Arts and Culture
Images about courtesans were part of the courtesan culture that played an essential role in shaping the cityscape and memory of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) capital city Nanjing (Jinling 金陵). Current scholarship shows much attention to the seventeenth century Nanjing and its splendid courtesan culture in the fields of literature, history and art history, while I argue that Ming Nanjing courtesan culture was a more dynamic process when earlier formation is traced from art historical perspective. This paper explores this process by focusing on three categories of pictorial representations of Nanjing courtesans that are rarely discussed together before and were developed successively from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries: paintings depicting courtesans by male artists, especially the “courtesan-addict” painter Wu Wei 吳偉 (1459-1508); paintings of orchids by female courtesan artists active in Nanjing (late 16th-17th century); woodblock illustrations of courtesan connoisseurship, e.g. A Hundred Beauties of Jinling 金陵百媚 (published in 1644).
It shows that courtesan images and courtesans’ self-representations as orchids jointly constructed a sensuous feminine space for imagining courtesans and urban pleasures of Ming dynasty Nanjing. It also investigates how gender played a role in making the representations of seductive women or female body. In terms of spatiality, I suggest that during the Ming dynasty gardens became the most popular setting to stage courtesans in images showing their alluring “performances” that presented the physical beauty, artistic talents, literati skills, or virtues; while theatrical performances might be an inspiring element for the practice of painting.