Visualizing Late Ming Culture
Through the Arts of the Nanjing Courtesan Ma Shouzhen (1548-1604)
Thursday, 23 March 2017 - 7:00 pm
Education Office of the Embassy of China
Guest lecture by Dr. Grace S. Fong, Professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Studies at McGill University Abstract: Nanjing, the Southern Capital, was one of the most important cultural centres of the Ming Empire. Situated in the affluent Lower Yangzi River Delta region, Nanjing was the southern site of the highest level of the triennial civil service examinations. Aspiring scholars young and old, fully conversant not only with the Confucian classics of the examination curriculum, but also with the literati arts of poetry, calligraphy, and painting, congregated there to compete in gaining successful entry to the career path of officialdom. Complementing this scholar-literati ethos was a flourishing courtesan culture, one which came to stand as a hallmark of Late Ming elegance and sophistication. Highly accomplished in the literati arts as well as musical performance, the talented courtesans of the thriving pleasure quarters along the Qinhuai canal district created a lively social and cultural environment. They entertained and intermingled with patrons who were examination aspirants, wealthy merchants, art connoisseurs, and other clients of means. This presentation explores the social life of the celebrated courtesan Ma Shouzhen (1548-1604) as an illustrative figure of this culture. We will see how the essential skills of her trade – poetry, painting, calligraphy, and music – also came to define feminine attainments for contemporary upper-class women. Among her accomplishments, Ma was especially known for her talent in painting orchids, a flower with a long and rich history of symbolic meanings in Chinese literature. She may have been the first to re-signify this flower as an emblem of the courtesan and her orchid paintings were so much in demand that many were forged in later periods. Ma Shouzhen provides a fascinating prism through which to view the Late Ming courtesan culture of Nanjing, one which would be remembered with longing and nostalgia in subsequent ages after its destruction in the Manchu conquest in the mid-seventeenth century.