Ancient literati putting women artists in the picture

A rare exhibition featuring some of history's greatest women artists are on now on display.


A rare exhibition featuring some of history’s greatest women artists are on now on display. 

More than 60 ink-wash paintings from 30 Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) female painters are on display at the Wulin Pavilion of Zhejiang Museum through December 24. 

Throughout the ancient Chinese dynasties, men dominated literature and art fields because of the nation’s unequal feudal educational system. Women were banned from receiving an education and illiterate females were often considered to have a better morality because of it.

Such inequality began to change, however, during the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty, when the social economy developed and multiple academic thoughts thrived. Open-minded families made great strides allowing their daughters and wives to learn literature, calligraphy and painting.

Meanwhile, groups of great male literati, including Tang Xianzu, Yuan Hongdao and Lu Kun, started to support women in education and awaken the public’s educational consciousness. In return, a number of women began to realize self-value through the arts and heightened their social status by improving literacy.

Thereafter, a batch of prominent women painters sprang out in Jiangnan, on the south of the lower reaches of Yangtze River region, where culture and trade prospered more than other areas.

A piece of ink-wash work by Sun Yunfeng of the Qing Dynasty

Their works distinguished from men’s by virtue of subtle emotion, delicate strokes and elaborate layout, which were adored by many noteworthy collectors, such as Dong Qichang, Chen Jiru and Li Rihua.

Women were further encouraged during the Qing Dynasty. They established painting societies and exchanged techniques with each other, giving a boost to female artistic development. 

Some of them even became financially independent by selling paintings.

At the exhibition, a piece of work is on show from Sun Yunfeng. She was apprenticed to Yuan Mei, a noted Qing Dynasty poet and writer. Under Yuan’s guidance and instruction, Sun widened her selection of themes and formed her own style.

In addition to making a living as a painter, Sun also handed down painting techniques to her own apprentices. She was considered to set an example to other painters and paved a new road for the female arts.

In Jiangnan region, prestigious families built up their own painting system and were proud of cultivating women painters. Those patrons included the Gu and Ren families, in Zhejiang Province and the Yun, Bi and Zhuang families in Jiangsu Province.

Their daughters were nurtured under literate family ambience. Parents enlightened girls with literature, calligraphy and painting, turning arts into an indispensable part of their life. When they grew up, ladies were skilled at expressing their inner world through painting and broadened social influence in art field.

This is one exhibition that should not be missed.


Date: Through December 24, closed on Mondays

Address: Zone E, West Lake Culture Square, 581 Zhongshan Rd N.

Admission: Free

A painting by Zhou Jiarui, Qing Dynasty



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