- Empresses, Art, and Agency in Song Dynasty China
Over the course of the Song dynasty the imperial palaces in Kaifeng and Hangzhou were home to tens of thousands of women, a dozen or more of whom gained substantial political power as empresses. In Empresses, Art, and Agency in Song Dynasty China, Hui-shu Lee sets out to uncover the varied ways these women were connected to the art produced at court or with court funding. She addresses both art historians, who have long studied Song court art, and specialists in women’s history, who accept the need to read familiar sources against the grain in order to illuminate gender issues. The resulting book should be of broad interest to scholars and students in both fields.
With few works by women artists being extant, Hui-shu Lee draws what she can from other types of evidence. Women as patrons of art figure in the book under review more frequently than do women as artists. There are also substantial analyses of women as the subjects of paintings. Lee is well grounded in the history of the Song period and astutely brings political events and institutional practices into her analysis. Since direct evidence of women’s involvement with art is often lacking, Lee turns to circumstantial evidence, trying to build up a case bit by bit for recognizing women as participants in the production of Song court art.
Empresses, Art, and Agency follows a rough chronological sequence. The introduction treats in some detail the most important pre-Song example of an imperial woman involved in artistic production: Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang. Lee uses her example to raise issues about women as cultural actors and the strategies open to them. After Wu Zetian, she argues, imperial women generally found it more effective to work in indirect or unassertive ways, for instance, by promoting themselves by cultivating a reputation for virtue.
In Chapter 1, Lee deals with the first empress dowager to serve as regent for a child emperor after Wu Zetian, Empress Dowager Liu (969–1033), widow of Zhenzong and regent for the child emperor Renzong from 1022 to 1033. Lee stresses that Liu set an important precedent [End Page 404] for the Song, demonstrating that women in the role of mothers could be effective rulers, even when they came from humble backgrounds. As Lee points out, eight more Song empresses served as regents during the next two centuries. The main connection between Empress Liu and art is the Jinci shrine in Shanxi, near Taiyuan, one of the few Song temple complexes still extant. Two decades ago Amy McNair suggested that the statues in this temple should be dated to Empress Liu’s period of dominance. Lee pursues this link, even though in 2007 Tracy Miller made a strong argument on stylistic grounds for dating the building later in the eleventh century and explicitly ruled out “any connection to Liu, who died in 1033.”1 Lee takes a more ambiguous position: “Whether [Empress Liu] personally patronized the construction of the hall cannot be determined, but I have little doubt that what is seen in the hall today reflects the power and prestige that she wielded as the Sage Mother of her time” (p. 31). Lee focuses on the forty-three statues in the Sage Mother Hall, which she relates to imperial portrait sculpture and to portrayals of female deities. She comments on the facial expressions of quite a few of the statues, seeing in one “coarse, peasant-like features, subtly enlivened with an expression that bespeaks loyalty and humility,” and in another “a worldly, fatalistic expression” (p. 61). She believes that one statue represents a eunuch who “appears the epitome of culture and taste, wearing an expression of thoughtful disdain” (p. 63). The Sage Mother herself seems “calm, dignified of expression,” yet “inscrutable and impersonal” (p. 65).
The second chapter takes up calligraphy by imperial women, a category that includes not only empresses but also lower-ranking consorts and female officials. More than one Song...