April 16, 2013
The Modern Chinese Woman as Depicted through Early 20th Century Art
During the 1920s and 1930s, artists and illustrators attempted to change the way women in China were portrayed in society. Despite their efforts, Chinese women progressed in society very slowly due to a number of factors. Historians argue that women’s social status in the countryside was even worse in the 1920s than in pre-1911 due to the economic crisis and local warfare at the time. In China’s major cities, even educated and working women were still heavily influenced and restricted by the traditional Confucian system, hindering their ability to emancipate themselves from traditional patriarchal Chinese society. In order to spur efforts toward improving woman’s social status, modern writers and artists used modern women in many of their advertisements, sketches, and illustrations. Although Chinese women were still viewed as being stuck within the confines of patriarchal society, modern artwork served to encourage contemporary women to ignore old Confucian values and explore their own. This artwork also contributed to shaping a more positive attitude toward the ideals of modern urban women in China by associating them with modern journals, comic strips, and various other publications. As seen through the works of Guo Jianying, Ye Qianyu, Liang Baibo, and Zhang Leping in the 1920s and 1930s, it is clear that modern artists depicted the modern urban woman as influenced by western fashion, sexually suggestive, individual, adventurous, mysterious, and sophisticated, paralleling the way in which contemporary Chinese authors Liu Na’oh and Mu Shiying portrayed modern women.
Artists in China during the 1920s and1930s such as Guo Jianying, YeQianyu, Liang Baibo, and Zhang Leping portrayed modern urban women in slightly different ways but equally effectively. Guo Jianying especially contributed to remaking the Chinese woman in a new image. When referring to Guo’s depiction of women in his illustrations, Lynn Pan comments that “he draws her in a state of complete or partial undress, with breasts and thighs showing through negligee or lingerie, free from nuisance of modesty” (148). This can be seen in his illustration of “Murder Unaccomplished”, a Liu Na’ou short story, in which the woman seemingly wears a conservative qipao that reaches down to her ankles but is depicted as half naked. Guo accentuates the woman’s thighs and pelvic region by leaving them completely transparent to emphasize the work’s sexual suggestiveness, as if she were inviting the man she is at dinner with to take her home (Pan, 126). To effectively illustrate the woman as modern, Guo’s picture is set in a Western restaurant, which is evident by the plates with fork and knife on the table. Interestingly enough, Guo leaves out certain elements in the illustration, such as the woman’s chair and the table stand, in order to further focus on the bare legs and pelvic region of the female character. In depicting a sexually suggestive woman in a western restaurant, Guo illustrates the refusal of modern woman to abide to the traditional ideals and expectations set by patriarchal society. In opposition to the traditional Chinese lady who dresses conservatively, is confined to her home, and is subservient to the husband, the women in his drawings consistently embody a risqué lifestyle, style of dress, and dominate the setting of the scene, regardless of whether there is a male character depicted.
The transience of modern relationships and the sexual forwardness of women in Liu Na’ou’s “Scenery” and Mu Shiying’s “A Man of Passion” can similarly be inferred in Guo Jianying’s works in which women, usually highly influenced by the west, are both adventurous and openly sexually suggestive. In Guo’s cover design for “Les Contemporains” volume 4, the woman in the illustration wears red lipstick and seductively stares over her shoulder (Pan, 126). Similar to many of his works, Guo...
Cited: Dal Lago, Francesca. Crossed Legs in 1930s Shanghai: How ‘Modern’ the Modern Woman?
Liu, Na’oh. “Scenery”
Pan, Lynn. Shanghai Style: Art and Design between the Wars. San Francisco: Long River, 2008. Print.
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