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  • Empresses, Art, and Agency in Song Dynasty China
  • De-nin D. Lee (bio)
Hui-shu Lee . Empresses, Art, and Agency in Song Dynasty China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010. xi, 331 pp. Hardcover $65.00, ISBN 978-0-295-98963-1.

Hui-shu Lee's cogent study Empresses, Art, and Agency in Song Dynasty China is the outcome of a twenty-year-long engagement with the intersection of Song-dynasty empresses and art. It investigates and, more important, reframes the artistic activities of several powerful women. Lee argues that the empresses' artistic activities are more than occasional or opportunistic inventions of singular women operating independently. Rather, they constitute a heretofore unrecognized tradition among Song empresses to extend sociopolitical networks and to exercise political power.

Observing that "[w]ith notable exceptions . . . studies of imperial involvement in the arts in China have scanted the role of women," Lee explains in her introduction that the paucity of source materials is not due solely to the vagaries of time (p. 3). Rather, "a central tenet of this study is that the survival of materials is linked to the very nature of women's creativity in China, to its practice and reception" (p. 4). In other words, to be successful in asserting themselves, Chinese women must paradoxically present a self-effacing image. Historically, continued conformity to Confucian expectations further obscured women's actions and accomplishments, as Lee explains with the examples of Su Hui's huiwen, or "palindrome," and Yang Meizi's mistaken identity. The introduction also provides an overview of imperial women and art prior to the Song dynasty, noting especially the activities of Wu Zetian (r. 690-705), who cast a long shadow over later empresses and [End Page 259] regents. The following four chapters focus respectively on Empress Liu, calligraphy and images of literate women in Song dynasty, Empress Wu, and Empress Yang. These chapters are roughly chronological, spanning the Northern and Southern Song periods, and their subject matter echoes the shift from religious art to secular forms of calligraphy and painting.

At the heart of chapter 1, "Empress Liu and Sage Mother Worship," is a complex argument for attributing to Empress Liu (969-1033) the construction of the Sage Mother Hall (probably built between 1023 and 1032) at Jin Ci and its sculptural program, involving forty-three life-sized clay figures. While Lee acknowledges "[t]he connection between Empress Liu and the sculpture program at the Jin shrine will always be a matter of speculation," nevertheless, she brings to bear a variety of highly suggestive evidence (p. 53). She begins most broadly with a longstanding history of worship of female deities and their watery associations in the local area. To this context, Lee adds the imperial tradition of youwen, "assisting or promoting culture" (p. 41), and the particular ways in which Emperor Zhenzong (r. 997-1022) and Empress Liu deployed sculpture in the intertwined activities of self-promotion, ancestor worship, religious devotion, and imperial patronage. Finally, aspects of Empress Liu's biography, including her family roots, her role as regent, and her attitudes and strategies toward fulfilling her political ambitions, suggest most strongly the reasons for her involvement in the Sage Mother Hall. In concluding, Lee credits Empress Liu with creating a "new mode of patronage by imperial women," which carefully and successfully negotiated the fine line between propriety and self-promotion (p. 69).

In the second chapter, "Imperial Women and the Art of Writing," Lee divides the eclectic objects of her analysis into three sections. She begins by tracing the history of imperial women's engagement with writing up to the Song dynasty. Next, she examines the calligraphic practices of Song imperial women, especially ghostwriting. Finally, she analyzes four paintings depicting literary women. Preceding the three sections is a brief consideration of calligraphy by Wu Zetian, which elucidates the complex task of assessing calligraphy by an imperial woman. Is her manner of writing deliberately aligned with an imperial orthodoxy? Or, does she aim for independence of expression? (p. 75). These questions underlie the chapter's middle section on the combined achievements in calligraphy of seven empresses and four concubines of the Song dynasty when court ladies came...