Private Life

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 In Song times, domestic life became an increasingly frequent subject not only for poetry and drama but for paintings as well.  Under-represented in official written records, the lives and customs of people of all classes, were depicted in great detail in the visual arts.  Women and children in particular became a focus for several academy artists who specialized in these genres.  In this section we will look at paintings portraying people in the private sphere of family and friends.  In many cases, the artists' sensitive treatment of personality and character, as well as careful attention to, say, the material distinctions between fine, elegant robes and the coarse textures of peasants' everyday clothing, gives useful data about how social class and status were expressed visually and the dynamics of social interactions.
Wang Juzheng (Northern Song), The Spinning Wheel, detail   source

Paintings of children were popular at court and became a specialty of a handful of artists.  This subject matter was considered auspicious, and was a favorite theme for New Year's pictures given as gifts. 

Why do you think these paintings would have been considered auspicious?

Do you think these children are all engaged in typical play activities? 

Anonymous Song artist, One Hundred Children Celebrating Spring   source



Compare the following views of children.  Click below to see the full painting:

Full Image

Are these children wearing their everyday clothes? 

Full Image

What do you think these boys are playing with?

Full Image

What can you infer about family structure and expectations of gender roles from this image?

Below is another painting of children by a Song dynasty artist. 


What kinds of goods and services does this peddler offer?  Where do you think the majority of his clients and customers live?  

Li Song (active 1130s-1230s), The Knickknack Peddler        source


For a closer view of some details...

When women appear in official records in China, very little about their everyday lives, habits, and appearance is mentioned, so the abundance of paintings of women that lived during the Song and Yuan dynasties is of special interest to historians. 


Often painters portrayed upper class subjects larger than their servants.  Performers at banquets were more likely to be professional musicians than the guests themselves.  


What differences in status are evident among the women? Can you tell who might be host, guest, and servant or entertainer in this painting?

Anonymous Northern Song artist, Palace Concert                             source




Despite having prolonged conflict with their neighbors to the north, the Chinese included studies of nomadic life among the subjects they painted.   


Why do you think these women have their faces covered?


Anonymous Five Dynasties artist, Nomadic Horsemen (detail)      source



Funerary art, like this painting from the wall of a tomb, naturally idealizes its subject.


What do you think is idealized here?

Couple with Banquet Attendants, wall painting from 1099 tomb                source




Most paintings of women were made by artists who specialized in the genre of Palace Women and Children (like Su Hanchen, above); Wang Juzheng, the artist of the painting below, was best known for his portrayals of palace beauties.  Views of women from the lower classes are quite rare, and this example shows sensitivity towards description of physical imperfections and maintains a sense of dignity in its treatment of the women's expressions. 


As you look more closely, can you tell how old both of these women are?  What do you think their relationship is?  Where do you think they are?  Are they in the private space of the home, or at work? Is this a moment of leisure?


Wang Juzheng (Song), The Spinning Wheel                                                                            source


For a closer view of a detail...

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