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2.4: Women Artist in Early Art (1000 BCE - 1500 CE)

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    China boasts an extensive and fascinating history of art spanning over 5,000 years. The artwork ranges from the detailed bronze vessels of the Shang dynasty to the awe-inspiring Tang dynasty murals in the Mogao Caves. Chinese art is remarkably diverse and provides insight into the cultural and historical changes throughout China's complex history. Ancient Chinese society was patriarchal, and women were expected to conform to traditional gender roles and remain confined to domestic duties. However, some women challenged these norms and made significant contributions to the art world, leaving behind a legacy that inspires artists today. Despite the societal constraints placed upon them, these women bravely paved the way for future generations of female artists. Their work reflects the diverse and rich cultural heritage (2.4.1) of ancient China, and their stories serve as a reminder of the resilience and creativity of women throughout history. Their stories serve as a reminder of the resilience and creativity of women throughout history. Historians are unsure about the role of women creating art during this time. 

    A sitting Bhudda carved in the side of a cave with paintings surrounding it in various earth colors
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Figure of Maitreya Buddha in a cave 275 from Northern Liang (397–439), one of the earliest caves. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

    The concept of "sancong" or "three followings" is a significant part of Chinese culture that has been handed down through generations and still impacts modern Chinese society. It pertains to individuals' three relationships and is based on Confucian philosophy, highlighting the importance of respect, loyalty, and obedience. These relationships include rule and subject, father and son, and husband and wife. They serve as the foundation for a peaceful society and are deeply rooted in Chinese tradition. In ancient China, the relationship between the emperor and his subjects held immense significance. The emperor's power was absolute; he was considered the "Son of Heaven" with divine authority to rule. It was expected for the subjects to offer their loyalty and obedience to the emperor, with any challenge to his authority viewed as a threat to the stability of society. Women were also subordinate to their husbands, with strict rules to follow in society and at home. 

    For centuries, relationships have held great significance in Chinese society and have also been extended to other connections. One such example is the dynamic between a teacher and their pupil, which is viewed as a form of ruler-subject relationship wherein the teacher imparts knowledge and wisdom while the student is expected to follow and respect their authority. During this period of time, most of the borders of current-day China were established. Different art forms flourished, including the extraordinary bronze vessels, silk paintings, architecture seen in the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors, metalworking, lacquer work, and jade carving. Little artwork in early China is attributed to a specific artist, and the role of women artists needs to be documented, leaving historians to look for the influence of women artists in other ways. Spindle whorls were found buried with women suggesting they were the weavers, an important skill. The idea of women as weavers is further supported by a common Chinese saying, “men plow, women weave.”[1] Women were also known to be poets; some of their written work has been documented. Ban Zhao was one of the early famous female writers, her most well-known work was Nuje or Instructions for Women, explaining the four virtues women were expected to follow speech, virtue, behavior, and work. Some women could be successful writers and painters or pursue other arts. Generally, these women were in wealthy families or married to men who were influential in society. 

    The bond between older and younger siblings is very important in Chinese culture. This relationship is often likened to a father and son, as the older sibling is expected to offer guidance and support to the younger one. The younger sibling is encouraged to respect and obey their older counterpart. This dynamic is deeply rooted in traditional Chinese values and beliefs, which strongly emphasize family and filial piety. In contrast to the sibling bond, friendship within Chinese culture is often likened to a marriage. Friends are expected to provide mutual support and aid to one another, building a relationship based on trust, loyalty, and respect. These values are considered crucial components of any solid and meaningful friendship. Despite the evolution of Chinese society, the importance of these relationships remains steadfast. They continue to serve as integral parts of modern China's cultural fabric, shaping how individuals interact with one another, approach their most meaningful relationships, and define opportunities for women. 


    The art of ancient Japan is similarly rich and diverse, with a long history dating back to the Jomon period over 10,000 years ago. From the Jomon period's intricate pottery to the Edo period's refined tea bowls, Japanese art is characterized by its attention to detail and connection to nature and the natural world. Ancient Japan was a society that placed a high value on art, with a rich tradition of painting, calligraphy, and poetry. While women were often confined to traditional gender roles, some defied societal expectations and made significant contributions to the world of art.

    Murasaki Shikibu

    From 794 to 1185 CE, the Heian period was an era of significant cultural and artistic achievements in ancient Japan. During this time, Murasaki Shikibu emerged as a prominent writer and poet whose contributions have impacted Japanese literature. Her masterpiece, "The Tale of Genji" (2.4.2), is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of Japanese literature. Notably, Murasaki Shikibu was highly respected by her contemporaries, who recognized her literary prowess and exceptional skills as a poet. Her legacy as a celebrated female artist endures to this day.

    An ink drawing with various non letters in black without recognition of any shape
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Fragment of an emaki from the 12th century Genji Monogatari, written in Kana (Public Domain)

    Ono no Komachi

    Born in Japan during the 9th century CE, Ono no Komachi remains a remarkable female artist, celebrated for her poignant and exquisite poetry reflecting her struggles and life experiences. Her literary works have had a profound and lasting impact on Japanese literature, and she is widely regarded as one of the most influential poets of the Heian period. Her contributions to the artistic community are nothing short of remarkable, with her legacy continuing to inspire admiration and celebration.

    Tamako Kataoka

    In ancient Japan, the creative contributions of women extended beyond the realms of writing and poetry to include the field of painting. Tamako Kataoka, a renowned artist of the Edo period (1603-1868 CE), was one of the most celebrated female painters of her time. Her artistic achievements were attributed to her exquisite brushwork and mastery of color, which she expertly employed to capture glimpses of nature and everyday life in her works. Despite the societal limitations imposed on women during that era, Kataoka established herself as a highly respected artist. Even today, her paintings continue to profoundly influence the world of Japanese painting.

    The art world has been greatly enriched by the contributions of these women, who overcame limitations to create remarkable works. Their art reflects the diverse and culturally rich heritage of ancient Japan, and their stories stand as a powerful testament to the resilience and creativity of women throughout history. Today, they continue to inspire artists and admirers alike.

    Ancient Americas

    The ancient civilizations of the Americas produced most of the world's stunning and awe-inspiring, from the Maya's massive stone temples to the Inca's intricate gold work. One of the most famous examples of ancient American art is the Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu, which the Inca built 15th century CE. This massive stone structure, which sits atop a high mountain peak, is a testament to the incredible Incan engineering and artistic skill. The ancient Americas were home to many different cultures and civilizations, each with artistic traditions. Historians believe that men were responsible for the majority of art produced during this time, but talented women artists also made significant contributions to the art world.

    In many Native American Tribes (north of Mexico), women played an essential role in developing art. Native American women participated in day-to-day tribal politics and governance development, which remained unchanged for centuries. The tribal cultures existed because they were substance-based communities; everyone worked side by side to produce and harvest food. Women were responsible for the children, and household, controlling agricultural production and creating homes, clothing, pots, and tools. Tanning hides to make clothes and adding beads to create intricate repetitive patterns or images of animals. They mostly wove elaborate baskets, which were watertight and used for food storage, water, and goods. By the 15th century, when Europeans colonized America, "…the idea that women could participate in society to the same degree as men was a foreign concept in Western Culture".[2] Europeans believed they were at the top of the cultural world and dismissed the ideas of equality in society as inferior to the Americas. After the colonization of America, Native women were plunged into the domestication of European laws, stripping them of all rights.

    Teotlalco Community

    Weaving was an essential and widespread craft in ancient Mesoamerica, and weavers were likely active in the Teotlalco community, an area of famous female artists from ancient Americas was the Aztec noblewoman from Teotlalco, who lived during the 15th century CE. They were known for their weaving and embroidery skills, and the Aztec society's elite highly sought after their work. Teotlalco's embroidery was particularly famous, and they created many beautiful works of art that depicted scenes from Aztec mythology and daily life. Many indigenous groups in ancient Mexico, such as the Zapotec and Mixtec, were known for their skill in weaving, and textiles were highly valued as both practical and ceremonial items. Weaving was often performed by women, who would spin fibers into yarn and use backstrap looms to create intricate patterns and designs.

    Some of the textiles produced by Mesoamerican weavers (2.4.3), such as those from the Maya civilization, have been preserved in excellent condition and are considered some of the finest examples of ancient American textile art. These textiles often feature complex geometric patterns, vibrant colors, and representations of animals or deities. They were known for their skill and created many beautiful textiles used in religious ceremonies and other important events. Despite their challenges and limitations, these women made significant contributions to the art world, leaving a legacy that inspires artists today. Their work reflects the diverse and rich cultural heritage of ancient Americas, and their stories serve as a reminder of the resilience and creativity of women throughout history.

    A woman with a backstrap loom weaving multiple colors of thread
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Incan Woman using a backstrap loom (CC BY 2.0)


    The continent of Africa has a rich and diverse artistic heritage that spans thousands of years. While men created much of the art produced during this time, many talented women artists made significant contributions to the art world. Like the other regions we have explored, ancient Africa has a long and complex history of artistic production, ranging from the rock art of the Sahara to the intricate bronze sculptures of the Kingdom of Benin. One of the most striking examples of ancient African art is the Great Zimbabwe ruins, which date back to the 11th century CE. These ruins in modern-day Zimbabwe consist of massive stone structures and are a testament to the architectural and engineering prowess.

    It is inaccurate that there were no female artists in Africa before 1800. There are many talented and skilled female artists throughout the continent's history. However, work may not have been as widely recognized or celebrated as male counterparts. One reason for this lack of recognition is the art produced by African women before the 20th century was functional and practical rather than purely decorative or artistic. For example, women in many African cultures were responsible for creating pottery, textiles, and other everyday items that their families and communities used. While these objects were often beautifully crafted and decorated, they were not always viewed as "art" like, paintings or sculptures. Another reason for the lack of recognition of female artists in pre-1800 Africa is that many of these cultures did not have a tradition of individualized or signature-based art, making it challenging to identify specific artists or attribute works of art to them. Instead, art was often produced collaboratively or anonymously within a particular community or tradition.

    It is also worth noting that many of the written records and historical accounts from pre-1800 Africa were created by men and may, therefore, not accurately reflect the contributions and achievements of female artists. In recent years, scholars and art historians have worked to uncover and recognize the work of previously overlooked female artists in Africa and to re-evaluate how art and creativity were understood and valued within these cultures. Women have been creating art for thousands of years, including before 1000 BCE. From cave paintings to pottery to metalworking, women played a central role in designing and developing various art forms. However, their contributions have often been overlooked or undervalued, and it is essential to recognize and celebrate the role of women in art history. Art creation is an innate human impulse, and early humans were no exception. They created art for various reasons, including communication, spirituality, aesthetic appreciation, historical record-keeping, socialization, identity formation, and personal development. Art played a vital role in human culture, and its importance continues today.

    [1] Retrieved from

    [2] Ward, K. (2007). Before and after the white man: Indian women, property, progress, and power. UConn. Retrieved from: