Women and East Asian Art

Group Proposal: Women’s Roles in China and Japan as Reflected in Art

In China and Japan, women had different roles within the communities that they lived in. Depending on the different social classes that these women were in, their roles varied significantly. Our exhibition compares the roles of courtesans, concubines, and entertainers, and how their roles in society are represented through different art pieces. In 18th and 19th century China and Japan, women were frequently seen as inferior. Through the artworks we have chosen, our exhibition addresses how the specific roles women assumed in their communities were reflected on art of the time period, and how significantly art style changed based in these regions.

A group of women who were represented in East Asian art as inferior were concubines. Concubines were known and seen as mistresses and they were primarily perceived as pleasure objects. These women mostly attended to the needs of the higher classes or nobility. Within concubinage, it is important to analyze the emotions and characteristics women hold within the painting. Women were chosen to be concubines for specific reasons, whether it be beauty or family requests. In artwork, concubines were depicted with very high beauty standards and they were almost always near men. The stories told from these artworks is a great representation of how women had developed special relationships with the men. Even though they were only concubines, these women often held a different level of dominance.

Courtesans have played a major role in their social status throughout Japan and China and are much different from how they are often viewed, they are trained from adolescence and work hard to gain status in their field. They are often thought of as very similar to prostitutes, although they have many differences. The courtesans were not only appealing for their sexual services but also for their music and literary talents. Many courtesans started very low in social ranking, however, as they got older, they would move up based on their beauty and talents. They often cost so much that few people had the ability to afford a middle-ranking courtesan. The price was not for just the courtesan, but also for her attendants and courtesans in training. Gaining rank in this area was a difficult task and young girls required extensive training to allow them to progress and attain expertise.

Female entertainers, specifically Japanese geishas, hold a very interesting place in society. They generally are not granted the same status as concubines or courtesans but must go through extensive learning and training process from a young age to be qualified in their performing arts. It was also a way in which women of very low social status could interact with important men and possibly climb the ranks of the social ladder that they would be otherwise unable to do. One of the biggest differences between geishas and courtesans is that geishas were strictly forbidden to have sexual relations with their clients, as opposed to courtesans where it was an accepted fact. They were women of art, music, and dances for wealthy men to watch, frequently depicted in artwork as women of beauty and grace.

By depicting women in the contrasting roles of courtesan, concubine and entertainer, we exhibit the array of platforms women were involved in but to also exhibit how these platforms were mostly to attend the needs of men. Our group’s theme of the roles of women in 18th and 19th Japanese and Chinese societies can be analyzed through pieces of art depicting courtesans, concubines, and entertainers. We strongly believe that the works of art we have chosen are able to signify the importance of the roles of women in this time. We also believe these pieces of artwork can show how significant the impact of women was on these different cultures. Women in different roles make up a considerable amount of Chinese and Japanese art throughout history and the depictions of these roles show their impact on everyday life.


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