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‘The Romance of the West Chamber’ on porcelain

NI YIBIN | 2018-08-02 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Details from the Bei Xi Xiang Ji, a woodblock printing edition published in 1598 by the Ji Zhi Zhai during the reign of the Wanli Emperor

Porcelain, also called “fine china,” was among the first forms of Chinese art introduced to the Western world via the Silk Road.

Chinese porcelain can be decorated with a diverse range of patterns or paintings. Narrative paintings are employed extensively in the porcelain decorations, depicting either a moment in a story or a sequence of events over time. Some of the earliest evidence of human art suggests that prior to the advent of complex language, people used to tell stories with pictures, which might be the origin of modern visual art and picture books. Narrative paintings have constantly earned public recognition throughout the ages with their vivid styles and cultural significance.

Chinese narrative painting can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, during which it was mainly applied in architectural decoration. After that, it experienced a long period of recession during the Song Dynasty, because people of the time favored landscape paintings. The situation did not change until the Yuan Dynasty, when porcelain brought about its revival. Compared to paper or other objects that deteriorate over time, one of porcelain’s advantages is its longevity, which made it a good object for preserving narrative art.


Act I: Encounter
A Chinese blue-and-white vase exhibited in the Ashmolean Museum of the University of Oxford, which dates back to the reign of the Chongzhen Emperor (1611–44) of the Ming Dynasty, is decorated with a scene in the narrative style. It is known by its image, called “a scholar watching two women.” The scene in the painting is quite similar to the one on a hexagonal lantern of the period of the Kangxi Emperor (1662–1722) in the Qing Dynasty, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. In the painting on the lantern, an old man with a beard is standing at the gate of a pavilion with an arm around a young man. They are staring at two young women with fans in their hands.

The similarity shared by the two porcelain paintings is not a coincidence. In fact, both of them depict the same scene from one of the most famous Chinese dramatic works, The Romance of the West Chamber, which was written by the Yuan playwright Wang Shifu (1250–1336). The play tells the story of a secret love affair between Zhang Gong, a young scholar, and Cui Yingying, the daughter of former Prime Minister Cui of the Tang court. The lovers are aided by a clever maid, Hong Niang, who helps them overcome daunting obstacles such as an imperious mother, a prior betrothal, and an attempted abduction by a cruel bandit.

The scene depicted on the porcelain paintings is from Act I, which describes the first encounter of the lovers in a temple. Zhang is going to the capital to attend the highest civil service examinations. On the way he pays a visit to the nearby Salvation Monastery. In the monastery, a monk named Fa Cong shows him around. Zhang meets Cui and her maid in front of the Buddha hall. Seeing a male stranger nearby, Hong Niang advises her lady to leave immediately. Then comes the scene on the porcelain paintings. Zhang, wearing a Tang Jin (a type of soft cap for scholars in the Ming Dynasty), and Fa Cong, in a monk’s hat, are standing at the gate of the Buddha hall. Fa Cong is pointing at a building and making an introduction while Zhang stares directly at Cui in the opposite direction. Cui, with roses in one hand and her lips covered with another hand, also faces Zhang, while her maid stands between them.


Cultural elements
Over a certain period, a popular work may be displayed through various media, such as books and pictures. Although there are some common features to narrative paintings, different cultures have developed various ways to discern narrative action from pictures.

The “Encounter in the Salvation Monastery” depicted on the Ming vase is based on a scene depicted in the Bei Xi Xiang Ji, a woodblock printing edition published by the Ji Zhi Zhai (a woodblock printing publisher) during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1563–1620). Compared to the woodblock version, the painting on the vase is more detailed and vivid. The porcelain allows the painter to decorate characters’ clothes with elaborate floral designs, which are difficult to apply to the woodblock. This design exaggerates a sense of luxury on characters’ clothing. The porcelain painting also reveals the painter’s consideration of a lady’s manners at that time, which is reflected through Cui’s body language. When looking back at Zhang, Cui covered her lips with her wide sleeves. This unconscious act is a subtle sign of a shy lady.

Likewise, the painting on the porcelain lantern, which was produced in the reign of the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, was characterized by Qing culture. For example, Zhang’s headwear was changed from Tang Jin to Piaopiao Jin, a popular type of headwear in the Qing Dynasty. Because of the limited space on the surface of the lantern, the painter used a tall threshold to separate Zhang and Cui, so as to create a feeling of spaciousness between them. Moreover, the pair of butterflies lingering above the heads of the hero and the heroine can be seen as a symbol of romance. The hand fans held by each of the characters had become fashionable since the late Ming Dynasty. They are regarded as another characteristic of the time. Instead of using her sleeves, Cui covers her face with a gold-foil fan to highlight her identity as a lady.


Gender dynamics
Museum staff in both instances noted the scene where Zhang stood gazing at Cui, while Cui was too shy to look into the eyes of Zhang, slightly lowering her head and covering her face. Historically, it was a typical scene of a young man meeting a young woman. The scene reflects the differences in social status between males and females in a society as male-dominated as Imperial China. Zhang, with his eyes fixed on Cui, represents the men who think they are entitled to judge women. Cui, on the contrary, has to behave like a lady, and she is not allowed to look directly at Zhang. It is an indication of women’s passive role in historical social relationships. At that time, gender inequality forced women to focus on the opposite sex rather than their true aspirations. Therefore, Cui has to adhere to the social code so as to impress Zhang.

Despite the restrictions imposed on women during the Ming and Qing dynasties, there were a few women who struggled for gender equality. A painting on a Gu Ping (a type of ancient drinking cup) in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties is an unconventional version of the “Encounter,” because Cui makes direct eye contact with Zhang, which demonstrates her demand for mutual understanding and equality in the relationship. The inscription on the cup explains that the figures in the painting are actually singers who are conducting a rehearsal of The Romance of the West Chamber. Cui’s unconventional behavior may be explained as a performance. However, there were still some women who did not want to play the role that the society had appointed them and tried to achieve a higher social status.

The paintings on porcelain antiques present a remarkable snapshot of Imperial China. They also highlight aspects of gender dynamics in ancient times.


Ni Yibin is from University College London.
Pictures are provided by Ni Yibin.