WCP5 Illustrations

Women Lorn and Longing


A. Beauty in Spring Thoughts; Women Waiting

When I referred in the first chapter to the sparsity of serious studies of representations of women in Chinese painting, an exception should have noted in the writings of Ellen Johnston Laing. She has published or delivered at scholarly gatherings a number of excellent papers in this area, and plans a book on it. The potential overlap in our projects is not worrisome, because her work is mostly in earlier periods than those with which this book concerned, and her approach is somewhat different from mine; besides, the topic is large enough to accomodate several books and a great many articles. But I want to begin this chapter by summarizing (with her kind permission) one of her papers, delivered at a meeting in 1988. It deals with a handscroll in the Palace Museum, Taipei, by the early 16th century master Qiu Ying (detail, fig. 5/1.) The Chinese title inscribed at the beginning of the scroll is Meiren chunsi or "Beauty in Spring Thoughts," that is to say, erotic thoughts. But the compilers of the imperial catalog Shiqu Baoji, writing in the early 19th century, changed the title to "The Nymph of the Luo River," taking it to be a representation of that goddess from a classical ode and arguing that the original title misrepresented the real subject of the painting. Laing argues, to the contrary, that the original identification is the correct one. The court compilers, if she is right, must have felt it necessary to reinterpret the subject to make the work respectable, worthy of a place in the imperial collection and catalog. (A number of cases of such "elevating misrepresentation," as it was termed there, were noted in the first chapter.)

The question of who is right, Laing or the court compilers (I myself am completely persuaded by her arguments), is less important for our purpose than the criteria on which she bases her case. Like myself, she assumes that artists depicting women in Ming-Qing China differentiated types--mortals from goddesses, amorous beauties from aloof nymphs (as her title has it), as well as different social classes and roles (the subject of my first lecture), by encoding their images with elements of posture and gesture, clothing, attributes, and other signs that could be read by audiences of their time but have been largely forgotten since, so that misidentifications of this kind can go unchallenged. She points out that several features of the figure in Qiu Ying's scroll fit better the "amorous beauty" type--that is, the beautiful woman having erotic thoughts, longing for her lover--than the Nymph of the Luo River, the goddess who appears in a famous rhapsody composed in A.D. 223 by Cao Zhi and who was portrayed many times in Chinese paintings, notably in the handscroll in the Palace Museum, Beijing, ascribed to Gu Kaizhi (detail, fig. 5/2.) The woman in Qiu Ying's painting holds one hand, covered by her sleeve, to her cheek, and fingers the ties of her belt with the other. Both gestures can be paralleled in other "spring thoughts" pictures, as we will see, but are not to be found in paintings of the goddess of the Luo River. Qiu Ying's figure, moreover, does not float on waves, as the Luo River goddess should, but on clouds; Laing takes these to indicate that the woman is being viewed in a dream, as women frequently are in Chinese love poetry.

The gesture of untying the sash that holds the robe together, as an open expression of sexual accessibility, is less ambiguous in a painting ascribed to Qiu Ying's contemporary Tang Yin, but probably by a later and lesser artist working in his style (fig. 5/3.) No! looks like Du Jin. Cf. Freer ptg.) The woman holds out one end of the sash toward her lover as if to say: Here you are, just pull the string. Ann Birrell writes in her book on Chinese love poetry that in poetic portrayals of beautiful women, "The bare waist is not seen, but is implied through a jeweled belt lovingly described. This is one of the more important of the various erotic signals the poet employs, for when the belt is unfastened, the woman's gown falls open. Such an act is a euphemism for sexual pleasure." A Yüan-period song drama about the erotic activities of the Tang Emperor Ming-huang and his favorite consort Yang Guifei, intended to be performed in brothels, makes much of her disrobing, including the loosening of the belt. The act implies, of course, a male lover, toward whom the woman in this picture turns instead of facing out at us. His presence is indicated here much more openly than in the paintings shown in the first lecture; this is not a woman languishing alone and waiting--her lover is already there--and the real viewer accordingly feels somewhat excluded. (See also Katherine Lowry, “Duplicating the Strength of Feeling,” in Writing & Materiality, 248: letter from Suzhou merchant to courtesan fantasizing about “loosening her fragrant sash” preliminary to love-making.)

Laing remarks in her article that no other depictions of the "Beauty in Spring Thoughts" theme can be found, either in extant paintings or in catalog records, and in a limited sense this is probably true; but paintings of closely related subjects, several of them by Qiu Ying himself, do survive from the middle and late Ming periods. By assembling and studying enough paintings of this kind, one can work out a kind of iconography for the type, and that is the aim of the first part of this chapter.

Depictions of beautiful women in elaborate interior settings looking out (or almost out) at us seem not to appear, as discussed in the first chapter, before the 18th century, and portrait-like portrayals of them isolated as sexual icons not before the late Ming period, one from 1640 being the earliest extant example that is securely datable (fig. 1/25, Huang Shifu + details.).These can safely be regarded as pictorial components of the culture of courtesans and concubines that began to flourish in the late Ming; earlier examples are mostly quite different, less sexually charged. Although a few isolated standing figures of women by Tang Yin and other middle-Ming artists are known, beautiful-woman pictures up to the late Ming, and even into the early Qing, more often situate them in outdoor settings such as gardens. The Ming paintings of women sometimes include indications that these are in fact not courtesans but respectable wives, temporarily deprived of their husbands' company; they are not openly presented, like the beauties in the later paintings, as potentially available to an implied male viewer. Underlying such pictures were the realities of the Chinese administrative and mercantile systems: men spent a great deal of their time traveling on business as officials or as merchants, or as sojourners seeking employment elsewhere than in their home regions. while women were ordinarily left at home.

(Note here: Susan Mann on this problem, in Cambridge Hist. of China 9/1, p. 457 ff. Worse in 17-18c. See also Katherine Lowry “Duplicating the Strength of Feeling,” in Writing and Materiality: letters from wives expressing melancholy etc. 253-9. First-hand evidence on this matter. Lowry notes that the man may have taken a concubine during a long absence. Her concerns are belittled as “idle melancholy,” his seen as larger.) Recent studies warn against over-simplifying this situation: women in Ming-Qing China were not so cloistered as was once thought, and traveled on pilgrimages to temples and shrines, or sometimes accompanied their husbands. But the poignant image of the lonely wife waiting for her husband to return retained its appeal in poetry and painting, whatever the reality may have been. See also: Zheng Yunduan, Song poet, on woman waiting so long she turned into a rock: Idema & Grant, The Red Brush, p. 277.
- K’ang-I Sun Chang, in Pauline Yu, ed., Voices of the Song Lyric in China, p. 180 ff,, on women abandoned in sense of man’s affection turning to another. Poetry lamenting this.

In a painting by Qiu Ying (fig. 5/4) the lady, who is portrayed as a Tang-style corpulent beauty of mature years, gazes across a pond at a pair of mandarin ducks, familiar reminders of domestic bliss that objectify her own longing for a return to it. Like the "beauty in spring thoughts" she raises her sleeve-covered hand to touch her face. The tall bamboo reinforces her forward lean; the garden rocks are formed like hands, the lower one seeming to grasp her body; the whole setting, as an expression of her emotional state, seems more confining than comfortably enclosing.

In a thematically similar painting also by Qiu Ying (or at least ascribed to him, fig. 5/5), the addition of a child underscores the domestic nature of the scene; the woman turns toward him indulgently, but her inner thoughts are again revealed in the pair of mandarin ducks on a rock across the pond, echoed by two flying swallows--ducks and swallows both were "birds of love" in China. The painting this time is in ink on paper, a medium that might be associated with spontaneity and expressive brushwork among the scholar-amateur artists, but for a straightforward professional such as Qiu Ying, who virtually never relaxes his high-finish manner, more probably indicates a less generous commission. No early documentation, so far as I know, provides a clue to the uses of such pictures, the occasions on which they might be presented or hung; one would like to imagine that lonely wives sent them to traveling husbands as reminders, or that they were appreciated by the women themselves as satisfyingly embodying their feelings--the presence of a Qiu Ying painting of a beautiful woman in Grandmother Jia's apartment in Honglou Meng encourages that assumption. But it also likely that they served, like the later meiren paintings if somewhat more subtly, to gratify the male appetite for images of beautiful women consumed by sexual longings that they can imagine themselves satisfying.
Note: Argument made in my Paintings for Women? that they were probably among types women would commission and hang in their chambers. Wonderful example by Yu Zhiding reprod. there as Colorplt. 5.)

Note: delete following paragraph: unclear relevance. Qiu Ying's son-in-law Ypu Qiu, in a leaf in an album of figure-in-landscape compositions (fig. 5/6), repeats the doubled symbolism of paired mandarin ducks and swallows as the objects of the beautiful woman's gaze; she leans on a willow, one end of her scarf draped over it. The associations of the willow are the opposite of those of the pine: ephemeral feelings instead of integrity, love affairs instead of high-minded pursuits. Another leaf in Yu Qiu's album represents a man gazing at the moon (fill in fn: where reprod.?) When men gaze at the moon, as they commonly do in Sung and later paintings, they are assumed to be thinking philosophical thoughts, or meditating nostalgically on the past. Women who do the same (as we know from poetry) are understood to be longing for lovers. In a late Ming print (fig. 5/7), the point is underscored by the woman holding a flute, which the poetic couplet identifies as a white jade flute--this is a common euphemism for the male organ, and her fingering it defines more closely the nature of her longings.

[Add later: women outdoors: Met "Qiu Ying" (two versions in Met) etc. BMFA Lady Lingzhao in Snow? what is subj.? (Portfolio I/99.) Dif. implications, again, from men alone in nature: they seem comfortable, self-sufficient, gazing at waterfall or whatever; women don't. Go no further than edge of garden: typically some indication that not pure nature. Seldom venture alone into wilds. See my Outline, p. 12. Fig. 5/8-5/11.]

B. Women Seen in Upstairs Rooms and Through Windows

Among the finest of Qiu Ying's works is a well-known representation of a woman in the open upper storey of a house on the river shore (fig. 5/12.) Accounts of the painting have avoided the implications of its subject, thereby failing to appreciate fully its success in capturing the emotional aura of a particular theme, which is, of course, once more, the woman waiting. In contrast to meiren pictures of the "Mme. Hedong" type, this one denies us easy access to the female subject, placing her in middle ground beyond water and a bank, above trees and a wall. Compositionally the picture resembles the farewell paintings that were popular in Suzhou at this same time, and is similar in expressive purpose: the long recession to a high horizon, which in farewell pictures signifies the passage of the departing friend into distance, here marks the distance out of which the absent husband or lover will eventually return. Seen from close-by (fig. 5/13), she proves to be holding her sleeved hand to her cheek, as the women in the other two Qiu Ying paintings do, and revealing in her simply-indicated face a mood of delicate melancholy. Few Chinese paintings are so successful in evoking feelings of separation and loneliness.

A woodblock print from a book of the late Ming period combining poems and pictures; according to the signature after another work by Qiu Ying, is similar in composition to the painting but simpler, and the simplification increases the isolation of the woman (fig. 5/14.) Another composition of this kind is seen in an illustration from a late Ming edition of the drama Pipa ji or The Lute (fig. 5/15.) This fourteenth century play was the first in a long series of romances on the theme that also underlies these pictures: women who are left behind to grieve while their husbands or lovers go off to pursue careers as officials in the capital. The plays are presented as conflicts between love and duty, but what generates their emotional power is sympathy for the neglected wife.

A woman=waiting picture that would appear to have been done for a specific rather than generic situation, since it bears a dedication to a particular person, is the handscroll "Evening Longing in an Autumn Boudoir" by the late Ming master Wu Bin (fig. 5/16). Painted in a broad, flattening manner that reveals the artist deliberately allying himself on this occasion with the Suzhou scholar-amateur masters such as Wen Zhengming instead of exercising his own academic-professional skills, the picture presents a woman seen through the window of her house, which is shaded by leafy trees and banana plants. A tall wall encloses the garden, shutting her off from the world outside, represented by the river shore from which her husband departed and where he will eventually return. A candle burns beside her; a book lying open on her desk, and behind her a spinning wheel and bobbins of thread on a table, speak of her sequestered occupations. Outside are a stove and a brazier for heating wine, ready for the two of them to enjoy when the long wait is over. Wu Bin's inscription, besides his signature and the dedication to an unidentifiable Kegu Changzhang, is a single line from one of the "Nineteen Old Poems" of the Han dynasty: "The sash of her gown grows looser by the day"--as she wastes away, that is, from pining. Nineteen poetic colophons by other writers follow, all using the rich repertory of literary imagery established in older poetry about lonely women. We learn from the poems that her husband has been away for years, that she has written him letters, and that he did not return at an agreed-on time. None of the poems provides an answer to the question of who asked Wu Bin to paint the picture, and the others to inscribe poems; again, we can only imagine that the woman herself may have organized the project and sent the finished work to her husband, as an expression of her longing for him. The cool reserve of the painting supports that supposition: this would seem to be a woman's mode of expression, understated, with no open display of passion. Her deep feelings are embodied only in the poems, and even these, while they sometimes assume her voice, are twice distanced from her, once by their use of conventions and once by their being composed by others.

Men are also seen often in paintings through the windows or open porches of houses, for instance in an often-reproduced work by the Yüan master Sheng Mou (Colorplate 3 in Hills), but once more, the implications are quite different. The men are normally understood to be recluses who have voluntarily renounced for a time the company of their fellows to live in retirement, studying the classics or practicing some other form of Confucian self-cultivation. The picture often includes, as this one does, some indication, perhaps a boat moored on the river bank below the house, that the man can venture forth on outings or return to the great world whenever he chooses.

Women viewed through windows or in upper storeys of houses are denied this mobility, this active choice between movement and stasis; they can only wait passively. (Once more, it must be stressed that reality was otherwise; we are writing about the women in poems and paintings, not real Chinese women--although they, of course, were always subject to pressures to conform with the Confucian model.) A pattern of love in which the man pines for the woman and wastes away when rejected, as in troubadour songs and the European myth of romantic love, would have subverted the system, undermined the hierarchy of the Confucian order, put power into her hands instead of his. For the woman to be waiting in a state of erotic readiness of course simplifies the situation of the man, who need not go through the tedious process of reestablishing their relationship after a prolonged absence, courting and arousing. Like the portrait sculptor in Chaplin's "Great Dictator," who begins to chisel feverishly on the stone when his sitter enters the room and strikes a pose, then lapses back into quiescence when the great man leaves a few seconds later, or the attractive female secretary whom Chaplin embraces briefly and then drops, the passive woman in this Chinese image is assumed to devote herself to saving time for the man by springing into activity, and into bed, at a moment's notice. (Once more, it must be stressed that I am writing about the apparent implications of the pictures, not about the realities of marital relations in China.)

The contrast between the mobile male and immobilized female is made more explicit in paintings and prints in which a man is shown passing below on horseback, such as a woodblock-print picture of "Spring Morning on the Su Dike" from "Ten Scenes of the West Lake," published in 1610 (fig. 5/18.) Scenes of this kind can be taken as pictorial embodiments of the Confucian separation of nei (interior, female, domestic) and wai (outside, male, public.) But this addition also changes somewhat the tone of the picture, and the implied narrative. Buildings on the shores of the West Lake at Hangzhou, at least those so exposed as this one is, were more likely to be tea-houses or brothels than private residences; the woman may, then, be deliberately displaying herself to the man, inviting sexual dalliance, not so much waiting for a lover as actively attracting one. The likelihood of that is strengthened by the way the woman in the print seems to be responding to the passing man, perhaps even waving to him.

The nature of the encounter is more ambiguous in a painting similar to Qiu Ying's (fig. 5/12), although less delicate in either conception or execution, by Qiu's contemporary Wen Zhengming, a literatus-painter who seldom depicted figures, especially of women, or scenes with erotic implications of any kind (fig. 5/19.) In the quatrain the painter has inscribed on it, a composition by the Tang poet Du Mu, the poet in a moment of loneliness catches a glimpse of a red-sleeved beauty in the upstairs room of someone's house; although she may not even see him, the physical and social space that separates them does not prevent him in the poem or the picture, from imagining the possibility of a sexual encounter. [Check: does "red-sleeved" imply she's a courtesan? cf. insc. on Dai Jin handscroll involving Yang Weizhen in ch. 2: she has red sleeves; insc. says Yang usually took red-sleeved woman w. him on outings.] Another of the "Nineteen Old Poems" from the first or second century A.D. provides the classical image of the woman viewed in an upstairs window by a passerby (understood as the poet), and a recent translation by Stephen Owen turns the final quatrain, which shifts into the woman's voice, into an open invitation:

Green, green is the grass by the river,
in garden the willows are all dense and full.
High in the tower a woman so lovely,
she glows in the window, white and so pure.
Rouge on her cheeks, bright in her beauty,
and she puts out a pale and delicate hand.

Once long ago I sang in the barroom,
now I'm the wife of a traveling man.
He travels for pleasure and never comes home now,
A lonely bed can't be kept empty for long.

In Chinese fiction from the Tang period onward, women who allow themselves to be seen by passing men in effect open the way, however unintentionally, to sexual access; stories that begin with a chance viewing end with her seduction. The Knave in Li Yü's early Ch'ing novel Roupu tuan or "The Carnal Prayer Mat" advises the hero: "Good women never let themselves be seen, or rather, the only ones who do are not good women. . . You surely don't imagine that an unmarried girl of good family or a wife or concubine from a great household is going to stand in her doorway and display herself, do you?" All this is the stuff of common fantasy: that visual apprehension of the woman, and an exchange of looks, is a first move toward physical possession. Wen Zhengming probably contemplated no such following-through of the implications of his picture; a straitlaced person himself, he was presumably engaged in nothing more salacious than a neo-classical re-creation of some old model.

An anonymous fan painting from the Southern Song period, 12th or 13th century, might be taken as a predecessor of the Ming pictures, the product of a period when the conventions were not so set and the story-line more open (fig. 5/20.) No stock situation is invoked in the arrangement and interchange of its figures: a woman on the balcony of a house by a canal, a man in a boat below who perhaps raises a cup to her (the reproduction is unclear), another woman behind him in the boat. The implicit narrative may have been unambiguous to viewers of the artist's time but is mysterious to us now: is the woman looking down from the terrace of a brothel, like the eight women in a painting shown in the first lecture or the woman in the "West Lake" print, and showing herself shamelessly as enticement? Or is she a gentlewoman of good family who is simply enjoying the cool of evening?

In any case, by the late Ming, the type represented by Wen Zhengming's picture was well enough established that Chen Hongshou, master manipulator and subverter of conventions, could do a slightly parodistic version of it as a leaf in an album (fig. 5/21.) As I have argued at length elsewhere, Chen's art belongs to an age in some respects like ours, when old poetic and heroic themes were commonly invoked but could not be presented with a completely straight face. But this was also the time when beautiful-women pictures with particularized poetic or narrative content were giving way to the type seen in the previous lectures, the presentation of woman isolated as sexual icon, with more of direct and explicit invitation to the viewer.

The fact that in Qing-period paintings of this kind the women are commonly seen through round windows instead of, as in the Ming examples, square windows or open balconies, has two important implications: the roundness of the opening heightens the male viewer's voyeuristic pleasure by making the experience even more overtly a visual analogue of sexual penetration; and the placement of the windows on the ground floor (where round windows were always located) implies easier access. Some paintings of this kind are relatively innocuous, as is an album leaf by the early 18th century master Hua Yan at in which we spy on the woman as she writes (we assume) a love letter (fig. 5/22.)

(5.22a: picture of woman with fan seen through round window by Chen Yunzhang? 19c? dtd. 1879? from Min-ch'iu volume.)

Another picture of the type by Hua Yan, however, offers more to the prurient voyeur: the woman, identified in the poetic couplet inscribed on it as the Tang dynasty courtesan-poet Su Xiaoxiao, is seen in partial dishabille making up her hair before a mirror (fig. 5/23). Her identification as a courtesan raises again the possibility of deliberate self-exposure as a lure. The relatively infrequent portrayal of even partial nudity in Chinese painting should not mislead us into thinking that baring the female body was less a turn-on there than here; evidences of nudity as a sexual stimulant were cited in the preceding chapter. In any case, the exposure of part of Su Xiaoxiao's breast evokes less of sensuality than the raised arms and open sleeves, the long, undone hair, the undulating fall of her robe, rendered voluptuously by Hua Yan in orchid-leaf brushstrokes. Like the painters of the other beautiful-woman pictures we are considering, named or anonymous, Hua is skilled at conveying erotic messages in works that probably were not considered to transgress accepted bounds of propriety.

C. The Occupations of Women Waiting

We return to the late Ming to explore a few more aspects of the women-waiting theme before turning to another. As with the illustrations of proper pursuits for respectable women considered in the second chapter, a repertory of activities suited to women waiting for the return of husbands and lovers can be put together from the paintings. As might be expected, they are mostly little more than pastimes, scarcely activities at all. The woman in an example by a minor late Ming artist named Huang Zhuan (fig. 5/24, detail 5/24a) simply reclines limply against a rock, her legs parted and crossed, her head resting on her hand; she gazes up at something, presumably the moon, following the gesture of her servant's upraised arm. This is the irreducible woman-waiting picture, no frills, no depths.

More interesting is a painting, known only in an old reproduction, that appears to be by a follower of Qiu Ying (Fig. 5/25.), The lady, now seen through a moon-door, again half sits, half reclines against a bed; a parokeet hangs on a perch above her. Outside, where a banana tree grows, a maid carries the woman's little boy on her back. The theme is once more the lonely wife or concubine longing for her absent husband. Something has been expunged from the upper part of the composition, perhaps a representation of an erotic dream she is having.

An interior with figures by Chen Hongshou, whose imagery is never simple, seems to be a slightly parodistic version of roughly the same theme, and is a composition that demands more decoding (fig. 5/26.) The presence of the little boy in the foreground tells us, again, that the woman is a wife or concubine. Watched indulgently by a girl servant, the child tries to catch a butterfly painted on a fan; besides being the kind of play between representation and reality that Chen loved, this detail may hint at some butterfly-chasing, or dalliance with other women, of which the husband is suspected. The wife sprawls languidly on a low platform- bed, her robe loose, the girdle undone and lying exposed outside. She rests her weight on a basketry cover over a brazier, both it and her body partially wrapped in a quilt, and looks up at a parokeet on a perch. One might assume that the brazier simply served, like Japanese hibachi, to keep her warm, and to underscore the absence of a male body that might perform the same function; one could take it and the parokeet simply to be casual inclusions in a domestic scene. But both in fact belong to the special iconography of woman-waiting pictures.

Another work by Chen Hongshou, known only from a reproduction in an old book, identifies the function of the brazier with the domed basketry cover (fig. 5/27): incense is burned in it to scent the robes and quilts spread over it. According to an inscription on the painting it represents a woman named Xiangyan or Fragrant Swallow who served, presumably as a concubine, in the household of a friend of the artist's contemporary Li
Rihua, as recorded in one of Li's miscellanies. When the man was entertaining guests, she would crouch over the basketry-covered censer to collect the smoke in her skirt and then move about among the guests spreading fragrance. (Two large examples of braziers with covers in a palace setting are seen in Chen Mei's leaf, fig. 2/8.) An especially beautiful depiction of a similar theme painted by Yü Zhiding in 1674 (fig. 5/28) again presents the lovesick young woman and the sympathetic maid. Perfuming clothes, then, was one of the ways in which women otherwise unoccupied--economically above the level of doing housework, which was left to servants, but lacking more productive pursuits--passed their time. The couplet on a fenben or preparatory sketch by the late 19th century Qian Hui'an (fig. 5/29) reads: "I like to sit [outside] for a long time in the shade of flowers,/ And not have to go back in and perfume clothes."

The association of palace ladies and other neglected women with parokeets is at least as old as the Southern Song period, as we can see in an anonymous fan painting of that age (fig. 5/30.) The inscription on another leaf from the Qian Hui'an album of fenben (a fifty-leaf, unmined repertory of popular imagery of this kind, still mostly unpublished, fig. 5/31) provides a clue to why the bird appears so often in women-waiting pictures; it reads: "It is so cold that the blossoming plum and I cannot sleep;/ I am so bored that I seek out the parokeet to talk with." The talking bird, that is, serves as a make-do conversational partner in the absence of any other. Parokeets figure in a diversity of roles in popular stories; illicit lovers fear discovery through their indiscreet repeating (parroting in a literal sense) of what they overhear. In one of the Liaozhai tales of Pu Songling, the lovesick scholar's soul leaves his body and enters that of a parokeet so that he can be close to his beloved.

(5/31a, b: Ptg by Qiu Zhu or Qiu Shi, Ying's daughter, owned by Yabumoto, bored lady and servants in garden, they are trying to entertain her with parokeet.)
A leaf from the Sancai tuhui, a pictorial compendium printed in 1607, is titled "Teasing the Parokeet" (fig. 5/32); in a painting of 1766 by Xu Lan the girl frisks about, in an interlude from her writing or painting, and threatens it with a long feather held behind her back (fig. 5/33.) "Teasing the parokeet," presumably to provoke it into talking, is a common theme in women-waiting pictures and is included in most of the handscroll compendia of occupations of palace ladies. Once more, the birds are poor stand-ins for absent lovers: the women have no one else to tease, no one who will appreciate their playfulness. What we are seeing here is an iconography of ennui. (See also Susan Mann, Precious Records, p.260 24, on parrots.)

Another item in it, one more waiting-time occupation, is writing love letters and poems. Sometimes these are inscribed on autumn leaves, as in a work by the early 19th century master Gai Qi (fig. 5/34.) Add here: 5/34a&b, Freer ptg, 17.335, probably by Du Jin, standing woman inscribing red leaf.) The allusion is specific: a well-known story by a Song writer tells of how a young student of the Tang period named Yü You, strolling outside the palace grounds one evening, picked out of a canal an autumn leaf inscribed with a poem, floated out by a woman inside who longed for escape. He composed a poem in response and floated it in to her on another leaf; later she was released from the imperial harem, and the two met and were happily married.

The women are seen sometimes sitting at weiqi (Japanese go) boards, waiting for someone to come and play with them. In an example painted in 1697 by Yü Zhiding (fig.1/26A), the woman appears to be playing against herself, in the absence of a partner, or perhaps is preparing her strategy. In one dated 1821 by Fei Danxü (fig. 5/36), she has laid out some of the pieces and begun to plot her moves; the line inscribed on it reads: "At leisure she claps down her pieces, making the ash fall from the lampwick." The love-lorn woman in the picture by an 18th-century Yangchou artist named Yin Shi (fig. 5/37) is not even that purposeful, and simply sits by the empty board, looking hopefully out.

Languishing ladies can also, as we saw in the third chapter, spend their time at needlework--another of Qian Hui'an's fenben (fig. 5/38) bears an inscription telling how the woman prays at the altar on the seventh evening of the seventh month, when the herdboy and weaving maid meet in the heavens, for the early return of her husband, and resolves to throw away her fan (an emblem of idleness) and take up the needle. Or they may simply stand quietly waiting, as the woman does in another leaf from the same album, inscribed "The orchids have dried and lost their fragrance, and are covered with fine dust;/ The sun has set, the day is cold, my blue sleeves hang loose." Or they may stand waiting in doorways, as the woman does in the painting by Wang Chengpei (fig. 1/29), or as another does in a haunting album leaf from the late Sung period (fig. 5/39), in which the woman comes to the entrance of the house to watch for her lover (or, perhaps, as I suggested in another context, to escape for a moment from some entanglement within the house--the narrative behind the scene is perhaps deliberately ambiguous.) These are at the cool end of the "women waiting" spectrum, and set off what follows: our account now heats up a bit, as we turn to women consumed or crazed with sexual desire.

D. Women Consumed by Desire; Spring Dreams

In illustrations to Chinese novels and stories, dreams are indicated, as sometimes in the west, with a balloon coming from the head of the sleeper. Women depicted in this way are typically dreaming of their husbands or lovers; but the dream of the woman in one leaf of a part-erotic album (known only in an old reproduction book) ascribed to Qiu Ying but more likely late 17th century in date, is less innocent (fig. 5/40.) It must in fact have been lurid enough that the publisher expunged it, leaving the woman, so far as is visible now, dreaming a blank expanse. But even without seeing the scene of lovemaking that must have occupied the balloon, we would know about it from the portrayal of the woman and her setting. The lushness of the willow and the lotus in full bloom in the pond below fix the season as summer; she has come out to escape the heat and lies sprawled on a bamboo chair on a verandah, legs spread, one hung over the frame, wearing only a loose summer robe. She has fallen asleep while reading a book, presumably a sexy novel.

When the girl is portrayed sleeping in a garden on a hot day, clothes loosened, surrounded by flowers, we know it is a spring dream she is having. (Baoyü in Honglou Meng, we should recall, after seeing a painting of this subject in the bedroom of Qinshi, falls asleep and himself has a long wet dream.) A leaf from an album by Fei Danxu (fig. 5/41) and a fan painting by a small master, probably also active in the 19th century, named Zhu Meicun (fig. 5/42, 5/42a detail) can represent the type. Since flowers, as we will find later, often stand in for the female genitalia, the profusion of them (especially red ones with multi-layered petal structures) turns the scene into a warm swamp of femininity. In the lower corner of the fan, small fish in the pond are attracted by petals fallen from the flowering tree, a delicate metaphor for sexual attraction (fallen red petals sometimes symbolize a loss of sexual innocence, but that implication seems inappropriate here. (Note: is this specific? one of girls in Honglou Meng goes to sleep in garden . . .)

The girl in the fan (detail, fig. 5/43) lies with one leg drawn up, her face a bit flushed, her eyes and mouth slightly open, her arm outstretched and hand curled. This hand posture is well-known to actresses in drama and opera as the lanhua zhi or "orchid fingers," a particularly graceful way of holding the hand in dance and other performances. Its implication here, however, is something else; meaning cannot be separated from context, and it is neither drama nor opera that occupies the thoughts of the girl in this picture. Nor of the one in another (fig. 5/44), a painting ascribed (on what basis is unclear) to Gu Jianlong. We observe her voyeuristically through a moon window; the three-dimensional rendering of it and the furniture, and the opening of depth behind, locate the picture among the illusionistic works by now familiar. She has put down her book and rests her head on her arm, daydreaming; the nature of her dream is indicated by the way she clasps the leg of the table between her two knees and forms her hand into the same gesture as the girl in the fan painting. Both appear to be holding something in imagination or dream, and any male viewer will know immediately what it is they are holding. But for the benefit of others, a few details from the erotic album leaves will clarify what I take to be the import of the image: a scene of a couple in bed (fig. 5/45), or a scene of washing, presumably in preparation for sex,. or perhaps after (fig. 5/46), or one in which a second woman stands behind the man and reaches around to grasp and guide his penis (fig. 5/47.) These are details from leaves in the anonymous ("Qianlong Albums Master") pair of albums introduced in the second chapter (cf. fig. 2/43, 2/44.)

F. Flowers, Finger Citron, and Other Displacements

(Begin with something on how codes have been forgotten, citing same phenomenon in Chinese popular lit., in which the significance of crypto-erotic imagery has generally been forgotten or ignored by modern scholars. West & Idema (Wang Shifu, The Moon and the Zither), p. 141: on how 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 in "a kind of silent limbo," and partly to the official policy of the Communist party, which attributes "an interest in sex . . . to bourgeois decadence.")

Several glossaries have been compiled of sexual symbols as used in literature, and these are helpful in understanding the significance of imagery in the paintings. But we can also decode these symbols, I believe, by close readings of the paintings themselves, as a group, in a semiotic way. When, for instance, in a painting the woman offers a flower to the man, as Cui Yingying does to Scholar Zhang in the "Western Chamber" painting (fig. 1/19), or as four of the "Eight Beauties" do to us as passersby and potential customers in the street below their balcony (fig. 2/30), we need no literary clues to read the gesture as sexual invitation. In one of the Liaozhai stories by the 18th-century Pu Songling, titled "The Painted Wall," a supernatural girl entices a man into her room for sex in this way: "raising the flower in her hand, [she] waved it back and forth beckoning him inside."

The erotic associations of the blossoming plum have been explored in detail by others, and I will only note here that in addition to being in itself a poetic image of the beautiful woman, it is sometimes to be read in this way, as invitation. The young wife or concubine of He Tianzhang, in the portrait scroll by Chen Hongshou and others (fig. 3/17), holds a fan with this motif on it, as if displaying it to her husband; the beauty in the painting by Que Luan dated 1812 and titled "A Gift of Spring" (fig. 2/31) offers a sprig of it, and by implication herself, to the viewer. The message is that the man who, especially in his later years, is able and inclined to accept her invitation will be like the plum tree which blossoms in late winter, and will experience still another spring. We know that a painting of flowering plum branches by Jin Nong could be presented to congratulate a friend who had just acquired a new concubine; such a painting as this one may well have served the same function. (Look at Maureen Robertson p. 82-3: interesting revisionist reading of blossoming plum imagery.) What is this: identify closer.

Sexual symbols in paintings of women often take the form of a replacement or displacement of the female genitalia, locating a suggestive image nearby the hidden part and deflecting the viewer's attention to that image in such a way that the forbidden can be represented in a covert, acceptable manner. In the first lecture I quoted Ann Birrell on the frequent use in love poetry of sleeves as erogenous zones that offer "entree to the intimate parts of the body." A rather obvious pictorial example of that displacement can be seen in anonymous picture in which a maid draws aside the curtain to present a courtesan to a client (fig. 5/48.) The woman holds forward her sleeve, which opens into a multifold interior that almost literally portrays her sex. A painting of "Beauty in Snow" by the 19th century meiren specialist Tang Luming (fig. 5/49, details 5/49a, b) combines the same graphic representation with the motif of offering a branch of blossoming plum, which here protrudes from the depths of the sleeve. Not much decoding is needed to translate the compound image into a message just this side of pornography.

More common than the sleeve in this function is the image of the flower. Many instances could be cited from literature in which it allows the writer to allude to the vagina without naming it directly. For instance, a Ming poet named Shen Maoxue writes of his love in bed as "so fair and shapely in the nude," then focuses in on her sex, writing "The heart of the peony is crimson red,/ Almost as red as rouge." Another instance is in a song from the Yüan-period drama cited earlier, of a kind written for performance in brothels: Yang Guifei's lover An Lushan, at the onset of their lovemaking, "enters the crimson sepals of her crab-apple flower."

Delete these? Ptgs on glass. The many paintings displaying this motif, or gesture, range from the subtle to the blatant; near the latter end is a pair of European-style examples from the 19th century (fig. 5/50.) The flower held by the woman in the one at left, with red depths beyond parted petals, is echoed by the curling formation of her hand. In the other, the woman holds no flower, but forms her hand into the enclosing shape, pointedly suggestive of the female sex, that we have observed in the "spring dreams" pictures and the erotic leaves. Un-decoded, the pair seemed innocuous enough to be identified as "Portraits of a Lady" in the auction catalog in which they appeared.

As brief respite from this steamy series, I interject a leaf from an album painted in 1619 by that most oblique of artists, Chen Hongshou, who apparently could trust the visual skills of his audience to the point of eliminating the image of the woman altogether, presenting only the coded signs (fig. 5/51): the ring (with its tiny rabbit) standing for the fingers, the mirror (reflecting surface toward the viewer) for the face, the hairpin for the hair? and the flower for that hidden part, the heart of feminity. I may be over-reading, but not by much.

Returning to the "Western Chamber" picture, we can observe in the focal area a complex, erotically charged visual interchange in which the graceful gestures of the lovers' hands, centered on the flower, constitute a kind of amatory congress (detail, fig. 5/52.) Hands, in Chinese love poetry and erotic fiction, receive more attention than the genitalia proper, their principal function being to arouse the man preparatory to intercourse. The Tang-period courtesan-poet Zhao Luanluan, in a poem titled "Slender Fingers," writes of her own hands as one might of sexual parts, in what Maureen Robertson calls a "play with concealment and disclosure": "Long and delicate, soft white jades,/ freshly peeled spring onions./ I always hide them/ in green sleeves of perfumed silk./ Yesterday, moving over the lutestrings,/ all their nails were painted blood-red."

This three-way equivalence of flowers, hands, and vagina can be expanded by one if we consider the fo-shou, finger-citron or Buddha's hand fruit. An inedible fruit valued for its fragrance and evocative or suggestive shape, it appears in paintings in a variety of asexual contexts; the dish of them below the lovers' hands in this one, for instance, might be taken as an obvious but innocent visual echoing. But the fact that the central figure in the "Eight Beauties" painting holds one invitingly in front of her, as three of the others hold flowers (details, fig. 5/53 and 5/53a), suggests a more specific meaning. Philip Rawson, in his book on the erotic art of Asia, identifies this fruit as standing for the female genitalia; Chinese scholars confronted with this proposition tend to be skeptical, on the grounds that textual authority for a sexual reading (in addition to the olfactory and the Buddhist) appears to be lacking. But context is all, and the realities of Chinese popular culture were far richer than the evidences for it preserved in the texts. If we read pictures instead of texts and trust our eyes, we are left in little doubt, I believe, about the rightness of Rawson's identification.
Add here: 5:53b: dish of Buddha's hand fruit from Freer Xixiang-ji.

Two scenes of seduction from the erotic albums locate dishes of Buddha's hand fruit where they underscore the action. In one leaf (fig. 5/54) the man pulls at the tie of the woman's robe; her hands, and the Buddha's hand fruits beside them, engage in a flurry of finger-waving, while the quieter peonies above reinforce the significance of the imagery. In the other (fig. 5/55), the man reaches under the robe of the woman on his lap; the flowers outside, and the Buddha's hand fruit near them, betray to us what he is groping for.
In the scene of washing from which we saw a detail earlier (fig. 5/46), the play of hands above the washing basin is repeated, more excitedly, in the Buddha's hand fruits in the alcove (fig. 5/56.) The painting hanging behind, with its Daoist imagery of pine trees and temple, heavy green color and clouds, waterfall and upward-thrusting peaks, also participates in the sexually auspicious message by evoking a concentration of Qi or vital energy; but we cannot pursue that theme here.

In other paintings we find even more explicit examples of "displacement upward," the term taken from Freud and applied in western art and literary criticism to this practice, in which the forbidden sight is hidden and replaced with a seemingly innocuous substitute. Susan Suleiman, for instance, finds it in a Baudelaire poem about Lola de Valence, in whom the poet remarks "the unexpected charm of a pink and black jewel"--the displacement being "from the woman's genitals to the jewel she wears or possesses." Joseph Koerner finds it in a pair of paintings by Hans Baldung (fig. 5/57) of Adam, who covers his genitals with a leafy branch--which, however, by "jutting out from his groin, accentuates or stands in for the very thing it is meant to conceal…," and Eve, who covers her pudenda with an apple and leaves. Freud saw substitution of this kind as a form of fetishism "in which the 'natural' sexual object is replaced 'by another which bears some relation to it, but is entirely unsuited to serve the normal sexual aim." The expression of the woman in an anonymous Chinese picture (fig. 5/58), another of the "Madame Hedong" type from the eighteenth century No! looks like Chang family work--cf. one of 12 Consorts), bears a remarkable similarity to Eve's in the Baldung painting: her slightly tilted head, raised eyebrows, sideward look, and coy smile. These are sisters across the centuries in the way each woman "seems to pretend not to notice the viewer's eye. And in that feigned attitude [Koerner continues], she indulges the phallic gaze." The Chinese male viewer's "phallic gaze" is granted no nudity, but instead can enjoy the illusionistic spatial penetrations that we recognized in pictures shown in the first lecture. Both women have, as Koerner puts it, "learned the logic of concealment, how the gaze is attracted more by a fetishized promise of exposure than by any full or 'natural' presence of the flesh…" The Chinese woman holds the Buddha's hand fruit as if offering it to the unseen lover (detail, fig. 5/59), one set of fingers doubling the other; her other hand, while it rests on the arm of the bamboo chair, is also situated more or less over her genital area. The interchange and equivalence of sexual images is inescapable.

An example from European painting in which the substitution is so blatant as to be rather gross is by the 17th-century Dutch artist Jan Steen (fig. 5/60). It bears the title "Girl Eating Oysters," but is obviously another invitational picture--the appropriate caption would be "Want to eat my oyster?"

In another Chinese example (fig. 5/61), the woman looks more openly out at the beholder with her eyes, but plays even more subtly with concealments and displacements elsewhere. What is partly hidden (but really exposed) behind her translucent fan is now her hand, fingers separated and repeated in the bamboo leaves painted (or perhaps embroidered) on the fan--a new function for bamboo painting probably never envisioned by Su Dongpo. Here, too, the hand is located over the genital region, and displays in visual metaphor what the woman's robe hides (detail, fig. 5/62). The Buddha's hand fruit in the dish nearby again compounds the overlaid imagery. These pictures are scarcely less erotically charged than the leaves of the overtly pornographic albums; what is remarkable (to make this point once more) is that their visual language has been so totally forgotten that they can today be identified as portraits of gentlewomen without anyone rising to protest the deception. Later note: this painting turns out to be in the Philadelphia Art Museum, and has a seal of the artist—is it Mang-ku-li?—on it. I have notes somewhere.

The women can be taken (or mistaken) for that because they keep their clothes on; but even when, two centuries later, they have taken them off, the device of displacement is not relinquished. As another example of the awesome continuity of Chinese culture we can observe it as employed by the contemporary oil painter Yang Feiyün in his nude portrait of his wife Pengpeng (fig. 5/63), a painting that so aroused viewers of the 1988 exhibition of nude oil paintings at the Meishuguan in Beijing that it was widely reproduced afterwards, somewhat to the embarrassment of Peng-peng. She modestly hides her groin with her hands, but her husband subverts her purpose by displacing the forbidden sight onto the pink-cleft peaches in the bowl nearby. Yang may not have been consciously aware either of the 18th-century Chinese precedents or of Freud's formulation; but artistic derivation moves in mysterious and often untraceable ways, leaving both artists and critics sometimes adrift.

But what when the forbidden sight is not concealed or "displaced upward" but actually portrayed, overtly instead of covertly? That ultimate revelation, in Chinese erotic pictures, proves so anticlimactic as to drive us back to the Buddha's hand fruits for visual gratification (fig. 5/64). As has often been observed, complete fulfillment of sexual looking is best deferred indefinitely, since it is usually a letdown; the excitement is in the deferral. Deciphering the encoded imagery engages both vision and thought more actively than any actual viewing of that hidden region of the pudenda which the Chinese themselves have belittlingly referred to as "one square inch."

In this respect the Chinese pictures contrast markedly with Japanese erotic paintings and prints, in which both male and female genitalia are depicted in unnatural size and multilayered elaboration (fig. 5/65). The cultural and psychological implications of this pronounced difference are beyond the boundaries of our subject.

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