A Reverie of the Matriarch in Ancient China
Review by Natasha P.

The Qing dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China, had absolute rule over the land for three centuries before being overthrown and succeeded by the Republic of China. In the centuries of Confucian indoctrination, the people were bound by the precept of filial piety. However, filial piety compels women in a different way than it does men . Women were to obey the Three Obediences - obeying their fathers as children, then their husbands as wives and their sons upon widowhood. Women's names were commonly left untold, they were often only known as, “Mother of [x]” or “Wife of [x]”. The Chinese woman’s sole purpose was to bear children and obey the men around her. She was to be subservient - as can be observed in the practice of foot binding that plagued Chinese society for generations.

These themes were explored in Mirroring and Wandering: Chinese Reverse Glass Paintings in the 18th and 19th Centuries, an exhibition held by the CAFA Art Museum, Beijing, from November to December 2020. Curated by Liu Xiyan, the exhibition is based around Chapter 32 of the Qing Dynasty novel, “Flowers in the Mirror” in which the protagonist, Tang Ao, and his crew arrive in a foreign land. “This foreign land, appearing in fantasy and reality, is just like a mirror, in which women govern the country and can do just about anything they desire, and travellers feel like they enter into an illusionary world”. The use of the word “illusionary” suggests that the mere existence of this female-led land was regarded as unthinkably bizarre.


The exhibition consists of three sections.“Volume 1 The Journey: From Glass to Painting”, highlights the history of reverse glass painting, “Volume 2 Her “Chinese Room”: From Oriental Appearance to Western Taste”displays the European take on Chinese glass mirror paintings when the art made its way to Western shores, and “Volume 3 His Garden and Her: From “Chinoseries” to Local Taste”, explores the modernisation of the subject (the Chinese woman) in the progression of the art style.

The painting “Hostess in the Menor House” in Volume 2 of the exhibition features a noblewoman who accompanies her husband on a walk in nature, with another woman who I assume is her handmaiden. Like most ancient Chinese art, there is an overall feeling of serenity in the painting, effected bythe depiction of nature. The use of flora, fauna and scenic landscapes are pleasing to the eyes, more so as the colour green has been scientifically proven to have a relaxing effect. Despite the lack of bold colours, the painting is still visually captivating because of the elegance of the couple’s garb and the subtle pop of colour inthe flowers beside them. Hung next to it is a family portrait of four posed in greenery, done in the European take on the art style, which seems a little bit two-dimensional in comparison. Perhaps it comes down to taste, but the contrast between the family and the background isn’t as stark, resulting in the image coming off as flat. The style also looks typical of the usual European portraiture of the time, despite being a borrowed method from the East.


“Figures in the Garden”, a painting in the final section of this exhibition, represents a shift in style of reverse glass paintings. It features women and a child in their daily outdoor activities, representing affluence and leisure. The geometric shapes used in the painting frame the human subjects and potted plants. The airy architecture is said to relieve the hot and humid weather of Lingnan area and the potted plants are also said to be a typical characteristic of Lingan gardens. The ladies in the painting look at the child in an attentive but gentle way - probably intentionally painted in that fashion to display the supposed maternal inclinations that Chinese women are said to inherently possess.

The portraits displayed in the exhibition are all paintings of women from the waist up, posed daintily. This exact ‘daintiness’ that is perceived from their poses, whitened skin and demure expressions are the exact demonstration of the relationship between reverse glass paintings and their female subjects. Presumably almost always painted by men, the women subjects are made to look like subdued damsels in a way that is palatable to the patriarchal standards of 19th century China. Of course, no shame to the subjects themselves, as they were subject to the beauty standards of the time. However, it is interesting to look back at the evolution of Chinese art immediately after the downfall of the monarchy - the Maoist regime was in full swing, and women were suddenly called to the forefront of labour regardless of class. 19th century Maoist propaganda art displays women in a different light entirely - in which they are dressed down, proud and wielding armoury.

As the country moved towards modernity, reverse glass paintings have become less popular in China. However, we can still observe this as a metaphor for the changed perception of women in Chinese society with the rise of both communism and capitalism.



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Natasha P. is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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