CASE 1:  Women and Arts in the 13th Century

by Martin Powers (University of Michigan)

Imagine yourself as an educated woman in thirteenth-century China. You are proud of your accomplishments as an artist, but most people only expect you to be pretty and raise children. How do you suggest or convey to others that there is more to life than makeup? It would be more than 600 years before the women’s movement begins, so what can you do?
An Artist and Her Painting
Rubbing of a Song Dynasty bronze mirror back.
Courtesy of private collection, Ann Arbor, MI.
At that time in China, you could buy personal “accessories” with a subject or inscription that could reveal your thoughts and opinions on a broad range of subjects. For example, you could purchase a fan with a painting of a woman surrounded by books, or you could purchase a mirror engraved with a pair of Mandarin ducks, which are symbols of marital love. Whenever you fanned yourself or looked into your mirror, anyone would be able to guess something about what you valued as a person. Some women in thirteenth-century China chose to purchase a mirror with the design you see on this page.The title of the poem cast onto this mirror is “A Lady’s Plum Makeup.” Originally, “plum makeup” referred to the pretensions of palace women who tried to make themselves beautiful, but the poem tells us that the woman in this mirror has no interest in cosmetics. Her “makeup” does not come from what she puts on her face, but, rather, it comes from her art.

Want to know more? Look at the next page: WHAT IS THIS THING?

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