Empresses, Art, and Agency in Song Dynasty China is the first book in any language devoted to the art of imperial women in China. Utilizing a wide range of historical sources and materials, this groundbreaking, interdisciplinary study pieces together a lost history of female creativity by focusing on the critical role emperors' wives played as patrons, collectors, taste-makers, and artists during the three-century Song dynasty (960-1279), an era noted for spectacular cultural achievements.
The Song led China to unrivaled intellectual, socioeconomic, scientific, and urban advances. A flourishing printing culture helped spur a dramatic expansion of literacy that benefited women, whose talent in learning was often paired with virtue and was exemplified by the Song imperial women. Paralleling these developments was an unprecedented level of imperial patronage of the fine arts, including painting and calligraphy. However, while individual emperors such as Huizong (r. 1100-1125) have long been recognized for their importance in this arena, the role played by imperial women has remained largely hidden, subject in part to the biases of Chinese historiography. Drawing against the backdrop of their formidable presence in court politics, Hui-shu Lee recounts and reveals the stories of their lives and art.
Lee focuses on such Song empresses as Liu, Wu, and Yang Meizi, artists and powerbrokers whose skill and influence helped shape the development of temple construction, sculpture, painting, and many other aspects of arts and culture. Acting in the shadow of the notorious female emperor Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty, early Song imperial women began to define themselves through images and modes of expression that purposely concealed their power. In the process, they helped forge an effective and lasting model of female agency in China. In her exploration of Song imperial arts, Lee looks at ghost-writing, art collecting, didactic art, and the use of calligraphy and painting as gendered modes of expression. She draws on a number of disciplines, including art history, literature, history, and gender studies, to provide a unique account of the vital role of empresses in shaping Song art and culture.