CHINESE WOMEN PAINTERS AND CALLIGRAPHERS
According to Chinese legend, painting was invented by Lei, the younger sister of Emperor Shun (ca. 2200 B.C.). Since then there have been many accomplished women painters and calligraphers in China, although certainly not as many nor as revered as their male counterparts.
Throughout much of the world, needlework has traditionally been considered the most suitable artistic skill for women. In Chinese histories numerous ladies, even those who painted, were heralded for their talents in embroidery and kesi weaving. Coincidentally, in antiquity the term hui could mean either to paint or to embroider. Furthermore, both practices produced pictures, which were often identical in theme and composition, and required exceptional skill and patience. Therefore, there has long been a close association between the arts of the brush and the needle.
With the rise of literati art, produced by learned individuals for personal enjoyment, painting became an acceptable pastime for women, and from the Song period onward, the number of known women painters expanded. As amateur painters, women could paint at home and still tend to their domestic responsibilities, in keeping with social conventions. Most accomplished women artists, at least those who gained fame, were closely associated with a talented and supportive father, husband, or son, who permitted their female relatives to become educated and promoted their work. While most women artists recorded in historical compendiums were ladies of the upper classes, and so were daughters and wives, several noteworthy artists were courtesans, whose artistic skills were seen as one of their many charms.
Contemporary women artists differ from their predecessors in several important ways. Unlike their forebears whose social interactions and physical movement were sharply limited, women artists now may learn their craft in academies, travel widely, and work in a professional capacity. This dramatic shift in their social standing also gives present-day artists much greater freedom to innovate and be boldly original.
The first compendium of Chinese women calligraphers, Yutai Shushi was written by Li E (1692-1752). Tang Souyu, with the contributions of her husband Wang Yuansun (1794-1836), assembled the first catalogue of female painters, Yutai Huashi about a century later. In English the most comprehensive treatment of Chinese classical women artists remains Views from Jade Terrace: Chinese Women Artists 1300-1912 by Marsha Weidner, et al (Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1988).