Guan Daosheng

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Bamboo and Stone (竹石图), Guan Daosheng, ink on paper, National Palace Museum, Taipei

Guan Daosheng (Chinese: 管道昇; 1262–1319) was a Chinese poet and painter who was active during the Yuan Dynasty. She is credited with being "the most famous female painter in Chinese history...remembered not only as a talented woman, but also as a prominent figure in the history of bamboo painting."[1]

She was born in Huzhou and was the wife of Zhao Mengfu, a renowned scholar-official and artist. They were married in 1286 and established a home in Wuxing "with the purchase of a town house with gardens in Huzhou, and a country retreat at Dongheng village near Deqing,"[2] where they were later buried. She was talented in calligraphy and painting ink bamboo and plum with delicate and elegant strokes. It is believed that she and her husband did paintings together.[3] The calligraphy of herself, her husband and one of their three sons, Zhao Yong, were collected in a scroll by the Yuan Emperor Ayurbarwada (better known as the Emperor Ren). He commented that it was a rare thing for a husband, wife and son to all be talented in calligraphy. "The imperial seal was applied to these works and they became part of the Imperial Archives collection."[4]

She inscribed poems on her paintings and used a style of poetry that was used rarely by women. In her poems she shows concern for her husband and children, but does this in a humoristic way. When her husband once considered taking a concubine, and wrote a short poem assuring her that he was just contemplating what his friends were doing and she would still be the official wife, she wrote a short poem in response ("Song of You and Me") and left it where he could find it. The subject was reportedly never raised again and after her death, he did not remarry.

Both Guan Daosheng and her prominent husband Zhao Mengfu "harboured deep Chan Buddhist faith and enjoyed friendship with monks, such as their teacher Zhongfeng Mingben and others residing in the monasteries on the Tianmu Mountains, close to their homes in Wuxing and Deqing in northern Zhejiang...."[5] All in all, she and her husband had six daughters and three sons.[6]

Guan Daosheng died in 1319 at the age of 58 after a long illness. She died "on board the official boat in Shandong on the way home";[7] her husband had sought permission to return due to his wife's illness. "The text of his letter informing [a relative] of her death and his painful journey home with her coffin, known as 'Zuimeng tie' ('Alcoholic delirium'), portrays a man devastated by the loss."[8] Because some of her husband's writings focused on his dislike of northern China's climate where they lived, "it may even [have] been that a meagre northern diet contributed to [her] death...possibly of beriberi brought on by malnutrition."[9] In the three years he lived after her death, it is said that he painted mainly bamboo, one of her favourite subjects, in her memory. Today, their "town house and garden in Huzhou, Lianhuazhuang,and their tomb in the country at Dongheng have been restored"[10] and a small museum has been built in her husband's honour.


She is referred to "in the nineteenth century compilation of information on woman painters drawn from many earlier sources by T'ang Sou-yu, the wife of the Hangchow scholar and book collector Wang Yuan-sun"[11] and is "one of the few women who is mentioned in early Western surveys of Chinese painting and whose work has been studied by modern Chinese scholars."[12] Few of her paintings remain but one example in the National Palace Museum in Taipei is believed to have a "plausible claim to authenticity";[13] it is a monochrome handscroll painted in 1308 entitled Bamboo Clumps in Mist and Rain. "Most of Guan Daosheng's scroll paintings appear to have been done for other women of roughly equal status--either her relatives or the wives of her husband's colleagues...."[14]

In 2006, Guan's poetry served as the inspiration for a series of paintings by contemporary artist Au Hoi Lam, which were displayed at the Hong Kong Central Library in an exhibition entitled When Words are Sweet...Paintings by Au Hoi-lam.[15]


  1. ^ Marsha Weidner, ed. Flowering in the Shadows: Women in the History of Chinese and Japanese Painting. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990, p. 14.
  2. ^ <McCausland, Zhao Mengfu: Calligraphy and Painting for Khubilai's China. HK: Hong Kong University Press, 2011,p. 40.
  3. ^ Osvald Siren. Chinese Painting, as quoted in Weidner, p. 97.
  4. ^ Weidner, p. 59.
  5. ^ McCausland, 17.
  6. ^ McCausland, p. 22.
  7. ^ McCausland, p. 104
  8. ^ McCausland, p. 104.
  9. ^ McCausland, p. 19.
  10. ^ McCausland, p. 7.
  11. ^ Weidner, p. 104
  12. ^ Ch'en Pao-chen, "Kuan Tao-sheng ho t'a te chu-shih t'u" (Kuan Tao-sheng and her painting of bamboo and rock), National Palace Museum Quarterly II, No. 4 (1977): 51-84 as quoted in Weidner, p. 14.
  13. ^ McCausland, p. 281.
  14. ^ McCausland, p. 281.
  15. ^ "Exhibition displays paintings depicting sweet love". Leisure and Cultural Services Department. Retrieved March 14, 2014. 

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