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SOAS University of London (London)
Department of the History of Art and Archaeology

Thesis Topic

Making Real: The Concept of Zhen and the Construction of Selfhood in Male and Female Portraiture of Late Ming China (ca. 1560–1680)

This research project examines the construction of selfhood in the portraiture of late Ming China, a period falling roughly between 1560 and 1660. It argues for an integral understanding of the portrait that moves beyond analysis of the likeness of the subject to consider also pictorial elements such as objects like furniture, mirrors, screens and costumes, sites such as gardens, urban spaces and architecture, and text reflecting eulogies, poems, titles and signatures.

This project does not focus on the oeuvre of an artist or ‘master’ nor is it concerned with a specific context such as the palace, the mansion or the temple, but rather argues that during the late Ming the concept of zhen 真 (translated as authenticity, reality and genuineness) opened up a new style of portrayal which revalorized the individual self. It is structured in four case studies, ordered chronologically, each of which examines a different strategy used by artists and patrons to create or ‘make’ the late Ming self in both painted and printed portraits of men and women, whether depicted alone or in a group.

The first case study explains how elite masculinities were redefined in group portraits depicting elegant gatherings that took place in Buddhist monastic sites. The second case study investigates the relationship between images of women looking at themselves in their mirrors and female self-portrayal. The third case study focuses on a series of individual portraits produced shortly after the collapse of the Ming to reveal how these portraits foreclosed further depictions of the late Ming self, and initiated the portrayal of a new political order. The last chapter brings the late Ming portrait to the present day and explores how some of these artworks from China have been interpreted and displayed in digital and physical exhibitions in Europe and America.

Huang Cunwu (active early seventeenth century), Qinglin gaohui tu [Exalted Gathering in the Green Wood], ca. 1611–12. Hand scroll, ink and colours on paper, 26 x 92.70 cm. Minneapolis Institute of Art.