Ancient Court Ladies at Leisure (Playing Pitch Pot)
Hong Kong Heritage Museum
Women and Femininity in Ancient China
Portrait of a woman
Wood board carved with the figure of Hua Mulan
New year woodcut print "Eight beauties become warriors"
Gallery view
Lady holding a fan
Portrait of a lady
Portrait of a lady
Jixian picking mulberry leaves
Lady worshipping
Lady holding a baby
Portrait of a lady
Pottery figure of a female dancer
Sedan chair
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Treasures from the Nanjing Museum

Lives of women in ancient China

The current exhibition, Women and Femininity in Ancient China – Treasures from the Nanjing Museum, at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, presents multiple facets of female images that explore the changes in social and cultural trends throughout the history of China. In collaboration with the Nanjing Museum, on display are more than 100 female-related artefacts and artworks from the Shang dynasty (1766 – 1047 BC) to the early twentieth century.

Ancient Court Ladies at Leisure

At the entrance is the highlight piece of the exhibition. A guild of Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) court painters wove reality with imagination in a thirteen-metre-long handscroll. Ancient Court Ladies at Leisure shows popular pastime activities of noble women in the Song dynasty (960–1279). As women did not participate in archery back in the day, an alternative version deemed fit for elegant ladies was created—an addicting game called pitch-pot, where participants took turns throwing arrows into a specially designed pot with loop ears, and the winner was determined according to where the arrows were positioned. This is one of the most famed entertainment pictorial guides of the Song dynasty, imitated by a Qing dynasty painter. However, you may ask, why would people from the prosperous period of the Qing Empire be fascinated by the past?

Artisans became celebrated

To some, imitation infers negative connotations. Yet the trend of imitating cultural practices has a long history dating back to the Song dynasty. At that time, the literati were keen to endorse ancient laws and regulations through the study of artefacts. Since there were limited objects to be shared, imitated creations were in great demand. Interests began with copper, porcelain, and jade pieces, then later in paintings and other media. Whilst artisans were creating copies for commercial purposes, they slowly mastered the fundamental techniques required to break through. So, instead of merely replicating elemental compositions from the originals, they combined details relevant to their times and aesthetics. Eventually, with proficient skills and innovative ideas, the artisans themselves became celebrated, and the variations of the artworks linking their times with the past were highly regarded as legitimate art forms on their own.

Celebrating female beauty in China

These historical treasures not only give a brief glimpse into the everyday life of women from different classes but also reinvigorate the concept of female beauty throughout China’s history. This carefully curated story encourages younger generations to explore Chinese historical and cultural roots. The exhibition is also an excellent example of how technology can enable a better understanding of history and make formerly dusty old things appealing.

Text Man Shek / Photos Martin Wray & Hong Kong Heritage Museum