Chapter 3

C. Printed Erotic Albums of the Late Ming

Printed erotic albums from the late Ming period were until recently accessible only in a single example published by van Gulik, the 24-leaf Huaying Jinzhen ("Variegated Battle Arrays of the Flowery Camp"), which van Gulik reproduced from the imprints of what he took to be original late-Ming woodblocks that he bought in Japan in 1949.[1] The single known collection of Chinese printed erotica, owned by the Japanese scholar-collector Kiyoshi Shibui (1899-1993), was feared lost after Shibui's death. But early in 2008, the Shibui materials reappeared—they had been purchased from his son by a U.S. dealer in Japanese art—and the Chinese books among them were acquired by the Muban Foundation in London, a foundation devoted to collecting and supporting research on Chinese woodblock-printed materials, especially pictorial. Comprised of nine Chinese items and a Japanese copy of one of them, they preserve five different erotic series.[2] In addition to these, an erotic narrative with illustrations survives in a single copy; this is the Su wo pian ("Stories of the Plain Woman"), also published in the early seventeenth century.[3] (I am not treating here Chinese erotic narrative illustration, of which another example, Muban J, is also among the former Shibui materials.)

It is now possible, then, to assess in excellent examples the achievements of late Ming erotic printing, and it proves to be a revelation. All five of the series formerly owned by Shibui and now in the Muban Foundation are of major importance, although they vary in their completeness and quality. (The letter designations for them used in the Muban Foundation's list are employed here, for clear identification; see also Appendix A, Part II.) One is the Huaying jinzhen series published by van Gulik from his blocks, which, as noted above, were probably Japanese recuttings from the Chinese original; two copies of this series, one complete with 24 pictures and the other with 22, are among the Muban purchases (Muban C1 and C2), both late Ming originals printed with colors and thus much superior to van Gulik's. One leaf from it is reproduced below (Fig. 81.)  Second, Sheng Penglai ("Supra-Paradise," Muban A), with fifteen pictures, also late Ming in date and also in color. Third, Fengliu juechang tu ("Pictures of the Height of Sophistication"), 24 pictures, in one near-complete copy with 23 pictures (Muban B1), one variant edition with ten (Muban B2), an edition with twelve pictures (Muban B3) once owned by the Japanese merchant-artist Kimura Kenkadô (1736-1802); and a fragment with two pictures (Muban H.02, H.03), one of them (H.02) not in any of the others. This work carries a preface by an Anhui writer dated 1606, which names as the engraver a member of the famous Huang family from Xin'an.[4] Fourth, a series of thirty pictures (attached to two illustrated works of pseudo-historical erotic fiction, to which they were probably originally unrelated, under the title Jingke Tang Minghuang Yang Taichen waizhuan or "The Untold Story of the Radiant Emperor of Tang and Yang Taizhen,") in Muban J. This thirty-picture series corresponds at least in part with a Japanese publication, also owned by Shibui, titled Kôso myôron, a work with eighteen pictures that he dated to 1592-95—making the Chinese original, if his dating of the Japanese copy is correct, the earliest Chinese work of erotica extant and known.[5] This Chinese series is untitled; I will refer to it here as Muban J30. A fifth, a twenty-picture work titled Qinglou duoying ("Selected Scenes from Verduous Towers"), undated but also late Ming (Muban F), partly repeats compositions from the thirty-picture series, but in larger size and with color added. Since the Huaying jinzhen is accessible in van Gulik's publication, and leaves from all five will be reproduced in a planned special issue of Orientations magazine,[6] the other four series will be introduced and discussed here, using the Muban Foundation's numberings.

A consideration of them as a group can begin with a simple observation: all of them belong to the early type as defined above, made up of series of pictures representing, with a few exceptions that may have been the introductory pictures in each series, open depictions of sexual acts. They exemplify this early type, however, in its highest manifestation, at least among extant works, and must be recognized as making up, collectively, a major artistic achievement. Technically, they take their place among the finest examples of late Ming multi-block color printing, exemplifying the sparing use of colors, mostly for linear elements and decorative designs, that typifies much of the best of it and conveys (within the Chinese aesthetic system) a more refined taste than bright and extensive coloring would have done. Moreover, except for the J30 series, each picture in the albums is faced by a leaf of calligraphy, a poem adding resonances to the pictured scene.  Every aspect of them suggests that they were made for highly literate and cultivated viewers. Van Gulik was probably basically right—although more research may expand and alter his contention--when he identified the patrons and audience for these printed albums as "groups of overly-refined, slightly blasé literati residing in Nanking and its surroundings."[7]

In any case, they surely were predominantly men. It is possible now, I believe, to begin to identify (for later periods) a different kind of erotic series as intended in part or mainly for viewing by women—the "Secret Spring" album in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, to be considered below (ref. to pages, Figs. 84-87), is an example. In it there are no open depictions of sexual acts underway, no blatant exposure of genitals, and no men at all—the leaves all depict pairs or groups of women engaged in preparatory activities for same-sex enjoyments that are only hinted at. The leaves of the Shibui printed albums, by extreme contrast, mostly offer open portrayals of sexual acts set in domestic interiors and gardens in affluent households to which the dominant male has just returned from travel or official duty--in many of them he still wears his official cap and boots, or has just removed them. The few women-only scenes among them depict the women fully engaged in some sexual act, such that the assumed male viewer is left in no doubt about what is taking place and can enjoy them fully. Implicit in these series of scenes is the assumption that all females in such households (except, we must assume, for incestuous relationships), and the younger males as well, are open and compliant to erotic approaches from the dominant males. They present, that is, the lubricious male's visions of earthly paradise, of imaginative and unhampered sexual fulfillment. The very program of erotic engagement in multiple positions and situations as making up the highest sexual ideal is a male notion, found in men's literary writings from an early period, as we have seen in the examples cited and quoted earlier.

To describe these pictorial series as presenting a succession of "positions" for sexual union, however, is to understate greatly their real thematic breadth and variety, which is manifested in many aspects other than bodily postures. They also take place in a diversity of settings, some of them bizarre. Sex can be in the bath (C1.32). The woman hangs in a swing from the limb of a tree (F.39) or from stalks of bamboo (C2.47, F.13); in another, she suspends herself with her knees over the horizontal bar of a clothes-rack, while the man stands on a stool to bring his organ into line with hers (C1.16, F.15). The man surprises a sleeping woman, initiating sex without waking her (A.29). Voyeurs are commonly introduced, whether an older wife who surprises her husband with a younger woman in the garden (C2.43), or simply a maid who looks on with interest, and might join as a participant (B1.11, B2.02.) A young girl, in one print, tugs at the man's arm to distract him from his coupling with an older woman, importuning him to withdraw midway and turn his attentions to her (B1.29. Fig. A).

Fig. A

Among the Shibui-Muban books, the untitled Chinese series of thirty woodcuts (here designated as Muban J30) attached to two illustrated narratives in the Shibui copy, of which two at least correspond with the Japanese Kôso myôron and so, if Shibui is correct, must date at least as early as the 1590s, takes precedence in date and also in relative plainness—its leaves are notably smaller than the others, they are printed in ink only, the printing is sometimes smudged, and they are not accompanied by facing leaves with poems—nine of them have poetic inscriptions printed on them, more crudely. It yields to no work of pictorial erotica, however, Chinese or other, in the diversity of sexual acts and situations it depicts. A surviving Chinese work of literary erotica, the Guwanyan or "Preposterous Words," published in 1730, may exceed it in this regard, since it is said to contain descriptions of, among other things, "pederasty, bestiality, sadism, incest, orgies, homosexuality, and transsexuality."[8] But among pictorial erotica, the series J30 explores more fully than any other, at least until quite recent times, the byways and excesses of sex, and can be taken to exemplify supremely the spirit  of libertinism that is one element of late Ming culture.[9] In addition to some outré "positions" and choices of settings enacted by heterosexual couples, it offers triads in which the woman is doubly penetrated by a man below her and another behind her (J.62); a young girl lies beside an older woman and is kissed by a man who is sexually engaged with the woman (J.61); or a man takes an active-passive role between a woman beneath him and a man behind him (J.73, Fig. B).

Fig. B

Arranged voyeurism is common: in one print (J.82, Fig. C), a man sits beneath a tree in the garden with a woman in his lap, their engaged genitalia exposed to two maids seated before them; one of the maids fingers the copulating woman's anus, while that woman and the other maid hold up tufts of grass, as if playing the game of matching plants. Multiple-partner scenes extend to excess: a man is seen with three women, penetrating one, fingering the other two; in one extreme imagining he is with eight women, his various bodily parts engaging four of them, the others servicing each other (J.84, also F.29, Fig. D).

Fig. C

Fig. D

In many of the heterosexual couplings in J30 and the other series, the female participant is not a mature woman but a young girl. This is a frequent feature of Chinese visual erotica, and in itself unsurprising: ample evidence from various periods and cultures, including our own, makes it clear that the desire for sex with young girls, those we would consider underage, is far more widespread in males than we wish to acknowledge, by no means the rare perversity we attempt to make it. The very young girl is identified as that in the Chinese pictures by her slight bodily frame and absence of breasts and pubic hair, among other features. In one of the J30 prints (J.59) she sits astride the man in a swing, which is pushed by another girl; in another (J.67, Fig. E), she sits in his lap in front of a landscape screen, his hastily shed clothing beside them, his cap and boots still on him, betraying his impatience to have her. In one of the Fengliu Juechang prints (B2.02) she sits in his lap, perhaps being penetrated anally, while he fingers her vulva, and both are watched by a maid. Sometimes, as seen both in the prints (F.03) and in the paintings (see Fig. 39 below, an album leaf by Gu Jianlong), the young girl can be embraced from the back or side by an older woman and so exposed to the male, who is presumably taking her virginity; usually she shows no sign of resistance or pain, although she may (as in this painting) wince a bit.

Fig. E

Seen just as often in both prints and paintings is the older man practicing sodomy with a young boy. The frequency and toleration of same-sex love among both males and females in China is by now well established, and will be discussed further below (Section J, "Homoerotic Love and Beyond.") The boy servant who appears in conventional pictures carrying the noble scholar's qin or zither, or standing by quietly while he gazes into the void, in reality was sometimes made to serve as his catamite as well. He is seen pushed by the older man over a garden rock and penetrated from behind (as in the last, signed leaf of the Wang Sheng album, Fig. 82) or sitting in his lap in the garden (F.35, C1.04, Fig. 81). In another (B1.41, Fig. F), the young boy is seen suffering, or enjoying, the attentions of two older women:  he is held from behind by one while another kneels before him to fellate him. Sex with children under twelve sui, even consensual sex, became under the Qing an offense punishable by death,[10] but seems not to have been a legal offense under the Ming.

Fig. F

We should not, of course, simply accept the wide thematic diversity of the prints as necessarily reflecting the realities of late Ming sexual practice; they are the visions of fantasies, specifically the fantasies of highly cultivated literati—or rather, perhaps, the artists' imaginings of what those fantasies might be, which they could attempt to picture in their prints. The same is true of the erotic painting albums this book is mainly about: their relationship to actual practice in the periods they represent must always remain problematic, and my discussions of Chinese sexual habits as they can be understood from written sources, and my juxtapositions of these with discussions of the paintings, should be read always in that light.

Turning from the prints as depictions of sexual acts to their qualities as prints, we can recognize again their excellence both as examples of late Ming color printing and as designs. Many of the prints, those in the large formats with color—all except the J30 series, that is--are executed in a highly developed figural print style, as fully mature and accomplished as Japanese Ukiyo-e print design at its height. This is especially true of the Sheng Penglai ("Supra-Paradise") series, Muban A, which offers a succession of strong, elegant compositions.  One of them, Muban A.25 (Fig. G), portrays seated lovers as substantial, compositionally imposing figures. It presents them as still clothed and engaged in foreplay before turning to more serious lovemaking, treating a subtly indelicate subject (she grasps his erect penis) with delicacy and restraint. Stalks of peony in a blue-and-white ginger jar with cracked-ice pattern at left and an ink-monochrome landscape hanging scroll at right add high-taste resonances and a decorative background.

Fig. G

The series Fengliu juechang tu ("Pictures of the Height of Sophistication") series also merits special attention as combining completeness of preservation (24 pictures, many of them viewable among the Muban books in two or three versions, Muban B1-3 and H) with a high level of aesthetic refinement. A print from it (Muban B1.15, Fig. H) again sets the figures within a tight spatial frame, this time a bed, adding a scholar's rock in a stand on the bedside table at right and using the curtains of the bed, with their colored allover patterns, to enhance the decorative effect. The man and woman, he once more betraying his urgency by still wearing his cap and boots, are enjoying fond foreplay: she holds his penis, he fingers her vulva, and they kiss. In contrast to the erotic prints of Japanese Ukiyo-e, where the participants often seem consumed by fierce sexual frenzy and seem to express more pain than pleasure, the Chinese pictures at their best convey the deep enjoyments of sex and the feelings of emotional union it can bring to its devotees.

Fig. H

Equally impressive in its quiet elegance and strong design is a print that may well be the opening picture in the Fengliu juechang tu series (Muban H.02, Fig. I.) Here the scholar and his wife or concubine stand in a garden, he embracing her from behind, the sway of their bodies countered by the rocks and tall plants at their right, the railing providing compositional stability and closing off the space. The two are gazing down at an open book placed, along with a small vase and tripod, on a yellow mat spread on the ground. It must be some erotic text that they have just been reading, to inspire their lovemaking. We have seen already (Figs. 1, 2, 3), and will see again in later sections, pictures based on the male fantasy of rousing the woman's libido and opening new modes of sex by persuading her to join him in reading such a book. That this picture might have been the opening leaf in the album is suggested by the close correspondence of the figures with those in what is presumably the first leaf of the album by Wang Sheng (Fig. 9): the man with his face half-hidden behind hers, a tassle from his cap protruding below, both clothed in long robes, both gazing downward, their bodies curved as though in a dance. That the pairs in print and painting face in opposite directions may reflect only the difference in media: for the print, an original drawing based on the same design as Wang Sheng's leaf may have been pasted face down onto the woodblock and used as a guide to cutting, so that the printed image was reversed from the original drawing. Fenben sketch-copies often transmitted only the figures, with the artists freely filling in new settings for them. This is speculation: the true relationship between the two pictures cannot be determined on present evidence. But both probably represent the initial, "presentable" leaves in their respective albums, to be followed by the openly erotic scenes.

Fig. I

In the technical finesse of the color printing, the strong presence and sometimes monumentality of the figures, Chinese erotic prints of the late Ming must now join the more familiar Ukiyo'e prints of Japan among the masterworks of figural and color printing in world art. It is all the more to be regretted that the brilliant tradition they so briefly represent is not continued into the Qing Dynasty. The virtual discontinuance of woodblock color printing in China, and of the styles displayed in the best surviving late Ming examples, constitute one of those great renunciations with which any student of Chinese cultural history is familiar: think of the exploration of the world by sea (Zheng He's voyages in the early Ming); of the unmatched (for its period) development of a proto-science between early Song and early Ming, which underlies Joseph Needham's great Science and Civilization of China project; of the unequalled depths and nuances of ink-monochrome landscape of the Southern Song period as seen in the works of Ma Yuan and Xia Gui, as well as the "Chan" or "Zen" splashed-ink landscape in works ascribed to Muqi and Yujian, that has no viable continuation in Ming painting and survives only in Japan and Korea. All succumb to the powerful forces, political and religious and aesthetic, that worked to cut off these and other cultural and technical developments in China at their height, leaving them to be taken up and carried on by others, outsiders who were not subject to those negative forces. If high-level erotic color prints were produced in China after the end of Ming, they are not presently known. so that for now we are forced to recognize the development opened up by the Shibui-Muban  materials as a brief, brilliant episode in the history of Chinese pictorial erotica

[1]Published by van Gulik as the third volume of his Erotic Colour Prints. Soren Edgren believes that these were not original late Ming blocks but Japanese recut blocks; see his "A Bibliographical Note on van Gulik's Albums of Erotic Color Prints," in the reprint of van Gulik's work, 2004, pp. xxvii-xxx. The series printed from van Gulik's blocks was again reprinted, with new English translations of the Chinese poems by N. S. Wang and B. L. Wang, as The Fragrant Flower: Classic Chinese Erotica in Art and Poetry (Buffalo, N. Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).

[2] On these, see my article “The Shibui Printed Books in Chinese and Japanese Pictorial Art,” In Orientations vol. 40 no. 3, April 2009, pp. 43-48; also, and more importantly, Soren Edgren’s and Christer van der Burg’s articles in the same number. Aee also my Introduction to the reprint of Robert H. van Gulik, Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period (Tokyo, privately printed, 1951; reprint, Leiden, Brill, 2004, cf. n.7.). See also Richard Lane, "Eros Crosses the seas: Ming erotica in Edo Japan," in Andon: Shedding Light on Japanese Art, v. 5, no. 20, 1985, pp. 75-80,

[3] A unique copy of Su wo pian is in the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at the Library of the University of Indiana. Six erotic illustrations from it are reproduced in Michel Beurdeley, Kristopher Schipper, Chang Fu-jin, and Jacques Pimpaneau, Chinese Erotic Art (Rutland, Vt. and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1969), pp. 16, 19, 23, 27, 28, and 29.

[4] This preface is translated by van Gulik, Erotic Colour Prints, 177-78.

[5] For the two leaves reproduced by Shibui from his Japanese copy, which he called a Kôetsu-bon (i.e. an edition published by the calligrapher-artist Honnami Kôetsu, 1558-1637, and his collaborators at their artistic colony at Takagamine in the north part of Kyoto), see my article "Judge Dee and the Vanishing Ming Erotic Colour Prints," in Orientations, November, 2003, 40-46, Fig. 10-11. Shibui's copy of this book was unfortunately sold to an unidentifiable buyer and cannot be traced.

[6](Insert proper reference to this when it appears.)

[7] A discussion of van Gulik's argument about the audience and patronage for the erotic printed books, which essentially agrees with it and greatly expands it, is Wilt I. Idema, "'Blasé Literati'; Lü Tien-ch'eng and the Lifestyle of the Chiang-nan Elite in the Final Decades of the Wan-li Period," in the 2004 Brill reprint of Erotic Colour Prints, xxxi-lix.

[8] See Gang Gary Xu, "Ethics of Form: Qing and Narrative Excess in Guwangyan," 253. The work, which survives in a single copy, has not been translated.

[9]For this cultural phenomenon and its intellectual-history background see Idema's essay (note 7 above); a more recent discussion is Wu Cuncun, Homoerotic Sensibilities in Late Imperial China (London and New York, Rutledtge-Curzon, 2004), 33-39.

[10] Matthew H. Sommer, Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China (Stanford, Stanford Univ. Press, 2000), p. 125.

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