Women In The Chinese Art History

Chinese art is primarily focused on male artists. For this reason, women are not represented properly, despite the fact that they have played a great role in the Chinese art history not only as models but also as artists. Moreover, their involvement in the art field has influenced the understanding and acceptance of Chinese art. Therefore, this paper is focused on women’s role in the Chinese art history and their impact on the perception of Chinese art not only as a patriarchal tradition but as the expression of individualist ideas as well.

For a very long time, Chinese art had been viewed from the perspective of patriarchal heritage. Because of male domination among artists, the audience had been able to see Chinese art only from one angle. Male artists were concentrated on traditional issues in their works and used women as objects. Moreover, even when female artists were allowed to engage themselves in the art sphere, they were forbidden to go beyond men’s understanding of art. Female pieces were focused on flower themes, and for years they did not go further. However, as Chinese female artists developed their skills, they grew more confident, and their assurance that they were not objects was increasing. They became able to express their individualism and feminism through their works. Such artists began to appear only at the end of the 20th century. They believed that their beauty and social role had to be depicted by women themselves, but not through the male artists’ understanding of these concepts. Therefore, owing to such female artists, Chinese art began to be regarded not only through patriarchal traditionalism and collectivist notions but also through feminism and female individualism expressions.


Initially, Chinese art included women in the role of items that were painted by male artists. The period from the 10th to 19th century was a time when women were seen as objects of desire and viewing pleasure. Female paintings were very rare, and only two society classes had the right to paint: prostitutes from the outside world and inner chambers courtesans. When the girls turned fifteen, they were ready to become courtesans. Men demanded that they be not only beautiful but also talented, able to compose dramas and poetry, sing, and play music. Such attitude resulted in the appearance of many talented girls that could develop artistically and intellectually in comparison with the ladies from good families that were forbidden even to go outside of their home freely. With prostitutes, the situation was more difficult than with courtesans because they did not have a rich patron who would engage them in painting and poetry.

In premodern times, some wives and daughters of professional artists could also be involved in art, but only several of them managed to become famous enough to attract the attention of leading connoisseurs and collectors. They did counterparts of the male amateur painters whose practice and theories became dominant during the times of Qing and Ming dynasties. When the theoretical foundation of scholar-amateur painting was established in the Song period, a number of respected families started to boast of artistically gifted females. These women painted the same sceneries in the same styles as men. For instance, in the 11th century, Li Chang sister made perfect copies of the rocks, bamboo and pines paintings, while approximately in the same period, the third daughter of Wen Tong that was famous as a bamboo painter, learned her father’s methods and passed them on to her son. 

However, the most well-known female artist was Guan Daosheng, the wife of the famous painter and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu. Her talent was even recognized by the emperor. In her paintings, Guan Daosheng was focused on different subjects, including landscapes and Buddhist figures, but most of all, she was famous for her ink bamboo. Her focus on the bamboo painting was not typical for female artists because the subject was used to express masculine qualities, particularly, the ability not to break through bending and greenness despite winter. Such subject was painted mostly by male artists. However, Guan`s bamboo painting reached a great praise because of her masculine and strong brushstrokes that were not typical for women. Thus, her works were included in the imperial archives. The most critical Guan`s contribution to the bamboo painting genre was her ability to paint it as the landscape part in opposite to the isolated branches, closely pressed to the picture plane. One of her most known works is Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain that is a horizontal composition mounted in the Yuan works’ collective hand scroll. In this work the bamboo is painted as the thickets’ part in which it naturally placed. Moreover, the bamboo is seen as the subject to the atmosphere and landscape effects. The ink tonality is almost the same because Guan was focused on the subject that is affected by the portrayed misty atmosphere. Nowadays, the painting is placed in the Taipei’s National Palace Museum. The popularity of Guan Daosheng grew through the centuries. Moreover, both men and women copied her pieces. She was one of the several women that were mentioned in Chinese painting research surveys that were done by Western scholars, and her work were seriously studied by the Modern Chinese scholars. She was a bright example of the first little changes in the Chinese art understanding. Her works were officially admitted, which helped establish Chinese art not only as a strictly male domain but also a field where females could successfully express their perceptions. Beginning from Guan`s first successful attempts to paint subjects that were usually used only by male artists, started changes in understanding that female artists can  go beyond the common subjects and techniques. 

Other women were also active in the art area, but a significant number of females became involved in Chinese art during the Ming dynasty that lasted from 1368 to 1644. That period was known for its social development, including the growth of female literacy. Women rapidly started their artistic education that was expressed in literature reading, poetry composing, painting, and calligraphy improvement. Females were encouraged by their lovers, husbands, and fathers to exchange their paintings and poems and attend the existing poetry clubs. As a result, many painters and poets among women emerged during the late Ming and early Qing period. Thus, in the 17th-century, women were finally accepted as professionals that were able to sell their works honorably. 

One of the most famous artists of that period was Ma Shouzhen. She was not beautiful, but she was intelligent and had an amiable nature. When she was fifteen, her debut was launched by a well-known art connoisseur Peng Nian. With her establishment in the courtesan society, she gained the honor to be the woman that trained other girls to be professional actresses and singers. Among her friends, there were educated men, including well-known poets and artists. In 1591, Shouzhen published her first poems. The artist also had skills in painting and calligraphy. Most of all, she was skilled in painting orchids. Her works express slight importance of the orchid`s appearance meticulous delineation and provide its spirit through the stress expression that shows the artist`s refined taste. In the works the orchids with rustic charm and natural grace share many similarities with the flowers that were created by the male artists, particularly, such painters from the Wumen School as Wen Zhengming. Such works are the brightest examples that courtesan painters managed not only to inherit the male painters’ traditions, but to express their own individuality through their artworks. Hence, the most famous paintings of this artist include bamboo, orchids, and landscapes images. One of her most famous works is Orchid and Rock. In opposite to her character, her brush works were timid and loose as if they were painted by a young girl. Perhaps, her pieces expressed her real feelings, such as heart frail and insecurity. Ma Shouzhen managed not only to provide paintings that were as skilled as the male artists` works, but to do beyond the expectations about courtesan paintings. This is another example of how the Chinese art understanding was changed in the direction of the female artists` development acceptance.

Another famous female artist of that period was Xue Wu. She was known as a talented courtesan that also debuted when she was fifteen owing to her patron Wang Xingfu who was a poet. She was described as the most attractive and graceful courtesan of that time. Wu was good at painting, calligraphy, and music. Xue Wu’s works were known by the tonality ink and confident lines drawn with a firm hand. One of her most famous works is Girl Playing a Jade Flute. The painting images a girl playing a flute on a garden terrace. The figure is framed by a bamboo tree and flowers, while sitting in the rock garden midst. It is believed that the painting can be a self-portrait because Xue Wu just like a girl on the painting played the flute at parties. Xue Wu style changed at that time and it was more similar to the Guan Daosheng because they both were competing with the male painting style and both inscribed their poems on the paintings. The boldness in her works represents her independent character. She was focused on orchids as a subject of her painting, and it was quite a common theme. However, Xue Wu’s orchids were not usual and had individuality. Hence, it is possible to see that Xue Wu continued the practice of painting in the male style. Moreover, despite the fact that she remained working in the female subjects` boards, she did it with unusual for that time identity expression. Moreover, the expression of own character and own individualism through traditional female works helped to understand the Chinese art as more than only patriarchal traditions. Xue Wu was just another example of the female artist that managed to change the direction of the Chinese art realization.

One more acclaimed artist was Wen Shu. She was from a famous family of painters. She began to paint when she was a child. Wen Shu was brilliant at painting small insects and unusual flowers in meticulous details. Birds and flowers were one of the most popular subjects for the female painters. Such subjects were commonly seen in their artworks because of subtle feelings, and birds and flowers peculiar to women. Hence, because of their artistic functions in the aspiration expression their representation in the artworks became a certain scale. In this area, Wen Shu was the most famous painter. However, her works was not typical female paintings because of the significant detailing skills that were usually provided only by male artists. One of her pieces is Insects, Birds and Flowers. Inspired by medical works, she was trying to paint in the same manner to reach precise identification. Her paintings were included in the encyclopedic work Patterns of Plants and Insects by Hanshan.

Therefore, it is evident that Ming dynasty was rich in talented female artists that were trying to express their emotions and interpretations and not copy male works. 

The 17th century transition Ming-Qing period played a great role in the Chinese female artists’ history because many of them were represented for the first time. Their works were received well by the contemporary scholars, while their biographies gained widespread acceptance as an example of female participation in the artistic life of that period. However, at that time, women lacked individualism in their paintings in comparison to Chinese male artists. In the 18th century, such three artists as Ma Quan, Jiang Jixi, and Yun Bing were famous. Their works had much in common as all of them painted garden flowers in shimmering and rich colors in great detail in a reminiscent manner. By the 19th century, women painters were active across the whole country, from the Guangdong artistic circles in the south to the Beijing art area in the north. The modern Chinese painting foundation was laid in the commercial centers of Shanghai and Guangdong, but not in the official circles. However, despite such female success in art, they were not as supported and accepted as male artists. 

In general, in that period, works were done using many various techniques. However, despite a great number of women artists, the attempts to express individualism in their works became rare. The Chinese art was viewed as a patriarchal tradition with even more power. Although female artists were highly engaged in the art field, they were focused on limited themes within the scope of male painters’ art perceptions, or even worse, were only copying men’s works. However, within some time, particularly in the Ming-Qing period mostly, started to became famous female artists that not only did not afraid to follow the male artists style and to compete with the male artists, but also expressed their individualism as in the paintings that were character for the male artists, as in the work that were typical for the female artists. Exactly with the appearance of these female artists began the changes in the Chinese art understanding. While previously the audience regarded Chinese art through the patriarchal notions of male painters, within some time it started being understood through the Chinese female artists’ individualism and feminism expression. 

Overall, most of the time in the Chinese art history, women were viewed as objects. As a result, the understanding of Chinese art as a patriarchal and traditional field was formed. However, due to some female artists’ appearance the situation started to change. The first changes began, when some female artists started to follow the male artists` style and proved that they can be as skillful as men. However, within some time, the female artists started not only competing with the male artists in their art field, but also to express their individualism through own works. That proved that the female artists can go beyond the male expectations and work not only in the typical for them techniques and subjects, but to provide highly skillful results in the art fields, where male artists mostly predominated. Such attitude managed to change completely the Chinese art understanding because with the Chinese female artists’ impact, it became clear that the Chinese art can be accepted not only as the patriarchal tradition with the male artists’ predomination, but as the field, where women can express successfully and skillfully their individualism and professionalism.

Related essays