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Art HERstory: Ma Shouzhen


"Colored Fungus, Orchids, Bamboo, and Rocks" (1604). This is my favorite Ma Shouzhen painting. The splashes of blue give these plants a little character.

"Colored Fungus, Orchids, Bamboo, and Rocks" (1604). This is my favorite Ma Shouzhen painting. The splashes of blue give these plants a little character.

Chinese culture is the bomb dot com. Everything about it intrigues me. The Chinese are family-oriented and place a lot of emphasis on nature and wellness. Much of the art from this corner of the globe reflects such values. The creations from Ma Shouzhen are no different. Don’t let the dainty photos fool you though. Ma had a life that was fit for a segment on “The Secret Life of Women.”

"Narcissus." Ma stuck to her Chinese roots and often painted items from nature.

"Narcissus." Ma stuck to her Chinese roots and often painted items from nature.

Ma Shouzhen was born in Jinling, China in 1548. No, her birth name wasn’t Ma. Her legal name was Xianglan, but she also went by Xuan’er and Yuejiao. Growing up in pre-modern China was difficult for Ma. The iron fist of the Ming Dynasty was banging hard upon China. The art scene was male dominated and ladies got no respect. Some women took matters into their own hands and made a way out of no way. Since art by women wasn’t respected during the duration of Ma’s life, they got exposure by not disclosing their gender or by working as courtesans who served the male artists of the time. Ma chose the latter.

"Orchid and Rock" (1572). The simplicity and monochromatic color theme are characteristics of Ma's signature style. This painting also features Ma's favorite thing to paint, an orchid.

"Orchid and Rock" (1572). The simplicity and monochromatic color theme are characteristics of Ma's signature style. This painting also features Ma's favorite thing to paint, an orchid.

Ma was considered a romantic figure who offered her poetry and painting to her clients in addition to a happy ending. Although her line of work was taboo, she stayed true to Chinese culture by dedicating her talent to depicting scenes from nature. Her favorite things to paint were orchids. Ma’s style consisted of painting in delicate ink monochrome. Orchids were extremely popular with courtesan painters because they were fragrant plants that blossomed in seclusion. The courtesans could identify.

"Landscapes and Flowers." In this painting Ma chose not to feature the orchid, instead she focuses on bamboo and the actual landscape.

"Landscapes and Flowers." In this painting Ma chose not to feature the orchid, instead she focuses on bamboo and the actual landscape.

Although Ma didn’t get the respect that was owed to her, she made amazing art. She didn’t let her lower class status or the side eyes of society keep her in the shadows. Her dirt was done in the dark, but her art shined light on her inner peace, confidence, and beauty. To Ma Shouzhen I bow in respect. She gave society the middle finger and made things happen. No matter what.

"Orchids, Bamboo, Lingzhi, and Rocks." I like the horizontal direction of this trilogy. I could definitely see these framed on my wall!

"Orchids, Bamboo, Lingzhi, and Rocks." I like the horizontal direction of this trilogy. I could definitely see these framed on my wall!


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