A Curator’s Notes – Women in Shanghai, Part 1

Historically, many battles have been fought over the body of the woman. So we knew that the images of Chinese women presented in the Shanghai exhibition would be a hot topic of discussion. Interestingly, the most passionate reactions expressed by the public have been focused on a group of images that have these two characteristics:

  1. The images were for commercial use, and
  2. The majority of them date to the 1920s and 1930s.

I am curious to understand why that is. So in this multipart series (I don’t even know how many blog postings I will need!), I will attempt to make connections that may have been missed or misread, using the artworks and the available texts in the exhibition, such as object labels, wall panels, and exhibition catalogue. But right off the bat, I must say, I am having fun with this topic and it is an incredible challenge!

Here is a sample spread of this controversial group of images:

Distinguishing Local Flavor, 1890s

Distinguishing Local Flavor, 1890s

Gliding Like Celestial Beings, 1930s

Gliding Like Celestial Beings, 1930s

The Young Companion (January 1935)

The Young Companion, 1935

Moonlight over Huangpu River, 1930s

Moonlight over Huangpu River, 1930s

What should we be seeing in all of these images? I’m guessing that what should be seen in these depictions of women is different from what some people are actually seeing. A wall panel in the exhibition offers this suggestion: “Chinese women appeared in Shanghai’s popular media in several guises…. Seen in the posters, magazines, and film clips presented in this gallery are various idealizations of the Chinese modern woman, such as homemaker, celebrity, and sex object.”

The key concept here is modernity. Beginning in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, there existed a craze to modernize all aspects of Shanghai society. For example, in technology, as illustrated by the painting below, “Shanghai was the first Chinese city [in 1882] to have electric lighting installed on its streets.”

Wandering Eyes Giving Way to Wandering Thoughts, 1890s

Wandering Eyes Giving Way to Wandering Thoughts, 1890s

In commerce, as described in the exhibition catalogue, the Big Four department stores (pictured below) introduced new trends to the Chinese retail experience, such as “set[ting] fixed prices to prevent haggling, and … emphasiz[ing] individual and friendly customer service.”

Nanjing Road-From Series of Views of Shanghai, after 1937

Nanjing Road-From Series of Views of Shanghai, after 1937

Womanhood was no exception; it too felt the effects of the drive to modernize. This should not be surprising, since women’s rights were being advanced internationally at this time, such as suffrage for the American woman. In China, the first such attempt at reform came in 1898 with institutional support from the emperor and realized to an extent by men and women reformers in Shanghai. The results are impressive:  the first Chinese girls’ school, the first women’s association in China, and the first Chinese women’s journal (for more see Qian Nanxiu’s article in Modern China 29, no.4 (October 2003): 399-454).

Do the visual materials of the time reflect these notions of women’s rights? In some ways, yes; in other ways, no. In the 1880s and 1890s, we begin to see the first publicized depictions of Chinese women in the form of photo-lithographed prints. What is meant by “publicized?” Well, the tradition of painting Chinese beauties is a long one in China, as exemplified by a group of album leaf paintings in the exhibition (below right).

Ladies, 1890

Ladies, 1890

Such paintings were traditionally viewed in a private setting, in someone’s studio or home garden. However, as discussed in the exhibition catalogue, a new option became available in Shanghai with the introduction of new printing technologies such as lithography. The same artist who created the private painting (above right), at the same time, painted the following public image of women:

Shining Eyes and White Wrists, 1887-1893

Shining Eyes and White Wrists, 1887-1893

This painting served as the original manuscript from which photo-lithographed prints were made, then bound together into periodical form and sold in local shops for readers to peruse at home or in a park, for example. In these ways, images of Chinese women became public material.

Several aspects of this image satisfied people’s cravings for the “modern.”

  1. The latest technology was employed to make its prints.
  2. The formerly exclusive tradition of painting Chinese beauties became more accessible to the larger public.
  3. Illustrated here is a local hotspot called the Zhang Garden, which the object label identifies as “the most famous of the new public gardens in Shanghai and was considered by contemporaries to be the city’s first modern amusement park […].”
  4. The popular European game of billiards was offered in Shanghai.
  5. Chinese women are presented as having access to this new form of entertainment.
  6. Chinese women are presented out-and-about in a public space.

The last two aspects concern us here. In the 1880s and 1890s, while the social reformers had their visions of modern Chinese womanhood, entrepreneurs and publishers in Shanghai advertised their own visions: modernity for women meant having greater access to the public domain and being associated with the cult of the new. And what better place to find a modern woman and all things new than in the city of Shanghai! This is how I regard this group of illustrations, as the beginning of a marketing strategy linking the Chinese woman, to Shanghai, to modernity.

That strategy was seen everywhere by the time we encounter Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, not only within the city limits but in Europe and the States. Hence, a good number of people all over the world are most familiar with commercial images such as this one:

A Prosperous City That Never Sleeps, 1930s

A Prosperous City That Never Sleeps, 1930s

What are we being sold here by presenting a fashionable woman lounging before a skyline of Nanjing Road at night? The object label offers that “it directly links the Chinese … woman with the city and the ideals of modernity.” In other words: Come to Shanghai to find a modern woman!  So, what characterizes a “modern” woman?

Southern Beauty, 1930s

Southern Beauty, 1930s

Finishing an Orchid-Water Bath, 1930s

Finishing an Orchid-Water Bath, 1930s

It Often Begins with a Smile, 1930s

It Often Begins with a Smile, 1930s

Facing One's Reflection with Vanity, 1930s

Facing One's Reflection with Vanity, 1930s

Viewed as a group, the commercial posters in the exhibition indeed are selling an ideal of the modern woman in Shanghai: she was fashionable in appearance, she was a adept in the home and in social occasions, she projected confidence and composure. None of this should be new to us, however, for these ideals were also advertised in America. As is identified in the gallery’s wall panel, in the 1920s and 1930s, there appeared worldwide a controversial but popular icon known as the “modern girl” icon. The icon appeared in advertising in major metropolises such as Paris, Bombay, and New York. So of course such an icon would also have appeared in Shanghai, because everything that we’ve seen so far has beaten us over the head with this one message: during this time period, the residents of Shanghai saw themselves as no less than active participants in the global phenomenon of modernization.

At this point, the issue of sex is often raised. What about the semi-naked woman in the poster? And what about the courtesans and their bound feet seen earlier? Wasn’t Shanghai called the “Whore of the Orient?” How “modern” could any of this be? These issues will be explored in my next posting.  So please come back!

13 Responses to “A Curator’s Notes – Women in Shanghai, Part 1”

  1. duriandave  on April 29th, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Dany! I wonder if you might summarize some of the reactions that prompted you to write this, because I didn’t find any of these pieces in the least bit controversial.

    As you rightly say, they are no different from representations of the “modern woman” found in other parts of the world. And of course, even today sexual images of women (and men) are still used to sell products and consumerist fantasies. Is that really so shocking?

    Maybe some visitors felt that too much emphasis was placed on these particular examples of Shanghai popular art. But personally, I was happy to see some actual examples of the beautiful lithography produced in the “Shanghai calendar girl” genre.

    Sure, it would have been nice to see a wider variety of examples showing its development from earlier less overtly sexual depictions and its later transformation in the Communist era, when many of the artists continued to work in the same style but depicted rosy-cheeked proletarian girls instead of the former ladies of leisure.

    It would have also been nice to have included some work by women artists, such as Pan Yuliang, in order to present a more balanced picture of the depiction of women in Shanghai art.

    The selection of pieces was clearly limited by the Museum’s small exhibition space. But for those people who were upset seeing illustrations of courtesans with bound feet, what can I say?

    Such things existed and they were depicted in art. Displaying that art does not constitute an endorsement of either practice, anymore than showing a portrait of Mao Tse-tung advocates the theory and practice of revolutionary class struggle or showing the Hongkew boundary tablet promotes American imperialism.

    Anyway, I’m actually glad that the show has stirred up a little controversy. It’s much more exciting than the same old Chinese jades and ceramics (no offense intended to afficionados and connoisseurs of such things).

    Cheers! :D

  2. Ana  on May 3rd, 2010 at 9:54 am

    The posters are public art in a public space. Shown pretty much as intended – asking no favors from the surroundings, all too ready to overwhelm their background. Perhaps this is their advantage?

    I would guess that familiarity pays with these: perhaps no particular detail or philosophy makes these poster girls stand out – they simply are recognizable as ‘poster girls’. Perhaps anywhere closer then three steps away, their details look exotic, but no one turns away from an engaging picture from that distance, it wouldn’t even be polite in an art gallery! I’d say, some ad-makers did their job right, back then.

    It doesn’t sound too surprising that the most recognizable images capture the imagination among an array of objects expected to be anything but familiar [isn’t this that most expect from an exhibition, for better or for worse?]. The past cast in a museum is not usually a past to live in. Exceptions must still be surprising for some. Perhaps you are seeing a measure of this public…

    There must be some deeper reason why subtle contemplation isn’t often the way of street art. The halls of museums are some times more like a library, sometimes more like an arcade – I couldn’t say what makes the difference: it is apparent in the pace or the crowd more then anything. Whatever gets in the air, is very hard to defy!

    [disclaimer: I have not seen the exhibit, the mater is quite familiar from walking down the hallways of many others.]

  3. Nancy  on May 4th, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    I have to say that I wasn’t upset by the illustrations of courtesans, bound feet or posters of gorgeous women. In fact, I wasn’t upset at all but thought that either the wall text or the catalog essays should have included more of the economic reality for women in Shanghai. The curators at the museum are such a fantastically talented group that I felt you (in the plural) could have included that information without offending too many people. Of course, there’s always going to be somebody offended by the idea that children aren’t brought by the stork and left in the cabbage patch or that the grim economic necessity of Chinese life in the 1920’s and 1930s’s meant that many women had to become prostitutes to survive.

  4. Dany  on May 10th, 2010 at 8:44 am

    @duriandave The main reactions include regarding these posters as not worthy to be called “art” and so some people question why they are included in the exhibition at all; and as @Nancy mentions, some people are upset that more focus was not given to certain realities of the lives of Chinese women.

  5. Dany  on May 10th, 2010 at 9:04 am

    @Nancy I hear what you have been saying, but I also understand this differently. You’re not the only one who has been dissatisfied with the fact that we chose not to dwell on certain realities of the lives of Chinese women. And this is how I view it: dwelling. The curatorial team for this exhibition are not experts in the social field of gender issues, therefore, in our catalogue, we reference important related scholarship so that if you’re interested in knowing more, you can simply go look it up. What we strive to be is the neutral facilitator–this is what we see in these posters, this is the reality, and please go here if you want to learn more about this reality. In fact, that’s why we have related programming such as the academic symposium at Berkeley, where such issues where presented and discussed! Where were the critics then–why didn’t they attend?

    What I’m sensing is that people are upset that the museum is not taking a stand on the issues. It is not enough for some of our visitors that we simply state the reality that yes, there was a thriving courtesan culture in 19th-century Shanghai; that yes, taxi dancers were sometimes employed as prostitutes. They want us to further say, “and this was bad.” We cannot judge. I will not judge.

    Do you get the same sense, from your observations?

  6. Nancy  on May 10th, 2010 at 11:46 am

    Its interesting that you see the museum’s viewpoint as one that is non-judgmental. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms but now that I do, I have to respectfully disagree. Of course, I blogged about this extensively in one of my many posts on the Shanghai show called “Soiled Doves…”

    By presenting what you think is a neutral viewpoint, you (or the museum) were, in effect, saying that the art was everything, a self contained piece of beauty and that the economic realities of the time were not significant. But they were! What I saw was a presentation of the foot-bound courtesans, the beautiful posters of tea girls or that sexy lady in lingerie as beautiful objects in themselves, outside the economic realities of the period. If you – or the viewer – doesn’t understand how little choice women had, he (or she) would be more inclined to think “This is bad. ” But if they realize that many women, not just Chinese but Russian refugees and others, had no other way to survive, they would be less judgmental.

    I felt that there should have been, at the least, a tactful acknowledgment of the economic realities of Shanghai in the 20s and 30’s. That’s not saying that prostitution was evil or that Shanghai was the VD capital of the world at the time. That’s just highlighting the cage that the poor women were in – they had no choice. It was either that or starve.

    I do agree that the museum is trying to do a lot with a limited amount of space and maybe the exhibit might have been more successful (in some ways), if the scope had been more limited. But to ignore their grim economic reality is not neutral.

    But it’s an old dilemma that the art world faces – is art for art’s sake or is it part of the zeitgeist of the time. In the case of the exhibit of items from Shanghai, I would argue that it’s part of the time, a time of great cultural change but also great economic misery. The museum is trying to tell the history of a great city through its art but part of that art – a significant part – relates to the status of women. I could even see another exhibit ON the status of women in China – told through art objects but if this exhibit has raised controversy, I can just imagine the uproar that type of show could create!

    However, there’s no such thing as bad PR and respectful discussions like this show that you are touching on subjects that engage people’s interest – always a good thing when you want people to come, look, think and come back again. A museum that nobody talks about is a dead space and the Asian is far from dead.

    I do appreciate that you have opened up this discussion – in fact, I am more grateful than I can say for the Asian and Tom Christensen who first gave me confidence that I had something intelligent to say, first as a blogger and now an art and museum reviewer for one of the Examiner’s web sites. On the other hand, maybe you’ve created a talkative monster!

    Eeeekkkkk…..Run away! Run Away!

    In fact, if you read my current post on my blog titled “The Buddha has landed,” you will see that I continue to be both critical and appreciative of the museum and Asian art.

  7. ms  on May 25th, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Does the museum have any plans for exhibitions about the Chinese garments worn for thousands of years prior to the Manchu Qing Dynasty? Unlike the sexualized qipao which has been commonly misrepresented as “traditional attire,” the genuinely traditional hanfu lends more of an aesthetically dignified elegance for both men and women, young and old – of all figure types.

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