Xue Susu (ca. 1564-1637) Cicada on Leaf, Ink and color on silk fan
Confucius doctrines limited the ability of women to become painters throughout Chinese history. Their roles were subordinate to that of their father, husbands, and sons and their talents largely ignored by the male dominate literati. Instead, if they were seen in the world of painting, they were subject matters painted by male artists, thus leaving depictions of women under a male gaze. Among the ranks of known women painters, most were either noble women or prostitutes. Their situations allotted them the ability to express themselves – a privilege few other women enjoyed.
Banpo (ca. 4800 BCE) painted vessel
The history of Chinese painting goes back millenniums to early Neolithic rock paintings. Because none of the earlier paintings had artists attributed to them, we cannot know whether they are male or female. Perhaps both participated in the art. After all, new theories subverts the idea that there clear cut gender roles. The idea that these early Neolithic paintings were done by only men is now being challenge as faulty presupposition based cultural biases instead of studies.
Attributed to Zhou Feng in the Tang Dynasty, Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdress, ink and color on silk
As Chinese civilization continued, paintings steadily evolved into a sophisticated art form. Court paintings, especially, were used as symbols of power and prosperity. Religious painting also flourished. This is perhaps one of the few outlets where women painting were appreciated. Women who became devoted Buddhist could help paint sacred murals in temples. Likewise, women were depicted in central roles in Buddhists painting, in the form goddess and female Buddhas. Perhaps the most prolific of these women were depictions were of the Guanyin, the goddess of compassion and mercy. Court painting took a different route. Almost exclusively male, court painters depicted women in styles that suited their sexual taste. During the Tang Dynasty, voluptuous full figured women in gorgeous skill adorned many painting. These painting showed what noblemen desired in women rather than how women see themselves. These depictions of women carried well into the modern eras. Exception, of course, goes to those painting commissioned by women of power, who did demand their depictions were of equal strength to men.
Mogao cave paintings
Guan Daosheng, Bamboo Grove in Mist and Rain, ink on silk
Women painters took a different subject course. Unlike women painter of the West, Chinese women did not have a prolific number of self-portraits. Instead many of their paintings were that of rocks, flowers and trees accompanying local philosophy. Guan Daosheng (1262-1319), wife of the famed painter Zhao Mengfu, preferred Bamboo as a subject matter. In her paintings and writings she related her concern for her husband and children as well as spoke out against her husband’s idea of taking a concubine. While her art was appreciated, many critics saw her work as too masculine. They subverted traditional expectations of women because her strokes and lines were manly. Perhaps this was influenced by husband’s rough paintings that broke from the softness of earlier artists. In any case, her style broke away from traditional female expectations of artists. It is complimentary to her husband’s form that rejected artistic trends. Wen Shu (1595-1634) focused on the subjects of butterflies and flowers. She used inspirations available to her. Her style suggest strong knowledge in embroider. The productions of her painting often time finished with an inscription by her husband.
Ma Shouzhen, Narcissus, ink on silk
Prostitutes also knew how to paint, partly to entice the literati as customers and also partly because some of them had the agency to do so. In the male dominated society, prostitutes used their talents to get ahead and live comfortably. Many of these women become very intelligent and processed senses in the arts and literatures. Perhaps it is their inferior position in society that allowed the ability to think on their own and to test social boundaries. Ma Shouzhen (1548-1604) presented her paintings as gift to her favored client, an act that would have been presumptuous for women of other classes to do. In a subversive way their paintings were more free and intrepid than what would be expected of noble women.
There are important implications about the role of women in Chinese painting. The few women who were able enter the fields had the ability to challenge, even though limited, what society expected of their gender and of their abilities. In modern times, Chinese painting are now subjected to the type of commercialism that is found in all art. They are consumed as decorative art for the common folks, but many works carries some of the male gaze from earlier works. Perhaps it's time we reevaluate how we see women in Chinese painting - to see them as the creator and the thinker behind it rather than just the subject of it.