CASE 1:  Women and Arts in the 13th Century



Different parts of the globe have enjoyed more rapid technological or cultural development at different times. During the thirteenth century, China was enjoying a remarkable level of economic and industrial development. The invention of a modern-style plow greatly increased agricultural efficiency so that a Chinese farmer with an ox could produce more grain than his counterparts elsewhere in Eurasia. Silk-production technology also was highly developed. A massive internal market supported larger urban populations than anywhere else in the world (the Northern Song capital of Kaifeng is estimated to have had a population of 750,000–1,000,000), and Chinese ships, equipped with a compass and movable rudder, dominated the South Asian seas, exporting silk, lacquer ware, ceramics, and some iron and steel in exchange for spices and other regional products. The Chinese economy of that period experimented with paper money and various forms of credit, including low-interest loans for small businessmen and farmers. The government also helped the poor through tax relief or loans rather than through charity, although charity was available through religious institutions. China was the only country at that time to enjoy a print culture, which was made possible by a technology that permitted inexpensive production so that even small editions could be profitable.


Socially speaking, China during the Song Dynasty offered a relatively higher level of social mobility, with a network of county schools and private academies. The civil service examinations were available to almost any man with the necessary knowledge to compete. Names were covered and the exams were graded blindly, so people from ordinary families had a chance to obtain official positions. Although the wealthy always have an advantage (then as now), some of the most famous statesmen of the period were born into the families of minor clerks. Moreover, state policy established public schools in every county. Given technological levels of that period, it seems unlikely that this ideal could have been realized, yet many counties did establish schools. Some fellowships were even made available so that talented poor people could receive a good education and eventually serve as officials.


Other developments of the time include what some call a “culture of romance.” This can be seen in the growing body of art and literature dedicated to describing ideal romantic relations between lovers or spouses. Personal letters by husbands or wives of the period often adopt romantic language, and we find fans, mirrors, and other objects designed to promote an ideal of romantic attachment. The women who wrote these letters or to whom these letters were written tend to be educated women, such as the one illustrated on the mirror.


In the early thirteenth century, the Muslim world also enjoyed a period of marked prosperity, which was enhanced in part by a zone of ecumenical trade that extended from China to the Mediterranean region. Having learned papermaking from the Chinese in the eighth century, Muslims perfected papermaking technologies and spread its use first throughout the lands of Islam and eventually to Europe. Paper and codex manuscripts quickly became ubiquitous tools for the preservation and transmission of knowledge in the Islamic world. By the thirteenth century, original contributions by Muslim practitioners of mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and science had reached Europe together with the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, which had been preserved in Arabic translations and further enhanced by early medieval Muslim thinkers. The spread of Muslim learning, arts of the book, and crafts such as metalworking, ceramics, and textiles profoundly affected later European developments in philosophy, medicine, science, and the arts.


Conditions in thirteenth-century Europe differed from those in China in that printing, gunpowder, the movable rudder (necessary for oceanic travel), a modern-style plow, and other inventions had not yet been developed. At that time, the purchase of art in Europe was mainly limited to the courts and the church; thus, private art production and consumption were not highly developed. Nevertheless, the issue of women as artists did arise as early as the fourteenth century when Christine de Pisan, a French noblewoman, chose to direct an atelier of women painters at court. In Europe, as in China, this very act would necessarily raise the issue of a woman’s proper role. In the absence of a printing industry or an open art market, nonaristocratic women could not easily purchase personal articles such as fans or mirrors with which to promote this alternative view of a woman’s role. Nonetheless, we can see that women in different parts of Eurasia used whatever privileges, customs, or institutions that were available to them to adjust and sometimes to expand the range of social roles available to them.

How did people use mirrors in thirteenth-century China?
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