Guan Daosheng and Her Unique Contribution to Chinese Art Industry
History is full of heroics of great men in various fields. Men have been credited for various achievements in art, since, technology, agriculture, and military among others. It is uncommon for women to occupy such echelon in the society because women have been sidelined in most societies. The case is not different in the Chinese setting. The Chinese have some legends in various fields, but women have taken a back seat in most of these legendary heroics. One of the areas China has excelled in arts. China prides in great names in poetry, painting and sculptors among others. Among these great names, women have not featured prominently in the past. This is because women were thought to conceive only children rather than ideas (Cahill 19). All ideas or inventions were thought to be conceived by males, and this included new ideas in art and painting. However, the emergence of great women among them Guan Daosheng changed this notion.
Guan Daosheng was born in 1262 in Huzhou town during Yuan era. She grew up as one of the finest women in the land because she was privileged to get a formal education. During that time, very few women accessed formal education, unlike fellow men who were privileged to get an education. Getting formal education was a significant step in Guan’s artistic career. Formal education taught her how to read and write, and this set up her career in art. Through formal education, she learned how to communicate a given theme using figures and diagrams.
Daosheng married Zhao Mengfu during her prime, and the marriage acted as a springboard for her career. Daosheng’s husband was an artist and a renowned scholar. According to Weidner (19), Mengfu was the greatest artist who ever lived during the Yuan period and thus was a great influence on the artistic career of his wife. Marrying a fellow artist boosted Guan’s artistic talent. Since she had acquired formal education, it was easy for her to grasp the style and language of artistic communication.
Zhao and Guan set up their home in Wuxing after their marriage in 1286. They would later retreat to Dongsheng village where they lived the remaining period of their lives. During their marriage life, they were blessed with two daughters and two sons and these children grew together with four daughters Zhao had birthed from his first marriage that ended in the death of his first wife. Guan accompanied Zhao to most official meetings because he was a very famous man on the land. As a result, Guan enjoyed some privileges other women did not enjoy in Yuan. Among the notable trips, they made included countless trips between Huangzhou cultural center in the South and Dadu, the Yuan Capital in the North as well as a three-year trip from Wuxing, their home, to Dadu, the capital city in the North.
The artistic career of Guan was further boosted by her faith. Guan and her husband professed Buddhist faith. They also enjoyed a close association with the monks who molded their spiritual lives. Buddhism advocated for strong discipline and the need for practicing a quiet time during Yoga exercises. Such continuous periods of quite times allowed ideas into one’s mind and thus could later be expressed through art. According to Cahill (189), art has its spiritual connotation and an artist who cherishes deity can express more through his or her art. Although Guan was privileged to get formal education and marry and artistic husband, her artistic development was due to her ability to make use of the available chance to the maximum.
Guan had a unique artistic life. According to the writings of Weidner (19), Guan was naturally talented and started her painting life at an early age. Weidner (19) states that Guan understood the art of using a brush even before going to a formal school. This means that although she was privileged to get a formal education, her artistic gifts were inborn rather than imputed through formal training. At the same time, her marriage to a famous and artistic husband acted as a boost to her artistic life rather than a springboard.
Guan started her painting formally at around 1296. Her graphic language was ink bamboo painting and calligraphy. A graphic language is a structured method of visual marks and images created by a writing instrument. It (graphic language) is like a generic invention in the artistic field. According to Cahill (189), a graphic language is male dominated and has been shaped by male artists through literacy and writing practice. Cahill (190) further claims that graphic language has evolved notably through tireless efforts of male artists who have come up with various techniques to shape and promote it. However, ink bamboo painting is a unique graphic language that has developed through the effort of women. Guan’s graphic language has largely been ink bamboo painting. She was naturally talented and thus used bamboo ink painting with ease. The bamboo painting was received largely because of its depiction of male qualities. A bamboo tree can bend without breaking and remains green throughout the winter and summer. Such qualities were found in men during Yuan era and after that and thus, paintings depicting them were highly promoted.
Guan applied strong brush strokes in her paintings such that even her critics were amazed by the energy put into them. The energy put in her paintings were strong and masculine in nature. According to McCausland (14), Guan’s bamboo paintings reaped far-reaching praises because of these qualities such that critics considered the paintings as the work of a man rather than a woman. Guan’s works were housed in the Imperial archives. Her heroics enabled her to earn the title “Wei’s Kingdom Madam.” This title was given to her at the imperial court in 1317.
Guan’s greatness in Chinese art was her immense contribution to the bamboo painting. Most of her bamboo paintings depicted the bamboo as part of a landscape rather than a picture plane with isolated branches pressed together. In one of the paintings depicting a grove of bamboo trees in rain drawn by Guan, the bamboo has been painted to depict a landscape. It appears as part of the thicket in which it grows. In this case, it appears as a subject to the atmosphere and landscape in which it is located. The tone of the ink in Guan’s picture does not vary largely. According to McCausland (55), the style of painting bamboo as part of the landscape seems to have been inherited from Tan Zhirui, a Japanese painter. Buddhist monks bought the works of Tan and brought them to China. Guan and her husband were highly religious, and they closely associated themselves with the Buddhists monks. As a result, Guan must have learned part of her style from the paintings brought by the monks.
Guan’s artistic language has some uniqueness that makes it an important feature in Chinese artwork. Guan’s works combine three modes of expressions of self with a brush. They include painting, calligraphy, and writing. This combination is unique to a woman because male artists mostly use it. She uses bamboo as a dominant subject because of the ease with which the bamboo gel the three modes of expressions. A bamboo does not generate meaning through phonetic association. Its meaning is generated in a straightforward way through the pictorial rendering of the bamboo plant. The lower section of a bamboo plant has two straight stalks whereas the upper section has fresh leaves. As a result, most of Guan’s writings, paintings, and calligraphy replicate the angular leaves of the plant and its stalks.
Another unique feature in Guan’s paintings was the ability to attach special poems on her paintings. The poems were carefully written to complement the drawing thereby making the reader appreciate not just the surface beauty but also the inner meaning carried by the words in the drawing. Purtle (211) recognizes the poetic language of Guan and states that her poetic style was rare and that few women could use it. The poems portray a large concern for her children and husband, but this has been done subtly and humorously. For instance, her poem titled “a song for you and me” prompted her husband to rethink his idea of getting a concubine. According to Purtle (217), this poem had a strong effect on the behavior of Guan’s husband such that he refused to remarry after her death. This means that apart from being an artist, Guan valued family relationships and understood her position as a mother and a wife.
Guan’s artistic language is special to the Chinese art industry in several ways. Her uniqueness and contribution to the artistic industry in China can be seen through the way she personalizes bamboo as a personal emblem. Guan developed the bamboo’s graphic language through painting and poetry, but this did not stop at this ordinary level. She used the bamboo plant as an emblem to reflect her presence rather than just using it to represent her work. For instance, in one of her poems titled “Inscribed on my Bamboo painting,” Guan considers the bamboo as a personified and animated object to acknowledge her presence and her interaction with the bamboo. Guan attached important relationship to the bamboo plant in her poems to the extent that she expressed her kinship with the bamboo. At the beginning of her poetic work, Guan toys around with her children whereby she mentions them in some of the poems. However, she goes further to adopt the bamboo plant as her child. In this case, Guan brings out her maternal, emotions, and intimate relationship with the bamboo plant. Such relationship indicates that the bamboo plant is integral to Guan’s expressions of self, creativity, and intelligence.
Guan’s paintings helped to promote the influence of women in the imperial court. According to Purtle (214), Guan dedicated some of her paintings to high-ranking women in the imperial court. Dedicating these paintings and poems to them elevated their status as well as their works thereby making them enviable by their male counterparts. At the same time, dedicating these paintings to the women at the court helped in appreciating their works thereby building a lasting legacy for women. Such legacy acted as a catalyst for other women to rise in the Chinese society and venture into territories dominated by women. This means Guan was among women liberators, but her method was silent as she used her artistic skills to invoke courage and boldness to dare in male dominated field.
One notable woman Guan promoted and associated with was Lady Chaguo. Guan wrote and dedicated to her the painting depicting bamboo groves in rain and mist (Purtle 302). In this case, she depicted her as a shining and conquering person amidst unforeseeable challenges. Guan further associated with Sennge Ragi, who was a very high standing official in the imperial court. This association helped Ragi to remain relevant and influential in the imperial court.
Guan left lasting legacy in the Chinese annals. The writing by Purtle (281) depicts her as one of the greatest women artists of her time. Her artistic heroics led to her inclusion in the essential surveys done during her time. Modern Chinese scholars have access to the works of Guan because they were included in the special collection of the greatest work of early Chinese artists. Although the list features mainly male artists, Guan’s heroics saw her gain entry in the list. According to Purtle (301), the national museum of Taipei has archived most of Guan’s paintings to date. In this case, they are used as the traditional and artistic heritage of the Chinese community. The unique style used in the work makes it a Chinese artistic pride rather than an individual achievement. In this case, the national pride of the Chinese people has been enhanced.
Cahill, James. Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
China Guardian Auctions. “Chinese Paintings .” 2015. Web. 26 March 2016 <http://english.cguardian.com/categories/cpc/2012-06-07/3622.html>.
McCausland. Zhao Mengfu: Calligraphy and Painting for Khubilai’s China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011.
Purtle, Jennifer. The Icon of the Woman Artist: Guan Daosheng (1262-1319) and the Power of Painting at the Ming Court c. 1500. New York : Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2012.
Weidner, Marsha. Flowering in the Shadows: Women in the History of Chinese and Japanese Painting. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.