3 Beauty under the Willow Tree: Picturing Virtuous Women in Nineteenth-Century China

in Gender, Continuity, and the Shaping of Modernity in the Arts of East Asia, 16th–20th Centuries
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In his painting, Lady Holding a Fan in the Autumn Breeze, Fei Danxu (1801–50) pictured the back of a woman in monochrome ink, her face concealed, leaning on a rock under a willow tree. The round fan in her left hand references Lady Ban, or Ban Jieyu (c. 48 bce–c. 6 bce), the erudite and virtuous consort of the Han emperor Cheng Di (r. 32–7 ce). After expressing her enduring devotion to her lord in a poem written on a round fan, Lady Ban became the archetype of the abandoned woman that was rendered in paintings for centuries to follow. Her image initially appealed to women as a virtuous role model, and later to men as a woman longing for love. However, Fei Danxu departed from contemporary pictorial conventions that romanticized the suffering of the abandoned woman. Rather, he used the abandoned woman to point to the challenges of modernity in Jiangnan, one that poised scholarly virtue as a corrective to the perils of material desire and political instability. His image of a solitary beauty under the willow tree emerged from a modern consciousness that reconsidered representations of and by women in painting and poetry.

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