The Orchid Knows: A Reassessment of Courtesan-Concubine Gu Mei through Her Paintings and Sisterhood (Abstract)

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference paper

Abstract

The renowned late Ming courtesans were often elevated as the righteous, heroic, and virtuous women in the narratives during the Ming-Qing transition and later periods. However, the talented Nanjing courtesan Gu Mei 顧眉(1619-1664, also 顧媚) was disreputable for her doubtful moral integrity in the writings by men, particularly for she was accused of causing the turncoat behavior of her husband, the eminent scholar-official Gong Dingzi 龔鼎孳. Compared with the other celebrated courtesan artists, e.g., Ma Shouzhen 馬守貞 and Xue Susu 薛素素, in current scholarship, Gu Mei and her paintings have not received much attention. This research aims at bringing a perspective counter to the dominant discourse about her by tracing her own “voices” from her paintings and her “conversations” with other women, either courtesans or gentry-class women, on the painting surface across time and space. The orchid was the favorite subject in paintings by Ming courtesans for multiple reasons in terms of layered symbolic meanings and practical matters. Gu was well-known for her orchid paintings. Scholars suggest that painting the orchids was courtesans’ sensual performance for their patrons or clients during the literary gatherings. This article focuses on Gu’s orchid paintings made when she became a concubine and was no longer in demand to paint for professional reasons. It argues that Gu transformed the sensual orchid into a radical and political expression, of which the meaning was strengthened through the sisterhood and literary exchanges with her female friends and echoed by the collecting and inscription activities among literary women in its afterlife.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jun 2022
EventAn Interdisciplinary Workshop “Living an Epoch with Nature: Plants and Spatial Representations in the Ming-Qing Transition” - Online
Duration: 7 Jun 2022 → …

Workshop

WorkshopAn Interdisciplinary Workshop “Living an Epoch with Nature: Plants and Spatial Representations in the Ming-Qing Transition”
Period7/06/22 → …

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