Women and Mirrors in Early Modern East Asian Art

In The Naked Gaze: Reflections on Chinese Modernity, Carlos Rojas, a scholar of Chinese art, writes:

In The Naked Gaze: Reflections on Chinese Modernity, Carlos Rojas, a scholar of Chinese art, writes: “The enigma of ‘woman’ results not from her literal invisibility but from her exorbitant visibility – a visibility that, by virtue of its very excess, paradoxically makes ‘woman’ all the more impenetrable.”[1] As sites of both fascination and anxiety, women have long been popular subjects of male-dominated art in both China and Japan; their bodies used as objects of a curious and desirous gaze. Prints, paintings, and, later on, photographs, all served to inscribe the sign of ‘femininity’, determining the templates of gender from a male point of view. However, as noted by Rojas, the multitude of images only furthered women’s enigmatic status and enhanced the anxiety surrounding the gender. The insufficiency of images to capture the complex category ‘woman’ (and the complexity of reality in general) became apparent and the artists, at times, expressed this insufficiency by placing a mirror, an illusionary optical device, into the frame. Self-confessionally, the mirror drew attention to the illusionistic nature of visuality and to the act of framing or (re)constructing reality. Such an admittance of the image’s trickery would have had been liberating for women if the mirror was not also seen as a quintessential symbol of vanity and self-objectification.

In Kitagawa Utamaro’s bijinga print Beauty Powdering the Neck a female figure stands in front of a large hand-held mirror, applying make-up to her neck and shoulder and looking intently at her mirror-image. Turned away from the viewer, she is engaged in a private and possibly narcissistic moment of self-observation. Gazing at her own image, she occupies a space that would normally be occupied by the male viewer and, thus, “joins the spectators of herself.”[2] In doing so, as suggested by art critic John Berger, she treats “herself as, first and foremost, a sight.”[3] This self-objectification, suggested by the mirror, subverts the idea that the pursuit of visual pleasure is inherently masculine and that the gaze directed towards women is oppressive. Rather then being portrayed as an unwilling object of specular consumption, the woman actively directs the gaze towards herself and becomes an alias in her own fetishization.[4] The mirror-gaze professes her complicity and justifies the commodification of her body.

‘Beauty Powdering the Neck’, c. 1790. Kitagawa Utamaro. Woodblock print. 28 x 41 cm.

‘Beauty Powdering the Neck’, c. 1790. Kitagawa Utamaro. Woodblock print. 28 x 41 cm.

However, while the mirror suggests the woman’s interest in self-looking, it does not necessarily invite for the external gaze. With her back turned towards the viewer and here mirror-reflected eyes averted from him, Utamaro’s bijinga is unaware of being looked at. The outside viewer is, therefore, an obvious intruder and a lustful voyeur. Reflecting her face, the mirror allows us to see the woman against her awareness and against her will, thus making her a victim of our gaze. Metaphorically, the mirror signifies other images that depict and expose the female bodies against the women’s will; images in construction and projection of which women themselves do not participate. Rather than justifying the objectification of the female body, the mirror, if read in this way, exposes the oppressive power dynamic between rapacious gazer and resistant object of the gaze; the power dynamic that is accentuated by placing the viewer behind the woman where he is unseen and she is unguarded.

It is unlikely that Utamaro himself wished to comment on or draw attention to the moral implications of gazing at the female body, given that he, as argued by East Asian art historian Julie Nelson Davis, uses bijinga prints as marketing devices, most often to sell the women’s sexual services. [5] In Utamaro’s case, the act of voyeuristic viewing, in fact, eroticises the image and titillates the viewer’s desire; a desire that is also aroused by focusing the image on the nape of the female’s neck which at the time was considered an erogenous zone.[6] What is more, in Utamaro’s print the mirror has a didactic purpose to convince the viewer of the image’s verisimilitude and, thus, establish intimacy between him and the woman in the frame. As analysed by Davis, Utamaro’s interest in versimilitude is evident in his placement of female figures in front of a silver mica background which mimics the eighteenth-century Japanese mirror[7] and suggests that we are seeing a truth-capturing reflection of a woman (or a type of woman) “from everyday life.”[8] If Davis’ reading of Utamaro is correct, and if he indeed recognised the mirror’s didactic power, then we could argue that the mirror held in the bijinga’s hand in Beauty Powdering the Neck, also propagates verisimilitude, suggesting not only that the physical appearance of the woman is life-like but also that the narrative that the image construes (i.e. women treat themselves as objects of gaze) is to be trusted. Didactically, therefore, the emphasis on simulation, afforded by the mirror, allows Utamaro to create and sustain a socio-cultural narrative that sees femininity as narcissistic and vain, and validates the objectification of the female body.

‘Morning Toilette’, 1893. Kuroda Seiki. Oil on canvas. 178.5 x 98 cm

‘Morning Toilette’, 1893. Kuroda Seiki. Oil on canvas. 178.5 x 98 cm

A similar composition – a woman turned away from the picture plane, her front reflected in a mirror – can be seen in an oil painting Morning Toilette by Japanese yoga master Kuroda Seiki. Kuroda’s two metres tall painting depicts a female nude combing her hair in front of a free-standing mirror that covers almost the entire background of the image. Here too, the mirror draws attention to verisimilitude and intimacy, both of which are already emphasised through the chosen medium of oil paint, portraying of the individual female body, and a true-to-life scale. While Utamaro patterns his bijingas on a single prototype of beauty, Kuroda daringly paints a unique, individual, and imperfect female body.[9] Even though his brushstroke is loose and expressionistic, Kuroda conveys realism through the naturalistic volume and three-dimensionality rendered through shading, a technique that is entirely absent in Utamaro’s print. This hyper-realistic technique, paired with the oil paint texture, creates a sense of proximity to the depicted body and “such proximity implies a certain intimacy.”[10] The subject matter of a nude dressing up in front of a mirror, accentuates the intimate relationship as the viewer witnesses a private moment of self-adornment and mirror-gazing. However, here too, just like in Utamaro’s print, the woman’s gaze is averted and the viewer is again an unwanted voyeur, standing outside rather than inside of this private space, removed rather than in proximity to the woman’s body. The mirror in the frame, again, enables the viewer to see what he is not invited to look at, and to take on a position of power over the displayed body. As expressed by Alice Y. Tseng, Kuroda “has captured a woman`s private moment […] making her a perfect prey for the boudoir voyeur.”[11]

The theme of voyeurism is also explored in the seventeenth century Chinese print ‘Oriole reads Scholar Zhang’s love letter’ from The Romance of the Western Chamber series that illustrates a popular Chinese novel. In this particular image we see a mirror-reflection of a woman (Oriole) seated in her private space (again indicated by the mirror), reading a letter from her lover while being spied on by her maid. The maid is positioned behind the screen that diagonally splits the image in half and entirely covers Oriole’s ‘actual’ body, so that the only vision of Oriole we get is the one afforded by the mirror. Again, the woman that is the focus of our (and the maid’s) gaze does not invite the look, and we are clearly intruding into a private moment in which we are not wanted. As noted by Asian art Professor, Richard Vinograd, optical devices often featured in the literature of both late Ming and Qing period to indicate transparency and loss of the private sphere. [12] In the ‘Oriole reads Scholar Zhang’s love letter’ print, this loss of privacy is made obvious through the figure of the spying maid whose presence highlights our own voyeuristic position and problematizes the act of watching. As we condemn the maid’s shameful action, we also become conscious of our own intrusion into Oriole’s private space; an intrusion that establishes an unequal and oppressive relationship between the viewer and the object of the gaze. The image therefore comments on the moral implications of looking at women, but interestingly lessens the male’s responsibility as it suggests that the interest for watching is embodied in the women themselves as symbolised by the maid and the mirror which, although not used by Oriole in this particular instance, suggests her interest in looking at herself at other times.[13]

‘Oriole reads Scholar Zhang’s love letter’, from The Romance of  the Western Chamber, 1640. Min Qiji edition. Woodblock print

‘Oriole reads Scholar Zhang’s love letter’, from The Romance of
the Western Chamber, 1640. Min Qiji edition. Woodblock print

Beside the aforementioned vanity and voyeurism, the function of mirrors in all of the above images is also to establish “the dialectic of essence and appearance”[14] and to bring the visuality itself into question.[15] Structurally the mirror breaks the image into multiple scopic layers so we get an image within an image effect. Such self-confessional composition makes the act of framing transparent to the viewer and brings the authority of any single image into question. As an optical illusion that compresses “the body in bits and pieces”[16] into a compact whole, the mirror in the print suggests the compression and incompleteness of reality construed by images and draws attention to the manipulation of appearance. As we become aware that images compress our sight and through it our perception of the world, we also begin to question the truths and the myths that they construe, including those that relate to gender and its power dynamics. In the Naked Gaze, Carlos Rojas correlates the anxiety “about the vagaries of specular reflection” [17] with those that surround female sexuality. He states that “the specular image and female sexuality present a parallel challenge to the perceived self-sufficiency of the masculine subject.”[18]

The reliability of images and gendered myths that they create is also explored in the black and white photograph of the Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi who effectively controlled the Manchu Qing dynasty from 1861 to her death in 1908. In this photograph, which she herself carefully staged,[19] we see her standing in front of her imperial throne, in the centre of the frame, holding a small boudoir mirror whilst inserting a decorative flower into her hair. The familiar motif of female figure holding a mirror as she applies make up or fixes her hair, again draws attention to female vanity and justifies our treatment of the woman as an object of gaze. However, upon closer examination of the image, we notice that Cixi’s viewing is not self-absorbed but reflexive. Her gaze actually wanders beside the mirror, towards and beyond lower right corner of the photograph’s frame itself. This side and lowered look suggests introspective reflection, most likely triggered by the image captured in the mirror. As argued by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, to gaze in the mirror is to try to understand the many faces of self; “[b]y consistently reengaging the subject in a dialectic of being and seeming, the mirror appeals to the imagination, introducing new perspectives and anticipating other truths.[20] Cixi’s errant gaze could indeed indicate such an introspective search for a ‘true’ self-identity. At the same time, the look outside of the frame also suggests her recognition that any visual representation of the self is incomplete, and so is the self-knowledge offered by the sight. In order to understand the reality (or at least attempt to do so), one must look outside and beyond the frame.

‘The Empress Dowager Cixi gazing at a hand mirror’, 1903. Xunling. Black and white photograph. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

‘The Empress Dowager Cixi gazing at a hand mirror’, 1903. Xunling. Black and white photograph. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

At the same time, of course, Cixi uses an image (a photograph) to present herself to the outside viewer.[21] In doing so, she again turns herself into an object of gaze but with an intention to invert gendered conventions and offer a new point of view, a female point of view. A self-portrait that she herself commissioned and in construction of which she actively participated, allows her to take control over the narrative that the image declares while also making the performativity of gender obvious to the viewer. [22] She portraits herself using a familiar trope of femininity (a mirror)[23] only to break the canon of female representation that sees women as mere objects of gaze. Her refusal to look in the mirror, is a refusal to being captured by the frame. Her refusal to gaze at herself, is ultimately a refusal to being gazed at and reduced to a sight. By placing the mirror in the image and then refusing to use it, she shatters the usual representation of women as narcissistic and vain. Her use of mirror is, therefore, “a figurative for the strategic inversion of gender relations.”[24]

The indexical nature of a photograph allows Cixi to convincingly construe her desired self (a self that is, as noted by Rojas, “coterminous with the cluster of sociocultural attributes ascribed with gender”[25]) but it also allows her to bring the verisimilitude of such a construction into question. As a medium of unprecedented mimetic transparency, photography allows Cixi to overturn the idea of the representational nature of images and suggest that any image, even the most truth-capturing one, is inevitably fantastical and deceptive.[26] The mirror in the image, which she places in the focal point, metaphorically echoes the function of the photograph as a medium of verisimilitude,[27] while also drawing attention to the construction of the sight. As noted by Rojas, on the one hand, the mirror “yield[s] a photograph that [… mimics] the function of the original mirror image”[28] while, on the other, it serves as “a potent symbol of the inherent limits of visual imagery.”[29] As it unveils these limits, Cixi’s photograph encourages the viewer to consider what it means to look at optical processes and how the reality is established through the modes of seeing. Rather then being absorbed by the image, the viewer is invited to mirror Cixi’s errant gaze and look beside and outside of the frame.

Given that gender has been constructed by and through the images, and that the gendered identity “is perceived in primarily visual terms,”[30] the scopic scepticism naturally overlaps with a scepticism surrounding gender.[31] As a long-serving symbol of both femininity and verisimilitude, the mirror has been recognised as an ideal vehicle for potential inversion of preconceived myths and gendered axioms. This inversion can, however, be achieved only if the mirror is used to confess the “limits of [the artist’s] own sight,”[32] the deceptive power of images, and the performativity of gender, as was done in Empress Cixi’s photograph. However, the mirror can also perpetuate gendered norms and even accentuate the objectification of female body by making her complicit in this very objectification, or simply by implying the verisimilitude of presented gender stereotype. It is this very ambivalence of the mirror as an object that could either “be a trap […or] teach manipulation of appearances”[33] that has made it a captivating motif in the images that depict female bodies and attempt to penetrate an equally ambivalent category ‘women’.




[1] Carlos Rojas, The Naked Gaze: Reflections on Chinese Modernity, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Asia Centre, 2008, p116.

[2] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, London: British Broadcasting Corporation; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972, p50.

[3] Berger, p51. Other authors have also expressed the connection between gazing at oneself in the mirror and self-objectification. In The Naked Gaze, Rojas writes: “a woman’s moment of specular recognition becomes […] a symbol of her reduction to the status of mere figuration.” [See Rojas, p128] In The Mirror: A History, Sabine Melchior-Bonnet writes: “To see oneself in the mirror, to identify oneself, requires a mental operation by which the subject is capable of objectivizing himself, …” [See Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, The Mirror: A History, London and New York: Routledge, 2001. Kindle edition, Location 169-170.]

[4] The result of self-watching, suggests Rojas is “a doubly subordinate positions” where both the male viewer and the woman herself treat the female body as an object of gaze. See Rojas, p72.

[5] In Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty, Julie Nelson Davis notes that “… contemporary bijinga were part of a long-running theme in commercial imagery…” which most often propagated the sexual services offered by geishas in the Yoshiwara pleasure districts. See Julie Nelson Davis, “ ‘Pictures of Beauties’ and Other Social Physiognomies,” in Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty (London: Reaktion Books, 2007): 70.

[6] Information taken from the Viewing Japanese Prints, “Hashiguchi Goyo (1880-1921): Modernizing Utamaro,” last viewed November 2, 2014, http://viewingjapaneseprints.net/texts/shinhangatexts/shinhanga_pages/goyo3.html Utamaro draws attention to this area by placing the bijinga’s right hand on the nape of the neck.

[7] Davis explains that the “eighteenth-century Japanese mirrors did not reflect well enough to capture all that surrounded and was behind the figure,” so “the face seen in the surface of the mirror would be surrounded by an emptied silvery space;…” The shining silver surface, against which Utamaro places bijinga, thus “mimics the refection one might see in a mirror, adding to the conceit that Utamaro is capturing a moment in time.” [See Davis, p75.]

[8] Davis writes that apparent verisimilitude “seduced the viewer” to believe that Utamaro “has taken on the project of drawing portraits of women from everyday life […] to explicate their habits and customs too another (man).” What is more, the verisimilitude suggests that Utamaro “has been privy to the intimate lives of specific women,” which, argues Davis, “leads down the slippery slope to the appraisal of Utamaro as a sensitive portrayer of individual figures draws from life.” [See David, p90]

[9] Images of individualized female figures were highly unusual at the time and Kuroda brought this new style of painting with him from Europe, causing uproar in the Japanese art circles. See Alice Y Tseng, “Kuroda Seiki’s ‘Morning Toilette’ on Exhibition in Modern Kyoto,” in The Art Bulletin vol. 90, no. 3 (Published by College Arts Association: September, 2008): 428-429.

[10] In Ways of Seeing, Berger writes: “The surface verisimilitude of oil painting tends to make the viewer assume that he is close to – within touching distance of – any object in the foreground of the picture. If the object is a person such proximity implies a certain intimacy.” [See Berger, p97]

[11] Describing Kuroda’s Morning Toilette, Alice Y. Tseng notices that Kuroda “does not capture [the woman] in the most flattering pose.” Tseng suggests that “[s]uch informality actually intensifies the sexual charge of the painting, … The artist has captured a woman`s private moment when she is primping, making her a perfect prey for the boudoir voyeur. [See Tseng, p428]

[12] Professor of Asian art, Richard Vinograd notes that reflective optical devices indicate transparency and loss of the private space. See Richard Vinograd, “Cultural Spaces and the Problem of a Visual Modernity in the Cities of Late Ming Chiang-nan,” in Papers from the Third International Conference on Sinology, History Section Taipei (2002): 342.

[13] Placement of an object of vanity close to the female body brings to mind John Berger’s remark that the woman “is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.” [Berger, p46]

[14] Melchior-Bonnet, Location 138-138

[15] In Scopic Frames: Devices for Seeing China ca. 1640, Jennifer Purtle also points to “the late-Ming rejection of representational stability,” and “a late-Ming self-awareness of the predominance and importance of practices of vision and its paraphernalia,” thus indicating that the mirror in ‘Oriole reads Scholar Zhang’s love letter’ print might have a purpose of drawing the viewer’s attention to the shaping of the sight. Jennifer Purtle, “Scopic Frames: Devices for Seeing China ca. 1640,” Art History (2010): 67.

[16] Jacques Lacan quoted in Rojas, p43.

[17] Rojas, p47.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Rojas notes that, when having her photographs taken, “Cixi used carefully staged poses and settings to shape not only how she wished to be perceived but also how she wanted to imagine herself.” See Rojas, p1. For more about Cixi’s participation in staging of her photograph, see Rojas, p4-7.

[20] Melchior-Bonnet, Location 2350-5966. Carlos Rojas also suggests that mirrors connote “abstract processes of reflection and inversion.” [See Rojas, p55]. He argues that self-perception is a result of navigation through the various images of the self, including the perception of others, a “culturally produced gaze.” [See Rojas, p19-20]

[21] But also to herself. Both the mirror-gaze and the self-portrait suggest a search of how she wants to be seen and who she ought / wants to be. A few months after the mirror photograph, Empress Cixi had another photo of herself taken for which she stated that it will help her “see herself as she ought to be seen.” See Rojas, p7.

[22] Rojas notes that the “flower in the mirror photograph features [Cixi’s] appropriation of the inherently feminine “boudoir mirror” tradition, combined with her implicit affiliation with the voyeuristic gesture of gendered ventriloquism on which the same literary and iconographic tradition is predicated. In both instances, Cixi was using these photographs to assert a specific (feminine) gender identity while simultaneously underscoring the performative and fluid nature of gender identity itself. In other words, in posing for these photos, Cixi was performing not only femininity but more generally the very possibility of gender performativity itself.” See Rojas, p9.

[23] Melchior-Bonnet defines the mirror as “the privileged and vulnerable province of femininity.” [See Melchior-Bonnet, Location 102-103]

[24] Rojas. p57.

[25] Rojas, p99.

[26] Rojas notes that “Cixi’s interest in photography […] joins her captivation with photography’s unprecedented verisimilitude and her insistence on using it as a vehicle for fantasy projection.” See Rojas, p10.

[27] Photography, notes Rojas, could “be seen as a figurative mirror.” Rojas, p57.

[28] Rojas, p4.

[29] Rojas, p54.

[30] Rojas, p10.

[31] As expressed by Rojas: “Fragmented and decentred perception of the visual process also becomes a figure for the constructed nature of the subject as perceived vis-à-vis that same visual process.” [Rojas, p122]

[32] Rojas, p121.

[33] Melchior-Bonnet, Location 94-95


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