Comments Made by Literati

CASE 3: Women and Art in Thirteenth-Century China



Some Critical Writings on Women Artists by Song Dynasty Writers:

Mei Yaochen (1002–1060 AD), written in 1053, in praise of the woman calligrapher Wang Yingying:


Looking at this Shanyang girl’s big style script,
you see a different kind of woman from those who dress
up their hair.

Leading proponent of the Cai Xiang style,
her silkworm dots are superb, like her Yan style script.
Exploring hemp paper’s touch, smooth and silky like moss,
powerful black dragons beneath an autumn pond.

(translation by Marty Powers)

Huang Tingjian: (1045–1105 AD), written for a painting by his Aunt Li, a literati painter recorded in Mi Fu’s History of Painting (late eleventh century):

On spotless desk, deep in her chamber, exploring with brush and ink;

Her hair is white, but a hundred pounds of force moves in her wrist.
Flourishing branches, withered twigs, each is as it is.
Hang it in a great hall; the wind would shake the walls!

Elsewhere Huang says of his Aunt Li:

Her paintings lack any trace of vulgar manner; this hardy woman is more than a match for any rugged mensch!

(translation by Marty Powers)

Li Qingzhao’s (1084–ca.1151 AD) poetry was prized in her own time and she has been ranked among the greatest poets. Social criticism was a genre engaged by most of the greatest Chinese poets. This is an example of a work in that genre by a woman poet.


On the tenth of the 8th month [1121], I arrived at the yamen in Lai County. I sat in my small room and looked around. Nothing from the collection I had cherished all my lifetime was there. I opened a rhyme book on the table aimlessly, and told myself I would compose a poem with the rhyme on whatever page I turned. It was zi, so I wrote a poem on “sentiment” with the rhyme zi.

The cold air soaks through the window.
Around this broken desk
I can find no books of literature or history.
The ancient warrior Yuan Shu
Was trapped here long ago.
He said “Is this place where I meet my end?”
The public officials in Qing State
All love money like a brother.
They enjoy making trouble for themselves
And hurry-scurry all day long.
I lock my doors and turn away
The visitors so that I can compose a poem.
In the little bedroom the fragrance
Of incense seems to congeal as my thoughts take shape.
I find my most trustworthy friends in solitude:
Mr. Nonexistence and Scholar No Such.

From Li Ch’ing-chao Complete Poems, Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, trans. (New York: New Directions Books, 1979), p. 55.


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