The Inscription

CASE 1:  Women and Arts in the 13th Century








Mirrors commonly bore an inscription. Sometimes the inscription would be no more than a character or two, which identified the object shown. Sometimes the inscription would circle around inside the mirror’s rim, but in this mirror it appears at the top in vertical columns, which is very similar to the format of a page of a Chinese book of the period. This type of format explains why, by looking at this mirror, you could guess that the woman who owned the mirror was used to reading books.

This inscription has two parts: a title and a poem. The title appears in large characters on either side of the poem. Reading from right to left, it says: “A Lady’s Plum Makeup.” The poem, arranged in vertical columns, provides clues about possible meanings of the plum blossom. The poem translates roughly as follows:

  1. Painted by a subtle hand, its ideas are beyond measure.
  2. Competing with creation, . . . the sun.
  3. Though a beauty, she . . . ;
  4. Now she lives only for achievement; she finds no charm in makeup.



This poem takes it for granted that you must be familiar with the practices of looking at a literati painting of this period. For instance, it says very little about the objects in the painting, or whether the coloring is nice or the lighting appropriate. These formal elements are not the main focus. What you are supposed to see in the painting is the artist’s character, intelligence, and ideas. That is why the person who wrote the poem remarks that the artist conveys a rich set of ideas. The second line acknowledges that her understanding of nature is so awesome as to compete with nature itself. The painting’s form is brilliant like the sun. But in traditional China, the sun was considered to be the essence of the masculine element, so to compare this woman with the sun suggests an exceptionally strong character. All this makes better sense if we realize that such matters were important issues expressed in literati criticism during this period. Artists who simply copied nature or other artists were literally called “slavish,” but this woman competes with Creation itself. In this way, the poem indicates that this woman approves of the ideals of literati critics, which is in contrast to other critics with different artistic ideals at that time.


The poem explicitly raises the question of what might be the range of acceptable behavior for a woman. The first few lines speak only of her talent and intelligence, and nothing of more traditional womanly virtues is mentioned until line 3, when we are told that she is beautiful, but even then she grumbles about becoming pregnant. In fact, in line 4, we learn that she is mostly interested in her artistic achievement and thus does not care for makeup!

Lets rewind for a moment. In the thirteenth century, women across Eurasia understood that they had a duty to bear children. This would have been true in England, France, Japan, or just about anywhere. In fact, many women continued to regard this as their primary duty until very recent times. What is unusual here is the fact that this woman refused to doll herself up like other women. She would rather spend her time revealing her inner intelligence and beauty through works of art like her painting of a flowering plum.

Now you should be able to see the irony of the picture’s title. Originally “plum makeup” referred to the artificial conceits of palace women, but the woman in this mirror has no interest in cosmetics. Her “makeup,” that is, what makes her admirable, does not come from what she puts on her face but from her intelligence and artistry. In other words, her painting of a plum branch represents her idea of how the “plum makeup” is representative of admirable traits in a woman.

Now that you have a good understanding of the picture and inscription, find out HOW THEY EVOLVED IN HISTORY
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