#AsiaNow Speaks with Lara C. W. Blanchard

Lara C. W. Blanchard is Luce Professor of East Asian Art and Lloyd Wright Professor of Conservative Studies, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and author of Song Dynasty Figures of Longing and Desire: Gender and Interiority in Chinese Painting and Poetry, published by Brill and winner of the 2020 AAS Joseph Levenson Pre-1900 Book Prize (China).

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

In Song Dynasty Figures of Longing and Desire, I examine the writing of interiority in paintings of women from China’s Song dynasty (960–1279), considering how they correspond to examples of erotic poetry and how they address the concerns of artists, patrons, and viewers through pictorial imagery. The book is conceived as an interdisciplinary study that relies on analysis of images of women in painting and poetry of China’s middle imperial period, focusing on works that represent female figures as preoccupied with romance. I discuss examples of visual and literary culture in regard to their gendered authorship and audience, examining the role of interiority in constructions of gender, exploring the rhetorical functions of romantic images, and considering the relationship between subjectivity and representation. In the past, the paintings I study have sometimes been interpreted as simple representations of the daily lives of women, or as straightforward artifacts of heteroerotic desire, but I propose that they could additionally be interpreted as political allegories, representations of the artist’s or patron’s interiorities, or models of idealized femininity. I believe that the imagery in these paintings was multivalent—expressive of ideas and open to multiple interpretations—and in this way similar to poetic imagery.

What inspired you to research this topic?

This book is a substantial revision of my doctoral dissertation, which I embarked on in 1996 and completed in 2001. The dissertation focused on imagery of love and longing in Song paintings of women. As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I was intrigued by connections between Chinese poetry and painting, as well as the role of gender in Chinese art history. I had done coursework with several professors who were focusing on Song studies around that time: my adviser—art historian Marty Powers—as well as art historian Robert Harrist and literary scholar Shuen-fu Lin. All of those elements coalesced in this particular topic. I came up with the idea for how to revise the dissertation at the AAS conference in New York in 2003 (I spent an afternoon scribbling down a draft of the chapter outline on the stationery in my hotel room); as a social art historian, I wanted to understand why artists and patrons were drawn to imagery of longing and desire, why it was necessary to express certain ideas through the genre of figure paintings, and what viewers might have found appealing about these paintings. It meant that I needed to focus on paintings with identifiable artists or patrons, for the most part, and therefore I was thinking and writing about some of the best-known examples of Song dynasty figure painting. They are paintings that I really love, so that part was easy.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

One major obstacle was inherent to the design of the project: combining art historical methodology with literary analysis, and then considering both painting and poetry through a gendered lens. I’m trained as an art historian and thinking about visual culture comes most easily to me, but I had to draw upon scholarship from different fields—literary studies, gender theory, women’s studies, intellectual history—in order to do this work. Focusing on the middle imperial period also created some difficulties; there is still some scholarly disagreement over the dates of paintings ascribed to that era. In addition, relying on Song dynasty primary sources meant reading the classical language of the tenth to thirteenth centuries, which can be ambiguous. Historical texts and inscriptions and colophons to paintings, for example, often omit pronouns, and the original texts are usually unpunctuated, all of which makes the writing harder to comprehend. Reading poetry additionally requires an understanding of poetic diction and devices. Finally, it took a while to find a home for the manuscript, but when I realized that Brill had a series on Women and Gender in China Studies that became the obvious choice, and once it landed there everything went swimmingly. I have to say that I am so grateful to everyone at Brill, but especially series editor Grace Fong and editor Patricia Radder, whom I worked with most closely.

What went well with this project? First, because I was mainly writing about well-known examples of Song dynasty painting, they had already been the focus of art historical research, which I was able to build upon. Second, quite a few studies of Chinese poetry of the middle imperial period consider gendered subjectivity; these studies provided a model for how I thought about the paintings. A third thing that became remarkably better over the course of the project was access to images. I started out working from black-and-white photographs provided by archives, or color reproductions in books, and by the end I was working with full-color, high-resolution digital images that could be sent to me via e-mail. Obtaining the reproduction rights for images is sometimes difficult, but some museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have recently made images of some works in their collection open access, which I deeply appreciate.

What is the most outrageous story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Much of the book deals with poetic themes and images rather than stories, but there is one historical narrative that I spent some time discussing, and that is the story of Han Xizai (902–70). In fact, there are different narratives about him in dynastic histories, art historical texts, and in the surviving Song-era painting of his night revels. He was infamous for wild parties at which he openly employed courtesans to entertain his colleagues and students. Sources claim that during Han Xizai’s lifetime two different court painters documented the events that took place in his house. Some of the tales about him focus on his ruler’s reaction to reports of his activities, while others suggest that his behavior was meant to indicate dissent and may have been a means of positioning himself as a court hermit, but often, in both textual and pictorial sources, his transgressions are embodied in the figures of the courtesans. A twelfth-century criticism of one of the early paintings was that there was no point in preserving it—that it could be thrown away after one look—yet the painting I discuss in the book was probably created not long afterward. In the Song dynasty, it was a story that could provoke outrage, so I wanted to understand the circumstances behind the creation of the twelfth-century painting of Han Xizai’s revelry, as well as how text and image depict the gendered dynamics between him, his party guests, and the courtesans.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

When I was first working on Song images of women as a graduate student, I was greatly inspired by Patricia Ebrey’s The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period, as well as by Anne Birrell’s translation of New Songs from a Jade Terrace and Pauline Yu’s edited collection Voices of the Song Lyric in China. There was one article, too, that was especially important, and that was Ellen Johnston Laing’s “Chinese Palace-Style Poetry and the Depiction of A Palace Beauty.” Since those early days, there have been many other books that I found myself devouring for ideas about how to frame my research; most of them focus on textual analysis or poetic practice. Those titles include Paul Rouzer’s Articulated Ladies: Gender and the Male Community in Early Chinese Texts, Maija Bell Samei’s Gendered Persona and Poetic Voice: The Abandoned Woman in Early Chinese Song Lyrics, Anna Shields’s Crafting a Collection: The Cultural Contexts and Poetic Practice of the Huajian ji (Collection from Among the Flowers), and Ronald Egan’s The Burden of Female Talent: The Poet Li Qingzhao and Her History in China. The books on Chinese art history that I think might provide complementary perspectives to mine include Hui-shu Lee’s Empresses, Art, and Agency in Song Dynasty China, De-nin Lee’s The Night Banquet: A Chinese Scroll through Time, James Cahill’s Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China, and the exhibition catalogue Views from Jade Terrace: Chinese Women Artists, 1300–1912.

What are you working on now?

Intermittently over the past couple of years I have been reading and translating a nineteenth-century history of Chinese women’s paintings throughout the imperial period, the History of Jade Terrace Painting by Tang Shuyu. This is a source that I consulted for my book, and as I was working with it I realized that it has a complicated relationship with its various source materials. I’m also intrigued by Tang Shuyu’s work in compiling and editing it, as well as the contributions of her husband, Wang Yuansun. I’m hoping that a critical translation would be useful to both art historians and to scholars of Chinese women’s history, but I also thought that digging into this book more deeply might help me identify multiple new avenues of research. There are over two hundred women artists covered in it; it’s interesting to get a sense of what they chose to paint and why, as well as how painting fit into their lives.