This article engages the ekphrastic mode—the literary representation of visual representation—to examine the female gaze instantiated in women's poetry on paintings of beautiful women in the Ming and Qing periods. Through four case studies, it shows how women poets and painters participated in the visual culture of late imperial China and negotiated gendered difference in their aesthetic vision and artistic production.
In the discourse of art connoisseurship in Ming China, women were categorically excluded as viewers and connoisseurs of the elite arts of painting and calligraphy. The Ming painter and arbiter of taste Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555–1636) disparagingly counted the “presence of women” among “things” for literati to avoid when viewing calligraphy and painting: “In displaying calligraphy and painting, there are five don'ts: don't show it under a lamp, on a rainy day, after drinking, in the presence of vulgar people, or in the presence of women” 展玩書畫有五不可:謂燈下、雨天、酒後、俗子、婦女也.1 “Women” (funü) refers to members of literati households, gentry women (guixiu 閨秀). Accomplished courtesans of Dong's time were skilled in the literati arts, including painting and poetry. As “public women,” they intermingled with scholar-official-literati in elegant gatherings and parties in the pleasure quarters.2 Dong's advice theoretically denies gentry women the subject position of viewer and, in practice, their participation in art connoisseurship as a whole. Elsewhere Dong quoted the often-repeated trope that compares paintings to women, first expressed in the Huajian 畫鑒 (Examination of Paintings), a text on painting by the Yuan art critic Tang Hou 湯垕 (active 1322): “Looking at a painting is like looking at a beautiful woman” 看畫如看美人.3 In this assertion, “woman” is treated as the object of the male gaze, both literally and metaphorically. Craig Clunas aptly summarizes the implication of this analogy in Ming visual culture: “Women were certainly considered as objects of a connoisseurly gaze in the Ming, ranked and appraised like other forms of elite male consumption.”4
Here, contra the male discourse and practice of connoisseurship, I intend to explore gentry women's position as “viewers” or subjects of looking as articulated in their poetic inscriptions on or about paintings (tihuashi 題畫詩)—their ekphrastic poetry—in the late Ming and Qing. I focus principally on the subgenre of “paintings of gentlewomen or beautiful women” (shinühua 仕女畫 or meirenhua 美人畫) in which women inscribed their gaze on visual representations of their own gender in generic forms—nameless beauties in conventional settings.5 Ironically, the gendered representations of this subgenre of paintings were initially constructed for male scopophilic pleasure and desire. My reading of four cases of women's poetic ekphrasis on these images of women aims to recover and illustrate female visual pleasure (and pain) in the quotidian as well as to recuperate alternative visions of female subjectivity.
Ekphrasis is succinctly defined by literary critic James Heffernan as “the verbal representation of visual representation.” It “explicitly represents representation.”6 In Western literary history, ekphrastic poetry written about a painting, picture, sculpture, or artifact is a genre with classical roots, the paradigmatic example being Homer's description of the elaborate scenes on the shield of Achilles in the Iliad.7 By the twentieth century, the writing and criticism of ekphrastic poetry had concentrated on the medium of painting. Both Heffernan and art historian W. J. T. Mitchell theorize the ekphrastic process as competition between the visual and the verbal. Heffernan characterizes it after Mitchell as “a struggle for dominance between the image and word”8 and further argues for the power of verbal representation—ekphrasis—over the visual image in the former's ability not only to describe what is seen but to narrate, moving the static image in time and space and “envoicing” it or giving it voice.9 Mitchell puts the competitive mechanism at work between word and image in ekphrasis explicitly in gendered terms when he argues that objects of visual pleasure tend to be described “from a masculine perspective” in a “masculine poetic voice.”10 He admits that in his analysis of ekphrasis from past to present the “literary subject [was] understood as a masculine observer speaking to, for, or about a visual representation understood as female.”11 Here one may add John Berger's incisive discussion of the nude in Western painting and the objectification of women to the theorization of this structure of male spectatorship / female object.12 Mitchell ends by shrewdly raising the question of difference: what if he had emphasized “ekphrastic poetry by women”?13 Indeed, what if?
The gendered power dynamics Mitchell and Heffernan proposed in theorizing ekphrasis galvanized feminist research in investigating the history and practices of women poets' ekphrastic writing from Victorian England to contemporary America.14 Setting aside feminist scholars' debates about traditions and practices of women's ekphrastic writing in the West, I shall inquire into those conditions that encouraged or motivated women poets in premodern China to write ekphrastic poetry on paintings (tihuashi) and how they wrote it. What theorizations of ekphrasis offer are potential perspectives to consider women's practices. When gentry women in Ming-Qing China wrote ekphrastic poetry on paintings of beautiful women, how might the gendered dynamic of looking and the gender of the viewer have operated and affected the ways in which the words and images interact? What might have motivated women to write in this genre and what functions might it have fulfilled? To answer these questions, I will examine four cases of feminine inscriptions of gaze to represent varied modes of women's gendered participation in the widespread culture of painting in premodern China in one subgenre. Even though the cases are presented in chronological order, the narrative is not intended to be teleological, despite the appearance of “difference” in later examples.
Historical and Literary Context
In the late Ming (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), women emerged noticeably as painters and viewers. Their active participation in visual culture was a result of the expanding trend of feminine education and self-cultivation in scholar-gentry families, especially in the southeast Jiangnan region.15 As daughters were taught to read and write, practicing calligraphy frequently engendered interest and nurtured talent and skill in the sister art of painting. During the Qing, the development of women's literary and artistic culture grew exponentially.16 Like their male counterparts, though outside of elite male connoisseurship, gentry women produced a large repertory of ekphrastic poetry—poetry inscribed on or about paintings.17 They wrote about and sometimes actually inscribed the paintings that they viewed, owned, or themselves painted in the common genres of landscape, figure, bird, flower, and insect paintings, and in the customary formats of scrolls, screens, albums, and fans. The prevalence of their ekphrastic practice is corroborated by the more than fifteen hundred tihuashi in the Ming Qing Women's Writings digital archive.18 Beginning in the late Ming, tihuashi by women were selected for inclusion in anthologies of women's poetry.19 Ekphrastic poems became a staple in women's personal poetry collections (bieji 別集).20 These poems reveal women's frequent contact and engagement with the visual arts in their everyday life at home and social life outside, instantiating the broadening dimensions of women's aesthetic, intellectual, and cultural experience.
Paintings of Beauties: From Object of Desire to Object in Popular Culture
The inscription of the female gaze in the Ming and Qing must be put into the art historical context of the subgenre of paintings of beautiful women. Recent scholarship has correctly treated meirenhua since the Tang as a genre created by male painters for male consumption. Whether for the delectation of emperors and the aristocratic and scholarly elite or for well-to-do merchants in later periods, paintings of beauties, regardless of format, were seen as catering to a male gaze. The analytic thrust thus exposes the implicit affective trajectory of male desire by focusing on how the iconography and semiotics in the visual construction of feminine subjectivities in these paintings provoke male desire and simultaneously evoke pleasurable satisfaction in the act of looking.21 Lara C. W. Blanchard provides an in-depth visual and textual reading of several paintings that represent palace women or upper-class women in states of longing that speak to the desires of a male audience.22 Blanchard draws on the poetic genres of palace-style verse (gongti shi 宮體詩) and song lyrics (ci 詞) in which male poets construct female personae or write in a feminine voice to express desire and longing for an absent lover, inviting male readers to assume the position of the desired. She also points to the potential political reading of both painting and poetry, in which the male poet/viewer allegorizes the female persona's longing for the absent lover as the minister's loyalty and devotion to serve the ruler. In both scenarios, the feminine figuration serves male interests. The parallel between the verbal and visual representation is indeed striking, with similar props—boudoirs, mirrors, garden settings, flora and fauna, landscape scenes, and so on—surrounding the elegant beauty, highlighting femininity, interiority, and secluded space in both verse and painting.
While few paintings of beauties could compare to the kind of opulent allure exemplified by Prince Yinzhen's 胤禛 (later the Yongzheng emperor, r. 1722–1735) twelve screen paintings analyzed by Wu Hung,23 the genre's popular appeal is evidenced by extant specimens and ekphrastic poems on paintings of beauties.24 According to the late James Cahill, as the new scholar-official class came to dominate the field of painting and painting theory in the Song dynasty, they valorized the spontaneity and naturalness in the execution of monochrome ink paintings of landscape and devalued the mannered skill and craft associated with the repertory of detailed color paintings by professional painters of the imperial academy, of which portraiture and figure painting formed an important component.25 In this narrative of connoisseurship, Cahill explains, paintings of beautiful women, which came into vogue in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, fell outside the dominant aesthetic and art historical values of scholar-literati critics, connoisseurs, and collectors in the Qing. Yet, outside such orthodox elite circles, meirenhua gained wide popularity in the burgeoning urban culture of the Ming and Qing. Advanced by master figure painters in the Ming, paintings of beauties, among what Cahill calls “vernacular paintings,” were produced by professional painters and workshops in the Jiangnan region. These “pictures for use and pleasure,” paintings of everyday life, paintings for festivals and special occasions, pictures for decoration and gifts, fulfilled social and ritual functions and provided enjoyment in the ever-expanding consumer culture of the day.
Paintings of beautiful women, whether by anonymous artists or spuriously attributed to famous masters of the past, became part of popular culture in the late imperial period. They were disparaged by detractors on the one hand and praised by aficionados on the other. While an amateur scholar-literati painter in the drama Liaodugeng 療妬羹 (Jealousy Curing Soup) by Wu Bing 吳炳 (seventeenth century) declared it “the lowest grade of painting in an artist's repertory,”26 the Qing literatus Gao Chonghu 高崇瑚 (b. 1776), native of Huating (part of Shanghai), asserted that
only beautiful women can embody the excellence of all paintings, from famous landscapes to marvelous birds and flowers. Even the splash-ink techniques of Jing [Hao] and Guan [Tong] and the brushwork of Cui [Bai] and Ai [Xuan] cannot compare to the integrated perfection of paintings of gentlewomen.
By citing four masters from the Five Dynasties and Northern Song—Jing Hao (fl. 855–915) and Guan Tong (tenth century) are both renowned for landscape painting, and Cui Bai (fl. 1050–1080) and Ai Xuan (eleventh century) for bird and flower painting—Gao celebrates the technical finesse of the genre of beauties and its integration of diverse elements from the other categories of painting, and subverts the orthodox hierarchy of painting by putting it at the pinnacle of the art. Gao and his younger brother Chongrui 崇瑞 belonged to a local literary society whose membership included scholar-official and calligrapher Wang Qisun 王芑孫 (1755–1817) as well as the Manchu painter Gaiqi 改琦 (1774–1829), a native of Huating who was well-known for his delicate paintings of female figures and illustrations of the Dream of the Red Chamber.28
By this period, the genre's popularization had long surpassed any exclusive male purview. Women in scholar-gentry families had joined in this cultural trend as keen consumers and producers in their own manner. Their ekphrastic poems on paintings of beautiful women inscribe their gendered views from spatially and socially defined positions, providing a point of entry to explore their “gaze.” Women's personal and homosocial space was situated in the inner quarters—their own or those of female kin, friends, and acquaintances. Men could venture out to other homosocial sites such as literati gatherings and the pleasure quarters. It was there where Cahill proposed that fine specimens of generic beautiful women, pictures of “pure meiren,” would have contained “sexual iconography,” the beauties painted in evocative poses with suggestive decorative objects by their side.29 I conjecture that the meiren paintings that women viewed and enjoyed at home would have been “consumer items,” not fine collectibles or the paintings that were intended to titillate their menfolk.30
Gentry women's experience of paintings of beautiful women were situated in the rituals and aesthetics of everyday life. The work of connoisseurship by Wen Zhenheng 文震亨 (1585–1645), Zhangwu zhi 長物志 (Treatise on Superfluous Things), provides a valuable record of the rich material culture of the late Ming and a glimpse into the uses and functions of paintings, calligraphy, and other art objects in literati collections and elite households.31 In particular, the fifth chapter on calligraphy and painting contains a section titled “Xuanhua yueling” 懸畫月令 (Calendrical Schedule for Hanging Paintings), which offers a guide to categories of paintings suitable for display according to the seasons and occasions. Among them, paintings of gentlewomen (shinü) are recommended for several occasions during the year: at the beginning of the year in spring; on the Double Seventh Festival, when women prayed for skill in needlework; a painting of the Drunken Consort Yang is recommended for late autumn; and the Queen Mother of the West for year's end.32
The typical formats in which paintings of beauties were produced served different functions in daily life in the inner quarters. Women would have had various opportunities to view or look at visual materials in the environment of the household, alone or with others. Folding screens demarcated and divided interior space; hanging scrolls could be selected for display according to season and occasion, as Wen Zhenheng suggested, or according to mood and preference; handscrolls and album leaves could be enjoyed in intimate settings by oneself or with family members and friends; painted fans were functional objects especially appreciated in summer and could be inscribed with poems as gifts and tokens of friendship. Women's production of ekphrastic poetry was situated in such “private” environments.33
Case Studies on the Female Gaze
A Model of Conventional Sentiments: Shen Yixiu's Six Poems on Paintings of Beautiful Women on a Screen
The repertory of ekphrastic poetry on different subjects and genres of painting included in the literary collections of gentry women corroborates not only their shared visual experiences but also women's affective and aesthetic responses to them. The late Ming gentry woman Shen Yixiu's 沈宜修 (1590–1635) series “Six Poems on Beauties on a Paneled Screen” (Ti pingshang meiren liushou 題屏上美人六首) offers an apt illustration.34 Shen was born to a distinguished scholar-official family in Jiangnan. Her companionate marriage with Ye Shaoyuan 葉紹袁 (1589–1649) and their three talented daughters were introduced by Dorothy Ko in her seminal work Teachers of the Inner Chambers.35 As a young wife, Shen was often separated from her husband, who, like many men in the scholarly class, was frequently away from home in pursuit of study and career. Although these ekphrastic poems are not dated or otherwise contextualized in any detail, the series could have been written during Ye Shaoyuan's absence from home. That Shen Yixiu did not give her six poems individual titles suggests that the paintings on the paneled screen were also not titled. When given, titles of paintings of beauties are often rather generic, reflecting a common repertory that had accumulated over centuries (see examples in the third case, “Looking at Paintings of Beauties,” below). The settings and personae in several panels as represented by Shen's poetic ekphrasis show exactly that; the subjects of the paintings seem to have been drawn from a general repertory of the meirenhua genre. The visual images depicted in the first three poems could fit generic titles such as “Beauty beneath Willows” (Liuxia meiren 柳下美人), “Beauty and Apricot Blossoms” (Xinghua meiren 杏花美人), and, for poem 3, either “Beauty and Banana Tree” (Bajiao meiren 芭蕉美人) or “Beauty with Round Fan” (Tuanshan meiren 團扇美人), because the two images, both commonly associated with settings and objects in meirenhua, are present in this painting as described by Shen. The scenes and motifs inscribed in her poems are so familiar in the genre that a four-panel screen of beauties in four seasons by Fei Danxu 費丹旭 (1802–1850), famous for his paintings of beautiful women in all formats, illustrates the kind of screen paintings Shen Yixiu's poems describe (fig. 1).36
Shen Yixiu works the conventions of the visual genre by textualizing the imagery on the screen to evoke the emotions of a female persona alone37—the sadness of separation from and longing for a loved one in different seasonal settings (three poems in spring, three in autumn). The first poem describes a scene drawn with lush willows (“spring tendrils” in line 2, “myriad strands” in line 4) growing by a riverbank in spring, traditionally signifying a site of parting. The poem plays on parting and absence and the return of spring without the return of the traveling lover:
|By an isle of nenuphar an expanse of clear ripples||荇渚晴波眇|
|2||Spring tendrils recall the one faraway.||春條憶遠人|
|When the east wind blows on vying green leaves||東風吹競綠|
|4||For whom do the myriad strands grow in spring?||萬縷為誰春38|
A conventional reading of the poem would take the stereotypical image of new willow leaves in spring as a metaphor for the beauty longing for the absent lover faraway (see line 2), which adumbrates the longing in the last line. As a poetic ekphrasis on a meirenhua, the poem invites the reader to suppose a beauty pictured on the screen. If the beauty in the painting was meant to invite a male gaze and male identification as the longed-for absent lover, the gaze—the poet's vision—in the ekphrastic poem eschews any representation of the feminine figure and shifts the visual focus to the landscape elements—the young willow tree with its new leaves and color displaces the beauty as the object of the ekphrasis and becomes the affective vehicle for the poet.
The remaining five poems revert to more conventional modes of representation, depicting the embodied presence of the meiren by articles of attire (poems 2, 3, 5 and 6) and alluding to her interiority by references to dream, sorrow, and a feeling of ennui (poems 2, 3, 4). Shen's poetic ekphrasis on paintings of beautiful women essentially subscribes to the conventional literary representation of the persona of the abandoned woman in states of waiting and longing, even when Shen evades the image of the beauty in poem 1. The series draws on well-established stock images.
Only in poem 5, written about a panel with two figures—the beauty with a female friend (ban 伴)39—does Shen inscribe female homosociality, in which the poetic image of gowns soaked by dew evokes the familiar figure of a lonely woman standing in the courtyard deep into the night waiting for her lover; Shen recodes it to signify two female friends enjoying a prolonged moment of music and flowers in the feminine space of the garden.
|At dusk she leads her companion to the flowers' shade||挈伴花陰晚|
|2||Playing the flute in the cool of evening.||吹蕭弄夕涼|
|Thick scent wafting from cassia blossoms||穠香飄桂粟|
|4||White dew dampens their gowns.||白露濕衣裳40|
The last panel and the accompanying poem in Shen Yixiu's series return to a spring scene in a garden with a blossoming plum tree, another signifier of youth and beauty (that are soon to fade). The narration animates the static beauty in the painting with motion: she shakes the branch to bring it down to pick a sprig of plum blossom and gazes toward Mount Long, the faraway frontier where her lover is located, the immeasurable distance hidden by clouds.
|The plum spits jade blossoms in the front courtyard||梅吐庭前玉|
|2||Shaking it lightly, green sleeves lowered.||輕搖碧袖低|
|With a branch of spring in her hand||一枝春在手|
|4||She turns to look—Mount Long lost in clouds.||翹首隴雲迷41|
The poetic sentiments resonate with the visual theme on the screen; the poet-narrator identifies with the beauty who is suspended in timeless anticipation of the lover's return. Gender enables identification and empathy and trumps objectification.
Painting Beautiful Women for Women: Female Homosociality and Ni Renji's Self-Ekphrasis
A native of Pujiang (present-day Jinhua, Zhejiang), Ni Renji 倪仁吉 (1607–1685), courtesy name Xinhui 心惠, style name Ningxiangzi 凝香子 (Master of Congealed Scent), was born into an affluent scholar-official family; her father and three elder brothers were all metropolitan graduates (jinshi 進士) who reached high rank in the bureaucracy. Ni's exceptional talents in the literati arts were nurtured from a young age and she was especially praised for her expertise in painting in all genres. She was married at seventeen to Wu Zhiyi 吳之藝 (d. 1624) of nearby Yiwu, also from a scholar-official family of elevated pedigree. The companionate marriage lasted three brief years until Wu died; Ni lived as a widow at her marital home for the remainder of her life. She received state recognition (jingbiao 旌表) for her chaste widowhood when she reached sixty, and she died in her late seventies. Such are the basic facts about her life—plain, uneventful, even dull—that are repeated in prefaces to her collections, entries in anthologies, bibliographical catalogs, and biographical dictionaries, with no specific mention that she lived through the Ming-Qing transition.42 Recent scholarship has focused on one of Ni Renji's artistic skills—the unusual art of embroidering with hair, especially on paintings of religious icons to express devotion, a practice particularly associated with women.43 Ni embroidered a portrait of the Bodhisattva Guanyin with the hair of a woman devotee née Wu, the surname of Ni's husband's family.44 Although not mentioned in biographical sources, this demanding art form complements Ni's manifold talents and highlights her religious devotion.
In 2007, the town of Yiwu, Ni's marital home, where she lived sixty-some years as a widow, commemorated the four hundredth anniversary of her birth with great fanfare and the publication of a massive miscellaneous tome that, fortunately, includes her poetry collection, reproductions of a few extant paintings, and an album of ancestral portraits of her husband's lineage that Ni painted (fig. 2).45 Painting portraits of deceased members of the family or lineage seems to have been a not uncommon practice of gentry women who painted (see the third case, “Looking at Paintings of Beauties,” below). Ni was celebrated as a “peerless talented woman” (juedai cainü 絕代才女), a local cultural icon.46
In 1658, Ni Renji wrote a short preface for the collection of 140 quatrains titled Shanju zayong 山居雜詠 (Miscellaneous Poems while Dwelling in the Mountains) that she composed while reminiscing about the occasion when she had returned to her natal home in Pujiang a few years earlier, in 1654–1655, to escape the unsettled situation in Yiwu during the Ming loyalist resistance to the Manchu conquest. She had an unexpected reunion with her niece Ni Yizi 倪宜子, her brother's daughter, who had also returned to her natal home for the lunar new year. Ni recounts the occasion in the preface:
My family's dwelling was between Lan[xi] and Pu[jiang] where beautiful hills and streams lie secluded. Horses and carts could not reach the deep and quiet woods by the ravine. . . . In the years [Yi]wei and [Bing]shen (1655–1656), the eastern part of Yiwu was constantly on alert due to war. I escaped home. At the same time, my niece Yizi came to visit during the Lantern Festival.47 Together with my sister-in-law and two or three female companions, we looked for famous sights to visit. All day long we wandered among mountain paths. At the time lingering snow was congealed on the peaks, the scent of plum blossoms was beginning to tease, bamboos sounded like they were gently tapping on jade, and the burbling stream a zither playing. The open country was stimulating, and pure thoughts could be scooped up by the handful. Yizi said, “These could be painted!” She then cut plain silk48 and asked me to do several dozen paintings of gentlewomen. She thought that while it would be difficult to portray the true self, it should be easy to paint [the images] in color.49 I also had thoughts of painting immortals in the celestial realm. When I finished the assignment, for a laugh I said, “I could only paint the local lass from the east, how could she be like the beauty Xishi?”50 As my ideas were not spent, inspired by the scenes we saw, I intended to divide them into different titles to portray the superb landscape. Before I was able to do so, Yizi passed away. How unbearable, this sorrow! Although the colors and light of the landscape and the moon's traces through the shadows of trees are still clearly in my mind, the beautiful scenes can no longer be revived.
余家居蘭浦之間,溪山深秀,壑樹窅幽,既車馬跡所不到 . . . . . . 歲在未申 (1655–1656), 東義烽警相接,余避地歸,而姪女宜子亦於上元過探,與吾嫂氏暨二三女伴選勝,盡日盤桓山徑中。於時殘雪凝巒,梅馨初逗,竹聲戛玉,澗溜鳴琴,野況撩人,清思可掬,宜子曰:是可圖也。乃翦素,索余作仕女數十幀,以為真色難生,丹青易寫,而余亦作天際真人想。既卒業為一粲曰:秪能繪出東鄰,如西子何?餘意未已,復擬即景分題,為佳山水寫照。未果,已而宜子下世,不任人琴之痛。雖胸臆間山光水色,月痕樹影,歷歷宛在,而幽事不復可得。51
This lyrical preface captures and illuminates a poignant moment of female homosociality that so seldom makes its way into written records. It was a paradise amid war, a fleeting female utopia much treasured by the women that was ironically afforded by the special circumstances of warfare and the New Year season. To be able to roam freely at will in nature, to gaze at and take in the scenery and landscape in the open air, must have been exhilarating for these women. What seems extraordinary, even incongruous, is her niece's ensuing request for Ni to produce paintings of gentlewomen. What is the connection between gentlewomen paintings and the lovely landscape of lingering snow, fragrant plum blossoms, whispering bamboos, and flowing stream? The link these women affirm between nature's beauty and feminine beauty seems to foreshadow the summation of paintings of beautiful women pronounced by Gao Chonghu more than a century later (discussed above). It seems for Yizi, the perfect scene or landscape needed the presence of the feminine image to be complete. The aunt obliged by painting several dozen for her niece and female companions to enjoy. Even then, Ni was not satisfied and planned to group the scenes and produce more paintings, but the project was derailed by the untimely death of her beloved niece. She appended a handful of Yizi's poems at the end of her collection with a note saying that she had found them in an old box.52
Ni Renji's love of the genre of beautiful women coupled with her artistic productivity over her long life probably resulted in hundreds of these paintings. But they did not survive, except perhaps for one (fig. 3). The hanging scroll of a gentlewoman is signed by Ni: “In the first month of winter, Gengxu (1670), in imitation of Song painters' style” 庚戌孟冬摹宋人筆意. The feminine figure holding a fan in three-quarter view is drawn with delicate brushwork in muted tones, standing in a sparse garden landscape with a few clusters of chrysanthemums growing amid chiseled rocks against a backdrop of distant hills in the upper space of the scroll. The figure and scene emanate quiet and calm. The scroll appears different from the bolder colors and projected energy in the paintings of beauties that Ni describes in her ekphrastic poem series. Ni did not paint for economic reasons—there was no need to; she painted for her own pleasure and that of other women. Her contemporary Wang Shilu 王士祿 (1626–1673), who was compiling records about women's literary and artistic skills, acknowledged Ni's virtue as a chaste widow and mentioned her poetry collection, but he especially praised her paintings of beauties: “The beautiful women she painted capture all manners and attitudes and are extremely attractive. She is lauded for her consummate skill. She is also expert in landscape painting” 寫美人極妍盡態,稱為絕技,亦工山水.53 This suggests that Ni's paintings did circulate outside her family context in her lifetime, perhaps for social purposes. Most of them were destroyed or lost in the aftermath of the Ming-Qing transition.54
What remains is two sets of Ni's self-ekphrastic poems written about some of her own paintings of beautiful women. A set of thirty-six poems titled “Gongyitu shi” 宮意圖詩 (Poems on Paintings of Palace Themes) includes a variety of paintings of beauties.55 But in these, the feminine figures often appear together in small groups in palace settings, rather than the generic beauty being the single or dominant focus, which potentially provokes objectification and fetishization.
The series of thirteen poems titled “Ti zixie liren tu” 題自寫麗人圖 (Inscriptions for Pictures of Beautiful Women I Painted) reflects the generic focus on a single beauty in each painting.56 We do not know whether Ni inscribed the poems on the paintings and then transcribed them for inclusion in her poetry collection. Because Ni was writing about her own paintings that are no longer extant, without the visual image or any other contextual clue to inform the reading, the relationship between the poet's visual representation and her self-ekphrasis becomes somewhat like a hermetic circle. The ekphrastic poem is self-referential without the external referent, the painting, especially when the painter was a master of the genre and may have had other ideas of representation (e.g., aimed at her niece and female friends). Some poems in the series create sensations and perceptions that cannot easily be conveyed in painting. Take for example, poem 1, on a dancer:
|In light skirt and long sleeves she advances with meandering step,||輕裙長袖徘徊進|
|2||Sash fastened round her thin waist, irresistibly charming.||帶急腰羸不耐嬌|
|At the third movement of “Mulberry Branch” she is about to enter,||一曲柘枝將入破|
|4||Just like the returning snow swirling with the wind.||便同回雪信風飄57|
The entire poem is about movement generated by the beautiful dancer and the sound accompanying her movements; the verbal representation conveys the dynamic energy of the still image, shifting from line to line: the dancer advances by stepping back and forth (line 1), with sash twirling around her waist (line 2) as she enters the stage in the third movement of the dance melody (line 3), and her effortless dance steps are described as snow drifting in the wind (line 4). Ni's ekphrasis enacts movement by the flow of words in the poetic form. However, her poetic ekphrasis can also arrest movement to create other effects:
|A railing with six bends, an eight-panel screen,||六曲欄干八摺屏|
|2||Encircling red blooms and green foliage envelop the beauty.||圍紅繞翠護娉婷|
|Layers of them don't block a pair of orioles warbling,||重重不礙雙鶯囀|
|4||She gets to listen by herself with tender feeling.||贏得含情獨自聽58|
The visual objects—winding railing, eightfold screen, layers of plants, whether architectural design, interior objects, or natural features that suggest blockage and restriction—are reinscribed by ekphrastic description to signify a protective but aurally permeable environment that augments the sense perception attributed to the feminine persona, who is afforded solitude to enjoy the sounds of nature, undisturbed and contented. Thus, the poetic ekphrasis writes against the convention of the lonely, abandoned woman. Perhaps that is the effect that the ekphrasis is intended to produce, especially if the poem was inscribed on the painting itself.
In poem 10, the opening line also depicts temporal changes that cannot be represented visually—rain stopping:
|Dense red flowers have all fallen, rain just stopped,||繁紅落盡雨初收|
|2||In a courtyard dim and chilly, it feels autumnal.||庭際陰陰意似秋|
This seasonal scene serves to situate two scenarios in the second couplet: that of the beauty in the painting and that of the artist creating the painting.
|Going back and forth, following butterflies and chasing fragrance,||隨蝶逐香回復往|
|4||Everywhere are clear traces of paired footprints / Everywhere are clear traces of double outline.||清痕無處不雙鈎59|
The couplet represents two scenarios that cannot be achieved simultaneously on the visual plane: the phrase “going back and forth” (hui fu wang) in line 3 describes both what the beauty is depicted as doing as pastime in the garden, on the one hand, and, on the other, the method of the painter's brushwork in the painting. The last line similarly serves double duty through the term shuanggou, literally “double hook,” which refers to the technique of outlining using vertical and horizontal brushstrokes to sketch the object and is also a euphemism for women's bound feet in their tiny, pointed shoes. The painter-poet creates a couplet that doubles up to describe the persona's pastime in the garden as well as the painter's method and the subject of the painting.
No doubt skillfully executed, Ni's paintings, as re-presented/reconstructed by her ekphrastic poems, consist of a random series of beauties in conventional settings of boudoir and garden with no programmatic design. It is in Ni's ekphrastic poems where she introduces points of “difference,” other perspectives, to invoke other readings.
Looking at Paintings of Beauties: Gan Lirou's Pleasure from Youth to Old Age
In her old age, Gan Lirou 甘立媃 (1743–1819), courtesy name Ruyu 如玉, carefully arranged her poetry chronologically for publication as Yongxuelou gao 詠雪樓稿 (Draft Poems from the Tower for Chanting Snow). The resulting autobiographical collection enables readers to locate her poems in the stages of her life journey.60 Both Gan Lirou's natal and marital families were from Jiangxi province, on the periphery of the cultural and commercial heartland of Jiangnan. Nonetheless, they were well-to-do scholar-official families and Gan received the kind of feminine education a liberal and cultured family would provide to their daughters. As referenced in her poems, Gan was taught by her parents and older siblings and became proficient in the various arts of poetry, calligraphy, painting, and playing the zither along with embroidery and didactic teachings for women.61 At twenty-one sui, Gan married Xu Yuelü 徐曰呂, courtesy name Baihuang 拜璜 (1745–1774), from the same county. The couple had a companionate marriage for ten years before Gan was left a widow with four small children. She brought them up with support from her solicitous mother-in-law. Her younger son had a successful official career after passing the civil service examination. Consequently, Gan lived a comfortable and fulfilled life in old age, well cared for by her devoted son.
Gan Lirou's lifelong dedication to writing poetry began at the age of seven, proudly indicated in the first poem in her collection, “On the Round Moon: Composed at Seven sui” (Yong yuanyue qisui zuo 咏圓月七歲作),62 and culminated in more than nine hundred poems by the end of her life. This huge poetic record is sprinkled with a sample of occasional poems written on a variety of paintings in different formats and genres, including landscape and figure paintings, especially that of beautiful women. Gan wrote these tihuashi at different stages throughout her life, except for the first thirty years of her widowhood. Shortly after her husband died, she wrote a poem upon painting his portrait, “Painting a True Portrait in Memory of My Deceased Husband” (Zhuixie fuzi zhenrong 追寫夫子真容).63 Gan resumed her enjoyment of paintings and writing about them when she was over sixty, after her son began his official career. Seen within this lifelong trajectory, Gan's poems on painting inscribe experiences and subjectivity and meaningful reflections on the self from youth to marriage and old age.
A set of eight poems written in adolescence titled “Respectfully Harmonizing with Father's Poems on Pictures of Beauties” (Gong he yanqin yong meirentu 恭和嚴親咏美人圖) suggests that her family owned an album depicting beautiful women. Although her father's poems have not survived, Gan Lirou's followed his in form, rhyme, and topic on eight pictures of beautiful women (with topics indicated at the end of each poem). More than merely an exercise to develop the literary skills of a young lady, the poems also instantiate the father-daughter bond, showing the nurturing environment of her family. This series is one among many of her juvenilia poems written in the company of parents and siblings during family gatherings, festivals, birthday celebrations, and other occasions.
Like Shen Yixiu's paneled screen of painted beauties, the eight subjects of the album are readily found categories of images of women; they show a group of scenes, settings, and activities that are commonly depicted in the genre:
“Beauty beneath Blossoms” (Huaxia meiren 花下美人)
“Beauty Sleeping” (Shui meiren 睡美人)
“Beauty Performing Song and Dance” (Gewu meiren 歌舞美人)
“Beauty Embroidering” (Cixiu meiren 刺繡美人)
“Beauty Picking Lotus” (Cailian meiren 採蓮美人)
“Beauty Playing the Zither” (Fuqin meiren 撫琴美人)
“Beauty on a Swing” (Qiuqian meiren 鞦韆美人)
“Beauty Looking in the Mirror” (Duijing meiren 對鏡美人).64
These poems show how visual and textual engagement with idealized generic representations of feminine scenes and activities formed part of a young girl's quotidian pleasures in a scholar-literati family. In poem 1, on a beautiful woman standing under a blossoming tree, Gan delights in the opportunity to show her understanding of the visual conventions of the genre and her ekphrastic skill in producing a clever and sentimental turn at the end of the quatrain:
|Beauty beneath Blossoms||花下美人|
|A curved railing winds around green shades,||曲曲欄杆繞綠陰|
|2||Charming and timid—gently she leans on the fragrant trees.||柔肢嬌怯倚芳林|
|By chance she has come to stand for a while beneath the flowers||偶來花下逡廵立|
|4||Flowers naturally have no heart but human beings do.||花自無心人有心65|
The last line emphasizes human feeling (xin) but stops short of defining it, creating an ambiguity that avoids associating the heart with the romantic desire that is ascribed to the alluring beauty in the genre, or to the teenage poet.
In her poetry collection, Gan commemorated her companionate marriage of eleven years by including sixty-five linked verses (lianju 聯句) written with her husband.66 Xu Yuelü was also often away from home studying and trying to pass the examinations. Husband and wife wrote epistolary verse to each other when apart; when together at home, they would record the joys of conjugal life in poetry. They wrote linked verses together as pastime, alternating with each other in writing a line, a couplet, or a quartet, signing with their courtesy name after the part they composed. A linked ekphrastic verse on the picture of a beautiful woman combines visual pleasure with poetic creativity:
|Inscribed on the Picture of a Beauty||題美人圖|
|Spring on her rouged face, her lips vermilion dots||粉臉生春唇點朱|
|2||Willowy waist gently swaying, she needs someone for support.||柳腰嬝娜倩人扶|
|About to inscribe—I want to ask whether the painter's hand||臨題欲問丹青手|
|4||Was able to reveal her fragrant heart.||能把芳心寫出無|
While Xu's couplet faithfully focuses on the visual representation of the female body, the sensual features of the beauty in the painting—the powdered face, red lips, and willowy waist—for her part Gan poses a question of representation, asking whether the visual medium can depict inner feeling in outward form.
For thirty years after her husband's death, Gan Lirou did not write any poems on paintings. She observed the austerity of widowhood and eschewed enjoyment of aesthetic pleasure, as represented in her poetic records. However, in old age, after her son's success and her mourning had turned to remembrance, her sense of humor and pleasure in the arts returned, as suggested by three poems on paintings of beauties she wrote in her sixties. The titles of the first two paintings are indicative of the type of meirenhua addressed to the male gaze: a sleeping beauty and a beauty carrying a pet cat in her bosom. In her ekphrastic poetic rendition, Gan plays with the innuendos:68
|Inscribed on a Picture of a Sleeping Beauty||題睡美人圖|
|Dreamy phoenix eyes hidden deep||朦朧鳳眼細深藏|
|2||Lotus hooks obliquely revealed, pressing on embroidered bed.||仄露蓮鉤壓繡床|
|Know you not that Luofu herself has a husband?||知否羅敷夫自有|
|4||Don't go looking for King Xiang in your dream.||休從夢裏覓襄王69|
In the first couplet, the sleeping beauty is perceived to be hiding deep secrets behind her closed lids while her three-inch lotus-bound feet are tantalizingly exposed in bed. In the second couplet, the poetic speaker warns the sleeping beauty not to dream of seeking an affair with King Xiang, reversing the original story of the King seeking an affair with the Goddess of Mount Wu and giving the dreaming beauty subjectivity.70 Gan's poem is a deliberate misreading or exposure of the erotic appeal to the male gaze embedded in the subject of the painting from the perspective of a penetrating female gaze. She turns to imagining and having some fun with women's amorous desires. Similarly, in “Inscribed on the Picture of a Beauty Holding a Cat in Her Arms,” Gan's ekphrasis paints a seductive beauty not dressed for picking mulberry leaves but for romantic dalliance, yet this beauty (and the next) worries that “spring thoughts” would be stirred in the mulberry fields, using the trope of improper encounters associated with the yuefu song on picking mulberry leaves. The kitten is given some erotic connotation in this context as a substitute for a lover:71
|Inscribed on a Beauty Holding a Cat in Her Arms||題美人抱貓圖|
|Phoenix eyes fixed on love, long brows painted in kingfisher hue||鳳眼凝情眉翠長|
|2||Tall chignon of raven cloud matches her new cosmetics.||烏雲高髻稱新粧|
|Suspecting that spring thoughts would be stirred on the field path,||為嫌陌上牽春思|
|4||She would rather hold the little kitten than pick mulberry leaves.||願抱猧兒不採桑72|
Gan's ekphrastic subversions, conducted with a wily gaze, seem to have been reserved for paintings that appealed to the male gaze. In other paintings of beauties with culturally coded symbols, such as the noble plum blossoms, she accommodates them rather than creating an incongruous poem or a parodic doggerel. Her two poems written on a fan painting of a beauty seeking plum blossoms in the snow are appropriately lighthearted and discreet in exhibiting her pleasures in the everyday:
|Inscribed on a Fan Painting of a Beauty Stepping on Snow to Look for Plum Blossoms||題扇面美人踏雪尋梅圖|
|On a silk fan with round dots newly painted—||紈扇團團點染新|
|2||The same bright purity, the colors are completely true.||一般皎潔色全真|
|Who put out this stunning scene of nature||天然絕景誰傳出|
|4||With a beauty among the flowers in the snow?||雪裏花間一美人|
|A new charming posture as the fan unfolds||嬌態新從便面開|
|2||I thought the shadowy fragrance came from the fingers.||暗香疑自指頭來|
|Blossoms from the brush snatched the ingenuity of heavenly flowers||筆花奪得天花巧|
|4||Even the spirit of Mount Guye may not know how to fashion them.||姑射神人未許裁73|
As the folded fan opens, Gan's ekphrasis captures the pleasure of her gaze at the beauty revealed among plum blossoms and the superior brushwork—“blossoms from the brush”—that created them. Her question at the end of the first quatrain suggests the everydayness of the fan with its anonymous but fine painting. In Gan's collection, we see ekphrastic poetry written by a respectable gentry woman of the High Qing throughout her life, from innocent adolescent just learning the art to aged matriarch—wise, respected, and good-humored.
The Subversive Artistry of Chen Yunlian: An Epilogue
A native of Jiangyin, Jiangsu, Chen Yunlian 陳蘊蓮 (ca. 1800–after 1860), courtesy name Muqing 慕青, was born into an undistinguished scholar-literati family in Jiangnan, but one that nurtured the literary and artistic talents of their daughters. Because of Chen's literary acumen and the lack of other sources, everything we know about her life comes from her poetry collection, Xinfangge shicao 信芳閣詩草 (Poetry from the Loft of Trusting Fragrance). It appears that she prepared it for publication in 1851 in four juan with a self-preface 自序 (Zixu), most likely to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. But the extant edition, printed in 1859, contains an added juan 5 and includes at the end a set of self-inscriptions 自題 (Ziti), written in prose, on eight autobiographical paintings titled “Fuke Xinfangge ziti batu” 附刻信芳閣自題八圖 (Appended: Self-Inscriptions on Eight Pictures of Trusting Fragrance Loft).74 The paintings were not reproduced in the collection and are no longer extant. While some titles of paintings in the series suggest she drew from and subverted elements in paintings of beauties, Chen created an anomalous self-reflective artwork asserting radical difference, which we can only glimpse from her self-inscriptions, which are the substance of this last case study.
In her self-preface, Chen tells how she was passionate about poetry in her childhood and received instruction from her father. She was equally skilled in painting.75 The two arts became multifaceted tools that she deployed throughout her life for various aims—from self-expression to communication with her husband, social intercourse with other women and men, economic support, political chronicle, and more. Chen lived through both Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion; she was a keen “patriotic” recorder in her poetry of the Qing battles with foreign forces and the Taiping army.76
The collection is basically arranged chronologically, in which Chen essentially recorded her own life history. She received a typical gentry woman's education. At twenty-one sui she was married to Zuo Chen 左晨 (dates unknown), courtesy name Xiangting 向庭, of the well-known Zuo lineage of Changzhou 常州.77 The couple's many poetic exchanges and linked verse signal a companionate marriage. A daughter, Zuo Baiyu 左白玉, courtesy name Xiaolian 小蓮, was born in 1820 but predeceased them in 1856.78 In 1837, Chen moved to the port city of Tianjin after Zuo had found some employment; they spent the rest of their lives there in modest circumstances.
Chen also indicates in her preface that her fame in painting brought many requests and, consequently, she had neglected her poetry. The only extant painting by Chen, an exquisite painting of flowers on a fan, suggests the quality of her brushwork and why it appealed to popular taste (fig. 4). The income from her painting went toward supporting the family and enabled her to finance the publication of her poetry collection. Both her brother and even Zuo Chen testified to this in their preface and postscript respectively.79
Not only was Zuo singularly unsuccessful in his career, but in Chen Yunlian's eyes, he gradually became an inveterate philanderer, acquired a concubine, and continued whoring. Ultimately their marriage foundered. Chen's youth and talent might have maintained Zuo's romantic and sexual interests in the earlier stages of their marriage, but later, when he was frequently away from home on assignment or seeking employment, he was also pursuing other pleasures.
Chen's series of self-inscriptions for her eight paintings depicting vignettes from her marital life are a unique set of ekphrasis, written in prose, interpreting a set of authorial visual texts. She intended in no uncertain terms to use these paintings and her accompanying inscriptions to demonstrate her devotion, love, and sacrifice throughout her marriage. They are also an expression of the pain and bitterness of recollection, of anger and resentment, an acknowledgment that the initial conjugal love had vanished. She boldly accuses her husband of ingratitude and betrayal. Each self-inscription begins with the title of the painting, followed by the prose inscription (summarized below), presumably to guide the viewer to read the meaning of each visual representation. The raw emotions expressed would have exceeded the generic conventions of poetry.
In “The Harmonious Sounding of Zithers” (Qinse heming 琴瑟和鳴), Chen Yunlian recalls her marriage to Zuo Chen at twenty-one sui and the conjugal harmony between them. Yet, in her retrospective view, she likens herself to “a flourishing flower that fell into a latrine” and her marriage to “a small kalpa that destroyed a jeweled garland” 顧之墜溷之繁英,墮華鬘之小劫.80 She ends by noting the gulf between the past and present.
In “Discussing Poetry under Banana Trees” (Jiaoxia pingshi 蕉下評詩), she remembers Zuo Chen keeping her company in the boudoir and asking her to edit his verse. Attending her father-in-law in his post in the south, the young couple composed poetry together under banana plants in the garden during breaks from Zuo's study. She concludes: “It was truly supreme joy! Now it seems like another world. Thinking about it makes me despondent” 洵至樂也,今則如隔世也,思之黯然.
In “Linking Verses in Moonlight” (Yuexia lianju 月下聯句), she refers to a painting she made of the couple composing linked verse together during their halcyon days. Thinking about it now, she declares she wants to “burn the brush and throw away the inkstone” (fenqi biyan 焚棄筆硯), the instruments of misrepresentation.
In “Imploring Heaven in Wintry Storms” (Fengxue yutian 風雪籲天), she calls attention to her care and solicitude and his wanderlust. Knowing his philandering nature and worried about his temptations, she prayed to heaven for his safety every night when he traveled away from home, even during wintry storms.
In “Writing Poetry to Make a Living” (Xieyun mousheng 寫韻謀生), she relates that she helped him support the family by painting and writing inscriptions throughout the year. Although she gained a reputation in the capital, she shouldered the economic burden alone. Thinking about it now, she realizes that “it was truly utter stupidity” (cheng chijue ye 誠癡絕也).
The subject of “Slicing Off a Piece of Flesh to Cure the Illness” (Gegu liaobing 割股療病) and the accompanying self-inscription is the filial act known as gegu, which sons, daughters-in-law, and daughters undertook by slicing off a piece of flesh from their arm or thigh to use as medicine to cure a parent's illness.81 Chen, like some devoted wives, performed this act for her husband. She recorded that they had both been seriously ill in 1842. Zuo was on the verge of dying and doctors could do nothing about it. Although Chen had been ill herself, she performed gegu for Zuo and cured his illness. This self-representation by a woman, depicting herself performing the ultimate act of love and sacrifice in a painting, is a radical departure from self-effacement.
In “Sleepless Nights” (Mu bu jiaojie 目不交睫), Chen records another terrible disease that Zuo contracted in the seventh month in 1846. He had a huge boil on his neck and abscess on his back. She cared for him day and night without sleep for two months. She describes graphically how she cared for him when he developed an ulcer in his mouth, sparing no detail, however repulsive: “I knelt facing up at him and held the tube to feed him medicine by blowing it into his mouth. Thick blood, mucus, and phlegm all flowed into my mouth. It was not until the next spring that he got better. I thus made this painting to have it looked at, perhaps then one would know to be moved?” 余仰面跪而持管,為之吹藥,膿血涕唾,直注于口。至明春而得愈,遂作是圖,俾觀之或亦知動心否耶?
The last painting, “Wind and Rain by the Autumn Window” (Qiuchuang fengyu 秋窗風雨), depicts Chen's emotional state in the autumn of 1851 when Zuo was transporting grain supply to the military in Zhongzhou (Henan). She accused him of indulging in wine and women while she was abandoned alone in Tianjin. She wrote, “I composed a long poem entitled ‘An Evening of Wind and Rain: Sitting by the Autumn Window.’ This is the eighth painting” 得長句名秋窗風雨夕詞,是為圖八.82
From the companionate marriage depicted in the first three paintings and self-inscriptions, Chen turns to claim her wifely devotion and other virtues in the remaining paintings, with progressive incriminations of Zuo. When all was lost, she painted herself as an old woman beset by emotions—sad, angry, and deserted in a desolate autumn evening, her only outlet her poetic sensibility and artistic talent. The last painting culminates in the subversion and perversion of the objectification of a beautiful woman encircled by a window frame. In it, she turns the gaze on herself, representing herself as an old, discarded woman, but one with an eye on posterity as elaborated in her postscript directed at her intended readers, her descendants. Chen demands recognition of her contributions and accuses her husband by the means available to her:
These eight paintings from the time I married to today recall the past while looking at the present and are connected by the emotions stirred. Therefore, I had them mounted on scrolls to store in a box to bequeath to my descendants. They record in some measure what I experienced in my life. They will also show that I am not without merit to the Zuo family. On the sixteenth day of the seventh month in the ninth year of Xianfeng , postscript by Chen Muqing.
These unusual paintings were meant to be her legacy to her descendants. In another subversive move a year later during her visit with her husband's elder brother Zuo Ang 左昂 (1794–1870), courtesy name Chaosheng 巢生, and his family when they were in Beijing, Chen asked her brother-in-law to transcribe her eight prose self-inscriptions on the paintings because, as she explains in an interlineal note, her hands were then afflicted by rheumatism and she was unable to stretch her fingers to hold a brush.84
We can only reenvision this anomalous series of paintings through Chen's ekphrastic self-inscriptions. She drew on elements in paintings of beauties at the beginning—the settings with banana grove and moonlit nights85—to enhance the representation of the beauty and harmony of the young couple. Then she contrasted the beauty of their companionable days with the ugliness of their ruptured relationship in later years, ending with her final self-portrait as an old, abandoned woman framed by a window looking out at the autumn rain, a complete subversion of meirenhua. Had Chen Yunlian's set of paintings, her cri de coeur against her husband, survived, it might have come to be recognized as a daring artform protesting the injustice of the patriarchal system. Now only her shocking voice remains to join the core archival sources for women's interpretations of the visual medium and their constructions of the female gaze in the premodern era.
This study began with the theoretical question of the exclusion of women's participation as viewers and connoisseurs in literati art discourse in late imperial China. As most of the paintings that women produced, viewed, and/or owned have not survived, the poems they wrote on or about paintings constitute archival materials that enable us to excavate their visual and affective experiences. The female gaze examined in this study was inscribed in their poetic and, in one case, prose ekphrasis. These ekphrastic texts were written in conjunction with women's reception and production of paintings in one subgenre of figure painting, that of beautiful women, and are the means by which this study explores the inscription of the female gaze in premodern China and its potential for negotiation and subversion.
Originally constructed with appeal to the male gaze as subjects of longing and objects of desire, the generic nature of paintings of beauties and the genre's reproduction of set scenes and feminine subjectivities raise searching questions when we shift the focus of viewership and authorship to women. The very nature of the gendered subject of the visual representation in paintings of beautiful women implicates an interface of objectification and subjectivity in the ekphrastic process. The four case studies give insights into the visual culture of gentry women in late imperial China: they show the different ways in which visual pleasure and pain permeated their everyday existence and at different stages of their lives. The ekphrastic mode enabled and facilitated alterity and autonomy of choice, particularly in the writings of women painters. Even women who were just viewers asserted their interpretive agency. The poets—women or men—who took up the ekphrastic mode could animate and contextualize the images in their own words, for their own ends.
I owe a special debt of gratitude to Lara C. W. Blanchard and Maram Epstein for their critical acumen as readers of my paper during our special issue workshop and after, to Guojun Wang for his insightful comments, to Robin Yates for many rounds of careful reading, and to Danni Cai, Biao Zhang, and Frank Xuanyun Gong for their indispensable research assistance and technical help with images and data. My sincere thanks also go to Daisy Wang, Hyun-Suk Park, Shengqing Wu, Wu Hung, and Jeehee Hong for giving me opportunities to evolve this paper through several reincarnations.
E.g., the famous late Ming Nanjing courtesan Ma Shouzhen 馬守貞 (1548–1604) was the only woman among sixty friends invited to inscribe a colophon on the painter Zhou Tianqiu's 周天球 (1514–1595) painting of orchids (see Gugong shuhua, 20.281), and Dong Qichang himself inscribed a colophon on Xue Susu's 薛素素 (1570s–mid-1600s) painting of Guanyin (see Zhu, Jingzhiju, 2:23.765; and Blanchard's article in this issue).
Chou, Study and Translation, 102. Dong repeats this line at the beginning of Lunhua ce 論畫冊 (Discourse on Painting), an album of Dong's calligraphy held in the Palace Museum in Taipei (https://digitalarchive.npm.gov.tw/Painting/Content?pid=2601&Dept=P).
Paintings or illustrations of historical and exemplary women, often with didactic intent, are not considered in this study. Shinühua seems to be the preferred term when referring to a genre or subgenre of painting.
Mitchell provides readings of Homer and the other paradigmatic ekphrastic poem, John Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in “Ekphrasis,” 713–16.
See the woman painter Ni Renji's ekphrastic poems on her own paintings in the second case, “Painting Beautiful Women for Women,” below. Heffernan, Museum of Words, 6–7.
Mitchell, “Ekphrasis,” 705–6. This comparison recalls the connoisseurly view of painting as feminized object in relation to the male viewer in Chinese visual culture. But the gender dynamic between word and image involved in Western ekphrasis is rather different.
See the seminal essays in Hedley, Halpern, and Spiegelman, In the Frame, especially Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux, “Women Looking,” 141n5. I thank Miranda Hickman for introducing me to this work.
See Weidner et al., Views from Jade Terrace. While late-Ming courtesans were among the most well-known painters at the beginning of the trend, gentry women soon overtook them when courtesan culture declined in the Qing. For Qing women painters, see Brown, “Accomplished Women.”
Ronald Egan has written extensively on male-authored tihuashi in the Tang and Song periods. See “Poems on Painting from the High Tang to Later Tang” and “Poems on Paintings.” On Ming-Qing women's tihuashi, see Huang, Wan Ming zhi Sheng Qing nüxing tihuashi yanjiu.
Data obtained from the Microsoft Access database downloaded from the website (Ming Qing Women's Writing, https://digital.library.mcgill.ca/mingqing/ [accessed May 4, 2022]). Such poems contain the common keywords ti 題 plus hua 畫, tu 圖 (picture), ce 冊 (album), shan 扇 (fan), or ping 屏 (screen).
Three late Ming anthologies and one early Qing anthology of women's poetry all contain selections of tihuashi: Gujin nüshi 古今女史 (Lady Scholars Past and Present, 1628–1644), Mingyuan huishi 名媛彙詩 (Collected Poems by Famous Ladies, 1620), Mingyuan shigui 名媛詩歸 (Purport of Poetry by Famous Ladies, ca. 1625), and Mingyuan shiwei 名媛詩緯 (The Weft of Poetry by Famous Ladies, 1667).
Among 371 individual collections in the Ming Qing Women's Writings digital archive, 236, or nearly two-thirds, of the women poets wrote and published poems on paintings.
Theorized along the lines elaborated in Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure.”
Blanchard, Song Dynasty Figures, see especially chap. 3, “Male Audience and Authorship.” In chap. 4, Blanchard suggests a female audience for paintings of beauties depicted on fans.
When Yongzheng became emperor, they were stored away and hidden from view until rediscovered in the twentieth century. Wu, “Beyond Stereotypes,” 338–65.
See He and Shen, Lidai meirenhua, 10–15. The book provides a selection of poems on paintings of beauties (ti meirenhua 題美人畫) from Tang to Qing.
Cahill, Pictures, chap. 1.
Translated in Zeitlin, “Life and Death,” 232–33.
Quoted from Gao's Songxia qingzhai ji 松下清齋集 (Collection from Pure Studio beneath the Pines) in Xu, Zhongguo chuantong, 11. I have not been able to locate Gao's collection and the context in which he made this statement.
Cahill, Handler, and White, Beauty Revealed, 17–18; see figure 10. Most meirenhua in this catalog belong to the type that appealed to male viewers.
While some male poets identify the painter in the title of their ekphrastic poems on meirenhua, I have not found any by women poets with this information.
See Clunas on Zhangwu zhi as part of late Ming “specialized discourse on objects,” in Superfluous Things.
Wen, Zhangwu zhi, 38–39. Wen does not explain his recommendations. Many anecdotes circulated about the sensuous and seductive beauty of Yang Guifei 楊貴妃 (719–756), favorite consort of Tang emperor Xuanzong 玄宗 (685–762). On the Queen Mother of the West in Tang culture, see Cahill, Transcendence and Divine Passion.
As opposed to the socially accepted, open viewership practiced by their male counterparts. I thank Jeehee Hong for pointing out this difference.
Shen, Lichui 鸝吹 (Oriole Play), in Ye, Wumengtang ji, 1.85. Notably, Shen Yixiu's young daughter Ye Xiaoluan 葉小鸞 (1616–1632) also wrote a set of ten poems on beauties on what appears to be a different folding screen.
Except poem 5, which shows female camaraderie.
Ye, Wumengtang ji, 1.85. The riverbank is associated with the site of departure for a journey by boat, and the willow (liu 柳) puns on the homonym (liu 留), to detain someone.
By convention, meirenhua excludes the representation of male company in the pictorial space to focus on the beautiful woman and her objectification.
Mountain between Shaanxi and Gansu. Ye, Wumengtang ji, 1.85.
Tang Shuyu quotes from the local gazetteer of Yiwu, which emphasizes Ni's virtuous widowhood and mentions that she is capable in poetry and skillful at calligraphy and painting, and from Wang Shizhen 王士禛 (1634–1711), Chibei outan 池北偶談 (Occasional Chats from North of the Pond), in Tang, Yutai, 3.21a-b. Hu and Zhang, Lidai funü, 136–37; Lee and Wiles, Biographical Dictionary, 296–97.
Both Ko and Li cite a 1958 article by Hong Liang, who mentions that in 1957 he saw Ni's hair-embroidered painting in a private collection in Yiwu and took the photograph. It is not known what happened to the painting since. I agree with Ko's reading of the inscription on the painting transcribed by Hong—that the woman devotee née Wu (信女吳氏), likely a member of Ni's husband's lineage, provided the hair, and Ni did the embroidering.
The first section title is “Juedai cainü Ni Renji” 絕代才女倪仁吉 (The Peerless Talented Woman Ni Renji), Ni Renji danchen, 1.
Fifteenth of the first month, roughly mid-February.
Su 素: plain silk used for painting.
Yizi is clearly paraphrasing Tang Xianzu's 湯顯祖 (1550–1616) Mudan ting 牡丹亭 when Du Liniang 杜麗娘 was about to paint her self-portrait and her maid said, “Easy enough to sketch her aspect in hues red or dark; harder to portray the rare individual self” 丹青女易描,真色人難學. Translated in Birch, Peony Pavilion, 69.
A pun from the story about the beauty Xishi's frown (Xi meaning “west”), which made her even more alluring, and the girl neighbor to the east, who, in trying to imitate Xishi, made herself uglier. See “Tianyun” 天運 (The Turning of Heaven), in Chen, Zhuangzi, 373.
Ni, “Xiaoyin” 小引 (Small Preface), 1a–b, in Ningxiangge.
Ni, “Fu Ni Yizi shi” 附倪宜子詩 (Appended Poems by Ni Yizi), 1a, Shanju zayong, in Ningxiangge.
Wang, Gongguishi ji yiwen kaolüe 宮閨氏籍藝文考略 (Survey of the Literature and Art of Palace and Gentlewomen), quoted in Hu and Zhang, Lidai funü, 136–37.
Her poetry collection Ningxiangge shigao 凝香閣詩稿 (Poetry Draft of the Loft of Congealed Fragrance) met a similar fate. First published in 1664, the woodblocks were kept at the Wu's residence in Yiwu and were destroyed in 1674 during the revolt of Wu Sangui 吳三桂 (1612–1678), when Zhejiang province was taken by the rebels. The printed copies were also lost until a hand-copied collection was found in the possession of a Lu family in the same county. See Chen Yunyou's 陳雲友 preface, “Zaike Ningxiangge shi xu” 再刻凝香閣詩序 (Preface to the Reprint of Poetry Draft of the Loft of Congealed Fragrance), in Ni, Ningxiangge, Xu 1.
Ni, Gongyitu shi, second collection in Ningxiangge.
Ni, Ningxiangge, 24b–26b. The term Ni used, liren 麗人, is an unusual alternative for the painted image of a beauty, possibly indicating a shift away from the objectification implicit in meirenhua. Ni also used jiaren 佳人 as well as meiren to refer to painted beauties.
Gan's collection contains her poetry from adolescence, married life, widowhood, and old age in retirement. See Fong, Herself an Author, chap. 1.
See the poem “Painting” 繪圖 (Huitu), in Gan, Yongxuelou, 1.33b; see also poems in remembrance of her three elder brothers, who instructed her in painting, calligraphy, and playing the zither; Gan, Yongxuelou, 3.22a–b.
Ibid., 3.4a. Gan also painted a portrait of her mother-in-law after she died, see “Painting a True Portrait in Memory of My Deceased Mother-in-Law” (Zhuixie xiangu zhenrong 追寫先姑真容), in ibid., 3.19a. See Ni Renji's example (fig. 2).
Gan's teenage series on beauties discussed above contains one on “Beauty Sleeping,” obviously a popular representation.
Ibid., 4.13b–14a. On Luo Fu rebuffing a flirter when out picking mulberry leaves, see the ballad “Mulberries by the Path,” translated in Owen, Anthology of Chinese Literature, 234–35.
Song Yu, “The Poetic Exposition on Gao-tang,” in Owen, Anthology of Chinese Literature, 189–93.
See Julia White's reading of “Lady at a Window with Two Cats,” in Cahill, Handler, and White, Beauty Revealed, 52–53.
In “Xiaoyao you” 逍遙遊 (Free and Easy Wandering), Zhuangzi describes the spirit of Mount Guye (or Gushe) as gentle as a virgin with skin like ice and snow. “Guye” has come to stand also for a beautiful woman. See Chen, Zhuangzi, 21.
Ibid., “Xu,” 1a.
An avid reader of dichao 邸抄, “court bulletins” on current events, Chen records specific battles and incidents in poems interspersed with interlineal prose narratives giving concrete details, e.g., “Annihilating the [Taiping] Bandits at Tianjin” (Jinmen jiaozei 津門剿賊); Chen, Xinfangge, 5.2b–4b.
Chen taught painting to her husband's young nieces when they sojourned in Beijing in the late 1840s. She specifically mentions the sisters Zuo Xihui 左錫蕙 (dates unknown) and Zuo Xixuan 左錫璇 (1829–1895). See poem 3 in the series “Arriving in the Capital, I Was Happy to Meet Sixth Sister-in-Law Yun Lansheng and the Nieces and Nephews” (Didu xiwu Yun Lansheng liusi bing zhuzhi shinü 抵都喜晤惲蘭生六姒並諸姪姪女) and “On Leaving the Capital Sixth Sister-in-Law Yun Lansheng Prepared a Farewell Dinner and I Wrote a Parting Poem to Show to the Nieces and Nephews” (Jiangci chudu liusi Yun Lansheng shejian jixi liubie bingshi zhushi zhinü 將次出都六姒惲蘭生設餞即席留別並示諸姪姪女). Chen, Xinfangge, 4.8a–8b and 4.9b.
Chen mourned her daughter's death in a poem series; see Chen, Xinfangge, 5.11b–12b.
Zuo Chen's postscript, dated 1851, is at the end of juan 4 after the song lyrics (shiyu 詩餘); Chen, Xinfangge, Ba.1a–b.
A kalpa is a Buddhist concept of an immensely long span of time; a small kalpa is more than 16 million years. By using a well-known Buddhist analogy, Chen emphasizes the unbearable duration of the deterioration of the marriage.
On gegu and filial piety, see Yu, Sanctity, 62–88.
See the poem in Chen, Xinfangge, 4.24b–25b.
See poem 3 in the series “Rudu xiwu Lansun liusi” 入都喜晤蘭蓀六姒 (At the Capital Meeting Sister-in-Law Lansun); Chen, Xinfangge, 5.20b–21a. The preceding poem indicates the visit was in gengshen 庚申 (1860), which is after the year of printing (1859). This suggests the woodblocks for juan 5 were already carved and additional blocks for pages with later dates were added at the end.
These elements and settings are also found in literati figure paintings.