CASE 1:  Women and Arts in the 13th Century

“Genre” means “kind;” therefore, a “genre” is a well-recognized form or type of literature or art. Artistic genres with which we might be familiar include portraiture and landscape. Literary genres include the novel, poetry, and print journalism. Musical genres include the sonata, jazz improvisation, and rap. Genres only exist when a large majority of people have a need for a particular kind of thing, which reveals a lot about the standard needs and desires of any time or place. Rap would not exist if a lot of people did not like it. Thus, historians pay close attention to genres. By establishing the genre, you can learn about the needs and expectations of a large sector of a population at any given time or place.

The Genre: “Images of Exemplary Women”

The genre to which the back of the mirror belongs would be images of exemplary women. Pictures of exemplary women enjoyed a long history in China. As early as the Latter Han Dynasty (25–220 AD), images of famous women who had shown exceptional virtue, courage, or integrity can be found on the walls of family shrines, and similar images also were painted onto screens. Although in theory these images were supposed to encourage women to be virtuous, the ideals they exemplify typically go well beyond ideals of chastity, purity, and responsible motherhood. Some stories focus on women who challenged state authorities or who held fast to their principles even in the face of danger, and others deal with issues of chastity, but almost all the stories applaud famous women for their unshakable integrity.

However, the image on the back of this mirror does not resemble classical stories of virtuous women. The image may refer to a particular woman who was an artist, but surviving texts on famous artists from this period do not record a woman of this description. Because several copies of this mirror exist, we know the design was not made just for one particular woman but was a popular motif chosen by multiple women. The image could possibly express a generalized behavioral ideal, much like the many fan paintings of this period that depicted women surrounded by books and works of art. The depiction of this woman can be understood as very similar to the “scholar” in other paintings of the period. She would not represent a particular woman but rather a behavioral ideal that could have met the approval of many women.

Now that you have some information about a Chinese mirror,

learn how to read its different parts in: HOW TO READ IT

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