Flowers with white birds wading in water below

10.5 Li Yin, a Chinese Painter

According to legend, painting was invented by Lei, the sister of Emperor Shun who lived and reigned in about 2200 BCE.

Or at least some of my sources say so in passing (Orchids; Weidner, 17). The legends I could find said plenty about Emperor Shun having double pupils in his eyes and wearing bird’s clothes by which he could fly away when his parents told him to work (which is a neat trick). But they said nothing about a sister or painting (Legge, 111-112). And in any case the Zuojiang Huashan Rock Art Cultural landscape includes rock art that is much older than these legends. Some of it dates to 16,000 BCE (Agnew, 311).

Red stick figures painted on cliff face
Zuojiang Huashan Rock Art (Wikimedia Commons)

During the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770 to 256 BCE) art blossomed, including painting, but just like in the West, it was mostly unsigned and it mostly hasn’t survived. At Huashan, they were still painting on the rocks in this period, and that stuff did survive.

It’s in the Six Dynasties Period (220-589 CE) that we start getting named artists. Europe was busy squabbling over the remains of the western Roman empire, but over in China culture was flourishing. Enough so that art critic Xie He was writing monographs on the importance of spirit resonance of painting. Art historians still disagree on what exactly spirit resonance is, which is a relief since I myself have no idea. The point is there was art and apparently plenty of it. You don’t get art critics writing monographs without a pretty strong amount of art circulating.

 You will not be surprised to learn that the list of male painters is much longer than that of female painters. As in the West, painting was a profession, a trade, and it was therefore done by men. To this day feminists complain that if it’s something men do, it’s art, but if women do it, it’s just a craft. And think about it: how many multi-million dollar museums are displaying knitting or crochet? Admittedly, I have been to a quilt museum and they were truly works of art. If you’re ever in Paducah, Kentucky, you should check it out, but let’s face it, how many of you will just happen to be in Paducah, Kentucky?

Chinese women may not have been knitting or quilting exactly, but they were definitely working with textiles. That division of labor is almost universal. But just like in the West, just because women were told to stick to their knitting doesn’t mean they always did so. Sun Quan was an emperor and general. His wife Lady Zhao was famous for her calligraphy and geographically accurate paintings of mountains, rivers, etc. In other words, she was his mapmaker (Weidner, 17).

A few hundred years later a Miss Li of Sichuan was abducted from her home. One moonlit night, she sat in a garden, brooding over her misfortunes and watching the shadows cast by the bamboo dancing in the wind. She took up her brush to paint them on paper. Yes, the Chinese had paper by then, the west was still using calfskin. Anyway, Miss Li, thus invented the longstanding, highly valued genre of ink bamboo painting (Weidner, 17).

Ink drawing of a spray of bamboo with craggy rock beneath
Bamboo and Stone by Guan Daosheng (also a female painter) (Wikimedia Commons)

There is a list of other female painters (Weidner, 17-20), and it is much longer than the comparable list in the West which I gave in episode 10.1. I am not sure whether that’s because China does and always has had a high population, so more women total naturally leads to more women painters. Or if it’s because they kept much better records than the West did during this period, so more names got written down. Or if Chinese women really did get more encouragement and fewer barriers than Western women. Maybe some of all of the above.

But even granting all that, the list of female Chinese painters is still just that: a list. Without any extant works or biographies to liven it up and make it even remotely interesting.

That’s more or less true until we get to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). At exactly the same time that the Renaissance was transforming Europe, China was also transforming. They had a growing middle class, voyages of exploration, massive building projects, and a rapid expansion of art. You might think that this is just one of those weird historical synchronicities, which do occasionally happen. Maybe there was just something in the global air in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, or sunspots? But then you dig a little deeper, and you realize there’s a little more to it than that. Both movements may have gotten started independently, but they were massively boosted and sustained by the same event.

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and the result was a massive influx of gold, silver, food crops, and ideas into Europe. China got the same influx. Some of all that gold and potatoes went directly across the Pacific. Some of it went through Europe and then to China, as Europeans bought the Chinese spices, silks, porcelain, and everything else Columbus had been hoping for all along. The Ming dynasty flourished on the wealth of the Americas, and they didn’t even have to do the pillaging themselves. All the benefits, without the guilt and the mosquitoes. That’s the way to go.

With increased economic prosperity, now there were many women who had time to spend their life in creative pursuits. And not just women, art was also a popular pastime among men with scholar-official status. In one sense, they were all amateurs because their day job was something else. However, they did not consider that to be a negative. On the contrary, being amateurs actually raised their status in Chinese thought. Meaningful art could only be done by those who were refined, learned, and doing it for the joy of creating beauty. It was entirely different than those sordid paintings done by professionals in the market. Those people were riffraff who didn’t know the classics and only painted because—I don’t know—their families needed to eat? (Weidner, 13).

In other words, artistic snobbery was alive and well. But ironically, the fact that Art (with a capital A) was a pastime, not a profession, meant that it was more open to women. Professions were for men. Pastimes were for everyone. At least everyone with sufficient income to indulge a pastime (Weidner, 13). So gentry women painted with together, with their husbands, and were sometimes even summoned to the imperial palace to instruct empresses and princesses who also wanted to be artists (Weidner, 14).

Many of these women created work that never reached any wider audience than their own family circle. In theory, women were allowed to educated and produce art, but in reality, pulling that off was hard without a dangerous and more-or-less forbidden mingling of the sexes. So mothers, sisters, aunts, a cousins might pursue art together or in competition with each other (Weidner, 42). They would develop a coveted reputation for skill and refinement, but that was probably as far as it went, unless they had a male relative to champion their works in a larger sphere of influence. No wonder the list of male artists is still longer than that of women.

But don’t let that suggest to you that they weren’t worthy of a larger reputation. In the modern world, they’d not only be called talented, but multi-talented. I think of painting, poetry, and calligraphy as three separate arts, none of which I can do. But in China, they were all done together by the same person and called the three perfections. So you might paint a hibiscus flower, write a short poem, add it to your painting in calligraphy, and then send it to a friend, who would add their own verse in response (Weidner, 16). You had to be good at all of it.

Our heroine of the day is named Li Yin. She was born in roughly 1611 CE in what is now Hangzhou or maybe Shaoxing, my sources disagree, but both are near Shanghai, which you are more likely to know the location of anyway. We know little about her family, but they were obviously well enough off to give her a good education and she loved to read (Peterson, 322). By the age of fifteen her poems and paintings were circulating enough to give her a reputation for excellence (Weidner, 102). At the age of twenty, her poem on the plum blossom was read by the prominent scholar Ge Zhengqi, and he was smitten.

Flowers with white birds wading in water below
By Li Yin (Wikimedia Commons)

What happens next to a woman depends almost entirely on her situation. If the family can provide a dowry, all is well and wedded bliss begins. And one of my sources does say that they married (Peterson). But the others say that he took her as a concubine.  

Traditionally, the difference between a concubine and a wife was that a wife had a dowry and betrothal rites, but a concubine did not. A man could have only one wife, but he could add a number of concubines, the number being dependent on his wealth and social status. Concubines were accepted, but they would never have the same status as a real wife, and (as you might expect) friction between wife and concubines was frequent. Practically speaking, the terminology in translation is inconsistent. Some will say a man took a concubine. Others will say he married a concubine, which means she was still a concubine, not a wife. Then there’s the terminology for his relationship to her. Most of what I’ve seen calls him her husband, regardless of whether she is a wife or a concubine.

Which one Li Yin was says a lot, mostly about the fortunes of her birth family. Perhaps their fortunes were declining. She can’t have been the poorest of the poor or she would never have learned the art skills and literacy in the first place. On the other hand, there are a lot of anecdotes about her determination to continue despite her poverty. For example, she practiced her calligraphy in the sand. And used fireflies for light (Peterson, 322). I was inclined to scoff at that last until I read the Boy Scouts of America instructions on how to do it, so I guess it’s a real thing.

We do know that China had a courtesan class of women, who were raised to be everything beautiful and charming for the sake of entertaining wealthy men. Once wealthy men took an interest in painting, the courtesans did so as well. The orchid was their favorite subject to paint because (apparently) it was the easiest (Weidner, 37). I’m taking that one on faith since it sounds plenty tricky to me.

As with women of this class the world over, the real hope was that you would be so beautiful and charming that a man would want more than just an evening’s entertainment. Then he would take you on, hopefully as a wife, but at least as something more long term than a one-night stand.

Since this is precisely the scenario that the sources say attracted Ge Zhengqi, you do have to wonder whether Li Yin was actually living in her own family home when they met. Quite possibly not.

I can find no mention of any other woman in Ge Zhengqi’s life. No wife, and no other concubines. Admittedly, the sources are less detailed than I would like, but it seems clear that if Li Yin did not rise to the status of a wife, it was not because someone he cherished more was already holding that position. It was Li Yin who accompanied him on fifteen years of work travel across southern China (Peterson, 322).

But then again, maybe she was the wife. There were other courtesans who achieved fame for their cultural accomplishments, but most of them were never able to shed their origins. Liu Rushi and Wang Wei were also courtesan poets of the time who married literary scholars, but in contemporary and later anthologies, only Li Yin is categorized as a virtuous wife. The others are listed as concubines. Overall, you just get the sense that the distinctions were more nebulous than most of the participants wanted to admit (Dudbridge, 283).

Ge had passed the imperial civil servant examination before he met Li Yin. What exactly he was doing for the government has he traveled for fifteen years is not clear to me. In his leisure time, he painted and wrote poetry with Li Yin.

One thing that stood out to me doing this research sandwiched by other Western artists was the subject of the Chinese art. The famous Western artists of this period were doing scenes from the Bible, flattering portraits of their patrons, and sometimes Greek and Roman mythology and history. Regardless of subject, the human element was generally more important than the background scenery, and often it was very clearly a celebration of the human body. In contrast, the favored Chinese subjects at this time were flowers, birds, and landscapes. A detailed and expressive shading of a human face wasn’t really the point.

Li Yin painted many flowers, birds, and landscapes. Ge stated that “In landscape painting, she is not as good as I am; but in flower and bird paintings, I am really not as good as she is” (Peterson, 323). Now I strongly suggest that you never start a sentence about your significant other that way, but at least he got to the compliment part in the end. He also promoted her work and showed it to art critics of the day (Weidner, 103).

Black and white painting of pine branch with an eagle sitting in it
Pine and Eagle (1669) by Li Yin (Wikimedia Commons)

I do not know, but I am guessing that it was due to his status and intervention that 260 of her poems were collected into two volumes, neither of which I have been able to lay my hands on (Peterson, 323; Lau). I don’t seem to live on the right continent.

Sadly, this working partnership would not last. After fifteen years of collaboration, Ge died. Wikipedia says he committed suicide in 1645 when the Manchus invaded China and won. The Ming dynasty was dead; long live the Qing. I tried to verify Ge’s cause of death in my other sources, and no luck. So I’m not sure how he died, but for whatever reason, it was a tragedy for Li Yin, who no longer had a source of support.

What she did have going for her was her skill with a brush. All that guff about the real artist staying pure from grubby sordid motives goes up in smoke when you need a roof over your head. So Li Yin went pro, and lived another forty years by selling her paintings (Peterson, 324).

Her work was hugely popular, so you might think fame and fortune would swiftly follow, and fame did. But in the 17th century, copyright law wasn’t really a thing, so fortune? Not so much. At one point there were over forty other artists faking her work and selling it under her name (Weidner, 103). Flattering, yes, but it didn’t help the bottom line.

Art critics through the centuries seem to have forgiven her for her 40-year brush with crass commercialism, for they have praised her work, with words like “scholarly spirit” and “life movement”. Also with words that were intended as compliments, but just don’t land quite right, like the critic who commended her because “her work was without the air of the women’s quarters” (Weidner, 103). High praise indeed.

She has also been praised for exceptionally energetic brush strength, which I think is a reference to her style. She worked in fluid, quickly-applied brush strokes. Her appeal is in contrasts and dramatic designs, rather than finely worked details (Weidner, 59).

Gold fan with black painted braches and leaves
By Li Yin (Wikimedia Commons)

Li Yin died in 1685, by which point she would have been in her seventies. Her surviving works are mostly in the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Selected Sources

Agnew, Neville, ed. 2010. Conservation of Ancient Sites on the Silk Road: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the Conservation of Grotto Sites, Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang, People’s Republic of China, June 28-July 3, 2004. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Conservation Institute.

Dudbridge, Glen. Reading China: Fiction, History and the Dynamics of Discourse : Essays in Honour of Professor Glen Dudbridge. Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

Kochetkova, Marina. “Chinese Traditional Painting: Interesting Stories.” DailyArt Magazine, 2 Jan. 2020,

Lau, Clara., Stefanowska, A.D.., Lee, Lily Xiao Hong. Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: V. 1: The Qing Period, 1644-1911. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2015.

Legge, James, 1815-1897. The Chinese Classics: With a Translation, Critical And Exegetical Notes, Prolegomena And Copious Indexes … In Seven Volumes. Hongkong: The author; London : Trubner & co., 18611893. Available at

“Orchids, Bamboo, Roses and Rock.” Indianapolis Museum of Art Online Collection, Accessed 29 Mar. 2023.

Peterson, Barbara. Notable Women of China. M.E. Sharpe, 2015.

Weidner, Marsha Smith. Views from Jade Terrace: Chinese Women Artists, 1300-1912. Indianapolis University Press, 1988.

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