"Tumultuous History of China's Feminist Values and Art"


Feature Article
 by Liao Wen

China Highlights

Feminist art should not simply be a question of art, but first and foremost a question of feminism.

"Feminism" is a concept originating from the West. The concept itself developed in twentieth century Western culture and corresponded to a vast and enduring social movement, a revolution that touched the core of politics, economics, philosophy, psychology, history, literature, art and even science, encompassing many sub-movements and schools of thought.

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Chinese Feminist art must reckon with the tradition of classical parlor art as well as that of modern revolutionary art...These historical and social factors represent a realm of discourse that is unique to Chinese Feminist art.


If we compare the East and West, within the same time framework, outside regional frameworks, Western feminism represents an advanced direction on the international scene both in practice and theory.

This situation, much like Western contemporary culture as a whole, has had an enormous impact and influence on Chinese contemporary culture. Against this backdrop, it is an unavoidable reality that China's Feminist art would be to one degree or another an end product influenced and impacted by Western Feminist art. My use here of the term "Feminist Art" then begins with a recognition of this reality.

But, another reality is that Chinese Feminist art must reckon with the tradition of classical parlor art as well as that of modern revolutionary art unlike women in the West. These historical and social factors represent a realm of discourse that is unique to Chinese Feminist art.


Tenth to Nineteenth Century: Feminist Values by Male Standards and the Parlor Art of Women


The strong patriarchal system of discourse in Chinese Feudal times precluded any possibility of the existence of a complete or independent life for women. Women could therefore only achieve self-value by male standards, by behaving as "objects for viewing pleasure" or "objects of desire".

Thus, women were common subjects of the time. Chinese Courtesan Paintings, developed and perfected in the period from the tenth to the nineteenth century, can be viewed as the ultimate embodiment of women as "objects for viewing" and "objects of desire" in as much as they were made to be seen and played with. The images of women in Courtesan paintings derived from an aesthetic built around male consumption. (see Zhou Fang's "Woman with Flower Hairpin")

Paintings by women were rare (as a phoenix's feather or a chimera's horn). There were only two kinds of women who might have had the right to paint: the Courtesan of the inner chambers and the Prostitute of the outside world. Courtesans often hailed from the household of a scholarly painter. Locked in the recesses of the inner Chamber where they could paint, they not only had ample time but excellent conditions by which to paint.

For prostitutes, circumstances were often not as congenial. Without a wealthy patron who required them to engage in the fine arts of poetry and painting, they would most likely never have had the chance to come near painting. For this reason, painting remained but a kind of social skill, not unlike music, cooking, calligraphy, singing, dancing or silk embroidery, or a diversion of sorts, or at best a means of self entertainment.

Subjects never went beyond flowers (see Ma Quan's "Bird and Flower") and life in the inner chamber. A few outstanding women painters (see Guan Daosheng's "Ink Bamboo") were able to achieve art through "xieyi" lyrical expression, but their style, methods and other modes of discourse would never achieve excellence, not by male standards of aesthetics.

Landscape paintings which achieved such exulted heights by scholars who chose to "leave this world" for a hermetic existence "among the mountains and the streams" were almost non-existent among the women painters of the inner chambers.


The End of the Nineteenth Century to the Seventies in the Twentieth Century: Feminist Values by Revolutionary Standards and the Art of Revolutionary Women


In the twenties and thirties of this century, a few women were able to break into the ranks of mainstream Chinese contemporary art. Of these, there were also a few who, by virtue of either talent or special social status, were able to study and even teach Western art, like their male counterparts returning from study abroad. Despite having had some training in Western modern modes of expression, however, the content of their paintings seldom went beyond flowers and parlor painting (see Qiu Ti's "Flower" and Pan Yuliang's "Portrait").

20th Century China is inextricably interwoven with the thread of "revolution". Whether it was to "save the country" in the first half of the century or to "build socialism" in the last half, all social values and standards seemed to be wrapped around the needs of the revolution. Here again, women's value could not manifest itself other than through the values of the revolution. Therefore, women's liberation in China was for the sake of the revolution, not for the women themselves.

The utilitarianism of the revolution mandated that women be liberated, but the basis for liberation was the principle of absolute egalitarianism whereby there was to be no distinction between women and men. Women may have been liberated, but only into a fundamentally unchanged male society.

The measure of liberation was the degree to which a woman could measure up to male standards. In effect, women went from being dependents in a male dominated small family to dependents in a male dominated "extended family".

A half century later, women still measure themselves by entirely male standards, discarding any and all trappings of feminism, from outer appearance to the spiritual, from the way they walk and talk to the way they dress. A "revolutionary woman" had no standards of her own to lean upon. They looked up to the male revolutionaries. Or another way to put it, women and men both were compelled to fit the revolutionary mold.

Revolutionary feminist art had basically the same character, stressing revolutionary content and the character of the male aesthetic. We can see little difference in the feminist art of various revolutionary periods. Both the image of the revolutionary woman and the forms of feminist art remain essentially the same through all periods of revolution. (see "Wind", "Lion", "Street Cleaner" for art of the 20's and 30's and illustraion 11-15 for art from the period from the 40's to the 70's).


From the End of the Seventies to the Mid Nineties: The Retrogression of Women's Values and a Modern Version of Parlor Painting


Political utilitarianism goes against human nature and in doing so, sows the seeds of its own destruction.

In the late seventies and early eighties, the basis for social change under the reform and open door policies of the time was the "restoration of human nature." The same woman who for the last half century held to the principle of egalitarianism and, in doing so, had sacrificed her feminine nature to the cause of "holding up half the sky", now faced the daunting task of restoring her womanhood on her own, without the benefit of slogans or movements.

Knowing no other standard other than the standard of traditional womanhood, this so called "restoration" meant a return to commonly held stereotypes from the past. This period represents a retrogression of feminist values.

The artworld of this period underwent a violent backlash against the socialist realist art of "Mao's Model Paintings" which "had inhibited art from realizing its own laws of development and prevented any possibility of other forms of Chinese art".

And, in the ten or so years after 1979, China proceeded to run through almost every form of art in classical Western and Chinese traditions, as well as practically every form and school of thought in Western modernism. But, even with revolutionary art behind them, women were unable to find a mooring for their art.

Phobic of utilitarianism, they were similarly wary of societal topics. Now more than ever before without a model or a safe harbor, women either consciously or subconsciously returned to the garden of traditional art. Feminist art from this period is almost entirely comprised of women, children, mothers and their children, flowers and scenery. (see Yan Ping 's "Mother and Child" and Jiang Caiping 's "Tibetan Opera Actress").

Even if the works from this period employ a variety of different techniques, nonetheless painting seemed to be nothing more than a modern version of parlor painting and linked neither to Chinese contemporary culture, much less feminist culture.


From the Mid-nineties: In Pursuit of Feminist Values and Experimentation in Feminist Art


Whether speaking of classical art traditions, or modern revolutionary art, the concept of Chinese feminist art seems to always revolve around male forms of discourse. Feminist art creation's reliance on male forms of discourse has also made woman seemingly unaware of her predicament. The concept of "Weaning [herself] from Male Forms of Discourse" more often than not makes her feel anxious and ill at ease.

She fears that in doing so she will lose her existential value. This is in as much as her self-value in the past was manifest only by the standards of male discourse. As soon as she departed this value system, she would be on shaky footing. The result is that much of her experimentation in self discovery and self expression is really nothing more than the tarrying of bound feet.

Painters who matured in the eighties, especially a number of talented women painters, seemed dissatisfied with an approach based on simple intuition and chose to experiment. But, in the end they decided that they would rather follow along an old road, engaging in accustomed forms of imitation and cloaking themselves with the outer garments of others at the same time.

Almost unintentionally, heeding their nature, proceeding cautiously with various experimentations, certain of their works, whether intentionally or unintentionally, have begun to reveal hints of change, such as the symbolic expression of the self's inner world and its meanings (see Yu Hong 's "A Portrait of Nostalgia"and Liu Hong's "Talking to Oneself"); the expression through various techniques, materials and direct sensory correspondence of a consciousness of life and its related manfestations, etc. (see last five illustrations 18-23).

Even if these artists and their works are as yet immature and unstable, still I treasure the occurances of these hints of change and regard them as the seeds and nascent forms of Chinese feminist art.










Zhou Fang
"Woman with Flower Hairpin"
Tang Dynasty
Ink on Paper



Guan Daosheng
"Ink Bamboo"
Yuan Dynasty
Ink on Paper



Ma Quan
"Bird and Flower"
Qing Dynasty
Ink on Paper



Qiu Ti
"Flower"
Circa 1930-1940
Oil on Canvas




There were only two kinds of women who might have had the right to paint: the Courtesan of the inner chambers and the Prostitute of the outside world.



Pan Yuliang
"Portrait"
Circa 1930-1940
Oil on Canvas



Yan Ping
"Mother and Child"
1990
Oil on Canvas



Jiang Caiping
"Tibetan Opera Actress"
1991
"Gong Bi" Ink on Paper



Yu Feng
"Wind"
Circa 1920-1930
Oil on Canvas



He Xiangning
"Lion"
Circa 1920-1930
"Gong Bi" Ink on Paper



Xia Peng
"Street Cleaner"
Circa 1920-1930
Woodcut



A "revolutionary woman" had no standards of her own to lean upon... Revolutionary feminist art had basically the same character, stressing revolutionary content and the character of the male aesthetic.




Tang Yiyao
"Woman Guerilla Fighter"
1944
Oil on Canvas




Zhang Xiaofei
"Learn a Thousand Characters"
1944
Woodcut



Deng Shu
"Keep the Peace"
Circa Early 1950
"Nian Hua" Ink on Paper



Anonymous Propaganda Artist
"Be This Kind of Person"
Circa 1960s
Poster



Cheng Li
"Welcome the Spring"
Circa 1970s
Oil on Canvas



Phobic of utilitarianism...wary of societal topics ...women either consciously or subconsciously returned to the garden of traditional art.



Yu Hong
"A Portrait of Nostalgia"
1990
Oil on Canvas



Liu Hong
"Talking to Oneself"
1994
Oil on Canvas



Cai Jin
"Pears"
1997
Oil on Canvas



Chen Qiaoqiao
"Inside the Lotus"
1990
Pastel




The concept of Chinese feminist art seems to always revolve around male forms of discourse... The concept of "Weaning [herself] from Male Forms of Discourse" more often than not makes her feel anxious and ill at ease.




Shi Hui
"Knots"
1996
Installation



Lin Tianmiao
"The Unraveling of a Cord"
1995
Installation



Jiang Jie
"Untitled"
1995
Installation



Zhang Lei
"Soft File", Number 2
1997
Installation

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