Orchid Paintings by Seventeenth-century Chinese Courtesans : Erotic Performances and Tokens of Seduction

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-41
Journal / PublicationHarvard Asia Quarterly
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes


A survey conducted by Ellen Johnston Laing indicates that seventeenth-century Chinese courtesans, who were painters, preferred to paint orchids. Scholars have suggested that courtesan painters produced paintings of orchids of acceptable quality by using few and simple brush strokes during their gatherings with literati patrons. Other scholars have demonstrated that courtesans made use of the symbolism of orchids to establish themselves as hermits, or as secluded beauties waiting for their soul-mates. This article offers another approach to interpreting this phenomenon: understanding how audiences viewed courtesans’ paintings of orchids and how courtesans derived benefit from those paintings. I suggest that the painting of orchids was seen as a sensual performance and that the orchids were seen as representations of the painter’s physical beauty. I also contend that orchid paintings were presented and received as tokens of courtship or seduction, which courtesans used to their advantage.