Material Culture and the Body

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Session Chair: Colin Brady

Cheng He (University of Warwick)

Lacquer to Drink and Eat: An Art Material as Medicine in Early Modern England

This paper is a part of Cheng He’s doctoral research ‘Perception, Use and Meanings of Lacquer in Early Modern England, 1500-1700’. Today it seems clear that lacquer means coating varnish or varnished objects, but it is seldom noted that lacquer as an equivalent word to varnish was not established until the nineteenth century. The formation of the meaning(s) of the term went through a long and non-linear process that dates back to the Middle Ages instead of the early sixteenth century, which is associated with the earliest introduction of Asian lacquerware into Europe. The ambiguity and complexity of the meanings of lacquer can be discovered by looking at different ways in which the raw material of lacquer was perceived, utilised and integrated into contemporary systems of knowledge and beliefs. The paper centres around one of the applications: using lacquer as medicinal material. It is examined from the linguistic change of ‘lacquer’; medical recipes that include lacquer as an ingredient; and how lacquer as medicine was assigned different cultural meanings which were associated with its material properties.

Yidan Liu (University of Edinburgh) 

Courtesan Culture in Tang Yin’s Court Ladies in Shu Palace

Tang Yin (1470-1523), whose painting and calligraphy has consistently piqued scholarly interest, is deemed one of the ‘Four Great Masters of Ming China’. His painting, Court Ladies in Shu Palace, is among his most representative works. Previous scholarship has investigated its production techniques, historical background, and the artist’s veiled political criticisms; however, disputes regarding the representation of the social status of courtesans in this painting remained unsolved. Referencing the methodology of Allyson Burgess William’s study of courtesan culture in Renaissance Italy, this essay will challenge previous scholarship and argue that the ladies’ cosmetic makeup, along with their hair ornamentation and silk garments brought the difference of the courtesans’ social status to viewers’ eyes. In this essay, I will refer to the dress regulations, literature and poems of Ming dynasty as textual evidence. Paintings produced by Du Jin, a contemporary of Tang Yin, likewise shared a similar cosmetic style with Tang’s portrayal. There is also evidence of objects such as the statue of female court singers of Shu court and the silk products collected by the Summer Palace and China National Silk Museum. With several primary resources, this essay reveals advanced silk-production techniques and courtesan culture in Ming dynasty through the investigation of Tang Yin’s women painting. By such observations, this essay offers a more luxurious interpretation of Tang Yin’s artwork and a new understanding of court culture in Ming China.