Seeing Gender

Explore the complex and dynamic representations of gender in Asian art

By Asian Art Museum

Curated by Maya Hara, Shinhwa Koo, Joanna Lee, and Megan Merritt

Painting, From an untitled series of the Four Accomplishments (1735–1814) by Utagawa Toyoharu (Japanese, 1735–1814)Asian Art Museum


Based on the Seeing Gender exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, this presentation explores the complex and dynamic representations of gender that have varied over time and from culture to culture.

Iris (2014) by Pinaree Sanpitak (Thai, b. 1961)Asian Art Museum

For the purpose of this presentation, we are using the term gender to refer to social and cultural behaviors associated with the body, and the range of identities beyond the traditional binary.

Musical Bodies: Banjo (1999) by Wilson Shieh (Chinese, 1970)Asian Art Museum

The concept of gender is expansive and it will continue to change as new definitions emerge and evolve.

Untitled, No. 25 (2008) by By RongRong & inri (Chinese, b. 1968 and Japanese, b. 1973)Asian Art Museum

The following comparisons highlight a few of the myriad ways in which gender is constructed, performed, and depicted throughout Asian art and culture.

Sleeve band illustrating the four scholarly arts (approx. 1870–1911)Asian Art Museum


Known in China from the ninth century as the Four Arts, the scholarly and artistic accomplishments of a learned man included

performing the zither,

playing a strategy board game,

practicing calligraphy, and painting.

The Chinese textiles feature old, bearded sages taking part in three
of the four arts (calligraphy is missing).

Painting, From an untitled series of the Four Accomplishments (1735–1814) by Utagawa Toyoharu (Japanese, 1735–1814)Asian Art Museum

By contrast, the large Japanese print depicts fashionable young women performing the so-called gentlemanly accomplishments.

Originally from a set of four, this work is identified by a single character ga at the top right that denotes the pursuit of painting.

The standing woman shows off a hanging scroll

of a male kabuki actor playing a female role

as her companions admire it.

What does the substitution of women for the male subjects in this traditional theme tell us about social gender roles and assumptions in the artist Toyoharu’s time? Was the artist’s intent subversive, voyeuristic, or aspirational?

Satyavati and Shalya (Satyawati and Salya) (approx. 1936–1940) by Ida Bagus Putu Taman (Indonesian, 1873–1953)Asian Art Museum


In this Balinese sculpture, King Salya and his wife Satyawati are intertwined

as Salya clutches his wife’s breast and wraps his leg around her waist, a gesture commonly understood in Balinese narratives to be a sign of love.

Both figures have delicate, raised eyebrows and narrow, upward-angled eyes, features that mirror those of traditional characters in wayang kulit (Indonesian puppet-shadow plays).

Salya wears the typical long earrings of a male figure and Satyawati wears ear plugs common for a female.

Their sharply rendered arms and decorative costumes are evocative of the postures and dress of Balinese dancers.

Musical Bodies: Banjo (1999) by Wilson Shieh (Chinese, 1970)Asian Art Museum

The Balinese couple and the figures represented in Musical Bodies: Banjo share remarkable similarities in terms of their postures. The former exemplifies a conventional model of heterosexuality while the figures in Musical Bodies: Banjo appear androgynous.

These nude figures,

with their small feet,

plump red lips, cropped hair, and nearly identical faces, seem almost interchangeable.

LIFE Photo Collection

A teenager in the 1980s, Shieh said that gender-bending artists like David Sylvian (from the band Japan), David Bowie, and Annie Lennox were major pop-cultural influences who shaped his understanding of the expansiveness of gender possibilities.

Musical Bodies: Banjo (1999) by Wilson Shieh (Chinese, 1970)Asian Art Museum

His characters exemplify how the conventional model of gender binaries can be destabilized.

Miniature shrine with linga (1600–1800)Asian Art Museum


Symbolic representations of gender have a long history across cultures. One of the examples in this miniature shrine of the linga and yoni that embodies male and female reproductive organs.

Iris (2014) by Pinaree Sanpitak (Thai, b. 1961)Asian Art Museum

Continuing the practices associating bodily or natural symbols with ideas of gender, contemporary artists create or reuse gendered symbols that speak to them personally.

The painting by Pinaree Sanpitak depicts flower motifs resembling female genitalia

along with forms that she calls “breast clouds.”

Since giving birth, the artist has used the female body, especially the breast, to represent herself and symbolize motherhood, womanhood, and femininity.

Miao (Hmong) Women in Bright Moon - II (2006) by Wang Jianshan (Chinese, b. 1956, Tongren, Guizhou province)Asian Art Museum

This print by Wang Jianshan portrays Miao (Hmong) women at the Sisters’ Meal Festival, an annual event in the artist’s home province, Guizhou, China.

The women, garbed with heavy jewelry made of silver and gold in the shapes of discs and crescents, choose partners while celebrating the arrival of spring.

Some Miao believe that silver is a symbol of light that dispels evil spirits and bestows wealth and beauty.

Iris (2014) by Pinaree Sanpitak (Thai, b. 1961)Asian Art Museum

Both artists engage with women’s roles but use different styles and expressions. Sanpitak applies subtle colors and abstract forms to represent her experience as a woman and a mother.

Miao (Hmong) Women in Bright Moon - II (2006) by Wang Jianshan (Chinese, b. 1956, Tongren, Guizhou province)Asian Art Museum

Wang observes and describes the courtship festival as a lively, exuberant scene with his figurative yet symbolic representation of highly adorned women in the moonlight.

Untitled, No. 25 (2008) by By RongRong & inri (Chinese, b. 1968 and Japanese, b. 1973)Asian Art Museum


In Untitled, No. 25, two figures sit side by side in an intimate setting.

Their long hair braided together creates an inseparable link between them and is reminiscent of an organic form in nature.

The pair face away from the camera, concealing their identity and gender, leaving the viewer to interpret the figures, who appear nearly identical in matching white tops.

But the image can also be read as a double self-portrait, since it depicts the artists whose partnership and marriage are integral to their artwork and artistic practice.

A Pair (2007) by Kim Jeeun (Korean, b. 1965)Asian Art Museum

In contrast to the gender ambiguity at work in Untitled, No. 25, the
polarities between men and women are at the heart of A Pair, a work by artist Kim Jeeun.

Kim fashioned traditional Korean shoes for men (in black)

and women (in white) out of mulberry paper, inspired by gomusin shoes popularized in Korea following the Japanese colonial period.

According to Kim, “I placed these two shoes next to each other but facing in opposite directions. I am questioning the definition of ‘pair.’”

Both works employ black-and-white imagery, which becomes symbolic in A Pair as the artist invites a deeper conversation about the dichotomy of male and female.

Untitled, No. 25 (2008) by By RongRong & inri (Chinese, b. 1968 and Japanese, b. 1973)Asian Art Museum

In Untitled, No. 25, the artists’ black hair creates a stark contrast to the foreground and background, yet the ambiguous nature of the figures becomes a gray area in our understanding of their genders.

A lady flees a storm (Dipasadhika ragini), from a ragamala series (approx. 1600–1700)Asian Art Museum


The following paintings illustrate the varied ways in which artists across Asia depict gendered interactions such as courtship. Physical gestures and motifs such as architectural details and weather also create a sense of drama in these interactions.

In this scene, a woman braves a storm to meet her lover. Her body twists as she moves toward the princely figure, resting under a veranda.

She touches his foot, suggesting their intimacy.

Their union is also symbolized by the birds and the thunderous rain.

The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) (detail) (1615–1700)Asian Art Museum

This is a scene from a Japanese handscroll featuring episodes from The Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel, written by the eleventh-century female author Murasaki Shikibu (978–1014).

In this scene from the Fujibakama (Mistflowers) chapter, a woman sits in her room rebuking the advances of her suitor

who sits outside on the veranda.

The man, suggesting his desire to be intimate, slips flowers to her

as the wind gently lifts the bamboo blinds that separate them.

A lady flees a storm (Dipasadhika ragini), from a ragamala series (approx. 1600–1700)Asian Art Museum

Notice the different treatment of bodies in the two works. The ragamala painting depicts males and females by outlining their forms.

The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) (detail) (1615–1700)Asian Art Museum

In the Genji handscroll, the characters are shapeless; only clothing and hairstyles or headdresses indicate their sex.

The Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati combined as Ardhanarishvara (900–1100)Asian Art Museum


This sculpture and shrine (to follow) demonstrate a figural and emblematic manifestation of the composite form of Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati.

The figure Ardhanarishvara (translated as “the Lord that is half-female”) is split vertically down the middle

with Shiva on the viewer’s left

and his consort Parvati on the right.

The two deities share similar facial features and jewelry ornaments,

but their gender difference is signaled by Parvati’s elaborate hairstyle,

sensual breast,

and curvaceous hip.

The two genders, while distinctly different, are indivisible and inherently one, as represented in the androgynous incarnation of Ardhanarishvara.

Miniature shrine with linga (1600–1800)Asian Art Museum

In the bejeweled miniature shrine,

the linga (pillar)

and the yoni (lipped disk and base)

symbolize male and female regenerative principles, respectively.

Pointing to truth beyond the physical and ephemeral forms of the world, the linga is an abstract representation of the supreme being Shiva that symbolizes his generative power and creative ability.

The yoni is emblematic of Parvati and her source of life, and together with the linga they complete one another in an eternal, dynamic union that represents the creation and regeneration of all existence.

In some schools of Indian philosophy, the cosmic universe is created from male and female principles (purusha and prakriti), the unity of two seemingly paradoxical forces.

Opposite energies—like male and female, active and receptive, Absolute and Infinite—are interconnected and interdependent. In their totality, the masculine and the feminine essences are represented as inseparable and together convey harmony, unity, and wholeness.

The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) on high pedestal (1800–1900)Asian Art Museum


The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin in China, Kannon in Japan, or Chenrezig in Tibet) is a prominent Buddhist deity whose gender has been represented differently across time, culture, and geography.

Worshiped by all strata of society, the bodhisattva of compassion has had wide appeal, as the bodhisattva vowed to save all beings from the torments of endless rebirth.

The gilded bronze Chenrezig is from Tibet, which received Buddhist teachings as early as the sixth century. In Tibetan Buddhism, Chenrezig is typically portrayed as male

and is seated here holding a wish-fulfilling jewel.

The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the form of Chintamani-chakra (approx. 840–890)Asian Art Museum

Buddhist teachings were disseminated to Japan by way of China and Korea around the mid-sixth century. Early representations of Kannon were depicted as either asexual or with masculine traits.

With a scarf draped over one shoulder, the wooden Kannon here reveals a bare, strapping chest, hinting at masculine traits.

Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) (approx. 1700–1800)Asian Art Museum

From the Tang dynasty (618—907), portrayals of Guanyin in China began to appear in soft, delicate forms that were perceived as female.

The white-robed porcelain Guanyin sits gracefully with her dainty hand resting on her knee, and most of her body is covered with a flowing robe.

Known as the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin came to be associated with fertility and child-bearing.

In Buddhist text, bodhisattvas transcend gender distinctions; however, in their visual representation, divinity and compassion have been personified, indigenized, and gendered through elements such as clothing, posture, and ornament.

These variants compel us to think about the relationship between the deity and devotee and how we imagine attributes like compassion and mercy.


This video features the Asian Art Museum’s 2020–2021 Art Speak interns adding their voices to Seeing Gender by reflecting on their own experiences with gender.

Credits: Story

Curated by Maya Hara, former Japan Foundation Curatorial Assistant for Japanese Art, Shinhwa Koo, former curatorial assistant for Korean art, Joanna Lee, curatorial assistant for Chinese Art, and Megan Merritt, project manager for contemporary art.

Seeing Gender is organized by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Presentation is made possible with the generous support of Neiman Marcus.

Sustained support generously provided by the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Endowment Fund for Exhibitions. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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