Women and East Asian Art

Courtesans in China and Japan

Adult courtesan with young courtesan

Courtesans with Fan and Flute attributed to Zhang Gui from the Qing dynasty[1]. This painting depicts two Chinese courtesans one older one and one younger girl. The young girl is holding a flute which was seen as a very suggestive instrument at the time. While the older woman holds a fan and a rose, which were often seen as flowers relating to romance and love. The flute and rose fill this image with sexual innuendos showing how courtesans were perceived in Qing China. The older woman is looking down at the girl lovingly as if she is very proud of her for the work she is doing. Girls started their preparation to become a courtesan at a very young age and the older woman is probably training the young girl to become successful. The older woman has a lot more jewelry and flowers in her hair showing her seniority compared to the young girl who only has one clip in her hair. This painting fits into our exhibition on how the specific roles of women in Chinese and Japanese cultures were reflected in art by depicting how Chinese courtesans were viewed in ancient China. The painting shows how girls trained for the majority of their lives to become a good courtesan and had to work very hard to perfect all the skills they needed to know. It also illustrates how they were not similar to prostitutes because they were only used by upper-class educated men who wanted to enjoy their variety of talents. For example, courtesans could dance, play music and chess, and write, so they were not only used for sexual services but also many other activities. They were also not attainable to lower class citizens based on how expensive it was to hire courtesans. People respected the courtesans hard work and artistry and desired them, however, could not acquire them because of their exclusive nature.

[1] “Courtesans with Fan and Flute.” Freer|Sackler, Smithsonian, asia.si.edu/object/F1916.107/.


Two courtesans at a writing desk

Courtesan at a Writing Desk by Isoda Koryusai[1]. This image shows two courtesans looking over a desk at a handscroll. Given the knowledge that courtesans were highly educated in literature and music, the painting could be depicting the women practicing to gain more expertise. Both women are dressed in very extravagant detailed robes showing that they are probably high-ranking courtesans who are very respected people. The woman standing could be an older more advanced courtesan helping the younger one at the desk gain experience in her literary skills. The courtesan at the desk is covering half of the handscroll with her sleeve and the other courtesan is standing further back leaning forward to see what is on the scroll. These factors make it seem as though the women might not be supposed to look at this piece of writing and are reading it without someone’s knowledge. Koryusai was very well known for his images of flowers which are shown in a vase on the desk and also in the hair of the standing courtesan. The flowers in the vase look like plum blossom flowers, these symbolize elegance which is a very important image to hold as a courtesan in Japan. This painting fits into our exhibition on how the specific roles of women in Chinese and Japanese cultures were reflected in art by showing how Japanese courtesans were viewed during the Edo period. These women show the clothes that high-ranking courtesans would be seen wearing and also gives a glimpse into their daily life. It shows how these women would study and train for many years to achieve their rank. Also, it shows that they were not simply perceived as prostitutes during this times. The artwork shows that they were well educated and worked hard from a young age in order to gain status in their field.


[1] “Courtesan at a Wrtiting Desk.” Museum of Fine Arts Boston, collections.mfa.org/objects/26405.


Woman and man walking with umbrella

Toshusai Sharaku depicts a man and a woman who seem to be in an argument with each other[1]. The man appears to be more dominant in the picture by the way he is looking down to the woman and she is looking at the ground. The couple looks like they were out on a walk but have now stopped short. The man seems very unhappy with the woman and she is leaning away from him showing that she wants to get away from the conversation they are having.  The umbrella they are holding is a sun umbrella so it is probably a nice sunny day. However, the dark color background to the painting depicts the anger they are feeling and enhances that feeling that something is wrong. Toshusai Sharaku became very famous in the Japanese Edo period for his detailed paintings of actors, meaning it is probable that both people shown in this painting are men, because all actors at this time were male. Sharaku was well known for being able to express the intense emotions the actors would show during their performances. This can be seen in the large frown on the man’s face in this painting and the tense feeling that they both have. Sharaku also used mica, a shiny mineral, in his backgrounds, which was seen as an extravagant technique that many artist could not afford to use in their art. This painting fits into our exhibition because it give a different kind of depiction of how women were viewed in Japan during the Edo period. Although these are both male actors, the representation of the woman is how women would have been viewed during this time. Sharaku and the actors would try and present the most realistic interpretation of a women so it would be believable to both their audiences. This painting shows how women were subordinate to the male figures in their lives and were often not able to stand up for themselves.

[1] “Toshusai Sharaku.” The Trout Gallery, collections.troutgallery.org/obj14611?sid=6285&x=248167.

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