was painted in the eight centuries between, judging from extant works. The re-appearance of this mode of rendering space in Qing-period interiors with figures must have been stimulated more by exposure to the European pictures than by any rediscovery of ancient models.[xx] It fundamentally transforms the meiren paintings, which up to that time (as will be outlined below) had typically set the women outdoors, in gardens, or in upstairs windows or balconies, where they were seen from a distance. The new type, placing them in a boudoir and encouraging imagined entry, permitted the (assumedly male) viewer more immediate access to the woman, who is also represented as responding more to his presence, or as preparing for his coming.

C. Who Were These Women? The Courtesan Culture

So far we have mostly been observing the paintings; we need to turn from them to consider a few larger questions, beginning with a central one: who were these women? The simple answer, which will prove to be not so simple at all, is: courtesans and concubines. The two are of course not the same, but can be classed together for our purpose, like fish and dragons as a category of painting subjects, since each has the potential of transforming into the other[xxi]--a woman, that is, could move from the one role to the other and back again, from taking a number of patrons and lovers (as courtesan) to limiting her favors to one, her husband (as concubine.) In this sense she had more mobility than most "respectable" women. Those who entered this life typically did so from poor families, although their patrons liked to fantasize that they were really women of good background who had fallen somehow into distress.

Some sense of how they were viewed in 18th century China, both their attractions and their plight, can be obtained from a large horizontal painting by a minor master named Hua Xüan, probably painted in 1736, that will be discussed in the next chapter (fig. 2/30.) It now bears the title "Eight Beauties of the Hibiscus Terrace," but it most likely portrays a group of prostitutes on the balcony of a brothel displaying themselves attractively to passers-by on the street. Several of the women hold flowers and one a Buddha's-hand fruit; one touches her little finger to her lips. These are sexual lures that will be considered below or in later chapters.[xxii] They are probably not courtesans of high rank, whose individual status and talents would presumably exempt them from being presented, in life or in paintings, as members of such a group; nor would they offer themselves so blatantly to a general audience.

Most women who entered the brothels would spend their youthful years as common prostitutes, after being deflowered while still in their teens. Typically, they continued active as prostitutes for only about seven years, from around the ages of thirteen to twenty; women older than twenty-one were looked upon by their literati patrons as somewhat overage. After retiring from the brothels they might marry, or become brothel-keepers themselves. The more fortunate and talented among them might be trained in poetry, music, dancing, and other arts with the aim of attaining the status of cultivated courtesans, like the Japanese taiyû. They would then entertain at banquets, could be taken on excursions, and enjoyed the favor of patrons who were often government officials and cultivated men, besides being well-enough off to afford their services. These services did not necessarily include the sexual, since courtesans of rank, mingji, were by no means sexually available to anyone who could pay the price, but had to be courted and won. And, if they were still more fortunate and successful, they might be bought out by some particular patron, perhaps an official or literary man, as his concubine or second wife, and might even take active places, as did Liu Yin ("Mme. Hedong"), in social and literary circles alongside their husbands. Concubines, moreover, since they were selected and acquired by their husbands, might be objects of romantic love, a relationship that blossomed less frequently with principal wives, who entered the household through arranged marriages.

[xii]Ann Birrell, New Songs from a Jade Terrace, Introduction, espec. pp. 8-9.

[xiii]Waley, "Green Bower," 50-51; Cyril Birch, Scenes for Mandarins: The Elite Theater of the Ming, New York, Columbia University Press, 1995 , pp. 15-16 and passim.

[xiv]It was published in Ostasiatische Zeitschrift no. 1, 1912, p. 58, with a partial translation of the inscriptions on p. 64. It was then owned by the dealer Mme. Langweil.

[xv]Tao Liang, Hongdou shuguan shuhua ji, 1836, ch. 8.

[xvi]I am grateful to Robert Mowry, Curator of Chinese Art and Head of the Department of Asian Art at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, for examining the painting and writing me about these details (private letter of February 15, 1994.) Mowry is not entirely in agreement about something having been expunged from the upper right of the picture; but my own experience with skilful mounters (such as the late Meguro Kôkakudô of Tokyo) who could, at the owner's request, make elements of a composition disappear, leaving as the only traces of their work some markings similar to the splotchy and abraded-looking area in the upper right of the present painting, along with some artificial darkening to further conceal the deletion, emboldens me nonetheless to hazard this observation. More close study of the painting is needed before we can be sure.

[xvii]Ref. to 1982 article, brief discussion. Ptgs discussed included (Wei Xian Gaoshitu , waterwheel, Liao tomb ptg--give ref.) "Some Aspects of Tenth Century Painting as seen in Three Recently Published Works." In: Proceedings of the International Conference on Sinology, Section on History of Art, Taipei, Academia Sinica (1982), pp. 1-36.

[xviii]Ref. to a few Zhang Cüan/Zhou Fang ptgs of women in palace rooms.

[xix]According to Thomas Lawton, Ch Fig. Ptg. Intro. The record of the painting in Daguan lu (info.) ch. XI p. 46b, which seems otherwise to correspond with the version now in the Palace Museum, Beijing, describes a passage at the end of the scroll as a 'secret play' picture of men consorting with courtesans, three men and three women, "sitting close together as though their shoes and scarves were entangled, silk uppers unfastened, so close that you can faintly smell the fragrance of their bodies." This section may have been removed from the scroll later.

[xx]Cf. my argument abt the revival of No. Sung monumental LS in late Ming Nanjing, Compelling Image ch. 3.

[xxi]Fish and dragons are grouped in a single chapter, ch. 9, in the catalog of the Emperor Huizong's collection, Xuanhe huapu (info.)

[xxii]This painting was first published in a book by the Shanghai dealer E. A. Strehlneek, Chinese Pictorial Art (Shanghai, 1914), pp. 178-80, with two color details. Strehlneek dates it to the Ming dynasty and claims that the women represented are the concubines of the painter Tang Yin.

The growth of what has been called a "courtesan culture" (a term I will use hereafter as a shorthand reference to it), flourishing in the pleasure districts of cities of the Jiangnan or Yangtze delta region in the late Ming and early Qing, brought a whole new romantic ideal into Chinese society, and into relationships between the sexes both in literature and in life.[xxiii] It is exactly in the context of this courtesan culture that many, perhaps most of the paintings treated in this book can best be situated and understood. It is beautifully reflected, for example, in an anonymous painting from the same period and artistic milieu as the meiren pictures at which we have been looking--it is similar also in the luxuriously appointed interior that opens back behind the foreground figures, who represent the three principals of the immensely popular drama Hsi-hsiang chi or "Story of the Western Chamber": Zhang Gong or Scholar Zhang, Cui Yingying or Oriole, and her maid Hongniang or Crimson (fig. I/19.) The resemblances between this and the "Madame Hedong" painting (fig. I/1) in the drapery drawing, the faces, the meticulous portrayal of gold ornaments, textile patterns, spotted bamboo (the chair in one, the fan frame in the other), suggest that these are products, if not of the same master, at least of the same atelier, one of the urban-professional studios that will occupy us in the second chapter. The "Western Chamber," China's most popular love-drama, was composed in the late 13th century by a certain Wang Shifu, and was repeatedly reprinted in the Ming period.[xxiv]

A puritanical social code prevented men, except rarely, from having sexual affairs with "decent" women, at least in the circles in which the scholar-writers moved. Liaisons with prostitutes and courtesans, on the other hand, had been the very model of romantic love at least since the Tang dynasty, when the caizi jiaren or "genius and beauty" ideal first took hold.[xxv] Many men found their only exposure to romantic love in the brothels. In the seventeenth century the flourishing of a mercantile economy brought new prosperity to the cities, especially those of the Jiangnan region, and, as Paul Ropp writes, "The resulting surplus of wealth and leisure produced in turn numerous entertainment centers--tea houses, wine shops, pleasure boats, brothels, handicraft shops--and a growing class of entertainers such as singing girls, prostitutes, acting troupes, and storytellers."[xxvi] Prominent litterateurs, scholars, and government officials, as well as merchants, not only frequented these quarters for relaxation and cultivated company--business was transacted there, poems composed[xxvii]--but sometimes chose especially beloved courtesans as their concubines and constant companions. (An illustration to the 16th century novel Jin Ping Mei, fig. 1/20, conveys something of the atmosphere of these establishments.) Frederick Wakeman has applied the term "romantics" to those such as Liu Yin's husband and lover Qian Qianyi who immersed themselves in this culture during the Ming-Ch'ing transition, and who in some cases made the choice of serving the Manchu regime, instead of becoming, like those who make up Wakeman's other two categories, either "stoics" or "martyrs."[xxviii] Old social mores were breaking down; the concept of qing or romantic love gains currency over sterner Confucian virtues, and the whole vision of the ideal life for men of culture and means changes: instead of desiring (or claiming to desire) escape from the cities to live as recluses, they recognize now that it is in the cities that opportunities can be found for emotional fulfillment, a kind of self-realization outside traditional patterns, whether Confucian or Buddhist.

For women, the same loosening of old, repressive restrictions allowed a higher rate of literacy and increased creative engagement in poetry and the arts, in which women of good family could also take part. Many talented courtesan-poets and artists appeared during the Ming-Qing transition, women who attained respected places in literati society. In much the same way that the growth of rich city cultures in the Ming led to the emergence of a type of painter who could in certain respects cross class barriers and consort more comfortably with men of rank and power than had been possible before,[xxix] these women were able to transcend some of the confines of their class, and allow their patrons to do the same--the courtesan culture might be seen as reflecting, among other things, a kind of increase in social mobility.

The successful courtesan who married a prominent litterateur, however, represented the ideal case; for most women in the courtesan-concubine situation, the reality was harsher. Courtesans who entered a household as concubines did so through purchase, in contrast to proper wives, who came with dowries. Wives came from respectable families, concubines from families of low status who had typically been forced to sell their daughters to survive. Courtesans could never become principal wives, and the first wife, wielding authority they could never attain, might make their situation intolerable so that they would elect to return to the relative independence of the pleasure quarters. A concubine might suffer under a boorish or insensitive master, and could be expelled or traded or sold at his whim, or be treated by him as a possession. She might find herself neglected among a number of concubines in the household, since taking additional wives was a means of displaying wealth, and a practice favored by newly-rich merchants. We read of very wealthy men of the period who collected concubines as luxury goods.[xxx]

A group portrait of the early 19th century litterateur Yao Xie (who was not, to be sure, a rich merchant) with his concubines (fig. 1/21), painted in 1839 by Fei Danxu, presents an entirely positive and uncritical version of this practice. Fei, portrayed larger than the others, sits among the women and servants with a smug look; the women, represented as types and indistinguishable, serve as attributes testifying to his affluence and potency. The acquisition of multiple concubines can be seen as one more expression of the attachment to excess that characterizes the new mercantile culture of the Ming-Qing transition, an enjoyment of luxury based on economic surplus. In the 16th century novel Jin Ping Mei or "The Plum in the Golden Vase" which is the supreme celebration of this pursuit of materialistic and sexual excess (even though it presents itself as a critique of it), Rewrite! the merchant Ximen Qing carries possessiveness to the point of burning his women's genitals, an act, as Keith McMahon writes, "tantamount to branding his herd."[xxxi] From childhood when they were sold by their families into the brothels, these women were treated as commodities to be "marketed for the highest possible economic return," as one writer puts it.[xxxii] The late Ming poet and literary theorist Yüan Hongtao (1568-1610) includes "female attendants" and "handsome youths" along with chessbords, dice, and playing cards in his list of sixteen "Utensils for Pleasure."[xxxiii]

The next step is to move the woman all the way indoors, and move the viewer inside also, to a position from which he can spy into the intimate space of her boudoir. A painting by Yü Zhiding dated 1697 appears to be the first datable example of this true interior meiren composition (fig. I/28.) The lamp, and the shadowy areas not fully illuminated by it, make this a night scene; the woman, an orchid in her hair and her sleeve-covered hand raised to her cheek in a long-established gesture for women awaiting the return of husbands or lovers (cf. figs. 5/1, 5/4, 5/14), passes her lonely time at the weiqi (go) gameboard, plotting her strategy in the absence of her partner. Recessed spaces beneath the table and behind the woman, opening between the drape at right and the folding screen at left, draw the observer's gaze into them. As we have already suggested, these devices cannot easily be found in the Chinese artists' own background, and were almost certainly inspired by European pictures that were to be seen in China by this time. It is probably significant that Yü Zhiding was in Beijing when he painted this in 1697, not as a court artist but with access to circles in which he could have viewed these foreign pictures, as well as the new "hybrid" or semi-Europeanized works being painted by Jiao Bingzhen and other proper court academy masters. From Yü Zhiding's painting to the works by Leng Mei introduced earlier (fig. 1/10, 1/11), one of them dated 1724 and the other from around the same time, paintings that represent the 18th century type in full maturity, is a smooth, easily understandable development. Since Leng Mei was also working for patronage outside the court in this period, and since neither his paintings nor Yü's is inscribed with the formula indicating that it was done for the emperor, it was a development that seems not to have taken place primarily within the court academy. Instead, as the following chapter will explore, it is best thought of as having arisen out of continuing interaction between imperial court and city painters, the latter working for a clientele of well-off merchants and other members of an urban elite.

Following already in PUP We can pause to ask what changes in the patronage for these paintings, and in the status of the women portrayed, might underlie these developments in the mode of representation. No simple answer will suffice, but a good beginning would be to see the fully developed 18th century type as reflecting an increased commodification of the women. The great age of the courtesan culture was over by then. In the late Ming and early Qing, the relationships might sometimes be romantic liaisons between cultivated women and scholar-officials, in the ideal examples preserved in literature but also in some real-life beauty-scholar liaisons, and were often accompanied by exchanges of poems and paintings. In the more mercantile society of middle Qing the purchase of a concubine or the sexual favors of a prostitute were likely to be simpler monetary transactions. The burgeoning urban prosperity of that age and the resultant thriving of entertainment districts produced, as Susan Mann puts it, "a growing commercial market for female prostitutes and entertainers,"[xxxiv] and that commercialization, in turn, affected the status of the women. Dorothy Ko writes that the fall of Ming ended the "erudite and politicized existence of the Jiangnan courtesan culture," and that "although Chinese courtesan culture was . . . sustained by the wealth generated in urban centers, scholar-officials continued to constitute the primary clientele until the 18th century."[xxxv] She quotes Kang-i Sung Chang's argument that "despite the fall of the Ming, courtesan-poets continued to be active in the early Qing. But by the eighteenth century, 'courtesans were virtually excluded from the world of refined letters.'"[xxxvi]

These developments can, in turn, be related to those in other fields such as literature--Keith McMahon, for instance, writes that the "main burst" of erotic fiction lasted only from the mid-16th century to the late 17th.[xxxvii] Or they might be seen as part of a larger commodification of literati culture and its appropriation by the merchant class, including the nouveau riche, a phenomenon that by now is well recognized, and that had become especially marked by the 18th century.[xxxviii] However we construct the surrounding circumstances, the outcome was a marked change in the character of the paintings. Those from Ming and early Qing display more of the qualities we call poetic and seem more charged with emotion; they impart a degree of independence to the women, who, as noted above, might be wives instead of prostitutes. Those from the 18th century, i.e.the Yongzheng and Qianlong eras, use the devices we have been tracing to turn the women more effectively into sexual icons and make them seem more easily accessible to the viewer. Not coincidentally, it is an 18th century author, Pu Songling, who introduces into fiction the meiren voyeur's dream: to be drawn physically into the painting on the wall, a painting done with "such exceptionally wondrous skill that the figures seemed alive," there to be greeted by the beautiful girl who had captivated him in the painting, and invited into her chamber for sexual embrace.[xxxix]

[xxiii]The term "courtesan culture" is used, and the phenomenon studied, by Paul S. Ropp in his paper "Love, Talent, Glamour..." See also Dorothy Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chamber, pp. 252-56, and (Hershatter--fill in.)

[xxiv]Translated with introduction and commentary by Stephen H. West and Wilt Idema as Wang Shifu, The Moon and the Zither: The Story of the Western Wing, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990.

[xxv]For the development of this theme in Ming-Qing fiction, see McMahon, Misers, Shrews, and Polygamists, pp. 99-159. McMahon further divides the genre into two sub-genres: "The Chaste 'Beauty-Scholar' Romance' and 'The Erotic Scholar-Beauty Romance."

[xxvi]Paul S. Ropp, "The Seeds of Change: Reflections on the Condition of Women in the Early and Mid Ch'ing," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 2 no. 1, Autumn 1976, pp. 5-23; this quotation from p. 19.

[xxvii]Eastman, Family, Fields, and Ancestors, p. 32-33.

[xxviii]Frederic Wakeman, Jr., "Romantics, Stoics, and Martyrs in Seventeenth-Century China." In Journal of Asian Studies vol. XLIII no. 4, August 1984, pp. 631-665..

[xxix]Cahill, "Tang Yin and Wen Zhengming as Artist Types: A Reconsideration," in Artibus Asiae 43, 1/2, 1993, pp. 228-248.

[xxx]E.g. Levy, A Feast of Mist and Flowers, p. 87 ff., the case of Xu Qingjun, from the "Diverse Records of Wooden Bridge" by Yü Huai (1616-96), an account of the Qin-Huai pleasure quarter of Nanjing in the late Ming period. Also Eastman, Family, Field, and Ancestors, p. 31 ff.: taking concubines was to "acquire an added increment of prestige," since they were "luxury items."

[xxxii]Rowe, Women & the Family, p.16; he is writing of the opposition to this commodification of women by the 18th-century scholar-official Chen Hongmou. The economic argument about the commodification of women in late imperial China is made in an extreme form by Hill Gates, "The Commodification of Chinese Women," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. II no. 1, 1989, 799-832.

Rowe, Women & the Family, p.16; he is writing of the opposition to this commodification of women by the 18th-century scholar-official Chen Hongmou. The economic argument about the commodification of women in late imperial China is made in an extreme form by Hill Gates, "The Commodification of Chinese Women," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. II no. 1, 1989, 799-832. Rowe, Women & the Family, p.16; he is writing of the opposition to this commodification of women by the 18th-century scholar-official Chen Hongmou. The economic argument about the commodification of women in late imperial China is made in an extreme form by Hill Gates, "The Commodification of Chinese Women," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. II no. 1, 1989, 799-832. Rowe, Women & the Family, p.16; he is writing of the opposition to this commodification of women by the 18th-century scholar-official Chen Hongmou. The economic argument about the commodification of women in late imperial China is made in an extreme form by Hill Gates, "The Commodification of Chinese Women," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. II no. 1, 1989, 799-832. Rowe, Women & the Family, p.16; he is writing of the opposition to this commodification of women by the 18th-century scholar-official Chen Hongmou. The economic argument about the commodification of women in late imperial China is made in an extreme form by Hill Gates, "The Commodification of Chinese Women," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. II no. 1, 1989, 799-832.

[xxxiii]See Andrew Lo, "Amusement Literature in Some Early Ch'ing Collectanea," in Willard J. Peterson et. al., ed., The Power of Culture: Studies in Chinese Cultural History, Hong Kong, Chinese University Press, 1994, p. 299.

[xxxiv]Susan Mann, "Grooming a Daughter for Marriage," p. 224, n. 16, citing a book by Wang Shu-nu.

[xxxv]The first quotation is from (her book ms. pp. 47-8--find in published book), the second from Teachers of the Inner Chambers, p. 255. Her section on "The Floating World of Courtesans and Singing Girls," ibid. pp. 252-56, is a good account of the changing position of these women, with illuminating comparisons to French courtesans and Japanese taiyû.

[xxxvi]Ko, Teachers, p. 342, note 11.

[xxxvii]McMahon, "Eroticism," p. 223 top.

[xxxviii]ref to section in my Painter's Practice ch. IV; what else? ref. from there.

[xxxix]The story is "The Painted Wall," from Pu Songling's Liaozhai zhiyi; see Judith Zeitlin, Historian of the Strange, 216-217.

To the two "heating up" devices just described can be added a third: a near-concealment of the painter's handwriting, by which is meant the conspicuous brush-drawing that served in China to emphasize the element of artifice and thus to heighten the distinction between the painted image and real-life visual experience. In another painting of a beautiful woman by Yü Zhiding, for instance, which is identified in Yü's inscription as done in the manner of his 16th-century predecessor Xu Wei (fig. 1/29), the brush-and-ink qualities of the work supply most of the visual stimulation, and the image as such seems accordingly remote, more the stuff of art than of life. The artist writes his inscription, accordingly, about the stylistic source, Xu Wei, instead of commenting or poeticizing on the woman in the picture. This painting, since it fits into the "respectable" category of works that are the proper stuff of connoisseurship, has been published a number of times, while the other (fig. 1/23) has been ignored, and is reproduced here for the first time. One might, especially if one has absorbed enough of the brushwork aesthetic of traditional Chinese connoisseurs, prefer the painting in the manner of Xu Wei to the other as a work of art, but it is the other that communicates more of the woman's situation and feelings, and moves us more. The further change from the early Qing type to the 18th-century meiren can be observed by comparing, in turn, the drapery drawing in the two paintings of women in gardens associated with Yü Zhiding (figs. 1/23, 1/24) with almost any of the 18th-century works, in which the line drawing performs its descriptive function without announcing any idiosyncracies in the artist's hand. By the later period, that is, meijen paintings had in effect moved out of the realm of art.

A combination in the later paintings of this relatively inconspicuous and inarticulate fine-line drawing with areas of shaded color and patterns that reproduce those of rich textiles or wood-grain or other visually specific surfaces further facilitates the beholder's sense of being able to move smoothly from his own space into that of the picture. By adopting the techniques that permitted these effects, and by choosing to represent untraditional, un-Confucian, and unelevating subjects, the 18th century artists who made the pictures effectively placed themselves and their works outside the bounds of "respectable" painting, ensuring that critics would express only scorn for them, if they noticed them at all. But there were also rewards, economic and other, including the opportunity to work, if one were successful, for a clientele of important and powerful people, from local officials all the way up to the emperor of China--as we will see in the next chapter, artists of this kind could be invited to court to serve in the painting academy. And, we can only speculate, they enjoyed as well the reward of knowing that they were producing artistically high-level paintings that would be used and appreciated by a broad audience--even though, because of the peculiar restrictions of Chinese literati culture, no one seems to have been willing to grant them as much in print.

E. The 18th-Century Woman-in-Boudoir Type: Further Observations

It is noteworthy that the scopophilic pleasures of the mei-jen paintings do not depend on nudity, or even extensive dishabille, in the female subjects. (Note on Chicago ptg: almost-lost genre? Cf. PUP ch. 5 end.) In the 18th-century paintings of women in elaborate interiors, the women are always clothed, although robes and sashes may be loosened suggestively and parts of the upper body exposed. If it is true in western art and photography, as Annette Kuhn claims, that "It is by now a commonplace that the transformation of the unclothed woman from being naked to being nude . . . also brings about . . . the transformation of woman into object,"[xl] does the clothedness of the women in the Chinese paintings exempt them from this fate? Alas, no; the objectification and commodification only takes different forms, involving settings and attributes, and coded signs of sexual invitation. Far from being an indicator of real independence, the coolness of the women is only another come-on. Erotic messages are encoded in the pictures in a diversity of subtle ways, some of which have already been suggested, others to be explored in later chapters.

The opulent interiors in which the women are set appear to be, like the women themselves, generic: they might equally be the women's apartments in the homes of wealthy merchants or powerful officials, the inner chambers of a palace, or even the rooms in which successful courtesans entertained their favored patrons.[xli] Poems of the type mentioned earlier in which the beauty waits for her lover always describe the furnishings and hangings of her room, as well as her clothes and jewelry, in loving detail; and an early piece of erotic prose, the essay "On a Beautiful Woman" attributed to the second century B.C. poet Sima Xiangru (but probably later by some centuries in date,) devotes much more wordage to the bedroom, the bronze censer for perfuming the quilts, the bed curtains and coverlets and pillows, and to outer and undergarments of the woman (whom the writer tells of encountering in a deserted mansion), than to the act of love itself, which is disposed of in a single sentence: "When then we made love with each other her body was soft and moist like ointment."[xlii] In paintings of the woman-in-boudoir type, including examples done by imperial court artists to be introduced below (fig. I/30, I/31), the elaborately detailed interiors set off the women as luxury objects, affirming their status and value, and serve to fix them in place for our leisurely inspection. But they also offer experiences to the exploring eye that are in themselves erotic-- visual penetration to depths beyond depths offers an obvious sensory analogue to sexual penetration. The surviving early Chinese sex manuals seem obsessed with degrees of penetration, sometimes dividing the vaginal passage into nine stages and making much of alternations of shallow and deep.[xliii] The same preoccupation with thrusting and penetration, and with the "nine shallow and one deep" technique, is found in Qing fiction.[xliv]

The settings of the Chinese meiren paintings, in fact, project the same cool invitation as the women; the assumed viewer, who of course is male, can appropriate both of them visually, imagining that the beauty and her surroundings are his for the taking. That the women in the best of these paintings seem self-absorbed, looking meditative as they put down their books or arrange their hair, not engaging the beholder's gaze with the same directness and openness as do several of the "Eight Beauties of the Hibiscus Terrace," might seem to compromise this invitation, but really enhances it. The exquisitely calculated balance of inwardness and the projection of longing is akin to the quality of absorption that Michael Fried writes about with respect to 18th-century French paintings, such as a work by Greuze representing a young woman consumed with sexual desire, about which he observes that "the denial of the beholder that her condition implies is given added point by the way in which, although facing the beholder, she appears to look through him to her lover."[xlv] Fried's well-known argument that the figures in these paintings, by appearing so totally absorbed within the work as to deny the presence of a beholder, in fact engage the beholder's attention and feelings all the more forcibly is still a useful referent for understanding paintings of this kind, even in the face of all the "male-gaze" and other more current modes of reading that have succeeded it.[xlvi]

Among the substantial body of writing on women in Chinese society and literature that has appeared in recent years, much of it drawing effectively on recent western modes of critical analysis in dealing with the Chinese materials, an article by Maureen Robertson is especially applicable to our subject. What she writes about Chinese love poems in which male poets assume a feminine voice could be transferred to our paintings, which were similarly made by male artists, almost without change: "[The poems] indicate the eye of the voyeur in their presentation of passive, narcissistic women, romanticized suffering, and displays and inventories of boudoir furnishings and clothing. These versions of a feminine voice and image, spoken by men and presented to a readership of men, satisfy what has been identified by Freud as a 'scopophilic instinct,' a desire for…the pleasure of looking; they feature a non-referential, iconic image and projected voice, an empty signifier, into which the male author/reader may project his desire."[xlvii]

Robertson is writing about the effect of printed words; the paintings, especially when they were executed in the illusionistic manner that made the spaces appear penetrable and the objects (including the women) palpable, offered sensory experience even more immediate and vivid. (We can recall here the Jesuit reports that late Ming Chinese, seeing European pictures with illusionistic shading and perspective, were "stupefied" by them and could not believe that they were flat.)[xlviii] The pictures seemed to permit their voyeur-viewer to enter where normally he could not, observe in detail and at leisure the inner women's chambers of some rich household, see what only the master of the house should see, imagine the woman giving herself to him. Although they appear to present a woman's world, the effect is not of a real woman inviting us to view that world through her own eyes; we are intruders, even when sometimes we are made to feel welcome ones, into a realm constructed out of male fantasy. That the women in paintings of this kind seem to open themselves to us even while they occupy forbidden regions intensifies the fillip of gazing at them. The fundamentally puritanical character of Confucian society heightened the pleasure to be taken in the illicit; for Chinese men, we are told, "a wife isn't as good as a concubine, a concubine isn't as good as a maid, a maid isn't as good as a prostitute, and a prostitute isn't as good as stealing," by which is meant forbidden sex with someone else's wife or concubine--a scale of value characterized by McMahon as "a pursuit of ever more profit in the realm of sensual bliss."[xlix]

[xl]Annette Kuhn, op. cit., p. 11.

[xli]Gail Hershatter, "The Changing Discourse on Shanghai Prostitution, 1890-1940," p. 10. Brothels could have a dozen or more rooms, each occupied by a woman for the season; the most popular courtesans might have their own dwellings, complete with servants.

[xlii]van Gulik pp. 68-9. Yves Hervouet argues against it being an authentic work of Sima Xiangru and believes it was probably composed in the Six Dynasties period, probably under the sixth century Liang state. See his Un poete de cour sous les Han: Sseu-ma Siang-jou, Paris, 1964, pp. 178-80.

[xliii]Ref. to talk by Li Ling, CCS, Nov. 6, 1989. See also translations of old texts in Douglas Wile, The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics, Including Women's Solo Meditation Texts, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1992, pp. 87, 89, 109, 111, 126, etc.

[xliv]Keith McMahon, Misers, Shrews, and Polygamists, pp. 45, 47.

[xlv]Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting & Beholder in the Age of Diderot, Berkeley and Los Angeles, U. of Calif. Press, 1980, p. 61.

[xlvi]Fried, op. cit., pp. 46-51, 59-61, 66-69, 92-95, 100-105, and passim.

[xlvii]Robertson, "Voicing the Feminine," p. 69.

[xlviii]Compelling Image p. 71 & note 8.

[xlix]Keith McMahon, Causality and Containment in Seventeenth-century Chinese Fiction, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1988, p. 79.

Central to this effect, as we realize when we confront yet again the so-called portrait of "Mme. Hedong" (fig. 1/1), is the woman's cool gaze, almost but not quite meeting the viewer's eyes. Like the unsettling gaze of Manet's "Olympia" in the justly admired reading by T. J. Clark,[l] it invites at the same time that it distances, displacing the spectator from full possession. But the woman's look, along with her posture, convey sexuality in a way that prevent the viewer from quite accepting the distancing message; they challenge him to imagine a situation to which this look and posture are appropriate, and in which they might be directed at him. The full-face portrayal and near-meeting of eyes ally these pictures with true portraits of women, in which, as we will see in a later chapter, the women are shown this way; it is as if a real person were posing before one. The paintings offer, in the end, ambivalent visions of compelling presence and potential availability, playing in a region of indeterminacy, exciting the male viewer by stimulating imaginings of possession. And that is exactly why the implications of the image are exactly the wrong ones for Liu Yin in 1643, and why the painting cannot be a portrait of her. We have come full circle.

F.18th-Century Mei-jen Paintings in the Cities and At Court

The question of what kinds of artists created these paintings, and in what kinds of situations, will be explored in the second chapter. In PUP. For now it is enough to say that they appear mostly to have been small professional masters, Chinese counterparts to the Japanese machi-eshi, active in the flourishing cities of the Yangzi delta region, cities such as Yangzhou, Nanjing, Wuxi and Suzhou. They worked typically in family ateliers or other studios of the kind to which one would go to purchase decorative works, to commission paintings especially for birthday celebrations and other auspicious occasions, or to acquire pictures of seasonal and other subjects simply to hang in one's house. The artists who did the meiren paintings were often also portraitists, and so were accustomed to producing finely-crafted pictures of assigned subjects on demand; they were sometimes themselves denizens of the urban pleasure districts, the world of courtesans and brothels to which some of their works pertained. Representative of them, perhaps, is a certain Shi Pangzi who is recorded as having worked as a portraitist in Yangzhou, probably in the later 18th century, but who also painted meiren. He lived in the Small Qin-Huai, the pleasure quarter of the city, and the principal clients for his pictures, which were called "Shi's beauties," were the women of the quarter themselves.[li] We wish that the record went on to inform us about where the paintings were hung or displayed; it does not, nor do we have much direct information of other kinds.

Why did the courtesans of the "Small Qin-Huai" quarter buy "Shi's beauties"? For presentation to clients? Single-figure meiren paintings may indeed have been intended for that kind of use, or for purchase by male gazers who wanted to take them home to gaze at, like pin-ups, or simply to hang in their rooms as decoration. Some of the paintings, especially if they included certain sub-themes such as the blossoming plum with its implication of continuing virility, made suitable and flattering birthday gifts for men of advanced years. They could also have been hung in brothels and tea-houses. Narrative paintings that illustrate scenes from novels or plays sometimes portray the figures in interiors decorated with hanging-scroll or screen paintings, and in one of these, another leaf from the album of illustrations to the Jin Ping Mei (cf. fig. 1/20), what appears to be a meiren painting, representing a woman standing next to a table, is hanging on the far wall (fig. 1/30). The scene is in fact a bordello and features Li Jiao'er, who becomes the anti-hero Ximen Qing's second wife; it is one of the few clues we have to how and where meiren ptgs were hung in the Qing period. Others will no doubt appear once we begin watching for them.

All that follows is in PUP: shorten, refer. That paintings of beautiful women were also hung in private homes in 18th century China, however, is indicated by four passages in the great 18th century novel Hong Lou Meng (The Dream of the Red Chamber) that describe them hanging in the private chambers or bedrooms of characters in the novel.[lii] Significantly, two that hang in women's rooms, Qinshi's and Grandmother Jia's, are described as being by the Ming artists Tang Yin and Qiu Ying, respectively, and represent beautiful women outdoors: one sleeping beneath a crabapple tree, the other standing in the snow. In both period and setting, then, these belong to the Ming and early Qing type that places the beauties in gardens or landscapes. The two hanging in the men's bedrooms, by contrast, are in the new illusionistic manner: one, which Baoyü (in chapter19) sees in his Cousin Zhen's "smaller study," is described as "very life-like," and the other, which by chapter 41 is hanging in Baoyü's own bed chamber, is described even more explicitly as in the "foreign mode of light-and-shadow." No, this is interpolation by translator: see PUP. It is so convincingly three-dimensional that an old woman named Granny Liu, entering his room while tipsy, mistakes it for a real girl who is "smiling at her in welcome," and, advancing toward her, hits her head against the wall. "Strange!" she thinks, "How can they paint a picture so that it sticks out like that?"

The two pairs of paintings differ in several significant respects. First, in period--those hung in the women's rooms are old paintings, with value as antiques quite apart from their subjects, while those in the men's rooms, judging from the way they are described, must be up-to-date and stylish 18th century pictures. Secondly, in authorship--those in the women's chambers are by famous artists, while those in the men's are anonymous, or by unnamed artists. And thirdly, in type: relatively decorous pictures of women outdoors as against the new illusionistic images, presumably set in interiors and meant to arouse. These contrasts correspond generally with the ones made in the above discussion of methods of "heating up" or intensifying erotic content and effect in meiren pictures between the Ming-Qing transition and the 18th century. The work by Tang Yin hanging in Qinshi's bedroom, representing a young woman napping under a blossoming crab-apple tree, already carries distinct sexual implications, since it is titled "Spring Slumber"; paintings of women having "spring" or erotic dreams will be considered in a later chapter. Baoyü himself falls asleep in the presence of the painting and has his famous long wet dream.[liii]

Baoyü's response to the one in Cousin Zhen's chamber, as is clear from the text, is to imagine her a real woman: "Finding himself alone, he began thinking about a certain painting he remembered having seen in Cousin Zhen's 'smaller study.' It was a very life-like portrait of a beautiful woman. While everyone was celebrating, he reflected, she was sure to have been left on her own and would perhaps be feeling lonely. He would go and have a look at her and cheer her up."[liv] Instead, his visit to the study accidentally exposes him to the more actively arousing sight of two servants having sex there. As for the painting in Baoyü's own bedroom, it is described as "smiling invitingly"; moreover, in order for it to deceive Granny Liu it would have to have been nearly life-size--as the women in 18th century paintings of this type frequently are.

An aid to imagining what it might have looked like is a work by Wang Chengpei dated 1805 (fig. 1/31).[lv] Since the painting is over two meters in height, the image of the standing woman must approach life size--or, more properly, the right size for a woman standing a short distance beyond the "opening" of the picture plane. The extraordinary illusionism with which the entryway is portrayed--the relief effect of the latticework on the door, the long table, the vase on its stand, the hanging scroll fastened to the wall with decorative clips, the painting itself, the patterns of the scroll mounting and the wallpaper--persuade us that we ourselves, slightly tipsy and in semi-darkness, might well mistake it for a real extension of our own space, much as we sometimes misread a large mirror on a restaurant wall as an opening into a further room. And, especially if we were better attuned to Chinese representations of figures and less blasé about lifelike portrayals, we might even mistake the woman momentarily for a real one.

Even though they belong to a fictional construction, the passages in Hong Lou Meng reveal a good deal about how meiren paintings were hung and enjoyed and understood in the eighteenth century. The author of the novel, Cao Xueqin, lived his early years in Nanjing, not far from Yangzhou, and probably knew paintings of the type represented by "Shi's beauties," the ones that Shi Pangzi was producing for women in the Yangzhou pleasure quarter. One can hope that Cao's account will be corroborated and augmented by further discoveries of relevant passages in Qing literary sources, and that these will in time allow firmer distinctions in social and economic level among the purchasers or "consumers" of the paintings. Even now it is clear that these ranged from people of middle income and below who bought the inexpensive popular nianhua prints, in which meiren were a common subject, up to the members of wealthy households such as the Jia family of Cao Xueqin's novel, and even higher, to the imperial court and the emperor himself.

The production of meiren paintings by artists serving in the imperial academy in Beijing will be taken up in the next chapter. Variants of the meiren theme make up a significant part of Qing court painting as it is recorded and preserved. Of particular interest is a series of twelve paintings originally catalogued in the Palace Museum in Beijing, and published several times, as portraits of the twelve consorts of the Yongzheng Emperor (ruled 1723-35.) But this is still another case of "elevating misidentification," the attempt to raise meiren paintings to respectable status by claiming them as portraits of particular ladies of rank. An article published in 1986 identifies the paintings correctly as panels of a twelve-fold screen recorded as having been once kept in the Yüan Ming Yüan, the summer palace located north of the Forbidden City, representing beautiful women in boudoirs as a generic subject.[lvi] Inscriptions written within the paintings are signed, and seals are impressed, with names used by the Yongzheng Emperor himself in the period before his ascension of the throne in 1723; the paintings can thus be dated to around the early 1720s. Questions of their circumstances and probable authorship will be considered in the following chapter; a single panel can be introduced here as another notable example of the beauty-in-her-boudoir type (fig. 1/32).

The main development of meiren paintings appears to have been the achievement of urban-professional masters working in the Jiangnan cities, the unappreciated successors to Tang Yin and Qiu Ying. To the degree that it reflects the courtesan culture that arose and flourished in the pleasure districts of those cities, the meiren genre fits most comfortably there. A form of it was taken up in the imperial court, probably introduced there by artists from the cities who were invited into the painting academy, and in some part supplanted there an earlier revival of the much older courtly tradition of representing palace ladies engaged in their quiet activities in their inner rooms, as this was practiced in the early Qing period by masters of the imperial painting academy, notably Jiao Bingzhen and his pupils. The new type must have seemed, to the Yongzheng Emperor and others, more up-to-date and attractive. The court versions of the meiren pictures differ from the city ones chiefly in their more polished execution, in their portrayal of more elegant costumes and jewelry on the women, and in the increased richness and elaboration of their settings. High levels of technique and large expenditures of time were expected of artists who painted for the emperor, or for imperial princes and others of noble rank, or even for high officials in the capital. The investment of more time and technique did not necessarily make the pictures better--on the contrary, much of the painting produced in the Manchu court seems to us now stiffer and colder than its counterparts among the works of the city masters.

To some extent this is true of the "Twelve Consorts of Yongzheng" series, sumptuously handsome as the paintings are. The panel reproduced here (fig. 1/32), representing a woman seated beside a dabao ke or "many treasures frame" of a kind still to be seen in the Forbidden City,[lvii] is a study in opulence, even excess; of rich surfaces (hardwoods, spotted bamboo, black lacquer decorated with gold, patinated bronze) and luxury objects made of precious materials (muttonfat jade, sang-de-boeuf or ox-blood porcelain.) Anyone who has spent time in the original or restored living chambers of palace buildings in the Forbidden City knows the almost stifling sense of being surrounded by high-level artisan products (few of them really of any great antiquity, although they may imitate early types) and undistinguished court-produced paintings and calligraphy, things that signify aristocratic taste and aestheticism without quite qualifying either as antiques or as works of art. One comes ultimately to suspect that these must in fact have numbed the sensibilities of the people who lived their lives among them, like ambient classical music in workplaces and restaurants to which no one listens, serving as signs of high culture but too conventional and expressively empty to evoke true aesthetic responses. The woman in this painting seems herself virtually imprisoned by objects and surfaces of this kind; they threaten to envelop her and, by depersonalizing her, turn her into another luxury object. The things that surround her, like those in paintings discussed earlier, cannot be read simply as possessions or attributes of the woman herself: what can a zhong bell and a bianhu bronze flask have to do with her life? The painter must have responded to, and objectified in his picture, the obsessive acquisitiveness of his imperial patron, a trait in which the succeeding Qianlong Emperor, whose reign spanned most of the 18th century (1735-95), was to surpass all others. If, in other meiren paintings, a profusion of luxury objects can be taken as the embodiment of wealth and power, and visual appropriation of them as an exercising of that power, it is scarcely surprising that works of this kind done for the emperor would be even more crowded with objects and materials of great value, or that even more time would be lavished on the carefully detailed description of these.

A signed painting done during Qianlong's reign by the court artist Jin Tingbiao, who was active in the 1760s and 70s, is another tour-de-force of painstaking fidelity in the portrayal of things; the spatial intricacy of the composition, however, and some sensitivity in the rendering of the figures make it more visually absorbing than any of the "Twelve Consorts" series (fig. 1/33). From the frontal area in which the woman stands putting orchids in her hair (preparing, that is, to receive an imperial lover), we are drawn back into the space of the bed behind her, and, zigzagging, to a corner of the room where a maid arranges books and scrolls; rightward to a table on which antiquities are displayed, back into the alcove where a landscape painting hangs (providing its own illusion of further space, and echoing the landscape-like patterns of the panels of dali shi, marble with natural markings, set into the back and side of the bed,) and finally through a window into a garden where stalks of tall bamboo funnel the furthest space without closing it off, to indicate the possibility of still deeper penetration. It is worth noting once more that all these features of the painting, and the style in which it is done, are specific to the meiren genre, and not general to figure painting. When the same artist depicts a woman engaged in a Confucian moralizing scene instead of an implicitly erotic one, as for instance in his painting of "Lady Feng Confronting the Bear," he employs a thoroughly traditional manner, devoid of illusionistic spaces or other visual enticements. That painting, moreover, is modest in size and executed in the "high art" medium of ink and light colors on paper.[lviii] The other, like the paintings in the "Twelve Consorts" set, is large enough in size to be read like a doorway into a further space occupied by life-size people and objects portrayed in a "real-life" mode. The distinctions are not simply those of style; they set apart fundamentally different kinds of painting, which were experienced and valued differently by their viewers. Our present task is to acknowledge on the one hand the high aesthetic value of many of the meiren paintings, recognizable once we have freed ourselves (insofar as possible) from biases learned from orthodox Chinese texts and teachers; and on the other hand to recognize also that the primary function of these paintings was not to arouse purely aesthetic sensations. How they were meant to be read and enjoyed is the question we are pursuing.

[l]Add ref.: pp. 79-80, 133.

[li]Li Dou, Yangzhou huafang lu, 1795, II, 15b. (Ref. from Ginger's dis., p. 150.)

[lii]In the translation by David Hawkes, the novel is given the alternative title The Story of the Stone. I am grateful to Charles Mason and Andrea Goldman for bringing these passages in Hong Lou Meng to my attention.See Hawkes trans. I/127 (Qinshi) and 377 (Cousin Zhen), II/318 (Baoyü) and 504 (Grandmother Jia.)

[liii]Hawkes trans. I/127-148.

[liv]Hawkes trans. I/377.

[lv]Wang Chcngpei was a native of Xiuning in Anhui province, and held an official position in the Qianlong era; a collection of his writings has been published. He was thus not a painter of the "urban professional" type to be discussed in chapter 2, but a literatus-official; for him to work in such a polished, illusionistic style is unusual, and might seem to cast doubt on the authenticity of the signature on this painting. But another work by him, a painting of butterflies and flowers (Pageant of Chinese Painting, pl. 944) is similarly in a westernized-illusionistic manner, and appears to support his authorship of the 1805 work. I have not seen it in the original, however, and the question is best left open.

[lvi]An article by Huang Miaozi in Forbidden City no. 20, 1983/84, introduced the paintings and accepted them as portraits of Yongzheng's consorts; another by Zhu Jiajin, ibid. no. 34, 1986 no. 3, p. 45, correctly identified them as panels from a screen.

[lvii]Gongting shenghuo pl. 224, p. 164: an example that covers a whole large wall, with dozens of objects. Another, more modest, pl. 219.

[lviii]Chongguo gongting huihua, pl. . The story is of the Western Han woman who saved Emperor Yüandi by interposing herself between him and a bear that had escaped from the zoo. The painting is 149.4 x 75.2 cm.

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    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...