CEP Chapter 2


B. Erotic Painting Up to Early Qing: the Older Album Type

Leaving aside the question of pictorial erotica on walls, the preferred forms for erotic paintings in China, as they are recorded and as extant examples attest, were first the handscroll or horizontal scroll and later the album, both suited to more modest and intimate viewing, since with these, in contrast to the hanging scroll, the paintings are exposed only when the album is opened or the scroll unrolled. Among the Chinese writings cited above that mention erotic pictures, the earliest, those attributed to the Han-period poet Zhang Heng, describe the paintings as in scroll form; in the 1621 print (Fig. 2) the couple are looking at a handscroll, as are the man and girls in the leaf by Gu Jianlong (Fig. 1). Moreover, in Jin Ping Mei, a novel set in the late Northern Song but in fact reporting late Ming practice in material details, the erotic painting that Ximen Qing and Pan Jinlian look at together is a handscroll.[1] Erotic paintings in handscroll form could be either a series of pictures or a single composition. The Secret Play on a Spring Night that the late Ming collector Zhang Chou, as related above, took to be a work by the eighth-century master Zhou Fang, was a single group composition in handscroll form.

Fig. 1.

Fig. 2. 

Although this painting itself is presumably long lost--no actual erotic painting datable before the late Ming period is known to me--a fenben (sketch copy) has recently come to light that appears from its style to preserve the outlines at least of a pre-Song work, and from its subject to be based on this very "Secret Play on a Spring Night" (Fig. 6). The record in Zhang Chou’s catalogue attests that such a painting was extant in the early seventeenth century, and for it to have survived into the early or mid-nineteenth, from which time this fenben would appear to date (again, on the basis of style), would not be surprising. Fenben copies were made by artists from old paintings they encountered, for use in their own finished works; an example by Gu Jianlong was introduced in PUP Chap. 1  (Fig. 1.4). The picture transmitted in this fenben not only conforms loosely to the Zhou Fang style as it is known from copies, but also differs from other extant erotic pictures in so many respects as to locate it strongly in a very different, much earlier stage in the development of the genre.

Fig. 6. 

The shape, first of all, and the way the artist employs it, suggest that the original was probably a short, tall handscroll--copies after Tang figure compositions in this form survive. The scene is self-sufficient, a dramatic tableau presenting Emperor Xuanzong and his favorite consort Yang Guifei (if these are indeed they) engaged in lusty copulation, she in a chair, he on a stool. Both are supported by women servants: one of these pushes the emperor from behind, two more stand beside Yang Guifei, one of them leaning over to provide a backrest for her, while a fourth stands behind her chair to steady it. The large size of the figures within the frame brings the action up close; this, and the volumetric drawing of body parts, typical of Tang figure painting and surprisingly well retained in the copy, set the picture clearly apart from any other erotic painting presently known. Yang Guifei’s body, made up of fleshy, rotund masses, is entirely unlike the ideal female nude of later centuries as it was defined near the end of PUP (Chap. 5, pp. -- ). Even her vulva, with its Y-shaped opening and thick labia, differs markedly from the modest slits that women in the later pictures reveal. Above all, the picture suggests that early Chinese erotica could be truly gross in ways that the later examples seldom are.

The picture corresponds in nearly all respects with Zhang Chou's catalog description of the original.[2] Zhang begins by noting that the principal woman in it might be either Empress Wu (Wu Zitian) or Yang Guifei. and comments that her "luscious flesh and solid bone structure" agree with what he had heard about women in Zhou Fang's paintings. The woman's engorged vulva, he writes, reveals her "passionate state of mind." His description of the rest--the man wearing a cap and boots and having the appearance of an emperor, the woman wearing silk socks and looking like an imperial consort, as well as the various supporting functions of the serving women--also describes closely the fenben copy, which can be provisionally accepted as preserving the composition of this famous early work.  The copyist, however, apparently was permitted some slight flexibility, as can be seen in the double drawing of the man’s penis, for which he tries alternative sizes and positions.

From the early Qing period on, the erotic handscroll all but disappears and the album emerges as the chosen form. Both handscroll and album can accomodate series of pictures portraying sexual positions and activities; the difference is that in the handscroll these can be presented as if occupying a continuous space (except when clearly separated by text or other dividers), whereas in the album they must be treated as separate pictures. The change from handscroll to album as the preferred form opened the way to the development of a new type of erotic picture series and a fundamental change in the genre. The album allows the artist to present his figures in a succession of different settings. It encourages compositional variety by permitting him to experiment from leaf to leaf in offering a sequence of small pictorial pleasures instead of a single extended one. It dictates that the design of each picture be constructed within clear boundaries and in relation to the frame, and encourages the "window" effect in which the observer seems to gaze into a farther space beyond the picture plane--an effect that is greatly enhanced by devices of spatial rendering that were in this period being adopted from Western pictures by Chinese artists (as discussed in PUP, Chap. 3.) In these respects the album leaf takes on some of the capacities of the hanging scroll, although precluded by its size from the convincingly "lifelike" scale possible in the hanging scroll.

This change in the format of erotic pictures, occurring about the time of the Ming-Qing transition, is accompanied by another change even more momentous: from the album or handscroll presenting a simple series of sex acts to one in which pictures of open and active sex are interspersed with others that offer milder, more evocative scenes of amorous or erotic situations. The literary accounts cited above agree in describing erotic paintings before the Qing period, whether in handscroll or album form, as presenting a series of pictures depicting different postures for copulation.  The poems ascribed to Zhang Heng tell of the amorous couples looking at series of pictures presenting different sexual positions;, the detailed description of the first five leaves in the "Zhao Mengfu" album that appears   in Li Yu's Roupu Tuan,[3] along with the references to  Tang Yin's “Six Extraordinary Positions” and Qiu Ying's “Ten Glorious Positions” in van Gulik's somewhat problematic text, suggest that kind of series for Yuan-Ming examples. Although no painted examples so early as those are extant, nor any by such famous masters, the titles and descriptions suggest that all these belonged loosely to the same serial type that made up late Ming woodblock-printed erotic albums, which will be treated in the following section.


The type is seen as well in the plethora of poor-quality erotic albums from later periods, which in this respect follow the old model instead of the newer one.[4] The tiles and paintings described by Casanova in the mid-eighteenth century also seem from his brief descriptions to fit this older model. (We may note, without suggesting any historical connection, that early European erotic pictures, notably the sixteenth-century series I modi by Giulio Romano and Marcantonio Raimondi with accompanying verses by Pietro Aretino, follow the same pattern.)[5] In this older model, the main image in each picture is of a couple making love in some fashion, sometimes joined or watched by a third person, usually (in China) a girl or woman. (Some of the erotic prints, as we will see, expand on this formula while continuing the basic pattern.)

Erotic picture series of this kind might be seen as pictorial equivalents to the sex manuals described and translated by van Gulik and others,[6] and also to erotic fiction before late Ming, such as the Ruyijun Zhuan, probably early sixteenth century in date, which details serially the debaucheries of the Tang Empress Wu Zetian with her lover Xue Aocao.[7] Both genres consist largely of descriptions of one sex act or position after another, with little intrusion of psychological insights or dramatic complexities, and few interludes of non-sexual narrative or description to set off the accounts of copulations. The appearance in the later sixteenth century of Jin Ping Mei, and later Roupu Tuan and others,[8] transformed this literary genre, or created an essentially new one; and that transformation may well have been the incentive that spurred some artists to rethink and re-imagine their pictorial genre. Perhaps the job of illustrating fiction of the new type, together with the new availability of foreign-derived representational and spatial techniques, provided inspiration and enabling conditions for the creation of a new type of erotic picture series, one comparable to the new fiction in the effects attempted and the expressive depths achieved. The new type of erotic picture album that answered these criteria seems to have emerged in the early Qing period, especially in the hands of the versatile and endlessly resourceful Gu Jianlong.

Two erotic painting albums can serve to represent the older type. One (Album A) is by a Suzhou small master named Wang Sheng, who is recorded as active in the late Ming period (another work by him is dated to 1614),[9] so that his album may predate any of Gu Jianlong's by a few decades and thus have the distinction of being the earliest erotic painting by an identifiable artist presently known (Figs.9, 10). Two of the facing leaves of calligraphy contain a date corresponding to 1595, and the ten paintings may have been done in that year. Wang Sheng signs the last of the ten, contradicting Zhang Geng’s observation that “secret-play pictures aren't signed by the artists.” The album follows the older type in a plan basically similar to those of the printed albums. In the first leaf (Fig. 9), a scholar and beauty simply stand beneath a flowering tree on a lakeshore, their amorous feelings expressed in his gentle embrace and her delicately raised hand. The other leaves are simple depictions of copulations in different settings and positions, the only departures from this formula being a leaf with sex in a boat on the shore and another (the last, signed leaf) with a homoerotic encounter (Fig. 82). Thematically, the album has much in common with the closely contemporary woodblock-printed albums, which also include a few leaves picturing homoerotic sex and alternate the heterosexual copulations between interior and garden settings. Even Wang Sheng's scenes of open and active coition (Fig.10) are cool in mood, especially in contrast with the strenuous coupling seen in the fenben picture (Fig. 6). In this respect the album indicates the direction that good erotic painting will take for the rest of its history. Enhancing this effect of reserve are the spacious, uncluttered compositions, typical of figures-in-interiors pictures by Suzhou lesser masters of the Ming-Qing transition. We recognize the artist’s technical finesse in these superficially simple leaves only on longer looking: the fine, even line drawing of the figures against the firmer and fluctuating outlines of the blanket; the rough-brush depiction of the landscape on the screen set against the meticulously rendered pattern of the surrounding brocade. Unfashionable and neglected though they have been, figure paintings by minor Suzhou masters of the late Ming-early Qing period preserve the local tradition of high-level craftsmanship, besides sometimes revealing refined sensibilities. They also provide an art-historical milieu out of which Gu Jianlong and his followers can be seen to emerge and to effect a deeper-going transformation of the genre.

Fig. 9.

Fig. 10.

The second album of the older type (Album R), an exception to the general observation that this type persists after late Ming mainly in low-level examples, probably dates from the late 17th or early 18th century, the Kangxi era, and may be by some artist working in Zhejiang province, perhaps the Hangzhou or Shaoxing region, since elements of style in it are reminiscent of the late Zhe school. Each of the eight leaves depicts a heterosexual couple having or about to have sex. In one, a girl servant helps to support the woman, and in another the man appears to be of northern nomadic origin.[10] Other than these minor variations, the pictures all present youthful couples engaged in amorous couplings in garden or interior settings. The rich mineral blue-and-green coloring of the rocks, the luxuriant trees and flowers (which also serve to set the seasons), all contribute to the auspicious and comfortable atmosphere created in the pictures. The lovemaking is tender, unhurried; no signs of strong passion appear on the faces—at most, slight smiles of pleasure. Genitals are exposed and in most of the leaves engaged, but they are depicted modestly, not blatantly; the women display little pubic hair. No irony colors the pictures, no tension between desire and circumstance. This is just the kind of album, arousing but at the same time calming, that might well have been used in the way seen in one of the pictures, looked at by the couple together before they proceed with sex (Fig. 3). We can imagine that erotic albums by conservative Ming masters may have looked like this, allowing for variations in style.

Thematically, the leaves are close to those in the Wang Sheng album: interiors alternating with garden scenes, the figures large within the frames. The outdoor scene with the lovers beneath a willow (Fig. 11) appears to depict a consummation of young love, carried out with enthusiasm and after some preparation; this is not a spontaneous encounter. They have spread a mat on the ground beside a garden pond, beneath a willlow. With an orchid in her hair, she leans against a backrest, and has set down a fan decorated with butterflies in flight, an emblem of light dalliance. She rests one hand on his shoulder, the other on a pile of painting albums, presumably erotic. She wears a light green gauze jacket over a red moxiong, a garment that Chinese women had worn since the Tang dynasty as a kind of broad brassiere[11]--it is often the only piece of clothing that the woman has not removed in Chinese erotic pictures, an indication, perhaps, that gazing at the female breasts was not the turn-on for Chinese males that it has been in the West. Far more arousing for them were the woman’s bound feet and the small embroidered shoes worn over them, which are shown prominently in the pictures. An interior scene (Fig.12) agrees with similar leaves in the Wang Sheng album in backing the couple with a painted screen—the design here a blossoming plum—and opening glimpses back or sideward into the garden. But here the interior space is not only much more richly appointed, but also more complex and at the same time more readable than Wang Sheng could manage. In the century or so of interim between the periods of activity of the two artists, a new mastery of rendering interior spaces had been accomplished collectively by painters working in different places and in different styles. It is part of what makes possible the new expressive complexities that Gu Jianlong and his followers could achieve.

Fig. 11. 

Fig. 12.

[1]David Roy, in his translation, calls it an album, but he now (private communication) agrees that it was more likely a handscroll. Cf. n. 14 above.

[2] A translation of the inscription is in van Gulik, Sexual Life, pp. 291-92.

[3]Hanan, trans., The Carnal Prayer Mat, p. 47-49.

[4] van Gulik, Sexual Life pp. 128-30, translates a list of positions for sex, with fanciful names ("Winding Dragon" etc.) and descriptions, from an early sex manual, the Tongxuanzi. This is presumably the source for identifications of them supplied in popular books and catalogs illustrating late examples,  e.g. Nik Douglas and Penny Slinger, The Pillow Book: The Erotic Sentiment and the Paintings of India, Nepal, China and Japan (New York: Destiny Books, 1984.).

[5]I modi, drawings by Giulio Romano (1499-1546), engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi, accompanying sonnets by Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), probably first printed in 1524. See I modi, The Sixteen Pleasures: An Erotic Album of the Italian Renaissance, ed., trans. from the Italian, and with commentary by Lynne Lawner (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1988).

[6]van Gulik, Sexual Life, chap. 10, "Ming Dynasty," especially pp. 268-86; also Douglas Wile, Art of the Bedchamber: The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics, including Women’s Solo Meditation Texts (Albany, N.Y., State University of New York Press, 1992.) It should be stressed again, however, that Chinese writings offer no support for the foreign notion that Chinese erotic paintings are to be understood as illustrations to such texts.

[7]Charles Stone, The Fountainhead of Chinese Erotica: The Lord of Perfect Satisfaction (Ruyijun Zhuan). (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2003.) I am grateful to Stone for making his translation of the work available to me earlier in manuscript. The Ruyijun Zhuan does, to be sure, contain numerous historical allusions and moralizing passages, but these are far less integral to the text than the narrative elements of erotic fiction of the later type were to be. Three other fictional works of this type are described by van Gulik, Sexual Life, p. 313-17. Still another, from the later sixteenth century, is the Chi Pozi Zhuan, “A Crazed Woman,” studied by Giovanni Vitiello in "Family Affairs: A Crazed Woman and Late Ming Pornography," in: Antonino Forte and Federico Masini, eds., A Life Journey to the East: Sinological Studies in Memory of Giuliano Bertuccioli (Kyoto: Scuola Italiana di Studi sull'Asia Orientale, 2002) pp. 245-262. Vitiello points out (p. 251) that “As is also the case in Renaissance pornography, postures play a crucial rhetorical role in late Ming pornographic fiction.”

[8]A piece of erotic fiction from the Shunzhi era (1644-1661) that has only recently been recognized as a serious and interesting work that "holds up a mirror to marriage in ancient China" is Yipian Qing; see Huang Lin, "A Mirror to Marriage in Traditional China: Notes on A Tangle of Emotions (I-p'ien Ch'ing), The Gest Library Journal (Winter 1992), pp. 103-17.

[9] Representing a woman, attended by her maid, playing a flute in a garden, it is reproduced in Bimo Jinghua: Duoyunxuan Juancang Guojia Bowuguan Shuhua Xuan (Splendors of Brush and Ink: A Collection of Chinese Calligraphy and Painting to National Museums Contributed by Duo Yun Xuan) (Shanghai: Shanghai Fine Arts Publishers, 2000), pl. 62. Wang Sheng's erotic album is reproduced in its entirety in Le Palais du printemps (cf. note 1), 45-69.

[10] For these two, see Beurdeley et. al, Chinese Erotic Art, pp. 77 and 82. Other leaves of the album are reproduced there and in Liebeskunst: Liebeslust und Liebesleid in der Weltkunst (Zurich, Museum Rietberg, 2002), nos. 154-57, pp. 204-207. The whole album is in Le Palais du printemps, 180-191.

[11] See Robert H. van Gulik, Sexual Life in Ancient China (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1961) p. 299; also Valery M. Garrett, Chinese Clothing, An Illustrated Guide, Hong Kong, 1994, pp. 22-23, where it is referred to as a "bib brassiere."

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