The Beauty's Face, Mirrors, and Illusionism; Conclusion


Note: This has not been worked over, Chinese names still in Wade-Giles, etc. I have no intention of ever trying to make something publishable out of this. JFC, 12/9/06.)

A. Women and Mirrors

Incorporate some of "Beauty's Face" lecture here.
(New introductory passage, tying in with Annette Kuhn quote, 4/37.)
Chinese representations of women, even those as innocent and respectable as the familiar paintings of court ladies from the T'ang and Sung periods, had from the beginning purported to tell us "what they are really like" by allowing us to see them in their intimate quarters as if unobserved, and to spy on what they do when alone. In this they agree with the general Chinese practice of categorizing and understanding people more by role and function, that is by what they do, than by what they are in any terms of lasting individual character traits. Representations based on the idea that "the face is the mirror of the soul" accordingly had no place there. The skeptic philosopher Wang Ch'ung in the Han dynasty, noting that "People like to look at paintings because noble scholars are represented in these pictures," argues that the pictures transmit nothing of value about their subjects because "their words and actions are not visible" in them. "How," he asks rhetorically, "can the sight of these noble scholars' faces equal a view of their words and actions?" The same belief is implicit in the Chinese portraitists' practice of characterizing their sitters (whose depicted faces are usually expressionless and uninformative) by elements of setting and implied actions, or by fitting them into some established role. It is implicit as well in the conventions used by Chinese artists in representing women. The chapters of this book have been among other things a catalog of the roles assigned to women in China, as they are depicted in its pictorial art, making up together a composite social construction of the feminine. And central to these is the role of being beautiful, pleasing men, looking and acting in ways that are sexually attractive. The emblem of this role is the mirror, and the image of the woman looking into it (fig. 6/1.)

The artist of the famous "Admonitions to the Court Ladies" scroll attributed to the 4th-5th century master Ku K'ai-chih (fig. 6/2) recognized this when he chose to illustrate the passage in his text reading "Men and women know how to adorn their faces, but none know how to embellish their characters" with a picture of two women, one having her hair done and the other making up her face, both with the help of mirrors. In contrast to the abiding virtues that "embellish the character," physical adornment was a transient and superficial pursuit, nicely symbolized by the woman looking into the mirror, where she sees nothing that will enlarge her knowledge or improve her soul, but only her own face, and only a fleeting image of that. The composition also offers a reflexive intricacy that must have delighted the painter's audience in his time: the two women are paired as (loosely) mirror images of each other, in a space-creating device much older than Ku K'ai-chih or this painting; the face of each is further paired with its reflection in an actual mirror. the face of the nearer woman is revealed to us only in the reflection, that of the further woman we see "in reality," and it is the mirror image that is hidden. Both pictures, and others we will see, follow a convention that is contrary to actual visual experience: if the women were really seeing their reflected faces in the mirrors, we obviously could not see them; but we do. Chinese painting, with its refusal to situate the viewer at a fixed point and follow through the implications of this situating, is full of anomalies of this kind, optically false but pictorially effective. Together with the absence of naturalistic, single-source lighting, they frustrate attempts to perform Las Meninas-like numbers on pictures of this kind, however intricate their organizing principles may be on their own terms.

The significance of the theme of women looking into mirrors becomes clearer when some of the associations of mirrors in China are recalled. They were placed in tombs in Han and pre-Han times as guides for the soul through the afterlife, since they were believed to reflect only true things. (A similar belief is behind the European use of mirrors to detect vampires, which do not appear in them.) In later centuries, this belief was sometimes reversed in popular lore, and mirrors were credited with the power to make spirits visible. (Ref. to ptg in Xu Beihong Memorial Museum.) Other associations of mirrors, however, were less positive and problematized their function, seeing the images they contained as evanescent, even delusionary. Such associations can be detected in the pair of Ch'an or Zen poems through which, by legend, the sixth patriarch Hui-neng in the T'ang period bested Shen-hsiu, his rival for the succession. Shen-hsiu had composed a quatrain about how the mind is like a clear mirror which one must wipe to keep dust from settling on it; Hui-neng revealed a higher order of enlightenment in his quatrain, which held that "the clear mirror is nowhere standing," so that there is nowhere for dust to cling--the mind conceived as a lasting surface, that is, separate from the sensations that register on it, has no existence. The emphasis has shifted to the insubstantiality of the image in the mirror, which vanishes so quickly and finally that it can virtually be regarded as illusory. It can nonetheless possess a piercing intensity. The thirteenth century poet-critic Yen Yü evoked this idea of the fleeting reflection in his famous definition of the greatness of the High T'ang poets: "Therefore, the miraculousness of their poetry lies in its transparent luminosity, which cannot be pieced together; it is like sound in the air, color in appearances, the moon in the water, or an image in the mirror; it has limited words but unlimited meaning." And in a 17th century play, a man and woman fall in love by seeing each other reflected in a magic mirror; but, since these mirror images are without substance, they cannot come together in real life.

It is just this joining of beauty with insubstantiality and transience that underlies the association of mirrors with women's beauty. In an anonymous painting of Ming date (fig. 6/3), the reflection of the woman's face evokes pleasure in her, as she affixes a plum blossom between her eyebrows; in one by Ch'en Hung-shou (fig. 6/4) it appears to arouse a touch of melancholy. It is not by chance that the seasons of the two pictures are, respectively, spring and autumn. The compound image of woman-looking-into-mirror signifies woman's awareness of her own beauty, but also her concern over its impermanence.

The double-edged force of this reading of the image of the mirror and in the mirror with respect to female beauty can be seen also in two of the fen-pen drawings by the late nineteenth century Shanghai master Ch'ien Hui-an. The young woman in one (6/5) smiles with pleasure--vain as the peacock outside her window, she can never get enough of admiring her own beauty. The old woman in the other (fig. 6/6) looks at herself, stooped and gaunt, in the full-length mirror with an expression of despair over the visible effects of age; her feeling is underscored by the presence of a young woman outside, slender and supple as the willow she leans on, happily heedless of the certainty that she will end the same. (Cf: poem by Song woman poet Zheng Yunduan on looking into mirror, in age, seeing dusty image etc. Idema & Grant, The Red Brush, 278.

A woman will sometimes appear in a painting, or be described in literature, as painting a self-portrait by looking into a mirror; she is not so much taken to be engaged in creative activity or displaying artistic skill as simply tracing the image she sees, as though self-portraiture were as simple as that. Ref. to Judy:ofen portends death. The T'ang-period painter-courtesan Hsüeh Yüan was one who did this, in order to impress her beauty on her husband and keep him from leaving her. Her motive is to fix this image, as the mirror cannot, before her beauty is gone. In the late 16th century play The Peony Pavilion ( and in an illustration from it, fig. 6/7), the heroine Bridal Du, languishing out of hopeless desire for a lover she has known only in a dream, looks into a mirror and sobs: "Alas, when before I could boast of an enticing soft fullness, how could I have grown as thin and frail as this? Before it's too late let me make a portrait of myself to leave to the world, lest the worst should suddenly befall me and no one then ever learn of the beauty of Bridal Du . . . Fragrance [she calls her maid], bring plain silk and colored inks, and attend on me while I sketch." Having the portrait painted by a professional artist, as Courtesan Tung did in a painting shown in an earlier chapter (fig. 4/4), was only another means of accomplishing the same end, which was normally the production of a likeness that could be sent to the lover as a reminder of her beauty.

The employment of mirrors as instruments for spying depends on another of their capacities, the way they permit one to look around corners, and to observe without being detected. In one of the color-woodblock illustrations to the Western Chamber by the late Ming artist Min Ch'i-chi (fig. 6/8), Ts'ui Ying-ying hides behind a screen to read a letter from her lover; but her privacy is violated both by the maid Hung-niang, who peeks around the far end of the screen, and by us, through the artist's arrangement: in a direct line of sight we view only the lower part of her skirt beneath the screen, but the mirror on the table in effect bends our line of sight, reflecting back to us the image of Ying-ying reading the letter. In a leaf from an anonymous erotic album (fig. 6/9), a mirror similarly placed reflects the couple making love, both to the spying maid and to us. The succession of round openings--moon door, mirror, the window behind the couple--offers, as in many other` pictures we have seen, an invitation to visual penetration, which in this picture observes, embraces, and repeats the man's penetrating of the woman. If the angle of reflection is bent all the way around to 180 degrees, one is looking at one's own face, as the woman is doing in another anonymous leaf (fig. 6/10), watching, perhaps, her own response to the sex act in which she is engaged. Or perhaps she is comparing her face to her husband's, a possibility suggested by the way he thrusts his forward, and by the close juxtaposition of the two. (In another, fig. 6/11, unambiguous: looking at own face, perhaps making up her hair. Fill in.)

The use of mirrors to intensify sexual pleasure is not a topic we can explore here at length, but it is worth noting that the lurid accounts of the debaucheries of emperors, the same kind that tell of erotic paintings hung in their secret chambers, describe also large mirrors placed by the bedside in which they could watch themselves copulating with their concubines. This, an ultimate playing-out of the reflexive kinds of scopophilia we have been observing, is told of Emperor Yang-ti of the Sui, who had polished mirror-screens placed all around the bed; of the T'ang Emperor Kao-tsung and his consort Wu Tse-t'ien; and of the Ch'ien-lung Emperor--in the last case, at least, the story has some truth, since the pavilion he had built for his favorite Hsiang-fei or Fragrant Consort was reportedly fitted with mirrors. How common this was as an actual practice in the early centuries remains a question, since the Chinese did not have, until the Ch'ing period, large mercury-and-glass mirrors of the kind that western libertines and prostitutes could place beside their beds or mount on the ceiling above them. But even as a seldom-realized fantasy it is compelling and revealing, especially since the mirrors seem more or less interchangeable, in these stories, with the erotic paintings. The compounded sensation of doing it while watching oneself or someone in a painting doing it gratifies at once the simpler physical urges and the voyeuristic impulse, which normally arouses a desire that is denied physical fulfillment, unless it is by masturbation. Attributing the practice, along with such others as having sex with multiple partners, to tyrannical emperors makes it into a fantasy of total power, free of limits, on the uppermost levels of compounded gratification.

Leaf in Ellsworth abum: I don't have slide!
Note that mirrors were among gifts brought by Portugese envoys to Kangxi court: John E. Wiulls, Jr., Embassies and Illusions: Dutch and Portugese Envoys to K'ang-hsi, 1666-1687. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard U. Press, 1984, p. 252-3. "Two big mirrors" etc.
* Detail from ptg att. Jiao Bingzhen (but not), MFA Boston, "Marshall H. Gould Fund", woman looking into full-length mirror! still pretty good, but later 18c? Encounters (V&A exhib) p. 305.

B. Illusionism Revisited; Conclusion

The near-equivalence of mirrors and erotic paintings in these stories has another implication, which arises also from the matchings we saw earlier of painted portraits of the woman's face with the reflection in a mirror. Since what the mirror reflects is a true image, the painting must, if the equivalence is to be meaningful, have a corresponding power to convince: the portrait must effectively substitute for the face, or the painting for the sexually-charged sight, in stimulating the viewer's response. And (contrary to the curious positions that some theorists today argue themselves into seeming to believe) all painted representations do not persuade equally.

Chinese writers on painting use the term hsing-ssu, "form-likeness" (or lifelikeness), in discussing the issue, as a quality that paintings either possess or do not, and in varying degrees. In the later centuries the term is almost always used pejoratively, to connote the exercise of trivial skill and an undesirable "slavishness to nature." When the illusionistic techniques of European art were introduced to China in the late Ming and early Ch'ing through works brought by the Jesuit missionaries and through their teaching, the Chinese were astonished by the lifelike effects they permitted. (Their consistent response of astonishment is another argument against the strange notion that illusionism in representation is no more than one kind of convention among others, and culturally specific.) And one way they expressed this astonishment is by saying that the painting is "just like the image in a mirror." The late Ming critic Chiang Shao-shu, for instance, writes about the portraitist Tseng Ching, who used the semi-westernized manner for much of his work, that his portraits "looked like reflections [of the models] in a mirror, wonderfully capturing their spirit and feelings"; and of figures in European oil paintings that "Their eyebrows, eyes, and the folds of the garments were as clear as images in a mirror. They look as if they want to move themselves." This, significantly, is at the outset of the development that produced the hybrid Sino-European style in which so many of the paintings that have concerned us in this book were done. We are brought back to the problem raised and only briefly discussed in the first chapter: the prevalence of semi-westernized illusionism in paintings of beautiful women, of certain popular subjects, and of erotic scenes. I will conclude with a reconsideration of that question, and an attempt to tie together some of the large themes of the book.

The semi-westernized illusionistic mode was used in China principally for two kinds of paintings. First, it could permit the artist, in the absence of photography, to portray specific real people and objects in such a way as to make permanent records of their appearances in images that could recall those appearances. Portraiture belongs obviously to this category, as does a great deal of Ch'ing dynasty court painting. The emperors of that period used the artists of their academies who were trained in these techniques, including the Italian Giuseppe Castiglione or Lang Shih-ning, like court photographers, to produce likenesses of themselves and their favorites, and of strange birds and animals or the emperor's favorite pets, as well as pictorial celebrations of state occasions in large, elaborate figure compositions. Paintings produced in this way were considered useful but generally unworthy of appreciation as works of art; their mundane subjects and impersonal mode of representation, which lacked any traces of the individual master's hand, removed them from the category of works that connoisseurs should admire and collect.

The second, more interesting, and in the present context more pertinent use of the illusionistic mode was to make illusory things and scenes seem real. I have argued elsewhere that this remarkable combination of the visionary and the visually persuasive was suggested to Chinese artists in some part by their viewing of western pictures, engravings depicting European cities and the like, that seemed to their eyes both real and incredible. Chinese artists who pursued this direction in their paintings include Wu Pin in the late Ming and Kung Hsien in the early Ch'ing. Kung Hsien wrote about one of his works: "You may say that this is a visionary world, but it has its own Way (Tao), and is, while you look it it, just the same as the real world"; he also made the claim that his landscapes sometimes portrayed places where no one had ever gone--but which were, he implied, no less real for that. The effectiveness of this latter mode, which we might term visionary illusionism (and parallel in obvious ways with surrealism in western painting), derived of course from the other, the quasi-realistic. The experience, that is, of being persuaded by the one that the image in the painting was a reflection of some outer reality conditioned the viewer to read the imagery of the other equally as acceptable extensions of everyday visual experience.

Located at virtually the opposite pole from these was the mode of painting that enjoyed the highest critical regard at that time and throughout most of the Ch'ing period, the landscapes of the so-called Orthodox School masters. What the beholder was admonished to admire in their works was the brushwork, the cultivated references to old styles, the sophisticated plays on long-established compositional types, the scrupulous avoidance of any imagery outside a limited vocabulary of type-forms. Viewers of such paintings were assumed to be uninterested in the kinds of subject-matter that might engage their emotions, or scenes into which they might be drawn in imagination. Nothing in Orthodox-school landscapes really attracts the prolonged gaze or stimulates an imagined involvement with the depicted scene, as Kung Hsien's paintings do. The Orthodox-school masters, as the present-day painter-connoisseur C. C. Wang continually reminds us, are unconcerned with "scenery"; but scenery, ching in Chinese, what attracts the eye, the object of the gaze, is the very matter of illusionistic paintings: if the image is not to be the object of prolonged looking or vicarious engagement, there is no point in making it appear real.

Locating erotic scenes in illusionistic settings lent them a kind of credibility that enhanced the voyeuristic pleasure of the viewer. In discussing a leaf from the album attributed to Leng Mei in the second chapter (fig 2/41, 2/42), I pointed out the extraordinary realism of the rendering of the interior and the cityscape viewed through the open window, pointing out that these might seem irrelevant to the pornographic theme, and also that the delicacy and skill with which it is rendered might make us wonder why an artist of this attainment did not become better known or turn his abilities to other uses than settings for erotica. The answer is of course that it is not irrelevant: it serves to set the picture into the mode that demands an engaged, rather than a disengaged and aesthetic, reading.

(Insert here? brief treatment of illusionistic ptg in Ch'ing as used for representations of women. Screen in palace, oil pigments, Nie Chongzhen wrote about (or Shan in Orientations article?); "Lang Shih-ning" European lady, Christie's June '86 no. 85?(cf. Pao-yü's snuff-box with nude yellow-haired lady on inside, noted in ch. 5 p. 27); European ladies, Godfrey HK & CA; two? of 19c erotic leaves. Six more illus.? fig. 6/12-6/17.) Article in Palace Mus. Journal abt. illusionistic ptgs in palace: by Nie -

In the best of the Ch'ing dynasty mei-jen or beautiful-woman pictures, the illusionistic manner is employed for a similar but deeper-reaching effect: it facilitates the male viewer's willingness to enter into complicity with the painter in creating a vision of a "real world" in which he can imagine himself participating. He is transported out of his mundane life into this "real world," within which the woman offers herself as an accessible object of sexual desire. The women in these pictures, potentially available because they are understood to be courtesans and concubines, are presented for inspection and visual appropriation and enjoyment along with their settings, the "scenery," which was no less visionary since it was, we can assume, beyond reach for most consumers of the paintings. As with landscape paintings for city dwellers, the attraction of both the women and their settings depended on a haunting sense of absence, a desire for what was always one level beyond the realities of the consumers' lives, especially as that desire was felt within the spheres of the imperial capital and the rich Chiang-nan cities, where affluence created ever growing, ultimately unfulfillable aspirations.

[Constant emph. on transience, unreality, exteriority, was what allowed some accomodation of eroticism, and illicit eroticism, w/in the Confucian system.]

The world of the mei-jen paintings, then, had no lasting reality; its existence was contingent, captivating but fleeting, like the image in a mirror. Along with the others kinds considered here--the erotic pictures, the prostitutes of the "Eight Beauties of the Hibiscus Terrace," the scenes from popular stories, the genre-like depictions of rituals and occasions of daily life--they make up a kind of Chinese equivalent to ukiyo-e, the "floating world" of Japanese art. Women's beauty, love, sex, and much else that concerned women belonged, for men, to this world. The ephemeral character of it, both in reality and as portrayed in art and literature, made it all the more attractive to men of the time, who could take beautiful women as concubines and enjoy the refined pleasures of the courtesan culture, dedicate poems to the women and express sympathy for their plight, feel mild sadness over the transience of it all--some of the literature takes the form of bittersweet recollections of some pleasure quarter that was flourishing in the writer's youth but was now in decline. They could then return to what they took to be serious matters of permanent concern, whether Confucian scholarship or government service or commercial pursuits. The reality, for the women, could be slow tragedy as their situations as prostitutes or courtesans slipped lower with age and changing circumstance, or as they endured oppression as concubines within a household dominated by someone else. The transience of beauty, the romantic allure of the evanescent, [had no attraction for them/ were negative aspects of their lives..] Were for them only impediments to their leading decent & dignified lives.]

At the same time, while granting all this, we must also pause to remember once more, before concluding, that in their real lives many women of this age were achieving successes against the odds, coming to be recognized as heroic or talented or otherwise strong in character and achievement, not only virtuous and beautiful; and that their achievement is also celebrated in some of the paintings, once we have searched them out, come to understand them, and read them with enough sensitivity. Quite a few such paintings have been introduced here, and many more no doubt await discovery. These works, because their purpose was not to offer scopophilic pleasures, are typically not in the westernized-illusionistic mode (except sometimes in the faces of portraits); instead, they use long-established, respected means of style and imagery to attribute intelligence and cultivation and some degree of independence to the women, or otherwise reflect the gains in status that they were attaining.

For the most part, however, Chinese paintings of beautiful women were seen, like the charms of their subjects, as ephemeral, and denied the enduring value that others more respectable in subject and style might take on through their association, built up over centuries of literati practice and theorizing, with the humanistic culture. The absence from them of traces of the hands of prestigious masters, their unelevating or even vulgar subject matter, their often functional character, and their open appeal to plebian tastes excluded them from the ranks of what critics would praise and connoisseurs would collect. Those that survive have done so, for the most part, unrecorded and misunderstood, frequently furnished with spurious signatures and attributions, mixed with forgeries in lesser collections.

Old (lecture) ending: As for my own feeling about them, and I hope by now yours, I will end by asking whether we could have sustained as much interest through nearly five hours of looking at and talking about a comparable number of Orthodox-school landscapes from the same periods. I know that I myself would have succumbed to boredom and gone home somewhere in the second lecture, if not the first. Thank you.

(notes twd new ending:)

W/in Confuc. society, things to do w. women, apart from marriage & childbirth & child-rearing, taken to be dangerous, often obscene, excessive. Lacked Confuc. balance, restraint, broke through. Whole courtesan culture upsetting, challenge to this. But ephemeral: after a time, Confuc. order re-asserts itself, censorship. On mismatch between Confuc. society & eroticized merchant/city culture, see also Gronewald, Beautiful Merchandise, 23, "dual standard" etc., and my notes on it (A-L) Has come up repeatedly in narrative of this book: Yüan Mei vs. Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng etc. How it is played out in ptgs, and later reception (rejection) of them.

[Might use: Colleagues in western art history can write about how women are portrayed by particular artists: Vermeer, Degas, Renoir, Picasso. Why can't we? except for Ch'en H-s, perhaps, Jen Po-nien. Most of pictures we've seen impersonal: we make distinctions that are stylistic, reflecting dif. of class, or role; categories don't correspond to indiv. artists. Point is not that Ch ptrs as a whole are so impersonal, or in some [Coomaraswamyish] way are expressing only [concepts] common to whole culture. Were ptd images of women a medium in which indiv. passions, anxieties, feelings could be given form? (as in Eur. ptg., at least as commonly read.) Of course, these can be read into them, if we choose to do so; but mostly what we can do is only uncover a collective set of psychological traits, not indiv. Perhaps in later studies, can deal more w. indiv. artists.]

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