UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Ma Shou-chen : Ming Dynasty courtesan/artist Truscott, Eileen Grace


Ma Shou-chen, poet, calligrapher and painter was a courtesan of the Ming dynasty. By studying the life and works of Ma Shou-chen, who was not a member of either the scholar or the academic/professional class of artists but who was very desirous of conforming to literati aesthetic tastes in her artistic works, new light is thrown upon the problem of identifying new aspects of Ming dynasty literati aesthetic taste. A study of Ma Shou-chen’s works illuminates the question of identifying qualities of literati painting and also serves to examine the question of female artists in China. Female artists were known for their weak brush stroke and other negative qualities. Was this true, or was the "conventional wisdom" based on an attitude toward a female's social position rather than her ability as an artist? Ma Shou-chen provides us with a good example for examining these points. She is well-known in Chinese art history, yet she is discussed by Siren largely in sections restricted to female artists. In Chinese biographies too, mention of Ma Shou-chen is included with other female artists. The purpose of this thesis is to discuss a limited, though it is felt, a representative cross-section of her works with the aim of determining Ma Shou-chen’s place in art history. In Section I, biographical data concerning Ma Shou-chen is discussed. This includes an estimate of her active period (1570-1604). Her relationship with Wang Chih-teng, a leading literatus of the Suchow area, is examined together with an exploration of the relationship of special courtesans to the literati as a class. What this meant in Chinese society and the repercussions on the artistic output of courtesans is also discussed. Section II includes a discussion of the Chinese historical records which comment on Ma Shou-chen's works. There is also an exploration of the reason why certain artists and not others were named in records as having an influence on Ma Shou-chen's works. A brief discussion of the history of Chinese flower painting explains the relevance of placing Ma Shou-chen's works within the framework of literati rather than academic artists' works. A discussion of the critical comments regarding Ma Shou-chen's works by Chinese art historians gives rise to the possibility that critical comments were often based more upon social status than actual works. In Section III an analysis of Ma Shou-chen's artistic works, largely concerned with her speciality of orchid paintings, shows an historical process. However, there is no final classification of her undated works. In addition, the typical qualities of her works involves rather stable compositions, a propensity for stretching the brush strokes across the surface of the painting, little concern with atmospheric qualities or far distance. These facts serve to enhance the two dimensional quality of her paintings. This factor in turn serves to focus the attention of the viewer upon Ma Shou-chen's calligraphy. Section IV discusses the findings of the analysis of Ma Shou-chen's works in relation to Ming dynasty literati artists. This thesis concludes with the theory that smaller and more intimate literati works are more representative of the main- stream of literati artists in the Ming dynasty. The works of Ma Shou-chen, who was trained to respond to literati tastes and was an accomplished artist, show the more relaxed social atmosphere of the Ming dynasty. Two appendices are included. The first is a catalogue of the works of Ma Shou-chen discussed in this thesis. The second is a translation of the Chinese literary sources concerning Ma Shou-chen.

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