8: The Emperor’s Erotica II: The Qianlong Albums Master


8: The Emperor’s Erotica II: The Qianlong Albums Master

Two extraordinarily fine albums of erotic and quasi-narrative paintings (Albums N and O), each containing twelve leaves, became known when they passed through auctions in 1983 and 1991. Album N is presently whereabouts-unknown; Album O has now entered the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.[1] A third album (Album P), made up of large horizontal leaves, is known only through an incomplete reproduction album, and a single leaf that also went through auction (PUP Fig. 4.23).[2] They all appear to be by the same artist, or at least from the same studio. Albums N and O could be taken for parts of a single album, except that they differ slightly in size, and contain two leaves, one in each, so similar in composition that they cannot have belonged together originally, since the artist would never repeat a composition within a single album. Some leaves in Album N are open portrayals of love-making; the other two albums as presently constituted or reproduced contain no such overtly erotic leaves, but are made up of pictures of sexual advances and seductions, along with non-erotic family gatherings and pleasures, of a kind that can be assumed to have been accompanied originally by openly erotic leaves. (Four of these non-erotic leaves are reproduced in PUP as Figs. 4.19-22.) Certain of the leaves from Albums N and O are more or less duplicated in later albums, through copying; in all cases, the other versions are inferior in quality.[3]

A separate leaf accompanying Album O bears seals of both the Qianlong emperor and his successor the Jiaqing emperor (r. 1796-1820), suggesting that this album, like Gu Jianlong’s Jin Ping Mei illustrations, was created in the palace environment. More firmly indicating a palace origin, these twelve leaves, along with twelve others, were published as a reproduction album some time in the 1930s or 40s by the same publishing firm in Shanghai that reproduced the Gu Jianlong and "Qiu Ying" albums, B and C. The reproduction album bears the title Yanqin Yiqing (Intimate Scenes of Leisurely Love) and a note identifying the paintings as "formerly in the Qing Palace."[4] The original series of paintings may have been taken from the palace in the 1920s, perhaps at the same time as Gu Jianlong's Jin Ping Mei albums. No artist's name is attached to the paintings in the published album; van Gulik reproduces several of them under the name of Qiu Ying, but that impossible attribution must be his own idea.[5] The identity of the real artist cannot easily be determined; he was presumably active in the imperial academy under Qianlong. His style is related to those of two figure specialists in the Qianlong academy, Jin Tingbiao (d. 1767) and Yao Wenhan (dated work 1752); although the paintings do not appear to be from the hand of either Jin or Yao, the similarity suggests a dating around the middle of the eighteenth century or a bit later, and tends to support the evidence of the seals in locating the project in a palace context. A few distinctive features of style, such as the drawing of the faces--plump and oval in shape, with full lips, narrowed eyes, and, on some of the men, back-sloping foreheads--may eventually permit an identification of the artist. He might be either a southerner like Jin Tingbiao (from Zhejiang) or a northerner like Yao Wenhan (from Beijing.) He appears to have done work both inside and outside the court academy--album N bears no imperial seals or other indication that it was an academy production. The academy-like finish and style, however, along with the close association with album O done within the academy, would suggest that it might have been made for some princely household in the capital.[6]

No explicit sex scenes appear in the twenty-four leaves of the published album O, but in their subjects those leaves belong to the now-familiar type that accompanies openly erotic scenes in the part-erotic albums. I know of no album made up solely of non-erotic leaves of this kind. It is very unlikely, then, that the twenty-four originally made up a complete work. Album N, which appears to be by the same artist, can be taken to indicate what was probably the original makeup of the complete palace series: half of the leaves (six out of twelve) are openly erotic, the rest similar in type to the twenty-four published leaves. We can suppose that the proportion was about the same in the palace album, in its original and complete form, and use the erotic leaves in Album N (Figs. 54-56) to imagine how those in the palace series must have looked. The publisher evidently chose from the palace series only those leaves that could be reproduced within the legal restrictions of the time. The nature of the openly erotic paintings must have prevented him from bowdlerizing them as he did in the Gu Jianlong album by simply painting over the "dirty parts"; the figures were too large for that, and occupied too much of the compositions to be easily expunged. The same is true of Album P, published as Naishi Xingle (Pleasures of the Age) by the same publisher as the other, with the same note that it had been taken from the imperial palace; openly erotic leaves must originally have accompanied the ones now known through reproduction.[7]

We can guess, then, that the whole series now preserved as Album O, as produced in the palace under Qianlong, consisted of some forty-eight leaves (or more?) and was thus a large-scale project, like the Jin Ping Mei illustrations done under Kangxi. And we can assume, again, that it was the emperor himself who commanded them. The Qianlong emperor’s ambivalent or even contradictory feelings about the popular culture of the Jiangnan or Yangzi Delta region were touched on in PUP (Chap. Two. pp.    ---); his similar ambivalence about erotic painting emerges when we juxtapose his assumed commissioning of this series, and his imperial seals on the series of Jin Ping Mei illustrations produced under his grandfather Kangxi (Album D), with his issuing in 1781 an edict ordering “that everything ‘with any suggestion of incest, or deviating in the slightest from orthodox austerity’ was to be removed from his collection [of paintings].”[8] If the erotic works were indeed removed from the main body of his collection, it was presumably to some other palace building, or to the Yuan Ming Yuan or the Shenyang Palace, for more private enjoyment; it is more likely that they were never kept with the great imperial collection of antique and name-artist paintings at all.

Qianlong’s series of paintings, unlike Kangxi’s, apparently did not need to be associated with any text for legitimization. But it did need, following the new form--and not merely as a pretext--to embed the openly erotic leaves in a group of others depicting scenes of the kind that invite or lead to sex: flirtations, attempted seductions, amorous play. This the unknown artist did. But he expanded the form by including as well scenes of romantic love, conjugal happiness, even family diversions. Such themes had not been entirely absent from earlier albums, as we have seen (cf. Fig. 27), but had been relatively few. The broader thematic range of the Qianlong palace series is further broadened when we associate with it the twelve pictures in Album N, in which only one scene (a man mischievously carrying off a woman's tiny shoe from the bed, while she tugs at his sleeve) is repeated from the twenty-four, and that in reverse. Together with the leaves of Album P, these offer a remarkably diverse and detailed, if idealized, pictorial account of life and loves in large upper-class households in Qianlong-period China, made up of families along with their servants and concubines, all living in elegantly appointed mansions with well-kept gardens. It may be no coincidence that the production of these two series must have been more or less coeval with the writing, or at least the availability to a reading audience, of Hong Lou Meng ("The Dream of the Red Chamber" or "Story of the Stone").[9] Some viewers with literary inclinations will no doubt want to see the paintings as illustrations to that great novel, and find incidents and situations in it that the pictures might seem to portray.[10] But once more, I do not believe that they are illustrations to any external text.

Since four of the non-erotic leaves were reproduced and discussed in PUP, three of the erotic ones (necessarily from Album N, since those from the two palace series are lost or unavailable) will be introduced here, in keeping with the theme of this book.


Fig. 54

The first (Fig. 54) is only mildly provocative, a morning scene in which sex is being initiated. The man has come into the woman’s bedchamber and awakens her with a kiss; she is still under her quilt, he in his bedclothes. She responds by reaching out to grasp his penis through his pants. An amusing high-and-low commentary is provided by the juxtaposition of the high-culture landscape painting mounted on the back panel of the bed, a work in the style of the great Ming literatus-master

Wen Zhengming, and the bored maid seated on a commode at right.

Fig. 55

The second, equally unconventional (Fig. 55), is a scene of after-sex ablution: the man, still wearing the belt, cap, and boots of the scholar-official, has perhaps just come home from his office, and, too eager to take time for undressing, has enjoyed a "quickie" on the bed at right with one of the women. The alcove with the bed seems still charged with qi, as if it were generated somehow by the act just consummated there: a dish holds Buddha's-hand fruit, a staple in scenes of this kind; the hanging landscape painting generates life-enhancing energy in its auspicious imagery, with green mountains, pines, thick clouds, a man gazing at a waterfall, and a path ascending to a Daoist temple.

Fig. 56

In the third (Fig. 56) we observe a threesome (not a triangle--there is no hint of rivalry) of the kind seen often in the erotic prints. Here is takes place on a porch overlooking a lotus pond. One woman, behind, whom the man turns his head to kiss, grasps his penis and guides it into the other woman. In the related threesome scene seen earlier from an album by Gu Jianlong (Fig. 39), the recumbent girl about to be penetrated appears much younger, and a scene of defloration is probably intended, with the older woman complicit and assisting. It is less sure that that is the artist’s intention here, but the one lying down is clearly younger, with smaller body frame and only budding breasts. 

A nineteenth century writer was quoted earlier praising Gu Jianlong for the ingeniously suggestive character of one of his pictures. That suggestive mode, offering situational subtleties in place of straightforward portrayals of sex acts, is used with imagination and sensitivity in many leaves of these albums. Two from Album O will illustrate this device of indirection. In one (Fig. 57) a maid stands in a listening posture on the verandah outside a curtained room within which her mistress and a lover are engaged in sex. The shoes of the two are seen outside the curtain—his removed first (the impatient male), since one of hers lies inside one of his. A wine ewer and two cups are on the table behind the maid, along with a blue-and-white vase of peonies in full bloom; an antique bronze fangding or “square tripod,” early Zhou in date from the style, and a painting of an autumn scene with a figure ascending a road toward a temple, are the conventional indicators of high culture. A major item in the expertise of artists of this type, and part of what distinguished them from imitators, was in getting such details right. Gu Jianlong's albums of fenben copies after details from older paintings he saw, of which one leaf was introduced in PUP (Fig. 1.3), illustrates the principal mode of their transmission; they also, of course, made sketches of actual objects for later use.

Fig. 57

In another leaf (Fig. 58), a mature woman is receiving sexual advances from a youth, who looks at her imploringly while reaching out to undo the tie of her jacket. A related scene, featuring a younger boy, was seen in the Xu Mei album (Fig. 42.) She raises her hands ambiguously, making no attempt to repulse him; she even appears about to chuck him under the chin with the index finger of her left hand. Pictures of men having sex with young girls are commonly found in the erotic albums; sex between women and boys, apparently, can only be suggested obliquely. Within a household, it could be incestuous: intercourse with a father's concubine was a crime punishable by death. Qianlong himself is said in one of the "secret histories" to have attempted, as a youth, to initiate sex with one of his father Yongzheng's concubines.[11] In fiction, the boy hero Baoyu of Hong Lou Meng has sex in his dream with his nephew's wife Qingshi, a mature. seductive woman who is carrying on an incestuous affair with her father-in-law, and in an earlier version of the novel, later deleted, may have done the same with Baoyu himself.[12]

Fig. 58

Fig. 59

In the painting, an open drawer behind the woman contains objects that may, judging from similar details in other pictures, be aids to sex. Her raised hands with energized fingers are echoed in the similarly upraised fingers of the finger citron (“Buddha’s hand fruit”), a motif common in pictures of an erotic nature, which is itself a displacement or stand-in for the woman’s sexual organ;[13] the peonies in full bloom in the Song-style painting above also contribute, in this context, to the mood of heavy sensuality, standing as they do for the engorged female pudenda. The doorway at left opens into a bedroom, with the bed visible. One is almost made to feel that for those living in such an ambiance, sex is not only expectable, whatever their relationship, but more or less inevitable.

Although the artist, in these and the other erotic leaves, is imaginative in his invention of sexual situations and activities, and may hint delicately at transgressions, there is nothing especially kinky about the pictures themselves. They and the high-level erotic albums as a whole are mostly free from anything so dark as Ximen Qing’s descent into obsessive and self-destructive depravity in the later chapters of Jin Ping Mei.  (We will  see, in a later section, a few pictures that approach it.) At the same time, the erotic leaves from Album N, and presumably the explicit leaves of the two palace series for which these must stand in, present scenes that lie beyond the experience of most viewers, even the emperors of China. They set the sexual encounters in a cool, unthreatening ambiance, within which we can admire and envy the aplomb with which the performers pursue their amorous pleasures. Their bodies, when exposed, are sleek and unblemished, exhibiting nothing of voluptuousness, or even, to the foreign eye at least, much of open sensuality. The participants in the situationally suggestive leaves appear similarly unperturbed by any threat of interference or possibility of consequences. These are idealized images of trouble-free sex.

Another leaf from Album N (Fig. 59) can represent the tender portrayals of romantic love at which this artist is also adept. In an outdoor scene by moonlight, two warmly clad lovers embrace: the season, early spring, is indicated by the pink and white plum blossoms on the branches that frame them and the blooming [not narcissus: what?] in lower left. Here everything is cool, in contrast to the heated atmosphere of the others. The fragile traceries of branches and twigs above them is answered by the mass and weight of the stones below, another pair of contrasting elements that might characterize their love, delicate in sentiment but lasting.

The broad range of feelings and themes, the spectrum of colorations of sex and love, embodied in the paintings of the Qianlong Albums Master (or of the studio he directed) would be expanded if we had the missing openly erotic leaves from the two palace albums O and P, or the whole of the fragmentarily-published Album P, which provided a larger canvas in its double-size horizontal leaves (94 x 161.5 cm.) As an example of the use he made of them, we reproduce one of these large leaves (another was PUP Fig. 4.23), even though our picture, made from an old reproduction book, must be somewhat blurry (Fig. 60). This is another scene of lovers gazing together at an erotic album, the man wearing his scholar-official’s attire and assumed to have just returned from his office. A servant dozes on the verandah at right. Brushes in a pot and an inkstone on the desk, as well as cases of books in a cabinet at left, establish the location as his study. The landscape on the standing screen beyond them appears this time to be in the manner of Guo Xi, the eleventh-century master among whose most renowned paintings were a landscape screen and other works done for the scholarly Hanlin Academy: we may see here a learned allusion, which would not be surprising in this context of high cultural refinement.[14] Flowering trees in upper left and right, located in near and far courtyards, mark the foreground and farther spaces, between which one can also traverse visually and diagonally below by way of openings and openwork lattice railings (the latticework of the windows is covered with paper.) The compositional method is like Gu Jianlong’s (cf. Fig. 28, where ornamental rocks are the markers of near and far) and probably originated with him; the greater spatial intricacy of the later leaf is a function of the larger size as well as its time of creation, about a century after Gu Jianlong’s period at court. Working in the palace himself, the Qianlong Albums Master may well have had access to Gu’s earlier large-scale work (which, we should remember, bears the Qianlong emperor’s seals), and learned from it.

Even more than Xu Mei or the artist of the “Leng Mei” album (Albums L and M), much more than Gu Jianlong, the Qianlong Albums Master tries for what Norman Bryson calls (somewhat pejoratively, ascribing it to the European painting tradition) erasure, the concealment of the artist's hand, of the facture or making of the painting.[15] In both China and Europe the effect was to increase the aura of realism created by the work, persuading viewers to submit to the artist's fiction that this is not an artifact but a "real world" at which they are gazing. Seen this way, the Qianlong series represents as much an advance in technical polish over Gu Jianlong's as Qianlong's Southern Tour scrolls--which must have been roughly contemporary--did over Kangxi's.[16] In both cases, viewers anticipating distinctive brushwork and individual style will find the later paintings "academic," as indeed they are. In order to understand why Qianlong chose for these projects artists who not only were highly proficient technically but were willing to forgo all urges toward personal expression, we must ourselves put aside the criteria with which we normally approach Chinese paintings and see these as deliberately impersonal pictures, valued as records for their pictorial information (the Southern Tour scrolls) or for their evocative and provocative imagery (the erotic series).

[1]Album N is in Sotheby's New York auction catalog, 18 June, 1983, "Chinese and Japanese Paintings, Works of Art, and Furniture," no. 11.

[2] The leaf, remounted as a hanging scroll and attributed to Qiu Ying, was offered at auction (Christie’s, New York, "Fine Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy," 4 June, 1993, no. 135) and is now in a private collection in Taipei, It was originally part of an album of large leaves (Album P) published (incomplete) under the title Naishi Xingle or Pleasures of the Age by the Yiyuan Zhenshang She, Shanghai, probably in the 1940s. Beneath the title is the note: “Formerly owned by the Qing court,” indicating that this was another palace production, probably removed from the palace in the 1920s. See n. 47 above. For a more complete account of the bibliography and recent history of these albums, see Appendix A.

[3]An album in the collection of C. C. Wang (Album Q) contains leaves identical in composition to some of those in albums N and O, but is by a different hand. It appears in Sotheby's New York auction, 18 June 1983, no. 11 (one leaf illustrated, and a detail from another on the cover.) A twelve-leaf album in the Ferris Bertholet collection, Amsterdam, mostly repeats leaves in Albums N and O, but also contains a few that are different, presumably copied from leaves now missing from them, or from another album by the same master or studio. See Dreams of Spring, pp. 102-9, and Le Palais du printemps pp. 114-127. Openly erotic leaves among these copies presumably preserve the compositions, at least, of leaves now lost or unknown. A close copy of Album O by Niu Shu (1844-1927) is in the Guangdong Provincial Museum; see Liu Yang and Edmond Capon, Fragrant Space: Chinese Flower and Bird Painting from the Ming and Qing Dynasties from the Guangdong Provincial Museum (Sydney, Australia: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000) no. 50. Niu must have made the copy in the 1920s after the album had left the palace.

[4] A copy of this reproduction album is in Princeton University’s seminar room for East Asian art, in Marquand Library; another is owned by Ferris Bertholet, Amsterdam.

[5]R. H. van Gulik, Erotic Colour Prints, pp. 155-56 and pls.V-VI;  Sexual Life in Ancient China,  pls. XVI-XVII.

[6] The art-historical placing of this artist, whom I have called the Qianlong Albums Master, is further explored in Cahill, "A Group of Anonymous Northern Figure Paintings,"  in Bridges to Heaven: Essays on East Asian Art in Honor of Professor Wen C. Fong, Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press, forthcoming. 

[7] An alternative explanation is that the albums were divided by some owner into whose hands they fell after their removal from the palace, possibly the same Zhang Xueliang who owned Album D, the Gu Jianlong illustrations to Jin Ping Mei, before disposing of the albums through gift or sale. 

[8] Michel Beurdeley, “Preface” to Beurdeley et al., Chinese Erotic Art, p. 4.

[9]Cao, Xueqin, Honglou Meng ("Dream of the Red Chamber"). trans. David Hawkes as The Story of the Stone. vols. 1-3 London: Penguin Books, 1973-1980.

[10]The set of copies of twelve of the leaves in Albums N and O in the Bertholet Collection is in fact identified, presumably in modern times, as   llustrations to Jin Ping Mei.  See Dreams of Spring (cf. n. 2), pp. 102-9.

[11] Cahn, Monarchy in the Emperor's Eyes, pp. 55-56; on the "secret histories," pp. 49-50.

[12] See Martin W. Huang, Desire and Fictional Narrative in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 285-288.

[13] This motif and its uses and implications are discussed in no. 5 of my lectures The Flower and the Mirror: Images of Women in Late Chinese Painting, available on my website (jamescahill.info) as "Women in Chinese Painting." The identification of the finger citron as an “emblem of the female genitals” is made in Philip Rawson, Erotic Art of the East, p. 253 and fig. 163. I have not found evidence for this identification in Chinese written sources; but the same is true, as is often noted, of much else of Chinese erotic lore.

[14] See Susan Bush and Hsio-yen Shih, ed., Early Chinese Texts on Painting (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1985) pp. 189-90.

[15]The term is used, and the idea developed, in Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

[16]Excerpts from both series reproduced in Maxwell K. Hearn, "Document and Portrait,” in Chinese Painting Under the Qianlong Emperor. For two sections of one scroll in the Qianlong series, see PUP Figs. 4.38 and 4.42.

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