Women in Late Imperial Chinese Painting

Women of all social statuses in imperial China were mostly confined or led restricted, highly circumscribed lives. Their worth was often contingent on their beauty and appearance, and their ability to participate in different social environments was usually regulated by the men in their lives as well as by patriarchal Confucian principles.

However, there were exceptions to this rule for women in late imperial Chinese painting. Late imperial Chinese painting often featured women as subjects, and while these paintings typically portrayed them inhabiting their status as men’s subordinates or as beautiful yet wordless figures, others explored the nuanced reality of gender roles in China, exposing women’s inner emotions and personalities and the communities they created for themselves. An exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), entitled Captive Beauties: Depictions of Women in Late Imperial China, explores these concepts through paintings of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Curated by Mia’s Chinese Art curator Liu Yang, these works, all from Mia’s significant collection of exquisite Chinese paintings, illustrate the varying positions women occupied in imperial China – from courtesans and entertainers to women of the imperial court.

The paintings of Gu Jianlong

Some paintings depict women literally hidden from view. Portrait of Wang Shimin (Fig 1) by Gu Jianlong portrays the highly respected Qing painter and literatus Wang Shimin in the very centre of the painting, relaxing in the main hall of his living chambers, dominating the painting and commanding reverence. Interestingly, he is far from the only person in his portrait. Women occupy several of the other rooms in his chambers: there are women in the upper right of the painting, one hidden behind a screen, others in the kitchen preparing refreshments. Another woman, presumably a nanny, is to the left of the main hall taking care of a child. This was typical for the family of a scholar-official – the male figure acts as the central focus, while women performed the duties necessary to keep the household functioning. The architectural elements of this painting create an interesting spatial separation between the male and female figures, which acts as a visual gender boundary.

The Painter Gao Qipei and Women in Late Imperial Chinese Painting

Other paintings treat this gender boundary with more subtlety, allowing women to take more ownership within the scene. One of the paintings in the exhibition, entitled Beauty in Winter by Gao Qipei (Fig 2), is a rare example of a man and a woman occupying almost equal status in relation to one another. A husband and wife are engaged in intimate conversation before a stove on which a pot of wine is warming. There is obvious affection between the two figures as they gaze at one another in this cosy scene. The wife commands an equal amount of space and visual attention to her husband, and rather than being physically separate, they are depicted close together, blurring the boundary between the separate societal roles of men and women. This concept, called ju an qi mei, indicates mutual respect and harmony between spouses. Both are dressed in elaborate wintertime clothing, creating visual similarity between the two and further pushing the viewer to see the painting as a portrait of two individual people, rather than a portrait of a man and his subordinate wife, as in the aforementioned Wang Shimin painting.

Interestingly, a painting that only portrays women can still speak to the varied nature of gender boundaries within imperial Chinese society. An aristocratic woman, with the help of her maid, arranges her hair in the mirror. The objects in her bedroom give us hints about her social status: the books and scrolls stacked on top of her canopy, the ornate furniture, the bronze vessel full of scrolls and a fly whisk, and her luxurious silk garments all characterise her as a woman of culture, beauty, and wealth. There is an absence of men, but a noticeable presence of typically masculine, scholarly objects. Because this woman is highly educated and wealthy, she has access to literati accoutrement and can participate in these activities that are often assumed to have been solely male pastimes. This painting allows a glimpse into the private life of a woman, imbuing her with a sense of individuality that is not contingent on the presence of a male figure. However, this woman probably did not spend a lot of time out in public, as elite women were almost exclusively confined to their chambers during late imperial China. Her wealth and status do not free her from patriarchal control and societal restrictions.

In the rare instances that elite women were permitted to appear in public, they were often acting as entertainment – performing music or dancing to please scholarly male patrons and nobles. A painting entitled Scholarly Pursuits portrays such a scene: male scholars are gathered in groups sipping wine and relaxing on ornate furniture surrounded by lush greenery. In one scene, a group of women are performing music on instruments while dressed in beautiful, flowing garments. In contrast to the scene depicted in Lady at Dressing Table, these women are not occupying the painting as individuals, but as decorative entities meant for consumption by male audiences. The screen next to the group of musicians is decorated with a floral motif, creating a visual comparison between women and flowers – both acting as objects of beauty, meant to be looked at and appreciated for entertainment and visual pleasure.

These paintings, and the several others included in the exhibition exploring women in late imperial Chinese painting, leave the viewer with a sense that perhaps gender roles in imperial China were not black-and-white. While women were certainly objectified and their lives highly regulated by patriarchal social norms, the exhibition reveals their shifting, nuanced reality hidden below the surface. Throughout the exhibition, women are seen occupying different spaces and inhabiting different societal roles; their relationships with men are not static, but complex and varied.


β€’ Please note that while Captive Beauties: Depictions of Women in Late Imperial China is scheduled to stay on view until July 19, 2020, Mia is currently closed until further notice due to concerns surrounding the Coronavirus emergency.