Chapter 4


D. The New Album Type in Early Qing: Gu Jianlong and Others

The painter Gu Jianlong (1606-1687 or after) appeared frequently in the chapters of PUP in a number of contexts: he seems to have played a key role in initiating, or at least producing on a high level and popularizing, some of the new types of paintings treated there. To those can be added the part-erotic album. Gu was a native of Taicang in Jiangsu and was active in Suzhou. He reportedly lived at Tiger Hill outside the city, presumably in the entertainment district at its foot. It was common for artists who painted popular pictures, including erotic pictures, to live in the pleasure quarters of the cities. The Tiger Hill was also the site of the Shantang painting market (for a description of it, see PUP Chap. 4, p. xx [toward end, present pp. 66-67]).

Two late nineteenth-century compilations of notes on paintings seen by the authors mention albums of mixi tu ("secret play pictures") by Gu Jianlong. By that time, apparently, comments on erotic painting that did not simply denounce it and its creators could be tolerated. Xie Kun, writing about 1880, describes one leaf in such an album, in which no figures appear: only a bed with a man's shoes in front of it, and a woman's hand reaching out through the bedcurtains to close them. Xie praises the picture for its subtlety and indirection, qualities that accounted for some part of Gu's reputation as a maker of erotic pictures. Li Yufen, in his book prefaced in 1894, writes of seeing a large album of Gu's "secret play" pictures that was very refined in detail, "completely in the Song academy manner."[1]

Gu Jianlong's central role in creating the new type of erotic album--which, since only some of its leaves have overtly erotic imagery, we will call for convenience the part-erotic album, just as Jin Ping Mei might (awkwardly) be termed a part-erotic novel--can best be demonstrated by a close look at an eight-leaf example by him, now whereabouts-unknown and to be studied only in an old reproduction book, which has, moreover, been bowdlerized by the publisher (Album  B.) It bears Gu's seals, and gives every sign of being genuine.[2] Since the program of the album--insofar as it has one--can be seen only from the whole, we reproduce all the leaves  (Figs.1,13-19).[3]

The eight leaves that make up the album are, in effect, eight vignettes, each presenting a scene and situation that might occur in the kind of large, well-off household that is the typical setting of these albums, as it is of Jin Ping Mei.  On five of the leaves crude alterations have been made through overpainting, presumably done by the publisher on his photos or plates (one hopes not on the original paintings!) to expunge the most lurid bits--which are usually also the narrative focal points of the pictures--and render the album publishable. These deletions and additions can be easily distinguished from the original parts, even in the unclear reproductions, by their different ground tone and clumsier drawing, and the missing imagery filled out in imagination. In one leaf (Fig.13), for example, the woman in the bed is waving a duster at two rats (in the altered version) to shoo them away. One might initially guess that in the original she was grasping some bodily part of a sexual partner. But a leaf in a later album that appears to be a reversed copy of the composition, reproduced unaltered,[4] suggests a different reading: it is an apres-sex scene with the couple still embracing in the bed, the woman on top. What she holds out is not a duster but (before repainting) a fan, with which she has been cooling them from the heat generated by their passion. A couplet in the poem accompanying the copy confirms this reading: "Two hands hold a feather fan,/ Many a drop of her perspiration she has left on the body of her lover!" In another leaf (Fig.14) a seated young man must have been pulling a young woman toward him while holding out his penis, asking for oral sex; now he is offering her a sheaf of bills, assumedly to the same purpose but less graphically.

Fig. 13

Fig. 14

When we rest our fevered imaginations by turning to matters of style, and especially to compositions, this aspect of the pictures proves no less interesting. The figure groups are placed in spatially complex interior settings, in which objects are partially seen through lattices and openwork railings, and farther rooms and furniture glimpsed through doorways. The viewer's gaze is drawn insistently back by these devices, and by strong receding diagonals and zigzag movements into depth. The structures of interconnecting spaces thus created permit a variety of narrative effects--note, for instance, how in one leaf (Fig.14) the subtheme of voyeurism (the girl peering around a shutter in upper right) compounds the principal theme. How these linked-space compositions, derived in part from European compositional method, could be employed for effects of this kind, to enhance the scopophilic pleasures afforded by the pictures and even (especially in single-figure meiren paintings) to encourage imagined entry into the scene and participation in it, were matters explored in PUP.

It is worth noting, however, that Gu's borrowings from Western practice are limited and unobtrusive, appearing in such features as the double-line drawing of doors and windows that reveals the thickness of the wall, as well as in the openings back and the intricate spatial schemes. Figures are drawn with no illusionistic shading, and rooms with no strong sense of volumetric space. Gu, with his strong Suzhou traditional heritage, is not attempting a truly illusionistic style, but only adopting a few useful devices from the stock of foreign tricks that had become available to Chinese artists. Illusionism is not really to his purpose; he employs the new compositional means and new ways of representing interiors to give the viewer a particular kind of visual experience in reading the paintings. One is encouraged to explore the surroundings of the amatory activities: hollows and recessions, richly patterned surfaces, pictures within pictures, and a profusion of things that amounts almost to clutter on tables and desks, on shelves and in cabinets. The lavish furnishing of the compositions with material objects, seen in most of Gu Jianlong’s paintings, plays to the late Ming-early Qing passion for surrounding oneself with all the accouterments of a life of luxury and of qing, emotion. The near-surfeit of visual information also affects one's response to the thematic materials of the paintings, adding resonances and ambiguities, exerting its own scopophilic appeal. One is reminded of how the painstakingly detailed descriptions of settings in early Chinese poems about lonely women in their boudoirs cater to a literary voyeurism.

Fig. 15

Continuing with the other leaves: one of them (Fig.15), representing women playing cards around a table, has no erotic content at all, unless we are to imagine something happening in the inner room reached by way of the zigzag recession at left. The other leaves are interestingly varied in the kind of sexual situation they evoke: a scene of voyeurism (Fig.16), with three girls, their limp postures suggesting their aroused state, gazing at a sleeping male whose penis was presumably exposed before the publisher concealed it; sex in the garden (Fig.17), decorously presented by locating the figures in mid-ground and showing no genitalia; a scene of deliberate arousal  (Fig.1) in which the young man shows an erotic scroll to two girls, putting his arm around one of them while the other hangs on the back of a chair, and a younger maid turns to peek.

Fig. 16

Fig. 17

The two remaining leaves must have offered explicit portrayals of sexually engaged couples before they were bowdlerized. In one  (Fig.18), a woman lies back in a kind of barrow couch wheeled by a maid on a verandah, while two women watch from nearby; a dense bamboo plant has been painted over her lower parts, covering a space originally occupied, we may guess, by a male partner. The other (Fig.19) is set in a bedroom, with the couple in bed; the publisher's hired brush has covered everything below the woman's chin with a blanket over which he has drawn, clumsily and irrelevantly, her arm, a fan, and two white cats.

Fig. 18

Fig. 19

Here the sexual engagement, whatever it may have been, was the final act in a sequence laid out in the rest of the picture. The leaf exemplifies Gu Jianlong's skillful use of complex spatial schemes and scattered clues to embed an implied mini-story in a single painting. Academy and professional masters of earlier times had accomplished similar quasi-narrative effects in their pictures, but in outdoor settings;[5] now, thanks to the new spatial techniques, it can be done in pictures of interiors. Starting in the upper left corner, where the shape of a garden rock is seen through a translucent bamboo blind over a doorway, we imagine the amorously inclined couple entering from the garden the anteroom to her chamber, where they drink tea or wine, as we infer from two cups and a spouted pot on the table. Then they move into the inner room and sit on stools beside a long table; she plays the qin--or perhaps, since the instrument is still partly in its cloth wrapper, she only thinks of playing it before being drawn away by more urgent urges. (The possibility of a further significance for this detail opens up if we recall that “playing the qin” could be a metaphor for foreplay, the qin standing for the woman's clitoris.)[6] The two remove their clothes, which are draped over one of the stools and a lower table, and climb into the canopied bed, where (in the original) they proceed with whatever it is they are doing.[7] Here the effacement is especially unfortunate, since it deprives us of the final episode in this ingeniously pictured little narrative. Not all leaves contain so complete a sequence of indicators as this, and some, with sparser clues, require more story-making on the part of the viewer. But an awareness of Gu Jianlong's use of the device alerts us to watch for it in pictures by him and others.

Zhang Geng, in the passage quoted earlier from his book written around 1735, does not name Gu Jianlong as one of the best-known among artists who painted erotic pictures; instead, he gives the names of two now-obscure masters of the early Qing, Wang Shi and Ma Xiangshun. Wang, like Gu Jianlong, was from Taicang but was active in Suzhou, and specialized in figures, especially palace women, painted in a meticulous manner based on Song and Yuan models. Extant or recorded works by him are dated between 1634 and 1668.[8] He may, then, have been associated somehow, if only as a rival, with Gu Jianlong, who was active in Suzhou at the same time, is similarly described as basing his style in Song and Yuan painting, and was well known as a painter of erotic albums. About Ma Xiangshun, who was from Datong in Shanxi and also specialized in figures, nothing more is known, and no erotic album by either Wang or Ma exists, to my knowledge.[9]

The importance of a large-scale local production of traditional-style figure painting by masters of the Suzhou region in late Ming and early Qing, followers principally of Qiu Ying and virtually unnoticed in histories of Chinese painting, was discussed in PUP; their works made up a significant portion of the pictures reproduced in that book. Wang Sheng (cf. Figs.9 and 10) was one of them; another, presumably, was the painter of an eight-leaf album misleadingly ascribed to Qiu Ying (Album C, Figs.20-27). From its style and its close relationship to the Gu Jianlong album (Album B), it can be dated to the early Qing period, and seen as another early example of the part-erotic album. Like the Gu Jianlong, it is known only through an old reproduction book. The figure style is similar in the two albums, and the compositions feature the same spatial elaborations, with the odd addition in the "Qiu Ying" of a large checkerboard design on the floors--a foreign-inspired device for establishing a strongly receding ground plane (cf PUP, Fig. 5.20). The artist, whoever he is, may be imitating a product for which Gu's work must have quickly created a demand; it could, alternatively, be earlier than Gu’s.

Less of open sexual activity is depicted in the leaves of this album, only two of which have suffered overpainting. (Since the range of subjects is important to my argument, I will again reproduce all the leaves.) In one of them (Fig.20), what has been expunged is a “spring,” or erotic, dream enjoyed by a loosely-clad woman napping on a verandah overlooking a lotus pond, on a hot summer day. Open on the table beside her is a book, presumably a romantic or erotic novel. In the other (Fig.21) it is the image in a mirror: except for the woman's head and shoulder, glimpsed through the openwork, the sexually-engaged couple are concealed behind a door; originally, the large, round mirror, now blank, must have revealed their whole conjoined bodies to the peeping maid, and to the viewer of the leaf. Variants of this composition occur frequently in later erotic albums.[10] The same is true of other themes and situations to be seen in the albums by Gu Jianlong and his contemporaries and followers, which seem to have established much of the erotic iconography for later phases of this genre.

Fig. 20

Fig. 21

The composition of another leaf in the "Qiu Ying" album, for instance, in which a man is seen making amorous advances to a servant girl who is taking off his boot and who appears not to welcome his attentions (Fig.22), recurs in a mid-eighteenth century album by a master of the Qianlong academy, which we will consider below (album O).[11] Albums by Suzhou masters of the early Qing appear to have set much of the thematics for the best of those that followed. In still another leaf (Fig.23), a young man wearing a scholar's cap takes advantage of an older woman's dozing off (his wife? who, fully clothed, has been waiting for him on the platform bed in his study?) to make overtures to the maid who is serving tea, pushing his hand beneath her robe as she struggles to hold him away. This theme of seduction in the presence of a sleeping or unaware wife is another that will run through many leaves in later albums. As with voyeurism, the danger of detection adds a fillip of excitement to the peccadilloes. Both themes will receive further discussion and illustration below (Section J).

Fig. 22

Fig. 23

As a group, the leaves of the "Qiu Ying" album are less strongly charged with sexual imagery and innuendo than those of the Gu Jianlong album—only two of them must have presented explicit sexual imagery, and those in indirect ways, through a dream or a mirror--and are more imbued with poetic, even romantic feeling. (Gu’s works, for all their many strengths and innovations, can seldom be called poetic; most of them are matter-of-fact in their presentations of their subjects.) The remaining four leaves similarly portray subtly suggestive episodes in the love-lives of the participants rather than physical consummations of passion. A woman wearing only a thin robe rises, stretching, from a table where she has been waiting for her lover to join her at cards (Fig.24).

Fig. 24

Fig. 25

This is another composition in which the spatial scheme lays out an unfulfilled narrative: the verandah from which he will come, the moon door, the empty chair. In the three remaining leaves, a woman holding a candle hesitates before awakening her husband or lover, who has fallen asleep reading (Fig.25); a woman pauses in her embroidery to watch her maid pick a peony in the garden outside (Fig.26); and a young couple on a verandah over a pond gaze at their reflection in the water, while he puts his arm tenderly around her and she leans her head against his (Fig.27).

Fig. 26

Fig. 27

The album can be added, then, to a group of works by Suzhou figure painters of the early Qing (some introduced in PUP), many of them later ascribed falsely to Qiu Ying, that were suffused with the ideal of qing or romantic love. One can imagine a cultivated courtesan, or an educated gentlewoman of the time, looking at such an album with her lover or husband before sex, or simply by herself for pleasure. Another new feature of these albums, the setting of the amorous and erotic events in well-appointed domestic settings, must in some part respond to the well-recognized shift in this same period of the locus of romantic love and the poems that celebrated it. In late Ming it was typically located in the courtesan quarters, in liaisons between cultivated courtesans and the literati-officials who were their patrons and lovers. By early Qing the courtesans had been largely displaced, both as embodiments of poetic passion and as writers of poems about it, by the cultivated gentry women called guixiu, who emerge as the leading women poets and writers of the time. They were understandably more inclined to take as their subjects for poetry and prose their own family concerns and their relations both with men and with other women. Love and other relationships within the household now enter, more than before, the thematics of poetry and painting. Paul Ropp, after quoting another suggestion for why this happened (the Manchu censorship of erotic literature), adds: "I would suggest in addition that increased female literacy in the Qing period may have been equally important in inspiring the development of intellectual and emotional intimacy, especially between gentry husbands and wives."[12]

Because the best of the later erotic albums will follow in important respects the pattern to be seen in these two, it is worth taking a moment to review it and understand it. It is a pattern both simple and complex. First of all, the album is no longer made up of a simple series of "hard-core" representations of sexual activities. Variety in situations replaces variety in postures and settings. Some leaves present scenes of romantic dalliance, and of solicitations and seductions; others depict women alone. Some are explicit depictions of couples engaged in carnal pursuits, but even these are usually elaborated with subthemes and resonances of a kind generally not offered in the older type. By means of devices already suggested and to be discussed further below, the quasi-narrative content of the scenes is rendered intricate and often witty, and is contextualized. In these ways the erotic album took on some of the capacity for rich, multi-leveled engagement of the viewer that contemporary high-level erotic fiction offered to its readers. It also presented greater challenges to the artists to exercise their imaginations and their sensibilities.

By moving the action out of the didactic, “how-to-do-it” category of the “Ten Glorious Positions” and the rest; by casting as participants ordinary upper-class men and women with whom the viewers could identify, in place of famously amorous or depraved emperors and empresses; and most of all by setting the time scale of individual leaves as brief but evocative passages of upper-class domestic life, the artists fit their albums into the new low-mimetic mode, their pictorial counterparts to the forms of biji (short essays) and xiaopin (brief writings on “small things” or trivial matters) that made up a new literary genre in the seventeenth century. Such a time scale requires that each leaf have ample space to resonate, without being tied sequentially to any other leaf or fixed within a preexisting narrative.

The real key to the formal program of these albums, then, is that in a strict sense there is no program--no story that binds the leaves together, no references to external written texts. The series of leaves that make up such an album must be distinguished clearly from sets of illustrations to fiction and drama, as that genre had developed earlier in both woodblock-printed illustrations and painted ones. The distinction will not be immediately obvious or acceptable to everyone: the quasi-narrative character of the pictures in this new type of erotic album seems to incite in some viewers (as I know from responses in lectures and seminars) the urge to find some kind of seriality in them, to recognize the same people and sequential situations in the successive leaves, to see them as episodes in a story or as illustrations to some perhaps-lost work of fiction. All efforts of that kind are, I believe, misdirected. The artist in fact frustrates such impulses by not establishing sequences or repeating identifying imagery.  The leaves, moreover, unlike illustrations which depend for their fullest enjoyment on foreknowledge of some written episode, stand as self-sufficient vignettes--scenes that contain all the indicators needed for us to construct around them mini-stories that neither connect with each other nor refer to any preexisting text. In this respect they are like leaves of the “Qiu Ying” album of scenes of women in interiors introduced in PUP (Figs. 4.26-28) and in my article "Paintings for Women?"[13] as a prime example of the new low-mimetic mode. They establish their own texts, presenting in pictorial form all the materials needed for imagining answers, if we wish, to the questions they evoke (as unarticulated resonances in the viewer’s mind, that is, not as consciously formulated concerns): What are these people thinking and doing? What went before? What will happen next? Will the awaited lover come? Will the girl give in to the young man? Illustrations to literature, whether printed or painted, are not self-sufficient in this way, and the difference is crucial.

It is worthwhile to pause and consider the implications of this new form, the mixed erotic/non-erotic album (or the type of non-erotic album represented by the “Qiu Ying” work just mentioned, of which other examples will presumably come to light) made up of independent vignettes, which so far as I know had no real precedent in China, either in literature or in painting. It freed the pictures from limitations of two kinds: subordination to an external written text, and the necessity of attempting a function that writing can usually do better, telling a continuous story on successive pages, which then must be seen (or read) in a set sequence. Among the forms used for paintings, the handscroll is better suited to extended narrative, since it not only prescribes the order in which the images or scenes are encountered by the viewer, but also permits the artist, when he wishes, to unite these into spatial continuities. In the newer form, the non-narrative album, the independence of the individual leaves encouraged the painter to endow them with richer structures of meaning, erotic and other, in the expectation that his pictures would be viewed in an unhurried way, free of compulsion to turn the page or roll on to find out "what comes next."[14] The artist could set up more complex relationships between the participants in his scenes--seductions, triangles, voyeuristic engagement in sex acts, resistance or compliance, and so forth--than typical narrative illustrations encouraged.

This new capacity of independent, quasi-narrative pictures was to be exploited in the best of the later erotic albums, especially those of the eighteenth century. (I know no examples of comparable interest later than that.) The experience of exploring the picture visually--moving in and out of the depicted spaces, locating and reading the narrative clues, trying (if unconsciously) to bring together the indications they provide into a kind of story, thinking about how the people portrayed might be related socially, maritally, sexually--does not simply arouse, but challenges and entertains the viewer, whose imagined participation is rewarded with quasi-literary pleasures along with the scopophilic. A reading of the pictures might, to be sure, stimulate imaginings of erotic doings in which the viewer/voyeur can feel implicated. But the complexity of the experience must have impeded, not furthered, any use of the pictures for simple arousal or masturbation. The earlier type, with its plainer and more lurid picturing of sex acts, was better suited to that.


[1]Xie Kun, Shuhua Suojian Lu, first printed ca. 1880, p. 62a. Li Yufen, Ouboluo Shi Shuhua Guomu Kao, preface 1894, vol. I, pp. 10b-11a.

[2]Gu Yunchen Huachun Tuce (Shanghai: Yiyuan Zhenshang She, n.d.). Since the price is given as ¥13,000, the date must be in the inflationary late 1940s. The only copy I know was in the library of the late Osvald Sirén, and is now in the Rietberg Museum, Zürich (M XI B81). I am grateful to Helmut Brinker for providing me access to this rare publication.

[3]They are not presented here in the same order in which they appear in the reproduction album; the order of leaves in albums, except when they are numbered or follow some sequential program, is usually undeterminable, since they can be shuffled when the album is taken apart or remounted.

[4]Bertholet, Dreams of Spring, p. 81.

[5]For examples, see my readings of paintings by Yan Ziping and Xia Gui in Wen Fong and James Watt, eds., Possessing the Past, pp. 182 and 192-93, or of one probably by Sheng Mou in Three Thousand Years, pp. 156-57.

[6] See Wang Shifu, ed. and trans. West and Idema, The Moon and the Zither, p. 147.

[7]This reading of the painting was first proposed by Mr. Delin Lai, then a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, in his paper for the seminar I gave there in Spring 1998. He also called attention to an interestingly parallel sequence in chapter 59 of Jin Ping Mei, in which Ximen Qing passes through a sequence of rooms, from public to intimate, in which he successively eats, drinks tea, plays dominoes, and listens to music before he has sex with Aixiang’er.

[8] Information from Howard Rogers, in personal communication dated August 24, 1995.

[9] Four non-erotic leaves from an album of paintings of women in interiors and gardens by Wang Shi are reproduced in Zhongguo minghua ji (Shanghai: Yuzheng Shuju, 1909, 2 vols.) vol. 1, pages unnumbered. Judging from these, which may well represent the publishable leaves from an album otherwise erotic, Wang Shi shares with Gu Jianlong a liking for spatially elaborate compositions and rich decorative patterns; his figure style is distinctive.

[10] An especially fine example is in Album J, by a follower of Gu Jianlong; see Etiemble, Yun Yu, fig. 18.

[11]For this pairing see Cahill, "The Emperor's Erotica (Ching Yüan Chai So-shih II)”,  Kaikodo Journal, vol. XI (1999), pp. 24-43, figs. 13-14.

[12] Paul S. Ropp, "Love, Literacy, and Laments: Themes of Women Writers in Late Imperial China." In Women's History Review, vol. 2, no. 1, 1993, pp. 107-141; this passage on p. 109.

[13] "Paintings for Women in Ming-Qing China?" In Nan Nü: Men, Women, and Gender in China, vol. 8 (2006), 1-54. (Note: the original Nan Nü publication, through an error, lacked the color illustrations, which were later sent separately in a packet to subscribers.)

[14] For a discussion of the related but earlier development of the landscape album similarly made up of individual, non-sequential leaves, see Cahill, Parting at the Shore, pp. 92-93.

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