Guan Daosheng (1262–1319)

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Guan Daosheng (1262–1319)

Chinese artist and poet, generally regarded as the greatest woman painter and calligrapher in the history of China. Name variations: the Lady Guan; Lady Kuan; the Lady Kuan Tao-sheng; the Lady Kuan Taojen; Kuan Fu-jen; Wu Hsing Chün fu-jen; Wei Kuo fujen; Zi Zhongji. Born in 1262 in Wuxing (Wu Hsing), Zhejiang (Chekiang) province, in Central China; died of beriberi near Linquing (Lin Ch'ung), Shandong (Shantung) province, on May 29, 1319; daughter of Guan Shen (Kuan Shen); mother was a member of the Zhou clan; had two sisters; married the artist Songxue also seen as Chao Meng-fu, Zhao Mengfu, or Zhao Meng (1254–1322); children, two sons, including Zhao Yong, and two daughters (some sources cite nine children).

Despite the restrictions placed on women of the elite classes in a traditional Chinese Confucian society based on hierarchy and inequality, over the centuries a remarkable number of them displayed extraordinary creativity. One of the most brilliant was the artist known as the Lady Guan (Lady Kuan). Born into a landed family in 1262 in the fertile province of Zhejiang (Chekiang), she was regarded by her father from birth as being an exceptional child, a parental attitude attested to in her name, Guan Daosheng ("Way of Righteousness Rising as the Sun"). It was hoped by her family that she would one day attract an equally exceptional husband. In 1289, at the advanced age (for matrimony) of 27, Guan Daosheng married Zhao Mengfu (Chao Meng-fu), an ambitious and artistically talented young man who could boast of descent from the imperial Song (Sung) family and who had by this time begun a promising career in the state bureaucracy. Zhao was regarded by Guan's father as a suitable husband because he appeared to possess the talent and energy to one day "attain wealth and rank."

Although the marriage of Guan Daosheng and Zhao Mengfu was doubtless an arranged one that brought with it financial and social advantages to each partner's families and clans, their union soon blossomed into both a love match and a magnificent artistic collaboration. The couple's bliss was, however, overshadowed by the dramatic changes that had taken place in all of China in recent years. In 1279, Kublai Khan had founded the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), thus finalizing the Mongol conquest—and reunification—of China begun by his grandfather Genghis Khan.

Determined to win over the Chinese spiritually as well as militarily, in 1286 Kublai had ordered his officials to bring him the most talented Chinese scholars to fill the highest offices of state. Realizing that acceptance of the offer would open him to accusations of collaboration with the hated conquerors, at first Zhao had begged off, claiming poor health. The next year, however, he relented and began a career in the War Ministry. Until his death 35 years later, Zhao would loyally serve the Emperor Kublai and four of his successors.

Soon after the start of his career as a high state official, Zhao Mengfu was honored not only as a great painter and calligrapher but also as a versatile man of letters appointed to maintain a permanent record of the emperor's activities. Although she gave birth to four children, two sons and two daughters, Guan Daosheng, Zhao's beloved wife, quickly matched, and perhaps even excelled, his level of brilliance. The couple's fame extended throughout the vast Yuan realm. Both Guan and her husband would always be welcome at the imperial court, and the Emperor Renzong (Jen-tsung, r. 1312–1321) would honor her entire family when he ordered calligraphies from not only her husband and son Zhao Yong, but from herself as well. At this time, she created an extended calligraphic work, the Thousand Character Classic, which so pleased the ruler that he predicted, "Later generations can know that my reign not only had an expert female calligrapher, but a whole family capable in calligraphy, which is an extraordinary circumstance."

In 1289, soon after their marriage, Guan Daosheng and her husband had moved to the capital of the new Yuan state, Dadu (now Beijing). Then, Dadu was a small and primitive frontier town in the north of the freshly conquered

realm and quite unlike the metropolis of imperial palaces that the Ming rulers would transform it into more than a century later. Guan and her husband's bittersweet memories of their previous home in the heart of China, with its lush vegetation, canals, rice fields, and bamboo clumps, were often reflected in their art. Besides his depictions of landscapes and bamboo, Zhao became a master painter of a subject matter very much favored by the formerly nomadic Mongol conquerors, namely horses.

The depiction of bamboo was an important theme in Chinese art, both before and after the Yuan Dynasty. Philosophers and poets believed the plant symbolized "the perfect gentleman" and embodied many virtues, including strength and flexibility, because of its ability to bend without breaking. Under Mongol rule, many painters looked upon the bamboo plant, bent but still unbroken under the overwhelmingly superior force of the barbarian Yuan rulers, as a symbol of their nation's current state of humiliation and despair.

Although Guan Daosheng had produced many highly praised works of calligraphy, as well as paintings of landscape, birds, plum blossoms, orchids, rocks, and Buddhist figures done in the traditional Song style, she dared to venture into creating important works depicting bamboo. Because of its associations with the ideal of the gentleman, bamboo was clearly a masculine preserve. An indicator of her artistic and social confidence in this regard is to be found in a bamboo handscroll done in her husband's studio in 1310, in which she wrote: "To play with brush and ink is masculine sort of thing to do, yet I made this painting. Wouldn't someone say that I have transgressed? How despicable; how despicable."

By the time Guan wrote this, her fame as a bamboo artist had spread throughout China. Her sovereign mastery of the art of monochrome black-ink (mozhu) resulted in her treatise, The Bamboo in Monochrome, which after almost seven centuries remains venerated as a classic account of artistic philosophy and technique. One of Guan Daosheng's most important artistic innovations was the reintegration of bamboo into a landscape setting. Equally significant for future generations of painters were her depictions of bamboo clumps, particularly groves of the plant enveloped in mist after fresh rain. Artists were inspired by Lady Guan's scenes of bamboo groves highlighted at the base of a series of staggered mountains in mist. Others were influenced by her novel views of bamboo panoramas, as well as by her format of low-level views of groves of tall bamboo with short, sharp leaves densely arranged over the top half of the stalks. Some art historians have suggested that she chose to paint bamboo along waterways in order to bring feminine associations to the plant's image. What is undisputed is the stunning sensitivity of the several masterpieces attributed to her brush that have survived the centuries. These include the ink on paper hanging scroll, "Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain" (dated 1308, National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan), a work that is regarded by some critics as one of the supreme masterpieces of traditional Chinese art.

Both Guan Daosheng's contemporaries and later generations esteemed her work as "a jewel" and large sums were offered for even an inch or two of silk or paper containing a specimen of her art. Both she and her husband were among the most respected artist-intellectuals of the Yuan Dynasty. In 1318, she was granted the most exalted of several titles that the emperor would bestow on her, that of Wei Kuo fu-jen, the Lady of the Wei Principality—giving the beloved artist a position approximating that of a feudal lord (some years earlier, she had been designated Wu Hsing Chün fu-jen, the Lady of the Wu Hsing Region).

When Guan became seriously ill with a recurrence of "foot-anger illness," probably beriberi, the best physicians of the imperial court attempted to prescribe cures but to no avail and her condition deteriorated from day to day. In early May 1319, a solicitous emperor gave his permission for her to return to her home in the south. Accompanied by her husband and a son, the gravely ill Lady Guan was placed on a boat for the journey via the Grand Canal. Fifteen days later, on May 29, 1319, having still not arrived home, she died. Her husband was inconsolable, and the character used on her gravestone to mark her death was the one used to announce the death of a prince or feudal lord. Zhao Mengfu, who never would return to Dadu, died in 1322 still longing for the wife whose "manner was winning… [and]… intelligence clear as moonlight." After her death, the multi-talented Guan Daosheng quickly entered the pantheon of China's greatest artistic masters, the only woman in this cultural elite. Down through the centuries, her paintings, calligraphy and poems have continued to be revered. She remains the first lady of painting in China's artistic Golden Age.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia