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Visuals and text support each other in ancient women’s literature

XIAO LIHUA | 2019-07-18 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

As a medium in which women could materialize their ideas, needlework influenced women’s lifestyles, values and emotional expression. Photo: FILE

In traditional China, scholars and scholar-officials were expert at using art forms such as poetry and painting as vehicles of self-expression. Painting was regarded as “silent poetry,” and poetry as “painting with sound.” The integration of these two was common in literary narratives. For women writers, self-expression through the combination of visuals and text was even more prominent.

Scholars have made important achievements in constructing visual narratology and word and image studies in a broad sense. Today, some scholars are also conducting literary criticism from this theoretical perspective. However, on the whole, there is a lack of in-depth research on the characteristics of Chinese women writers’ narrative tradition of mutually supporting visuals and text, as well as its new development in the current cross-media narrative context.


Pictorial poems
Some scholars believe that the relationship between poetry and painting in ancient China can be regarded as the classical form of visual narratology. In the present era, images are trespassing into the symbolic domain of language with unprecedented power.

The theory of “painting in poetry, poetry in painting” in ancient China has a long history, which also plays an important role in analyzing women’s expression. In fact, women’s expression in ancient China tended to rely on the use of images. Language was only a part of the writing, while the encroachment and transgression of images on the meanings of words was frequent.

However, through the in-depth study of ancient Chinese women’s writing, we find that the visual expression did not cause any crisis in linguistic meaning. Image and word, as the two most basic and primitive symbolic systems, are not at all mutually exclusive, but are in mutual support. Beyond the expression of words, there is always a companion visual element.

Poems within paintings are typical representatives of such works. For example, Zuo Xixuan, a talented female poet in the Qing Dynasty, excelled at painting orchids. Alongside her portrait of the delicate and fragrant flower, she put down a poem to express that though the boudoir life is lonely, she has assumed the noble character of the orchid to navigate her way through it.

Poetry themed on landscapes and objects can also embody the integration of poetry and painting. Since women poets are good at expressing implicit and gentle sentiments, as an effective method they can transfer such sentiments onto specific objects.

For example, in Tang poet Xue Tao’s “A Pair of Birds Upon the Waters,” the narrator does not speak plainly about her loneliness, instead she voices her admiration for the pairs of things in nature: “This pair alights upon the green surface of the pond,/ Evening and morning, coming and going./ In the night watches, they remember the nest to come,/ Their hearts mingling among the lotus leaves.” The image of mandarin ducks playing in pairs is a manifestation of the speaker’s longing for love.

Some of the poems of Yan Ruizhu, the disciple of Qing poet Yuan Mei, are also representative works of this kind. For example, in “The Peach Garden,” she wrote, “Green water embraces peach woods, spring breeze blows in full bloom,” unfolding a vivid picture in front of readers and creating the visual aesthetic effect of a painting.


Complex concrete poems
The mutual support of visuals and texts in Chinese women’s narration is also well expressed through special art forms, such as plated-poems.

It is said that the earliest plate-poem was written by Han Dynasty official Su Boyu’s wife. Su was relocated to Shu, the present-day Sichuan Province, but his wife stayed in the capital of Chang’an, situated in Shaanxi Province not far from Xi’an. She put down her love and sorrow in a plate, forming a special kind of complex concrete poems that reads starting from the center, then moving on to the perimeter, in the shape of a circle.

The work of Chinese poet Su Hui, one of the earliest major female figures that survive in the written tradition, is a thing of legend. Her poem integrates words and images, emphasizing not only the arrangement of language, but also the use of color.

It is said that Su lost her husband to a concubine in the fourth century. To console her grief and to win him back, she wove “Star Gauge” or “Xuanji Tu” on an 8-inch square-shaped handkerchief, which was originally embroidered with red, yellow, blue, black and purple silk threads, with 841 characters in a grid of 29 by 29 characters that can be read forward, backward, horizontally, vertically and diagonally.

Her work is unique to anywhere else in the world as Chinese characters can be read in any direction, and they can hold different meanings depending on the location of the character within the text. In the Ming Dynasty, the poem became quite popular and scholars discovered 7,940 ways to read it. This has created a whole new genre in Chinese poetry of reversible poems that can be read in any direction. Moreover, each line is clear, neat, rhythmic and harmonious.

Plate-poems and “Xuanji Tu” are both the work of women poets. Their state-of-the-art technique, delicate sensibility, and use of mutually supporting visuals and text enhance the poetic self-expression.

After Su Hui, Empress Wu and other female poets strongly advocated the creation of such patterned poems. Therefore, many female poets inherited the tradition and created a large number of graphic poems.

For example, “Panjian Tu,” by an unknown female poet in the early Tang Dynasty, was written into a visual pattern with the shape of a lotus-like flower. There are eight large characters on the petals and eight small characters in the heart of the flower. Reading four characters in a line, one can get eight poems. Then if one goes on to read the branches, one can find a total of 16 poems with lines of four characters each.

Tang poet Wang Bo greatly appreciated this complex and beautiful poem and included it in his personal poetry collection, as he praised the poem as “elegant, intriguing, diverse and rhythmical.”


Creativity in needlework
In Chinese culture, the idea that “farmers shall be sweating at the plow, scholars shall be diligent in learning, and women shall be skilled at needlework” is prevalent. As a medium in which women could materialize their ideas, needlework was closely related to women’s lives.

Needlework, as a Chinese folk art, refers to women’s traditional jobs such as spinning, weaving, sewing, embroidering, applique, patching, pattern cutting, starching, dyeing, and making caps and shoes. Any handiwork by women can be called needlework or nühong in Chinese.

As the craft became popular among ancient Chinese women, it influenced women’s lifestyles, values and emotional expression. Therefore, using needle and thread instead of pen and ink to express themselves is a unique feature of Chinese women’s art. The needlework and the word form a special interactive relationship.

In many parts of China, there is a tradition of woman expressing their love through embroidery, weaving and other means, thus establishing a special discourse system. “Jiu Zhang Ji,” a famous Song ci lyric by an unknown writer, sings of the subtle feelings of an unmarried woman through the description of needlework.

Needlework and female emotions are fully combined to form a complete and complex symbolic system. Needlework and text, as two sets of symbols, become freely interchangeable. Similar “needlework plus text” expression can also be seen in Dream of the Red Chamber and Plum in the Golden Vase. It can be said that the visuals and texts are a complete writing form of ancient women.

From the perspective of literature research, as a unique form of women’s expression, needlework uses a different way of thinking from writing. In short, the words tend to be plain, linear and straightforward, while the needlework reciprocates, interweaves and overlays, steering away from the linear logic of words, often creating stereoscopic, multi-dimensional and spatial expression.

In ancient China, women had long been trained to do needlework in their boudoir. In a way, needlework can indeed be regarded as a kind of poetics, and women who engage in it metaphorical poets. The graphic writing of needlework and text is closely connected with traditional writing in a metaphorical way, and also it expands the writing medium in practice. In this sense, we can say that ancient Chinese women have been engaged in cross-media creation for thousands of years.

In today’s cross-media context, many female writers try to implement a special structure of women’s expression by inheriting the traditions of their ancestors. Hong Kong novelist Xi Xi is one representative. Her novel Flying Carpet: A Tale of Fertillia adopts the method of weaving in structure. Xi Xi is good at sewing puppets by hand. When she makes them, she often has wonderful literary thoughts, and as such the novel actively explores a conversation between the codes of hand craft and literature.

The structural arrangement of the novel is very creative, which reflects the influence of women’s craftwork on their way of thinking and cognition, and it also continues the special writing tradition of mutually supporting visuals and text in traditional Chinese women’s expression.

To sum up, women’s expression has a long history of jointly using visuals and text, which reflects the unique aesthetics of Chinese women. However, since the concept of women’s literature comes from the West, when studying the creation of Chinese women’s literature, scholars often do not distinguish the imported Western theories from the tradition.

Therefore, an in-depth study of the tradition will be conducive to understanding the creativity of Chinese women’s literature, and it will also be of great value in constructing the theory of a women’s literature with Chinese characteristics.

Xiao Lihua is from the College of Humanities at Zhejiang Normal University.