NMS Exhibition highlights role of women under the Ming


National Museum of Scotland   Photo Paul Harris

We wrote last week at some length about the opening of the magnificent new exhibition at The National Museum of Scotland Ming The Golden Empire. In the coming weeks, we shall have a look in more detail and with pictures at some fascinating aspects of the new exhibition.

Several exhibits relate to the role of women in Ming society. As may be discerned from the quotation below from Dong Qichang, incorporated in the exhibition signage, women’s liberation, let alone political correctness, had, in the early days at least, made virtually no impression on Ming society.


Today, this would hardly be described as politically correct! From National Museum of Scotland exhibition Ming The Golden Empire

 Traditional Confucian thinking defined women in terms of The Four Virtues: womanly work, womanly speech, womanly virtue and womanly deportment. Fair enough! But Confucian ethics also viewed a woman as subordinate to her father before marriage, to her husband during marriage, and to her son after her husband’s death. The lives of elite wives and concubines tended to be highly restricted and they were largely confined with the women’s quarters.

But things improved somewhat by the late Ming. The domestic, social and public role of women had seen some expansion, with greater access to education and social opportunity. Women of the gentry learnt to read classical Chinese and books were even produced specifically for them. They formed literary and, even, religious groups, and began to participate in cultural activities as musicians, writers, poets and painters.


The piece of cloisonné in the foreground was designed for the dressing table of a Ming lady. Such pieces of frippery were not regarded as being nearly substantial or interesting enough for the male of the species. From The National Museum of Scotland exhibition Ming The Golden Empire. Photograph Paul Harris

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