Zoe Galleno

Zhu Kerou: Women and Kesi Textiles in the Song Dynasty


This study examines the iconography and style of Kesi textiles produced by the renowned artist, Zhu Kerou, to understand how women interpreted the religious and social environment during the Song dynasty. Previous scholarship suggests that women’s treatment affected their expression within society but fails to address how, despite oppressive measures, they still found a “voice” to communicate their views. To that end, such readings prevent a nuanced understanding of the complex gender dynamics within the era. To better understand these unique visions, Kesi textiles created by Zhu Kerou are analyzed based on their stylistic progression from works that reflect Confucian era paintings to a more unique and expressive style. First, Zhu’s Kesi textile Ducklings on a Lotus Pond is examined by connecting the compositional harmony between animals and nature to Confucianism ideals. Next, an analysis of the artist’s work, Bird and Flowers, manifests similar themes rooted in Confucianism. For example, the calligraphic seal containing Zhu’s signature is less hidden in the work, thereby demonstrating the ways in which her works increasingly rejected the male-dominated gender dynamics in the Song dynasty. Lastly, an examination of the textile Butterfly and Camellia establishes a heightened vibrancy when compared to the other works–further differentiating the style from Confucian inspiration. The research conducted in this project suggests that innovative women such as Zhu Kerou, in the Song dynasty utilized their societal position as court weavers to redefine the gender-specific rules placed on painting/artistic expression. More specifically, the evolving process of weaving Kesi textiles led to unique and meaningful styles for artists like Zhu Kerou.


Artistic representations from women of the Song dynasty–including Zhu Kerou–are key to understanding how women expressed themselves within the patriarchal system of the era. The definition of womanhood under Confucianism was heavily based on women’s positions as weavers and how men interpreted religion, which they used to dictate women’s lives. With the rise of male Confucianist scholars in the Song dynasty, who participated in activities like painting to document their religion and other cultural views, painting became a “masculine” activity.

Women who chose to paint in the Song dynasty were suppressed due to the alignment the activity had with men. To that end, innovative women like Zhu Kerou began weaving painting-like Kesi textiles, which redefined the societal creative landscape for women. Kesi textiles served as a creative outlet for women to produce artistic works that mimicked paintings while remaining under the expectations of womanhood within Song society. Moreover, women artists in the period gradually found their own style while maintaining the religious and moral iconography found in Confucianist scholar paintings.

First, a brief review of the literature will be conducted to establish the scholarly work conducted on Kesi textiles, Confucianism, and their connections to the gender dynamics within Song society. The essay then further addresses Confucianism and textile production in the Song dynasty. This section helps elucidate the roots of the gendered notion behind weaving and the resulting effects on women. Third, Song paintings will be looked at in order to establish common motifs and stylistic choices seen throughout the paintings. After a contextual analysis of Song paintings, Zhu’s works will be investigated. Her works will undergo a dissection in which Song and Confucian inspiration will be highlighted–illustrating her developing style.


Literature Review

Throughout the Song dynasty, the topic of gender developed and remained interconnected within the cultural environment. The religious and social culture embedded within the dynasty led to unbalanced gender dynamics between men and women, which will be investigated through textiles. When observing Song dynasty Kesi textiles, gender dynamics are crucial to understanding how the culture defined visual culture. Case studies of innovative women like Zhu Kerou, coupled with analyses of gender divisions during the era, contribute to the topic by providing the necessary cultural context to understand the different styles of the period–including those seen in Kesi textiles.

Modern research on artworks and social practices from the ancient period vis-a-vis gender representation aids in identifying corresponding social ideas present in ancient societies, like the Song dynasty, and their effects on women. Historian Lamia Doumato suggests that the representation of men and women in art is unbalanced in the historical landscape. Although Doumato observes common elements utilized by artists of both genders, it is prevalent to note that both men and women represent their ideas on similar topics differently in art.[1] Thus, it can be concluded that while free expressionism is an essential aspect of art, upon relating to the common patriarchal standards within pre-modern eras, the differentiating ideas between men and women led to the suppression of women’s art.

By analyzing Leonora Auslander’s article, the gender-reliant norms of the era as expressed through textiles are further elucidated. Upon examining the textile industry’s developmental stages, Auslander suggests that “the products themselves have been systematically used to construct gender”.[2] While male weavers did arise during the developmental era of the industry, they were viewed differently depending on their class and environment. Male weavers who held a “commoner” status weaved to show rebellion against the definition of “masculinity”, but still did not face as much marginalization as women who also rebelled against their own gender roles. With men placing themselves in leadership positions within the developing industry, they were seen as superior to women, as highlighted by Xavier Vigna et al. Women were often looked down on by men in the industry “who [were] still locked into the male breadwinner model.”[3] Due to the overall gendered notion of femininity being a weaker and/or inferior quality compared to masculinity, women often faced mistreatment in the textile industry. The power imbalance highlighted by these sources also resulted from the shift in gender dynamics that occurred in the Song dynasty.

Beth English also argues that the historical practices in the textile industries assisted in shaping gender roles throughout time. English recognized that women consistently worked but that “women’s labor, in this case, is not only cheap and flexible but also disposable.”[4] In other words, women could partake in the industry, but they were seen as more replaceable than their male counterparts. Further, Francesca Bay posits that both genders in China were once seen as equals: “[T]he classic gender division of labor in China was encapsulated in the saying: ‘men till women weave’”.[5] Bray’s observations set the basis for what China was like before the textile industry began to develop and overtake Song society because once industrialization occurred, men began to take over. The analysis of both sources assists in connecting ideas of the mistreatment of women in the industry through lower wages and the lack of career growth. English’s source does highlight how women were pushed out of the innovative portion of the industry, but it is important to note that they were still active workers. Conversely, Bray assumes that women outright lost any place in the industry. Despite their differences, these sources elucidate how men replaced women’s innovative role in the textile industry and the significant shift in gender dynamics that resulted.

Dorothy Ko argues that due to the firm roles set in place by gender stereotypes in the Song dynasty, women in the era challenged societal boundaries through their creations. For scholars to understand why women challenged their environment through innovation, it is essential to take the position of men into account. Weaving was viewed as a “feminine” pursuit, making painting a “masculine” activity. The gendered marginalization in the era led to the movement of women who challenged their environment through technological and artistic methods, which can be viewed in Zhu Kerou’s Kesi textile works.

These modern analyses of gender and how it was defined throughout the dynasty demonstrate the bigger picture of women’s representation and expression throughout the era. Although these contributions are rooted in various–even differentiating–perspectives, they all aid in contextualizing gender norms in the cultural environment of the Song dynasty. Analyzing these nuanced theories, such as the effects gender dynamics had on women’s expression in ancient societies like the Song dynasty, offers a deeper understanding of the roots of the patriarchal artistic environment of which Zhou Kerou chose to reject and redefine.

Song Paintings

Within the Song dynasty, paintings served to perpetuate religious and social beliefs that were reflected in the general public. The reflection of Confucian morals served to primarily support the production of paintings within the court. Many of the paintings produced can be traced back to the Confucian court painters whose works constructed the mainstream style commonly seen in most artworks being produced.[6] The composition of the paintings within the Southern Song dynasty reflected Confucian ideologies such as, “longevity [which was] seen as a proof of virtue, granted by heaven to those who deserved it”.[7] This reflection of longevity can be viewed in the paintings through the inclusion of decaying leaves within the composition (Fig. 3). The leaves reflect the inevitability of death but highlight the longevity of existence throughout the pathway toward death. The paintings often attempted to capture a moment in nature in an almost documentary way, but the style was both naturalistic and stylized.

Confucianism and Textile Production in the Song Dynasty

In the Song Dynasty, textiles were an important commodity in society as they assisted in establishing social bonds and maintaining economic flow. The uses of the textiles included gifting for marriage or other social exchanges and ceremonies, serving as currency, and funerary mourning.[8] With women being placed at the forefront of textile production and management, their contributions served in establishing aspects of social practices. To explicate the crucial role that women’s work had within the social, political, and economic environment, it is important to examine how Confucian scholars chose to define women. Confucianism placed women at a lower level than their male counterparts from birth: “the birth of a boy [being] called big happiness while the birth of a girl [was] called small happiness.”[9] Under the guise of Confucianism, male scholars decided that “women[‘s] place was confined to home,”[10] which contributed to the unbalanced gender dynamics.

In the Song dynasty, painting was a common activity utilized to spread and document Confucian ideologies. “Due to the links between Confucianism and painting, most painters were Confucianist scholars–a standard that socially defined the activity as “masculine.” While there were women who painted, they lacked representation due to the association art had with elite men.[11] To that end, paintings often focused on nature and/or the balance of humanity with nature. The primary focus of balance in paintings aided in “demonstrat[ing] an honest simplicity,”[12] which also supported Confucian ideas. With women lacking societal ‘permission’ to paint and remaining stuck within the confining definition of “womanhood,”, they began to embody an innovative attitude to challenge their environment.  A highly analytical lens was therefore placed on women, which caused innovative women artists to remain anonymous to avoid suppression.

To add to the artistic landscape, however, women created painting-like Kesi textiles, which allowed for creativity through an ‘acceptable’ medium. Although many women remained anonymous, Zhu Kerou can be identified for her creative yet controversial approach to signing her textiles. Further, the formal and stylistic characteristics in Zhu’s works can be traced back to common imagery seen in paintings where “a temporary, seasonal aspect of nature, such as falling plum blossoms, a goose in flight, [or] an evening party” is common.[13] The similar composition and style seen between Kesi textiles and paintings in the period can be traced back to Confucianism and Confucian scholars’ effects on artistic expression. In order for women who weaved Kesi textiles to create such detailed works, which replicated paintings, they utilized innovative techniques. For instance, women would weave their hair into the textiles to create a diverse color palette that might not be achievable with the materials they had access to.[14] Moreover, many of the techniques and stylistic choices utilized in Kesi textile production can be traced back to a key figure like Zhu Kerou.

Zhu Kerou

Zhu Kerou (1127-1161), who lived in the Southern Song region, was well-known for her weaving skills. Referring to her ability, Alexandra Tunstall stated, “the exquisite skill shown in her works with figures, trees, rocks, flowers, and birds [was] almost supernatural.”[15] While the information on her lineage is minimal, Zhu was likely an elite individual as elite women were typically taught how to embroider in the Southern Song dynasty.  Her position within society was defined as highly esteemed[16] and, although few of her works have survived, her status helped make her a key figure in Kesi textile production. Among Zhu’s few surviving works, several embodied a technique that resembled court-style Confucian scholar painting. Her incorporation of court-style techniques into the Kesi creation process was described as the “long and short thread inlay” method using ink wash brushes.[17] The process, as previously mentioned, that Zhu used aided in creating a highly realistic visual throughout the work through adding nuanced colorizations of thread within the textile. As Kesi textile production progressed, women began to shift from the common artistic style into a more expressive, unique style as seen in Zhu’s progressing works.

Zhu Kerou’s Kesi textile, Ducklings on a Lotus Pond (Fig. 1), exemplifies environmental motifs seen throughout paintings within the period. The landscape in the piece is primarily made up of a large pond that takes up three-fourths of the space while the remaining area is occupied by a small portion of peninsula-like land. There are multiple species of birds present, with most shown in dynamic motion. The ecosystem in the piece is exceedingly diverse, containing different kinds of flowers and other kinds of vegetation representative of a marsh/swamp environment. Her use of numerical balance between the birds can be analyzed through the inclusion of two birds per breed, with the leading focus staying on the pair of ducklings in the pond. The color palette Zhu utilizes is neutral with hints of blue, which assist in rhythmically moving the viewer throughout the piece. Although this Kesi textile reflects major Confucian inspiration, Zhu’s playful/rebellious nature can be seen through her use of composition. The composition of her work doesn’t utilize a standard foreground or background; rather, it fuses the background and middle ground together. The fusion of perspective in the composition aids in creating a subtle abstraction in the work. Overall, the composition of the work primarily contains an aesthetic focused on balance and capturing a moment in nature.

Another piece by Zhu, Ducklings on a Lotus Pond, embodies styles akin to those that appear in Song paintings. “For example, the inclusion of numerical balance with the birds demonstrates Zhu’s attempts to conform to the Confucian belief in order.” Zhu also includes her signature, signifying her position as the creator and challenging the predominantly male artistic environment. Her calligraphic seal is seen hidden in the far-right section of the blue-colored bush in the piece. It is important to note that, while this work challenges the ‘umbrella’ definition of womanhood and the gendered nature of painting, Zhu was exceedingly careful with her artistic approach in this Kesi textile. Her usage of a style inspired by Confucian works and ideologies placed her works into an ‘acceptable’ artistic category. Although she signed her work, her signature is camouflaged within the composition. The camouflaging of her signature in the piece exemplifies a cautious approach when attempting to gain recognition as a woman in a male-dominated artistic environment.

While another work from Zhu Kerou, Bird and Flowers (Fig. 2) maintains similar stylistic qualities, there are key differences that reflect the development of her individual style. The textile was created with the same materials as the previous work–including silk threads, hair, and hemp threads weaved together in an embroidered style. While this work lacks numerical balance, it still aims to capture a moment in nature throughout the composition. Bird and Flowers also utilizes a neutral color palette with one blue-toned shade for the leaves that also creates movement, which the viewer is meant to follow. When compared to Ducklings on a Lotus Pond, her use of lines is stronger and more defined–a distinction that can be viewed in the leaves. Zhu also creates the visualization of the blooming stages of the flower within her piece, which may be attributed to the social changes and growth of women as artists through the weaving of Kesi textiles.[18]

The creation of a visualized life cycle of the flower serves as a visual transition from idealized Confucian work to a more unique developmental-feminine style. Zhu also includes a motif seen in other Song paintings of decaying leaves. The bird in the work assists in connecting Zhu Kerou’s developing style back to the main common motif of Confucian flower-and-bird paintings in the period while allowing the rest of her work to embody a more individualistic style. Zhu Kerou’s signature in this work is placed in the negative space, which helps draw the viewer’s attention to its position in the piece. Unlike her previous work in which the signature was present but hidden, Zhu’s signature is placed in the open, showing a developed, confident, and defiant attitude towards the predominant gender standards. The bird in the work also represents Zhu’s strategic use of implied lines to bring attention to her signature. The implied line can be seen through the bird’s position in which the head and eyes aim toward the signature.

The final work from Zhu Kerou, Butterfly and Camellia (Fig. 3), embodies an individualistic and expressive artistic vibrancy compared to her previous works. While she does maintain minimal Confucian stylistic standards, like the inclusion of decaying leaves, her work is still more unique and expressive. This Kesi artwork portrays a less direct connection between plants and animals and also lacks the common use of birds by trading them for a butterfly. The focus is on the camellia flowers with a minor focus on the butterfly, which is flying to the flower from the top left corner. The butterfly, while still a key part of the work, is shown as having a more distant, indirect connection with the flowers, which can be seen through an implied line between the two. Further, the relationship between the butterfly and flowers may imbue the work with a sensual sensibility. This sensual motif can be linked to the cultural connections between women and flowers and men with butterflies, therefore creating erotic implications through the intimate connection between the two.[19] Zhu’s iconographic choice to include the motif thereby represents the deeper meaning and connection of men and women. The motif challenges the confining nature of chastity and femininity present in Confucian ideologies by redefining femininity within the composition. Akin to her previous works, Zhu is capturing a moment in nature, but she is establishing a different connection between living beings.

Zhu’s usage and application of colors and text within her work assisted in differentiating her artistic contributions from Confucian scholars. She does maintain one subtle Confucian motif of the decaying leaf but otherwise differs from other major Confucian stylistic inspirations. In Butterfly and Camellia, Zhu utilized a color palette containing highly vibrant colors compared to her previous artworks. Her shift from a muted/neutral color palette, which was also used in many Song paintings, created a stark difference from her previous style. Zhu also delves deeper into the use of thicker/stylized lines within this work, which helps create her distinct style. The signature that Zhu included in her earlier works slowly developed from being hidden in the first to being openly included in an almost stylistic manner in this work. She included her signature twice in the composition on both the left and right sides, which creates a frame around the main area of the artwork. The placement of her text within the composition of the Kesi textile creates borders, which the viewer is supposed to look within. This work exemplifies how throughout the development and progression of Kesi textile production, Zhu Kerou developed her style differently than the works produced by men and is more reflective of women’s abilities as artists.


In the Song dynasty, Confucian ideologies and morals dictated how society operated and ran. With the conversion from previous imperial political dominance to male Confucian scholars overtaking the political and social environment, the gender dynamics in the period created a patriarchal system. As women began to fall under the expectations of religiously and occupationally defined womanhood, they lost many individual freedoms. Women who had the desire to practice their creativity and add to the artistic environment were pushed aside. The artistic environment in the Song dynasty was primarily male-dominated due to the societal notion of painting being a ‘masculine’ activity. For women to create art and express how they interpreted their environment, they had to embody an innovative attitude.

Innovative women, like Zhu Kerou, began to produce textiles that replicated the appearance of paintings called Kesi textiles. With the production of Kesi textiles, women were able to express themselves but with a medium in which they would slowly gain recognition due to the many every day and practical uses of textiles. Many women who weaved Kesi textiles kept their anonymity due to the gender dynamics within the period, but Zhu Kerou signed her works, which placed her as a key figure in Kesi production. The stylistic choices seen through the progression of Zhu’s works, which is representative of other women’s works, show the development of her style. The evolution of Zhu Kerou’s style and expression serves to establish how women gained confidence and challenged the male-dominated society with their art.


[1] Lamia Doumato, “The Literature of Women in Art.” Oxford Art Journal 3, no. 1 (1980), 74.

[2] Leora Auslander, “Deploying Material Culture to Write the History of Gender and Sexuality: The Example of Clothing and Textiles.” Clio. Women, Gender, History, no. 40 (2014), 157.

[3] Xavier Vigna, Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, and Siân Reynolds. “Gender History and Labour History: Intersections.” Clio. Women, Gender, History, no. 38 (2013), 178.

[4] Beth English. “Global Women’s Work: Historical Perspectives on the Textile and Garment Industries.” Journal of International Affairs 67, no. 1 (2013), 76.

[5] Francesca Bray. “Textile Production and Gender Roles in China, 1000-1700.” Chinese Science, no. 12 (1995), 115.

[6] K. Murray, “Art-Historical Perspectives on the Song: Studies on Song Painting.” Journal of Song-Yuan Studies, no. 24 (1994), 359.

[7] Jerome Silbergeld, “Chinese Concepts of Old Age and Their Role in Chinese Painting, Painting Theory, and Criticism.” Art Journal 46, no. 2 (1987), 103.

[8] For the specifics on the plethora of uses for textiles read…Bray, Francesca. “Textile Production and Gender Roles in China, 1000-1700.” Chinese Science, no. 12 (1995): 115–37.

[9] Xiongya Gao, “Women Existing for Men: Confucianism and Social Injustice against Women in China.” Race, Gender & Class 10, no. 3 (2003), 118-119.

[10]  “Women Existing for Men,” 116.

[11] Steve Garlick, “Distinctly Feminine: On the Relationship Between Men and Art.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 48 (2004), 109.

[12] Gaku Kondo, “Rambling Words on Song-Yuan Flower-and-Bird Painting.” The Saburo Hasegawa Reader, edited by Mark Dean Johnson et al., 1st ed., University of California Press, 2019, 88.

[13]  “Rambling Words on Song-Yuan Flower-and-Bird Painting,” 89.

[14] For more information on the hair weaving technique and other unique methods utilized in the Kesi weaving process read Tunstall, Alexandra. “Beyond Categorization: Zhu Kerou’s Tapestry Painting ‘Butterfly and Camellia.’” East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, no. 36 (2012): 44-53.

[15] Alexandra Tunstall, “Beyond Categorization: Zhu Kerou’s Tapestry Painting ‘Butterfly and Camellia.’” East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, no. 36 (2012), 52.

[16]  “Beyond Categorization,” 55.

[17] “Ducklings on a Lotus Pond: A Kesi Silk Tapestry Enshrined in the Shanghai Museum.” 上海博物馆. Accessed May 20, 2023. https://www.shanghaimuseum.net/mu/frontend/pg/m/article/id/E00004148.

[18] This notion of women having societal connections with flowers is further contextualized in… Tunstall, Alexandra. “Beyond Categorization: Zhu Kerou’s Tapestry Painting ‘Butterfly and Camellia.’” East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, no. 36 (2012), 60-61.

[19] “Beyond Categorization,” 60.


Zhu Kerou, Ducklings on a Lotus Pond, 1127-1279, embroidered silk textile, 107.5 cm x 108.8 cm. Shanghai Museum, China. https://www.shanghaimuseum.net/mu/frontend/pg/article/id/CI00004537.

Zhu Kerou, Bird and Flowers, 1127-1279, embroidered silk textile. National Palace Museum, Taipei. https://theme.npm.edu.tw/exh109/She/en/page-3.html.

Zhu Kerou, Butterfly and Camellia, 1127-1279, embroidered silk textile, Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. The New Historia. https://historia.3.nftest.nl/schema/zhu-kerou/.


Auslander, Leora. “Deploying Material Culture to Write the History of Gender and Sexuality: The Example of Clothing and Textiles.” Clio. Women, Gender, History, no. 40 (2014): 157–78. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26238767.

Bray, Francesca. “Textile Production and Gender Roles in China, 1000-1700.” Chinese Science, no. 12 (1995): 115–37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43290487.

Doumato, Lamia. “The Literature of Women in Art.” Oxford Art Journal 3, no. 1 (1980): 74–77. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1360181.

English, Beth. “Global Women’s Work: Historical Perspectives on the Textile and Garment Industries.” Journal of International Affairs 67, no. 1 (2013): 67–82. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24461672.

Garlick, Steve. “Distinctly Feminine: On the Relationship Between Men and Art.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 48 (2004): 108–25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41035595.

Gao, Xiongya. “Women Existing for Men: Confucianism and Social Injustice against Women in China.” Race, Gender & Class 10, no. 3 (2003): 114–25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41675091.

Han, SoongHee. “Confucian States and Learning Life: Making Scholar-Officials and Social Learning a Political Contestation.” Comparative Education 49, no. 1 (2013): 57–71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23525078.

Ko, Dorothy. “Epilogue: Textiles, Technology, and Gender in China.” East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, no. 36 (2012): 167–76. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43151280.

Kondo, Gaku. “Rambling Words on Song-Yuan Flower-and-Bird Painting.” The Saburo Hasegawa Reader, edited by Mark Dean Johnson et al., 1st ed., University of California Press, 2019, pp. 84–92. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvr7fcc3.21.

Kuhn, Dieter. “A Step on the Way to Confucian State Orthodoxy in the Song Dynasty: The Third Year of the Reign-Period Xianping of Emperor Zhenzong.” Zeitschrift Der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 151, no. 1 (2001): 133–62. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43380259.

Murray, Julia K. “Art-Historical Perspectives on the Song: Studies on Song Painting.” Journal of Song-Yuan Studies, no. 24 (1994): 355–72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23496140.

Silbergeld, Jerome. “Chinese Concepts of Old Age and Their Role in Chinese Painting, Painting Theory, and Criticism.” Art Journal 46, no. 2 (1987): 103–14. https://doi.org/10.2307/776887.

Tunstall, Alexandra. “Beyond Categorization: Zhu Kerou’s Tapestry Painting ‘Butterfly and Camellia.’” East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, no. 36 (2012): 39–76. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43151277.

Vigna, Xavier, Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, and Siân Reynolds. “Gender History and Labour History: Intersections.” Clio. Women, Gender, History, no. 38 (2013): 176–203. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26273601.

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