#Hanfugirl

Courtesans – China’s Earliest Poster Girls

Chinese Courtesans are probably China’s best kept secret and earliest influencers in fashion and lifestyle.The famous horse-face skirts that were popularly amongst Ming dynasty aristocrat ladies were said to be original worn by the courtesans of the previous period (Song dynasty), and the popularisation of Cheongsam, too, were in part due to the singing girls in early Republican era.

Many of the images and paintings of women in casual poses in the past were often that of the Courtesans.

When we mention Poster Girls of China, we probably think of the posters from the 30s with women dressed in Cheongsam gracing the covers of certain magazines or endorsing certain brands. Any earlier, it would have to be the subject of our discussion today–the courtesan of Qing dynasty.

Postcards of famous courtesans of Qing dynasty, some of these photos made their way into the Forbidden City and collected by the imperial family even.

A quick search of early female portrait paintings, before the onset of photography, you would realise that they are predominantly depictions of noble women. And most of the times, these paintings were kept in private collections with only the formal looking ones available for public display. This is in line with the predominant idea in the last few centuries that women should be as private as possible. Courtesans, on the other hand, obey a totally different set of rules.

The Qing dynasty women featured in this entire article were probably very different from the typical ones you watch on TV. Those wearing a one-piece long robe were the Manchurian women, whereas these are the Han women who retained their two-piece (blouse and skirt) way of dressing despite the Qing government's call to standardise the Hans' with that of the Manchurians'.
The Qing dynasty women featured in this entire article were probably very different from the typical ones you watch on TV. Those wearing a one-piece long robe were the Manchurian women, whereas these are the Han women who retained their two-piece (blouse and skirt) way of dressing despite the Qing government’s call to standardise the Hans’ with that of the Manchurians’.

Unlike what poorly researched and cheaply produced TV shows would have you believe, courtesans of the past were more classy than trashy. They were better educated than the majority of Chinese women and were admired as celebrities since over 1,000 years ago.

The bottom caption indicates that this lady is the Top scorer of the courtesan contest, which isn't at all like your beauty pageant today--they're much more focused on virtues and talents instead of sex appeal.
The bottom caption indicates that this lady is the Top scorer of the courtesan contest, which isn’t at all like your beauty pageant today–they’re much more focused on virtues and talents instead of sex appeal.

Beauty Pageants amongst courtesans have existed for at least 1,000 years in China, but in 1897, such a contest was formalised and made public through a newspaper in Shanghai. The Courtesan pageant was divided into 3 titles:

  • Flower pageant
    Top courtesans who were well-read, educated and knowledgeable. This mirrors the Imperial Exam system which only men could participate in.
  • Talent pageant
    Taking inspiration from the Tang dynasty Pear Garden arts institution (The first Arts school in Chinese history, set up by the Emperor Xuanzong who personally mentored courtesans/artistes and musicians), this category is to award to a courtesan of the highest artistic attainment.
  • Leaf pageant
    There’s no flower without its leaves. This category is for the attendants of the top courtesans.

There was no reward for winners of these contests, but their contact details alongside with their nomination write-up would be published for those interested to know more 😉

I guess that’s the earliest form of “paid with exposure”.

A top courtesan reading newspaper and posing for the gram.
A top courtesan reading newspaper and posing for the gram.

Taking inspiration from the western voting system for political representatives, the pageant organiser started probably the earliest form of Voting Contests. The entire contest would start with an open nomination, where every single nomination letter detailing the virtues, beauty, merits, talents, knowledge of the courtesans would be published on the newspaper. Every nomination letter counted as one vote, and it was not limited to any nationality.

In a society where a man could have multiple wives (all of which would be illiterate or less exposed to the world), Courtesans fulfilled more of a man's need for romance and companionship on an intellectual level. Therefore being well-educated, skilled in arts, intellectually-engaing, were much more important than their looks. 
This is an export oil painting depicitng a "famous courtesan" painted in mid-1800s.
In a society where a man could have multiple wives (all of whom would be illiterate or less exposed to the world), Courtesans fulfilled more of a man’s need for romance and companionship on an intellectual level. Therefore being well-educated, skilled in arts, intellectually-engaing, were much more important than their looks.
This is an export oil painting depicitng a “famous courtesan” painted in mid-1800s.

An American was said to have participated in the voting and he even wrote a complaint letter to the newspaper for awarding the title to the ugly ones instead of the good looking ones. Oh, the superficiality!

Little did he know, one of the critical scoring criteria was how many books, and how widely the courtesan read. Oh, the ignorance!

The Courtesan in this photo is entirely decked with silk wounded accessories (very Southern Chinese craft, Hakka in origin) which I commissioned a craftsperson to make based on the paintings. She was also wearing a mock Kingfisher feather earring with dangling pearls. Lace, although not usually seen in Chinese garment of this period, was already used in China in the 1900s.
The Courtesan in this photo is entirely decked with silk wounded accessories (very Southern Chinese craft, Hakka in origin) which I commissioned a craftsperson to make based on the paintings. She was also wearing a mock Kingfisher feather earring with dangling pearls. Lace, although not usually seen in Chinese garment of this period, was already used in China in the 1900s.

Now that we’re on the topic of foreign men and their superficial appreciation of the exotic Chinese beauty, we have to mention the oil paintings of Qing courtesans which were sold as souvenir paintings for overseas market.

In the 1800s, Guangzhou was a thriving port for international trade. With that, emerged a popular trade of portrait painting for the general masses, as well as the souvenir paintings. One of the most popular term for painters and shops selling western-style paintings (usually painted by locals in the western style), would have the name “Gua/qua” attached to it, so painters and shops would call themselves [insert name]-Qua. The Qua reference originated from the Portuguese term Quadro (which means frame).

Of course, we would be naïve to believe that Andy Warhol started the whole Warhol Factory with production lines of artworks in the 1960s. The Chinese, being the production house for many artistic wares (i.e. Chinaware) had been at it for centuries and oil painting was no exception. The well-known Quas of Guangzhou would have many assistants paintings in their workshops and selling them off cheaply to earn quick profit. Most of the times, the export paintings would bear no signatures–nobody cares, unless the painters were well-known in which case they would sign those pieces.

Export painting in progress.

There were many interesting stories of rivalry between fellow painters, foreign painters and local painters, foreign teachers and their more commercially successful student all in the name of profit. And after China lost the first Opium War, it opened up more of its ports, and the exclusivity of Chinese content and imagery in Guangzhou was greatly reduced. The foreign market in the West with their China Mania in the mid 18th century were also increasingly more exposed to Chinese imagery, and were more discerning consumers of such ‘exotic’ souvenir paintings. Eventually, the painters didn’t end up earning much, and some went to Hong Kong, or Shanghai to seek alternative patronage and market.

The type of skirts worn by women of Qing were rather varied and colourful. They were so daring and good with their colour matching, that their rainbow coloured skirts (yes that’s right, I will come to that in the next article) and rainbow stripes were quite something.

While we’re at the topic of foreign influence in Chinese art, I would like to bring your attention to the Qing dynasty Madonna and Child paintings. Jesuits have been in China for centuries since the Ming dynasty, and we could find traces of these localised imagery of Madonna and China since the Ming period. I love how these Madonna and child were obviously Chinese, and shows the importance of remaining relevant to the target audience through decontextualisation. So I thought of doing one of my own (diaper included–Pampers should totally sponsor me :P).

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The Hanfugirls Collective is working on several projects related to fashion and female history. To ensure greater accessibility of our content, we will not be charging for knowledge on this blog.

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The Hanfugirls Collective is working on several projects related to fashion and female history. To ensure greater accessibility of our content, we will not be charging for knowledge on this blog.

We need your support so that we can curate and produce better content for all!
If we have enough monthly donors, then we would be able to rent a physical space for immersive and experiential programmes and activities.

The Hanfugirls Collective is working on several projects related to fashion and female history. To ensure greater accessibility of our content, we will not be charging for knowledge on this blog.

We need your support so that we can curate and produce better content for all!

With more regular support, we would be able to plan ahead for a more sustainable and consistent delivery of content.

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