Captive Beauties: Depictions of Women in Late Imperial China
December 14, 2019 - November 28, 2021
Beautiful yet lonely and melancholy—women from imperial China were often depicted in terms of their highly circumscribed lives, which were entirely dependent upon men. In some paintings, women engage in duties appropriate to their stations in life, according to patriarchal Confucian principles. Other paintings show women with fanciful coiffures and silk dresses, serving as musicians or courtesans, existing to please men. Literary and visual artists often compared women to flowers: refined and delicate yet fragile, their beauty (meaning marriageability) transient.
But some artists hinted at suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions, reflecting a growing interest in the inner lives of their subjects. In their paintings we see the equivalent of the following verses, sung by the female protagonist in the play The Peony Pavilion (1598). Confined to the inner quarters of her home, she laments a brilliantly flowering spring scene in her isolated garden:
The flowers in purple and red,
Scattering here and there,
Yet only accompanied by
Dry wells and ruined fence.