> Features > Culture

Handheld fans in ancient Chinese belle paintings

ZHANG WEIZHAO | 2019-01-18
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Details from the painting “Lady with Fan in Autumn Breeze” by the Ming artist Tang Yin (1470–1524) Photo: FILE


Ladies’ hands are surely one of the most outstanding visual shapes in the belle painting of ancient China. Gestures of figures’ hands give rise to various interpretations of the paintings. For artists, a woman with a fan in hand was a good example of feminine charm.


Fulfillment and unity
Wanshan, the fans, are also called tuanshan (tuan means round) because they are mainly in the shape of a circle. The perfect circle is greatly valued in Chinese culture, because it stands for fulfillment, oneness, perfection and unity. Yin and Yang form a perfect circle divided by a sinuous line (the Tai Chi symbol), and it stands for the oneness of conflicting forces inside everything. The law of cause and effect in Buddhism involves steps taken to complete the circuit of destiny. More specifically, the shape of the circle, which indicates a completion of a play’s circuitous structure, is an essential criterion for appreciating a play. For instance, the well-known playwright Li Yu (1611–1680) stated in his book, the Xianqing Ouji (Casual Notes in a Leisurely Mood), that a dramatic or operatic performance should end with a natural and reasonable rather than stiff outcome, making it possible for the audience to experience the pleasure of a complete plot with both call and echo, and a transformation from expectation to satisfaction.


In this context, fans are also named hehuan shan, in which hehuan means a happy get-together, usually representing romance or a happy marriage. In the former portion of the poem “Tuanshan Ge” (“A Song of Handheld Fans,” also known as “A Song of Regret”), Consort Ban (48 BCE–2 CE), a famous female poet during the Western Han Dynasty, used fans to symbolize love—“The satin, cut from looms not long ago,/ Is fair and pure as winter frost and snow./ It’s made into a fan with loving taste,/ Shaped as the moon, round and shiny-faced” (Translated by Wang Rongpei). A fan often served as a token of love in ancient China. An Eastern Jin poem, “Dawang Tuanshan Ge,” states that a fan not only was used to cool down one’s lover, but also served as a keepsake of love. In the well-known musical play of the Qing Dynasty, “Taohua Shan,” or “The Peach Blossom Fan,” the hero named Hou Fangyu, a young scholar, sends a fan as a love token to a courtesan named Li Xiangjun and becomes engaged to her. When Li is forced to marry another man, she resists with a suicide attempt. Li knocks her head on a pillar and leaves blood splattered on the fan given by Hou Fangyu. The fan becomes a symbol of faithful love between lovers.

Despite the romantic connotation of fans, these exquisite objects in the belle paintings of ancient China often deliver a sense of sorrow at not being appreciated, because fans tended to be useless after summer when the weather became cooler.


Depression of being neglected
The earliest reference to “fans in autumn,” which indicates the pain of being disregarded or deserted, is found in the aforementioned poem by Consort Ban, who was neglected after her husband, Emperor Chengdi of Han (51–7 BCE), took two concubines and favored them. She ended up a deserted concubine and died outside the capital. In the later portion of “Tuanshan Ge,” Consort Ban wrote that “The fan bobs in and out of your wide sleeve,/ Stirring gentle breeze morn and eve./ However, it always fears that autumn stays/ When cold winds drive away the sultry days./ It’s cast aside and laid up on the shelf;/ No longer in favor, it is left by itself” (Translated by Wang Rongpei).

The painting “Lady with Fan” by the Tang artist Zhou Fang depicts the idle moment of several court ladies, who are gorgeously dressed but look numb and lonely. Thirteen court ladies in the painting, who seem not to be favored by the emperor, remind people of disregarded fans in autumn. A painting by the Qing artist Fei Danxu (1802–1850) depicts a lady with a fan leaning against a dead, standing tree in autumn. She looks elegant, but the whole painting conveys a touch of gloom.

Comparing the monarch-subject relationship to the relationship between male and female is a tradition in Chinese culture. The painting “Lady with Fan in Autumn Breeze” by Tang Yin (1470–1524), a renowned Ming artist associated with paintings of feminine beauty, can be an outstanding example of this tradition. In this painting, a lady with a fan stands alone in the courtyard, gazing reflectively into the distance. Her thin figure against the bleak courtyard creates an atmosphere of sadness and impotence. It seems that she is facing the same destiny as that of her fan, which is deserted when the autumn breeze arrives and drives away the summer heat. It is said that the painting actually reflects Tang’s depression as an unrecognized talent. His genius once gained him renown as the supreme talent of the Jiangnan area (Southern China) and drew him into the wealthy, powerful and talented circles. However, he was accused, perhaps unfairly, of cheating in the provincial examinations and his hope for a distinguished civil service career was dashed forever. His inscription on the painting attacks the injustice and fickleness of the world and laments over his bitterness over being mistreated.


Ladies’ manners
Cultivation is an important function of China’s ancient paintings. Artists were encouraged to deliver a moral sense through their paintings. Therefore, most of the belle paintings in China emphasize the conventional understanding of being a lady rather than a glossy appearance with an affected air.

Fans serve as a symbol of the temperament and manner of a lady. Throughout the history of belle painting in China, most of the female figures, regardless of moods, gestures or dressing styles, usually hold fans in their hands. In the painting “The Goddess of the Luo River” by a Yuan artist named Wei Jiuding, the famous goddess is caught frozen at a perfect moment of composure—looking back in a long flowing dress with a fan in hand. Also, the well-known artist of the Ming Dynasty, Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), portrayed the goddess of the Xiang River in an elegant way. She lifts a fan and gazes at her husband soulfully.

The reason why the fans are associated with ladies’ image probably lies in the handcraft of ancient fans and traditional customs. Those ancient handheld fans are made of fine silk. Since they were quite common in the imperial palace, they were also called gongshan, or court fans. As an ornamental object for ladies of ancient times, these fans were made extremely delicate, highlighting the feminine charm of their owners. A poem of the Jin Dynasty praised a fan that was as white and as pure as the full moon, with a breeze blown by the fan carrying the fragrance of its owner, a graceful lady.

Covering the face with a tuanshan was also encouraged in the code of conduct for ladies of ancient times, representing the conservative manner that a lady should convey, being reserved and keeping distance from the others, men in particular. A Ming scholar named Shen Defu (1578–1642) noted in his work, Wanli Ye Huo Bian (Miscellaneous Notes of Wanli), that all the fans held by ladies in the paintings of the Song Dynasty were round fans rather than folding fans, because round fans were finely made and suitable for upper-class women. At that time, only the prostitute used folding fans. Furthermore, fans were used to describe a certain aspect of ladylike behavior—shyness and subtlety of unspoken admiration toward the one she loved. Just as a poem by the Tang poet Li Shangyin (813–858) goes, on seeing her lover’s carriage crossing by, the lady covered her face with a fan out of shyness. They brushed past each other without a word. The round fan became a reminder of this encounter with a touch of regret and longing.


Zhang Weizhao is from Qianjiang College of Hangzhou Normal University.

​(edited by REN GUANHONG)