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    Aesthetic Evolution: Tracing Female Beauty in Ancient Chinese Art

    A museum curator’s new book, “Images of Her in Ancient China,” explores the various ways women have been depicted in art throughout Chinese history.

    Editor’s note: “Fair Ladies — Digital Representations of Ancient Chinese Women,” a Zhejiang Museum exhibition of more than 1,000 paintings from 32 museums across China, was held first online in 2021 and then offline the following year. Based on the exhibits, Cai Qin, curator of the exhibition and the museum’s deputy director, compiled the book “Images of Her in Ancient China,” which aims to highlight, through exquisite artworks, how ancient Chinese women lived, as well as their styles, talents, and artistic creations. Following is an excerpt from the first chapter of the book.

    The emergence and development of any art form are always intertwined with various social and cultural phenomena of their time, and artistic representations of women are no exception. Images of female subjects in ancient Chinese art across different stages of history present society’s shifting ideas about them. Although the styles, techniques, narratives, and character choices of each depiction are influenced by the talents and sensibilities of its creator, when all of these details are laid out side by side, they reflect the changing trends of their respective eras, almost forming a “history of female beauty.”

    For example, the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.) was an era of significant transformation in Chinese history. During this time, people conceptualized the universe as a vast space encompassing all things. In visual depictions of this conceptual universe, human figures featured as part of the cosmic landscape.

    “Silk Painting of a Lady, Phoenix, and Dragon” is recognized as the first work in Chinese art history to focus on a female subject. Unearthed in 1949 from a Chu state tomb, located in the modern-day Hunan provincial capital of Changsha, and now housed in the Hunan Museum, the painting dates back to the late Warring States period. The painting features a profile of a woman standing in the lower right corner of the image with her hands clasped together. With her elaborate hairstyle, slender waist, long trailing skirt, and voluminous sleeves, the woman embodies the willowy female figure idealized in Chu culture. A phoenix soars above the woman’s head, while on the left a dragon spirals skyward. Based on Chu customs and archaeological evidence, it is believed that the woman in the painting is the occupant of the tomb, while the dragon and phoenix are accompanying her soul on its journey to heaven.

    During the Han dynasty (206B.C.–220A.D.), the feudal ruling class revered immortals and pursued longevity and immortality. During this period, people believed that the soul persisted after death and could ascend to the heavenly realm, giving rise to the widespread practice of elaborate burials. Few paintings from the Han dynasty exist today, and the majority of the surviving works bearing depictions of women are silk paintings that were found in tombs. One of these is the painted silk banner that covered the coffin of the Marquise of Dai, discovered in Changsha’s Mawangdui tombs. The T-shaped banner depicts the sun and moon, a dragon, and a serpentine representation of the goddess Nüwa on the wide upper portion, while the narrow lower portion bears a painting of a dragon and a likeness of the deceased marquise.

    By portraying the human realm in the upper part and the underworld in the lower part, the painting follows a similar theme of the soul ascending to heaven as well as reflects the feudal ruling class’s fanciful imagination of the afterlife. The marquise is portrayed with a full figure and a solemn bearing, leaning forward with a slightly hunched back, embodying the image of a noblewoman.

    Court ladies

    From the pre-Qin era through the Qin and Han dynasties, a period that spanned almost 1,000 years, numerous artworks bearing images of women were produced. However, this category of art did not yet have a clear and consistent name until the publication of the Southern Qi scholar Xie He’s book “The Six Principles of Chinese Painting,” where a term to describe “woman-themed” paintings as a specific genre first appeared.

    Subsequently, in the Southern dynasties period, Yao Zui’s book “Continuation of the Classification of Painters” introduced the term “qiluo” to refer to silk pieces woven with patterns. It was not until the Tang dynasty (618–907) that Zhu Jingxuan’s book “Famous Paintings of the Tang Dynasty” introduced the term “shinü,” or “court lady,” which referred to a noblewoman in the upper social strata.

    As time progressed, the court lady genre of paintings saw significant development, particularly during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The convention of exclusively depicting noblewomen was broken, and paintings of women from all walks of life, from aristocratic maidens to brothel courtesans, began to emerge, expanding the concept of “court lady paintings.”

    The Wei, Jin, and North-South dynasties (220–589) were plagued by political turmoil, life for the common people was full of hardship, and Confucianism faced significant challenges. In addition, the new-age “pure conversation” and metaphysical philosophical movements gained popularity, forming an aesthetic ideal that expressed noble inner qualities through beautiful external appearances. Guided by this aesthetic ideal, artists adhered to the principle of “depicting the spirit through form” when portraying human subjects. Portraiture became an important and rapidly developing artistic genre, and female figures assumed a leading role, often appearing alone in paintings and becoming objects of aesthetic admiration.

    “Graceful shape and elegant features” formed the aesthetic ideal for women at that time, with images portraying female subjects with willowy figures and slender waists as a physical expression of their inner gentility and refinement. One of the most iconic artistic works of this era is Gu Kaizhi’s “Nymph of the Luo River,” created during the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420). Among the numerous copies of the painting, the most complete version is housed in Beijing’s Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City.

    “The Nymph of the Luo River” was created based on the poem “Ode to the Nymph of the Luo River” by the renowned poet Cao Zhi. In the poem, which was written in the third year of Huangchu (222), Cao recounts the story of encountering a beautiful river goddess while crossing the Luo River on his way to Luoyang, subtly expressing his longing for her between the lines. This story later reached Gu Kaizhi, who transformed the work into an artistic masterpiece. The sprawling scroll painting unfolds to reveal majestic mountains, graceful trees, flowing waters, and other beautiful natural images, along with people engaged in various activities — a motif that threads through the whole scene.

    During this period, paintings of court ladies continued to extol female virtue and moral conduct. Gu’s “Wise and Benevolent Women” depicts 15 women from “Biographies of Exemplary Women,” a Han dynasty compilation of historical women that served as a textbook of ideal female conduct. The women were considered to be exceptionally knowledgeable and enlightened about heavenly principles. Also housed in the Palace Museum, the surviving portion of the painting from the Northern Song dynasty consists of 10 segments depicting a total of 28 people and is inscribed with seven complete stories.

    In addition, in a lacquer screen painting from the tomb of Sima Jinlong, a prince in the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535), we can also find inscriptions narrating women’s stories. A descendant of the Jin imperial family, Sima inherited a hereditary title and enjoyed a privileged life. His tomb, which is located in Datong in the northen Shanxi province, is of considerable size and contains a large number of pottery figurines, stone carvings, and utensils for daily life. The most famous treasures from the tomb are the exquisitely crafted wooden lacquer paintings, which are considered precious artifacts of ancient Chinese art.

    From the paintings above, we can see that although artistic representations of women during the Wei, Jin, and North-South dynasties were strongly influenced by the moral teachings of the time, they already shared a common characteristic: a beautiful physical appearance.

    Prosperous times

    During the Tang dynasty, China was one of the most powerful countries in the world, boasting a superior economy, social prosperity, and a penchant for luxury, leisure, and enjoyment. Tang rulers attached great importance to fine arts, recruiting painters, collecting famous pieces, and actively promoting the development of painting as an art form.

    Breaking away from its previous foundations in moral teachings, the court lady genre began to reflect the elegant and leisurely lives of noblewomen. Artists such as Zhang Xuan and Zhou Fang began painting the aristocratic lives of upper-class women, marking the first peak in the creation of female images in ancient Chinese art.

    “Lady Guoguo’s Spring Outing” is a representative work by Zhang Xuan. It depicts Lady Guoguo and her attendants dressed in splendid attire, riding horses together for a leisurely outing on a spring day. The composition of the painting is well-balanced, with both the people and the horses gracefully poised, exuding the dignified, confident, and optimistic ethos of the prosperous Tang.

    Zhou Fang’s “Court Ladies Swinging Fans” and “Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers” depict elegantly full-figured and leisurely noblewomen from the prosperous Tang. The painting is skillfully composed, with the relative distance and prominence of each figure deftly executed. The semitransparent layers of the women’s low-cut robes, their intricate hairstyles, and the subtle shading of their facial features are all masterfully done, effectively portraying the court ladies’ delicate skin and opulent silken attire. This emphasizes the women’s lush appearance, reflecting their privileged aristocratic lifestyle.

    Although the Tang dynasty created a model of court ladies that was unparalleled in later generations in terms of opulence, representations of female subjects from that era were thematically narrow and failed to reflect the lives of women more broadly across all social classes.

    During the Song dynasty (960–1279), society was stable, urban economies thrived, and life was rich and colorful. In the field of arts and literature, the influence of the literati and scholar-officials’ artistic tastes and aesthetic views gradually expanded, with themes becoming increasingly secular, while artistic tastes embraced more subtle and natural aesthetics.

    In Song paintings, female figures were less voluptuous and glamorous than those of the Tang, conveying a gentle and approachable nature. Compared with the Ming and Qing dynasties, women depicted in Song paintings strike fewer romantic and coy poses and frequently present a more dignified and self-possessed character. The themes of female images also became more diverse and secular. In addition to the court ladies commonly seen in the Tang, Song paintings also extensively portray diverse female figures from history, literature, and legends.

    Two classic Southern Song dynasty works housed in the Shanghai Museum serve as examples. Although the painting “Consort Mei Appreciating the Moon” was inspired by the story of Consort Mei, a fictional concubine of Emperor Xuanzong who ruled during the Tang dynasty, its imagery is characteristic of Song artwork.

    “Court Ladies Singing and Playing Musical Instruments in the Garden” depicts a scene of female musicians and dancers performing and rehearsing in a Southern Song palace. The composition of the painting is clear and concise, with nine female musicians, an elderly music conductor, and two young girls standing in line, each holding a different musical instrument. The musicians have slender figures and wear the traditional robes of the Southern Song. The characters and setting vividly portray the social and cultural life of that period, which was distinct from the rich and opulent Tang dynasty.

    The subject matter of court lady paintings continued expanding during the Song dynasty, as seen in the painting “The Ladies’ Book of Filial Piety.” Preserved in the Palace Museum, this scroll painting combines images and text to showcase the first nine chapters of the book “The Ladies’ Book of Filial Piety,” which undertakes to educate women about the virtuous behaviors to which they should adhere. The focus of the painting is on court ladies. With their plump oval faces and elaborately rolled hairstyles adorned with hairpins and flowers, the ladies in the painting retain some characteristics of women in Tang paintings, but with less bulky and voluptuous figures. Each woman in the painting can stand alone as an independent image with a different theme, but the uniformity of their appearance and artistic rendering establishes a connection and resonance.

    The painting “Sericulture, the Process of Making Silk,” held in the Heilongjiang Provincial Museum, shows scenes of a traditional agrarian society in which men work in the fields and women work in the home. Depicting women picking mulberry leaves, tending to silkworms, spinning thread, and weaving cloth, the painting provides a valuable historical record for studying and understanding the economic structures, technologies, and social customs in China during the Southern Song dynasty.

    Many Song paintings depict the daily lives of ordinary women. For instance, the Southern Song painting “Washing Hands and Admiring Flowers,” housed in the Tianjin Museum, shows a woman washing her hands and admiring flowers in the courtyard in late spring.

    The images of women from the Song are dignified and delicate, reflecting the characteristics of their era. During the later years of that period, although the nation’s political situation was complex, literary culture flourished, with artists achieving significant breakthroughs in artistic taste and conception that established aesthetic and technical standards unique to the Song dynasty. These standards directly influenced the creation of paintings of court ladies in the subsequent Ming and Qing dynasties.


    The period encompassing the Ming and Qing dynasties, from 1368 to 1911, saw the emergence and development of capitalism, leading to the growth of an urban middle class, which increased the demand for images of women. Among the Southern School painters of the early 17th century, who immersed themselves in civic life, there emerged a niche category of artists specializing in painting court ladies. These artists contributed many of the era’s dainty and graceful female images. The Ming and Qing dynasties also saw the continuation of the trend toward secularization in the themes of court lady paintings.

    In Tang Yin’s painting “Autumn Wind and Silk Fan,” the female subject sports eyebrows so delicate they are little more than wisps of smoke. Her narrow eyes are full of emotion above her tiny rosebud mouth. Holding a palace fan in her hand, seeming to lean against the breeze that flutters her robes around her, she embodies a gentle and fragile beauty.

    In addition to women’s physical beauty, Ming and Qing painters also admired their inner beauty, endowing the women in their paintings with talent and intellect. Artists often depicted women engrossed in reading, writing, painting, reciting poetry, playing the pan flute, or strumming a guzheng, a traditional Chinese zither. During this period, artists also created paintings of real-life women — including the well-known courtesans Liu Rushi, Dong Xiaowan, and Chen Yuanyuan, who became the subjects in court lady paintings — indicating the deepening secularization of artistic themes.

    The admiration for talented women led to the emergence of a group of female artists comprising both noblewomen and courtesans, who also created many court lady paintings.

    Looking back, the depictions of women in ancient Chinese paintings act like a mirror that reflects the artistic characteristics and era-specific features of different historical periods, allowing us to glimpse historical cultures and ideologies and trace their evolutionary trajectories. This history of female images in Chinese art not only reflects changes in aesthetic trends but also reveals the challenging — and often unseen — life experiences of women across generations.

    This article, translated by Carrie Davies, is an excerpt from the book “Images of Her in Ancient China” by Cai Qin, published by Shanghai Fine Arts Publishing House in 2023. It is republished here with permission.

    Editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.