CASE 1:  Women and Arts in the 13th Century

1. One common mistake when looking at old artifacts is to take each as typical or representative of an entire period or even an entire race, ethnicity, or culture. In the example provided here about the images depicted on a woman’s mirror, it would be a mistake to think that all women in China during the Song Dynasty dismissed cosmetics as superficial.

2. Another common mistake occurs when thinking that an object is unimportant because “it is not typical.” Galileo was not typical. Most Italians of the Renaissance were superstitious farmers. The nature of rural life during the Renaissance is of course an interesting topic, yet Galileo is not less important for all that, because he expanded the range of techniques for investigating the world around us.

3. Finally, people make the mistake of judging an old object as if it were a modern one. In this case, we might treat the mirror as if it were a feminist manifesto, or we might criticize it for not being a feminist manifesto. All such views are examples of the mistake of “anachronism,” that is, judging the past by the standards of the present.

So how should we assess the importance of a mirror like this? Well, every human-made artifact reveals something about the person who owned it, as well as something about the person who made it. In this case, we can learn something about the owner by looking at the RANGE of options that is available for a woman. Remember, though Galileo was not typical, he was important because he established a broader range for scientific thinking. Likewise, this mirror defines a spectrum of possibilities for feminine conduct. On the one end is the traditional role of mother and beautiful wife, represented by the woman and child. On the other end is the ideal of a creative, learned woman. Surely most women in China or anywhere else at that time lived and died by traditional ideals of feminine beauty and motherhood. On the other hand, the extreme position of the spectrum shown here offers a broader range of ideals for a woman of nonaristocratic birth than had been available previously.

Although only educated women could hope to enhance their status through creativity and intellect, it is important to remember that social status was not strictly limited by heredity in China at that time. For those who had acquired some education, mirrors such as this offered a means by which people could expand the range of acceptable behaviors available to women (or anyone else). Other media available for such purposes at the time included the following:

  • Fan paintings: These personal items could depict subjects ranging from women in their study to travel scenes to pictures of destitute farmers.
  • Prefaces of printed books: This was a favorite format for offering opinions on social issues.
  • Inscriptions on paintings: These often comment on a wide range of topics, such as art, society, or politics. Sometimes a person’s inscriptions would be collected and published.
  • Personal notes, poetry chats and lyric chats: All three genres consist mainly of personal observations and anecdotes that often mix aesthetic, social, and political subjects.
  • Printed books: One could publish essays on social issues or collections of poetry that could touch on almost any topic, including pets, family fights, social issues, and even getting sick to your stomach.
  • Gardens: Gardens underwent rapid development during the Song Dynasty to the extent that they could function almost like three-dimensional paintings. A garden could be coded with imagery much like a poem or painting, which could reveal a great deal of information about the owner’s views on society, politics, and life.


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