Flowering in The Shadows: women in the history of Chinese and Japanese painting

“……it could be argued quite reasonably that the distinguished heritage of classical calligraphy in China emanates from a woman, Madam Wei, or Wei Shuo (272–349), who was the teacher of Wang Hsi­chih (307–365), the ‘’Prince of Calligraphers.” That the Chinese were subsequently troubled by this relationship is clear from the loss of Madam Wei’s own calligraphy during the same period in which Wang Hsi­chih’s was slowly elevated to the rank of cultural icon. Surely the intimate, sensuous, and infinitely graceful art of Wang Hsichih cannot be fully understood without consideration of the influence of his teacher. Even if history has obscured her life and art, Madam Wei’s relationship to Wang Hsi­chih must make clear the extent to which we should understand the aesthetic of that particular classical tradition of Chinese calligraphy to be the embodiment of aristocratic women’s practice of elegant and intimate letter writing. Later men, undoubtedly, understood this, and subsequent repeated efforts to establish other styles of calligraphy as rivals to the canon of Wang Hsi­chih, in one way or another, indicate the perceived need for a more assertive, masculine mode of writing. Since the inevitable trend of this patriarchal tradition has beento obliterate the origins of such essential contributions as that of Madam Wei, it is necessary now to seize upon every evidence of them.

In Japan, subsequently, the form of calligraphy practiced by women was generally the phonetic Japanese system of hiragana, distinct from the use of Chinese characters, which was considered a male dominion. In their graceful exploration of the calligraphic possibilities of hiragana, Japanese women extended into a new realm of nuance and formal elegance the legacy of Madam Wei.

If women are central to the classical traditions of calligraphy in China and Japan, they are not less fundamental to other essential aspects of the arts. Ink bamboo has been regarded as the equivalent in East Asian art of the human figure in the arts of the West, and the later history of Chinese painting in particular is often concerned with the painting of ink bamboo. The subject and techniques of ink bamboo, moreover, lie at the very origins of literati painting. What is all the more striking, therefore, is the probability that ink bamboo was first painted by a woman of Szechuan named Lady Li (act 923–934). Tracing in ink the shadows of bamboo cast by the moon upon her window, she created the form that would preoccupy Chinese and Japanese painters for centuries. Both the secluded intimacy of her life and the refined elegance of the art she invented bear close resemblance to the legacy of Madam Wei, and we might therefore regard the tradition of ink bamboo as an essentially feminine aesthetic, like the other, the origins of which are again all but lost.

Two books that shaped the cultures of Japan and China are embodiments of the feminine ideal. Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji is arguably the most influential single work of Japanese literature and the inspiration for a tradition of painting that was not only called ‘’women’s painting” in Japan, but was also in all probability partially created by women and practiced by them as amateurs. What debt yamato­e itself, “painting in the Japanese manner,” as opposed to the masculine kara­e, or “Chinese painting,” therefore owes to women has been only partially acknowledged.

In China the endlessly inspiring and mysterious classical text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, can only be understood as the most profound exploration of the feminine philosophy of living ever produced in Asia. That this philosophy remains at the heart of East Asian thought and art as the necessary counterpole to Confucian activism is confirmation of its role in the fundamental meanings of the yin­yang duality that is in essence the interaction of the male and the female throughout history. In our histories of the art of Asia, unfortunately, the female is forgotten. “

— — Richard Barnhart

Notebook