Writing Women Back into the History of Chinese Art


The painting Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk, attributed to Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-25), depicts nine women and three girls, most of whom are carrying out a few of the steps involved in sericulture, the processing of silk fabric. This horizontally oriented handscroll is viewed from right to left (in the same direction that columns of Chinese writing would be read), so the painting begins with four women beating silk with poles to remove gum from the fibers. Next to them, two women sit together, reeling thread and sewing. A girl holding a painted fan tends a brazier. Finally, a woman irons a damp length of silk with a pan full of hot coals; two women assist by pulling the silk taut, a girl closely observes the process, and beneath the silk, a small child plays. All are gorgeously attired, wearing layers of vibrantly colored and patterned silks. The women's hair is piled atop their heads, held with combs and hairpins, while the girls' hair is looped over their ears. All except the very smallest wear makeup, with floral designs painted on their foreheads. From these details, we should understand that the women are of high rank, likely the emperor's concubines; Huizong had at least a dozen consorts. Nevertheless, the painting is not a portrait of real women but an idealized vision: the painter's rendition of the most beautiful women he could imagine, in part based on an eighth-century court painting that no longer survives. Huizong, in fact, is most likely not the artist but the patron of Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk (he often took credit for paintings made by court artists at his direction). His palace women would not usually appear in public, as gender segregation was practiced at the Chinese court of the early twelfth century, and this painting was likely private as well.

Some aspects of the painting hint at the idealization of the figures. Court ladies did perform the steps involved in processing silk as part of an annual ceremony, to demonstrate their virtue: sericulture was coded as the work of virtuous women. However, not all the steps in the process of making silk are depicted in Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk—not even the most important steps, which were fully documented in paintings of only a century later. Depicted here are the steps that have the most emotional resonance, those that correspond to poetic themes describing the longings of women separated from their beloveds. Pounding cloth with poles, in romantic poetry, is the pastime of women missing lovers gone to the frontier, rising in the middle of the night to adorn themselves and work out their frustrations. The painting's Chinese title focuses on this activity: it can be translated as "Pounding Silk," but—given the number of homophones in the Chinese language—it sounds just like a phrase meaning "pounding love." Other motifs in the painting also have a double meaning: for example, the word for "thread" is pronounced like the classical Chinese word for "longing." These female figures are supposed to be both virtuous and rapturously devoted to the emperor. The painting has political import, too, as so many court paintings of the time did: the making of silk alludes to the bolts of textiles rendered to the court as taxes, and devoted concubines are a metaphor for the emperor's loyal subjects, suggesting that he is a just and effective ruler.

Many paintings from the same historical era, the Song dynasty (960-1279), depict idealized female figures: images of imperial concubines like the ones shown here, courtesans, goddesses, or virtuous wives and mothers. Only official portraits of empresses from this period are intended to represent living women, and even those are likely idealized. When writing about premodern Chinese images of women, I contend that they are mostly figments of male artists' imaginations, telling us more about men's thought processes than women's realities. That is just one way, however, that women appear in the art historical record. Chinese art history does not rely only on visual imagery: it also draws upon an extensive textual record dating back to ancient times, and these widely circulated accounts include information about historical women in the arts—empresses, imperial concubines and literary women who commissioned and collected art, as well as women from all walks of life who made paintings and wrote calligraphy. Women artists and collectors were few compared to men and their artworks often not preserved, but hundreds of historical sources describe their lives and art. They made and collected landscapes and images of nature, religious icons and figure paintings—the same subjects that appealed to men. Huizong's painting shows what premodern culture wanted Chinese women to be; the textual record gives a fuller picture of their actual passions and achievements.

Professor of Art and Architecture Lara Blanchard, who holds the Luce Professor of East Asian Art and the Lloyd Wright Professorship in Conservative Studies, is the winner of the prestigious 2020 Joseph Levenson Pre-1900 Book Prize (China) from the Association for Asian Studies for her book Song Dynasty Figures of Longing and Desire: Gender and Interiority in Chinese Painting and Poetry, which analyzes images of women in painting and poetry of China's middle imperial period. Winners are judged to have made "the greatest contribution to increasing understanding of history, culture, society, politics or economy of China." The prize citation reads, in part: "Her trenchant analyses of the possible audiences and functions of these works and themes serve as a model for how to write women back into the histories of art and literature in pre-modern times."