Who is Madame Song? - SOAS China Institute

//Who is Madame Song?

Who is Madame Song?

Engagement photo of Song Huai-Kuei and Maryn Varbanov, 1956 (M+ Collection ©). Photo by John Gittings

By John Gittings | 22 August 2023

What could possibly be the connection between Shen Congwen (沈从文1902-1988), one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, who fell silent after 1949, and a starry Beijing fashion show in 1997 that was then staged world-wide? The answer may be found in a fascinating new exhibition at M+, Hong Kong’s modern art museum – and the exhibition’s publicity material poses another question: “Who is Madame Song?”


The more obvious answer to this second question might be Song Qingling, widow of Sun Yat-sen and later Vice-President of the People’s Republic. But for those with long memories, it is Song Huai-Kuei (宋懷桂1937-2006). She was, we are told in an exhibition panel, “the icon who transformed the landscape of arts, fashion, and popular culture in China from the 1980s to the 2000s”.


Song had studied art in Beijing in the early 1950s, falling in love with Maryn Varbanov, a fellow-art student from Bulgaria. In 1958 they moved to Sofia where Song continued her studies. Later they settled in Paris, and apart from two brief visits, Song would not return to China till 1981. The couturier Pierre Cardin had his eye on the Chinese market and, impressed by meeting Song, had chosen her to be his chief representative there.

Song Huai-kuei in cocktail dress at the bar in Maxim’s (M+ Collection ©). Photo by John Gittings

Song’s first assignments were to open a showroom in the Temple of Heaven in the Chinese capital, and stage a fashion show, the first of its kind, in the prestigious Beijing Hotel. Cardin had recently acquired ownership of Maxim’s de Paris, and in 1983 Maxim’s opened in Beijing with Song as manager. Over the next decade Cardin would stage more fashion shows, with Chinese models taught by Song, and costumes by Chinese manufacturers with whom she negotiated. Song herself possessed a wardrobe of some 125 Cardin garments (over thirty are now on display), and she designed smart uniforms for the expanding staff of Air China.  She also played a striking role as the Empress Dowager Longyu in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.


While ordinary citizens gazed outside, Maxim’s became the place to go for those who could afford it, with Song as “the social queen of Beijing”. She made it a haven for avant-garde art and popular culture, and it weathered the political storms except in 1989 when it closed for several months. Expat groups and Chinese rock bands performed, and Saturday night was dance night. Interviewed for this exhibition, the rock star Cui Jian (崔健) recalls that he didn’t play at Maxim’s for the money: “Parties were for meeting friends and having a great time. They were a way of life”.  Cui sang his most memorable song there: “It’s not that I don’t understand; it’s just that the world is changing so fast.”

Tang and Song dynasty style costumes for Five Dynasties show (M+ Collection ©). Photo by John Gittings

Not content with this micro-high-society that she had helped to create, Song still sought an outlet for her creative impulse, and she found it in years of work for a different sort of fashion exhibition — the Five Dynasties project. As an art student in the early 50s, Song had studied with Shen Congwen at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Unable to replicate the revolutionary style required by New Socialist China, Shen had taken refuge in the study of historical costume and crafts. Later, he would be entrusted by Premier Zhou Enlai with the task of compiling a history of Chinese textiles and costume – intended to serve as a diplomatic gift. His Study of Ancient Chinese Costumes (中国古代服饰研究) was soon completed but publication was delayed till 1981 after the Cultural Revolution.


Inspired by the work of her respected former teacher, Shen began her own research on historical costumes dating from the Tang to the Qing dynasties, selling off part of her own art collection to fund the work. The Five Dynasties show would be a triumphant display of Chinese tradition — now once again politically acceptable — with a combined performance of imperial costume, martial arts and acrobatics.

Song Huai-kuei, “Butterfly - Composition in Rose”, wool, 1983-85 (M+ Collection ©). Photo by John Gittings

As with the previous special exhibition at M+, which I reviewed in this space last year, the art on display, and the artists who created it, can be viewed in more than one way. Madame Song is a history of modern Chinese fashion but much more: art is never free from its environment — least of all in China — and Song’s career demonstrates a contingent character from start to end that is thoughtfully explored in the exhibition’s accompanying  publication Madam Song: A Life in Art and Fashion. When her relationship at art school with Varbanov was criticised, she appealed to Premier Zhou who approved their marriage – the first after 1949 between a Chinese citizen and a foreigner. In Sofia, they were fortunate to have the patronage of Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of the Bulgarian Communist Party leader. Varbanov worked mainly in tapestry, experimenting with three-dimensional woven images. There are several fine works here by Song in the same medium from her Butterfly series.

Song Huai-kuei, family portrait, late 1960s (M+ Collection ©). Photo by John Gittings

“Whenever I see beautiful scenery”, Song is quoted in the same publication as having said towards the end of her life, “the desire to create wells up inside me. Maybe someday I’ll go back to painting”.  She never did, but the two portraits by her from the Sofia period in this exhibition, with their elongated sense of calm, suggest a talent that might have developed further.


“Song neither succumbed to nor revolted against the crushing weight of life,” write the exhibition curators in Madam Song: A Life in Art and Fashion, “rather, she always looked for possibilities in the crevices, tirelessly adjusting and shaping her actions to let light through.”


Fashion may lack the profundity of literature and art, but it may still speak to the social and political life of the time. We can understand the limitations, as Song’s master Shen Congwen would have done, but it is a pity that the crevices were not wider.



Madame Song; Pioneering Art and Fashion in China” is at the West Kowloon Cultural District until April 2024. Images above are in the M+ Collection (©), photos by John Gittings.

John Gittings is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.