Ma Shouzhen (馬守真; c. 1548–1604), also known by her courtesy name Ma Xianglan (馬湘蘭, meaning “Orchid of the Xiang River”) and pen name Yuejiao (“Lunar Beauty”), was a Chinese courtesan and artist born in Nanjing during the late Ming dynasty (1550-1644). She was a renowned painter, poet, and composer. She received the name Xianglan because her most favoured paintings were of orchids.

Ma was born in Nanjing, and she lived in the entertainment district along the Qinhuai River.As a matriarch in courtesan society, she encouraged the education and training of courtesans in the arts. In order to maintain her reputation as an elite courtesan, she only allowed educated men or young student lords within her residence.

During the late Ming dynasty, elite courtesans challenged the gender stereotypes of Confucian values. In contrast to the women of the gentry, who were often discouraged from cultivating talent lest it undermine their virtue as wives and mothers, courtesans were educated in painting, poetry, and music. In addition, they owned property and participated in the public scene.

At the age of 15, Ma Shouzhen formally assumed the position of courtesan. Before this, she may have received education from a proprietor during her childhood. As courtesan matriarch, she befriended many poets and intellects such as Peng Nian (1505-1566), Zhou Tianqiu (1514-1595), Xu Wei (1521-1593), Xue Mingyi (late 16th century), and Wang Zhideng (1535-1612). The poets would write poems inspired by her or for her, describing Ma as beautiful with a warm and welcoming personality. During their visits, Ma Shouzhen joined them in making paintings, poems, and plays. She also hosted parties on her multi-leveled house-boat with the literati as her guests.

Ma Shouzhen and Wang Zhideng shared a loving relationship with one another, and there are instances in which the two openly expressed their affection for each other. They wrote letters to each other, collaborated in several paintings and poem. One of their famous collaborations was Narcissus and Rock, which consists of two images and a poem. When Ma published her poems in 1591, Wang included a preface for them. On one occasion, Ma took her house-boat to see Wang in Suzhou and celebrated his 70th birthday with a party of musicians. Not long after this, Ma fell ill and died peacefully in her residence in Nanjing. Wang wrote several eulogies of Ma after her death.

As a painter, Ma Shouzhen is well known for landscapes, orchids, and bamboo imagery combined with calligraphy. Her brush work is delicate, and the images have either colors lightly applied or monochromatic ink. Her preferred painting formats include fan, hand-scrolls, and hanging scrolls. Along with painting, Ma was skilled in writing poetry and composing dramas, however, some of her dramas have been lost over time.

Edited by staff

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