Guan Daosheng also known as Guan Zhongji or Lady Zhongji (courtesy name) (管道昇; 字仲姬;1262–1319) was a Chinese poet and painter who was active during the early Yuan Dynasty. She is credited with being “the most famous female painter and calligrapher in Chinese history.

Guan is “one of the few women who is mentioned in early Western surveys of Chinese painting and whose work has been studied by modern Chinese scholars.”

Few of her paintings remain but one example in the National Palace Museum in Taipei is believed to have a “plausible claim to authenticity”; it is a monochrome handscroll painted in 1308 entitled Bamboo Clumps in Mist and Rain. “Most of Guan Daosheng’s scroll paintings appear to have been done for other women of roughly equal status–either her relatives or the wives of her husband’s colleagues…”

Life of Guan Daosheng

Guan was born into a landed family in Huzhou, which is likely considered as a descendant of the high-ranking WuXing official Guan Zhong. Guan was an exception kid in her family and well educated in her youth, where she grew up on her family’s ancestral lands, nicknamed “The Roost of the Esteemed.” Her father thought very highly of her, seeing her as an exceptional child as soon as she was born; hence the name Guan Daosheng, translating to “Way of Righteousness Rising as the Sun”.

Guan was the wife of Zhao Mengfu, a renowned scholar-official and artist often considered the greatest artist of the earlier Yuan period. Guan and Zhao were married in 1286 and established a home in Wuxing “with the purchase of a townhouse with gardens in Huzhou, and a country retreat at Dongheng village near Deqing,” where they were later buried. Zhao was considered as the prosperity of the imperial Song (Sung) family but also served for the Yuan state bureaucracy. Guan’s father acknowledged Zhao as a suitable husband for his daughter due to Zhao’s talent and social status. While married to Zhao, Guan gave birth to two sons and two daughters, who she raised alongside the one son and four daughters Zhao had with his previous wife, who died prior to his marriage to Guan. Because of Zhao’s important position within the Yuan bureaucratic hierarchy, Guan was able to accompany him on long trips around the nation, a luxury most citizens, especially women, would not have enjoyed. She especially often joined him on trips between the northern capital at Dadu and the southern cultural center of Huangzhou. In the year of their marriage, they embarked on a three-year trip from their home in Wuxing to Dadu.

In the year of 1279, Kublai Khan had to finalize the Mogol conquest and founded the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). In order to spiritually control over the Chinese, especially Han Chinese, Kublai had looked for the most talented Chinese scholars to serve for his royal court. Therefore, Zhao started his career at the highest offices of state, who was then honored not only as a great artist but also as “a versatile man of letters” who recorded the emperor’s activities. Therefore, Zhao’s wife, Guan Daosheng, was also able to display her talent to others and was honored as the talented lady.  Accordingly, Guan’s works finally been seen and honored. Both Guan Daosheng and her prominent husband Zhao Mengfu “harbored deep Chan Buddhist faith and enjoyed a friendship with monks, such as their teacher Zhongfeng Mingben and others residing in the monasteries on the Tianmu Mountains, close to their homes in Wuxing and Deqing in northern Zhejiang….”

Guan Daosheng died in 1319 at the age of 58 after a long illness. She died “on board the official boat in Shandong on the way home”; her husband had sought permission to return due to his wife’s illness. “The text of his letter informing [a relative] of her death and his painful journey home with her coffin, known as ‘Zuimeng tie’ (‘Alcoholic delirium’), portrays a man devastated by the loss.”Because some of her husband’s writings focused on his dislike of northern China’s climate where they lived, “it may even [have] been that a meager northern diet contributed to [her] death…possibly of beriberi brought on by malnutrition.” In the three years he lived after her death, it is said that he painted mainly bamboo, one of her favorite subjects, in her memory. Today, their “townhouse and garden in Huzhou, Lianhuazhuang, and their tomb in the country at Dongheng have been restored” and a small museum has been built in her husband’s honor.

Artistic career and style

Guan appears to have become active as a painter around 1296 and as a calligrapher in 1299. She was talented in calligraphy and painting ink bamboo and plum with delicate and elegant strokes. It is believed that she and her husband did paintings together. The calligraphy of herself, her husband and one of their three sons, Zhao Yong, were collected in a scroll by the Yuan Emperor Ayurbarwada (better known as the Emperor Ren). He commented that it was a rare thing for a husband, wife and son to all be talented in calligraphy. “The imperial seal was applied to these works and they became part of the Imperial Archives collection.”

The focus of Guan’s work on bamboo painting is atypical for a female artist, as the subject was thought to be imbued with highly desirable masculine qualities, namely its ability to bend without breaking and greenness through the winter, symbolic of steadfast companionship. She is also believed to have depicted bodies of water alongside bamboo in her work in order to add more feminine associations to the plant. A bamboo scroll of hers from 1301 was found in her husband’s studio, obviously showing her knowledge on the discourse surrounding bamboo being depicted by a woman; the scroll confidently stated: “To play with brush and ink is masculine sort of thing to do, yet I made this painting. Wouldn’t someone say that I have transgressed? How despicable; how despicable.”

Guan’s paintings of bamboo garnered extensive praise, most notably among critics who noted their surprise at their strong, masculine brushstrokes that, according to such critics, did not betray the fact that a woman had made them. Praise such as this undoubtedly helped lead to Guan’s 1317 reception of the title “Madam of the Wei Kingdom” from the imperial court in the capital. Indeed, some of Guan’s works received the imperial seal of Emperor Renzong and his sister, Grand Princess Sengge Ragi, and were housed in the collection of the imperial archives.

The greatest contribution of Guan Daosheng to the genre of bamboo painting was her tendency to paint it as part of a landscape, as opposed to isolated branches that were pressed close to the picture plane. As seen in Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain, attributed to Guan, the bamboo itself is painted as part of the thickets in which it naturally grows, and it is seen as subject to the effects of the landscape and atmosphere in which it is located. This style followed the tradition of an artist of the early Yuan whose name goes unrecorded in China but who is called Tan Zhirui in Japan, where his paintings were brought by Chan Buddhist monks. The ink tonality does not vary much in these works by Guan, as the entirety of the subject matter is affected by the misty atmosphere in which it is portrayed.

She inscribed poems on her paintings and used a style of poetry that was used rarely by women. In her poems, she shows concern for her husband and children but does this in a humoristic way. When her husband once considered taking a concubine and wrote a short poem assuring her that he was just contemplating what his friends were doing and she would still be the official wife, she wrote a short poem in response (“Song of You and Me”) and left it where he could find it. The subject was reportedly never raised again and after her death, he did not remarry.

It is likely that many of Guan’s works were dedicated to high-ranking female patrons. Beyond her association with Sengge Ragi, it is known that Guan dedicated Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain to a “Lady Chuguo.” By commonly directing her works to female recipients, Guan may have been promoting the influence of women at the imperial court.

She wrote a poem “Song of Me” in response to her husband who wanted to have concubines which was very popular in China during that time, especially for those who worked in the government or high-ranking officers In addition, she further wrote a poem called “Married Love” before her death. Her husband later found this piece of poem and decided not to marry a second wife.

The song read “you and I have so much love, that is burns like a fire […]. In life we share a single quilt, in death we share a single coffin.

edited by staff


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