Immortal Magu with deer and peach tree
Ming or Qing dynasty; Silk tapestry
H: 169.4 W: 84.3 cm
Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1917.115
According to Confucian ideology that permeated through Chinese society, women were considered subservient to men and expected to behave accordingly, obedient under her father before marriage, under her husband during marriage, and under her sons in widowhood. A lot can be learned about a society’s culture by observing the art from the period; for example, despite this hierarchical structure in society, women were accorded with respect as mothers within their family. In the Freer Sackler’s exhibition Women in Chinese Painting, the ways that women shaped and were shaped by China’s culture is evident by the way they are portrayed.
Women regularly appeared as ‘types’ in the artwork; common types were the star-crossed lovers, an exemplary wife and savior, a cunning woman who can handle a sword, a mourning widow, a femme fatale, or dream-like goddesses. Often the archetypes of the goddesses illustrated on the silk scrolls mirrored something similar to the Greek goddesses of war, Athena, or Demeter, the goddess of harvest. Women were also depicted in genre paintings which typically portray upper class women in their private quarters entertaining themselves with musical instruments or performing their duties, which included manufacturing silk or preparing meals. Although China was a patriarchal society, it is apparent that women were respected and revered for their beauty.
In addition to the mythological women and genre paintings in the exhibit, the works of real women from Chinese society are included. These women artists included Guan Daosheng, Lin Xue, and Liu Shi, women from different dynasties who were able to practice the art of painting and rival the male artists in their technique. Of course these women artists came from wealthy families and their inclusion in the exhibit is not meant to demonstrate that it was common for women to have the spare time, freedom, and materials at their disposal to practice art. In fact, most women did not have control over their lives and relied on the men to determine their path. However, not everything is in black and white. One fortunate woman worked her way from concubine to the only woman to ever rule China in her own right during the Tang dynasty. This woman’s name was Wu Zetian, and the exhibit features a Chinese calligraphy scroll that was created during her reign in which she changed the look of a handful of commonly used Chinese characters in order to establish her power. The scroll illustrates the new symbols she created, so every time her subjects were writing they were required to conform to her new script.
For more information on the exhibit Women in Chinese Painting, visit http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/current/women-in-chinese-painting.asp.