Chapter 5

E. The Emperor's Erotica, I: Gu Jianlong's Jin Ping Mei Illustrations 

Some time around 1662 Gu Jianlong received an appointment as a painting attendant (zhihou) in the court of the Kangxi emperor.[1] No organized court academy existed under Kangxi's reign, and the practice of giving artists lifetime posts instead of engaging them only for particular projects seems to have begun only later. In addition to whatever projects he was assigned by the emperor, Gu painted portraits of officials at court, and was reportedly engaged by the famous literatus-official Qian Qianyi (1582-1664), then serving in Beijing, to copy an album of portraits of Ming emperors that had been painted (probably) by the famous portraitist Zeng Jing for the Nanjing court of the last pretender to the Ming throne, the Prince of Fu.[2] It will be argued here that he also produced during this time, presumably for Kangxi himself, an extant series of two hundred painted illustrations to Jin Ping Mei. Gu served at court for about ten years, and then retired to live and work again in Suzhou.

Since no signature or other indication of authorship accompanies the Jin Ping Mei albums, and no one, to my knowledge, has suggested an attribution of them to any artist, they have been published and regarded as anonymous. The close similarity in style, however, especially figure style, between the leaves and those in Gu Jianlong's published album (Album B) and others of his works, along with an innovative compositional method and numerous close correspondences in the domestic settings and the objects portrayed in them--furniture, lanterns, screens with rows of small paintings on them, all items in Gu Jianlong's distinctive repertory--link these albums to the leaves in Album B, as well as to others of Gu's paintings. The likelihood of another artist, in Suzhou or elsewhere, working in just this style and using just this repertory of compositions and motifs is so small that the attribution to Gu Jianlong seems secure.

Because the chronology of Gu Jianlong's career has not been clarified, and none of his erotic albums is dated, we cannot be sure that the album by him just considered (Album B) predates his service in the imperial court in the 1660s-70s. But its stylistic earliness and close relationship to the Jin Ping Mei illustrations suggests that it may well represent the kind of work that established Gu's reputation for painting of this kind, and may have led to his commission to make a similar series, but larger and more lavish and taking the form of illustrations instead of freestanding pictures, for the Kangxi emperor. Other extant erotic albums by Gu and his followers, which will be introduced in a separate section below, stand somewhat apart from these two, being made up mostly of simpler pictures, with less elaborate settings and less complex spatial schemes. It is also possible, however, that these last were done as low-cost products for clients of modest means, or for general sale, while the others were luxury items intended for richer purses, or for more powerful patrons, up to the emperor himself.

On the reasonable assumption, then, that Gu Jianlong had already acquired a reputation for erotic painting, along with other kinds, before he was called to court (in his mid-fifties), we can speculate that this reputation may have in some part inspired the invitation. In Chap, Two of PUP it was argued that the service at the Qing court of several painters of figural subjects, especially meiren hua or beautiful women pictures, who had established their reputations in the Jiangnan or Yangzi Delta cities, could be taken as evidence of the powerful attraction that the popular and erotic culture of those southern cities exercised on the Manchu emperors. Kangxi's fascination with this erotic culture, and his fear of being corrupted by it (as was his son Yinreng, the first heir apparent), were also touched on there. Gu Jianlong’s period of service at court corresponds to Kangxi’s teenage years. A well-known anonymous portrait of Kangxi, portraying him as a youth practicing calligraphy, might in fact be by Gu Jianlong, to whose signed semi-formal, full-length portraits it has some resemblance.[3]

The production of the two hundred Jin Ping Mei illustrations was presumably carried out at Kangxi's command---the sheer magnitude of the whole project (two hundred large leaves, executed in heavy colors and meticulous detail on silk) suggests that, and it would be difficult to imagine a project so demanding in time and materials being undertaken for someone else by a painter serving directly under the emperor. We can suppose that Gu was assigned assistants to do some of the time-consuming work of filling in elaborate decorative designs, and supplied with the finest silk and pigments. The quality and variety of the pigments alone confirm, or at least suggest strongly, that this was a court production.[4] And the only time it could have been carried out by Gu Jianlong is during his period of service at the Kangxi court, from about 1662 until some time in the 1670s. The opening leaves of two of the albums bear Qianlong imperial seals, indicating that it was still in the palace collection in the 18th century, and all reports of its recent history locate it in the Manchu palace, from where it was looted some time in the 1920s.[5]

The great late Ming novel Jin Ping Mei, written by an anonymous author during the second half of the sixteenth century and first published in 1618 or shortly after,[6] was very popular in the early Qing, in the Manchu court as well as outside. It was not translated into Manchu until 1708, reportedly by one of Kangxi’s brothers, but the emperor’s reading ability in Chinese sufficed for him to read it in the original. (A report that Kangxi opposed the translation on the grounds that the novel was obscene might seem to contradict our conjecture that the illustrations were done for him, but other disparities between public stance and private behavior in the Manchu emperors were noted in PUP.)[7]

The series of painted illustrations, comprising two hundred leaves in four albums, has been reproduced under the title Qinggong Zhenbao Bimei Tu (Two Hundred Beauties Pictures, [Formerly] Treasured in the Qing Palace) and is designated here as Album D. Four leaves from the albums were introduced in PUP (Figs. 4.36, 4.37, 5.5, 5.7) as examples of illustrational painting, and as providing pictorial information on topics discussed there. Assessing Gu Jianlong's Jin Ping Mei paintings as works of art is more difficult, because of their ambiguous status as neither simple text illustrations nor freestanding art objects. Nothing in Western art quite corresponds, except perhaps for medieval illuminated manuscripts and Books of Hours; illustrational paintings in recent times were mostly made to be reproduced in books. It seems fair to say that the Jin Ping Mei pictures are visually splendid, fascinating in their detail, and absorbing as narrative without being, for most viewers, aesthetically moving.

A few examples will bear out this observation, beginning with a scene from Chap. 16 in which Ximen Qing selects the auspicious day to marry Li Ping’er, while holding her on his lap (Fig.28), and another, from Chap. 24, in which Ximen Qing's son-in-law Jingji flirts with Pan Jinlian on the night of the lantern festival (Fig.29). The first is another example of the spaces-beyond-spaces scheme now familiar from the leaves of Gu's Album B. The passage into depth takes a zigzag course from one courtyard to another, with ornamental rocks marking either end; between are two open rooms within which the figures are situated, and a verandah beyond. The intricacy of the spatial plan, and the skill with which the parts are held together by repeated patterns and colors, as well as the articulation of the spaces by elaborate lanterns hanging or standing in them, emerge only on longer looking. The second is a study in richly colored patterns: the designs on the large hanging lamp superimposed on that of the papered foreground screen, the brocade cover of the low table in lower left, and, most of all, the rows of album and fan paintings on the further screen: landscapes on paper above, flower-painted gold fans below. Screens of this kind appear in other paintings by Gu Jianlong and his followers (cf. PUP Fig. 4.24, also Figs.15, 39, and 83 below) and, to my knowledge, nowhere else in Chinese painting. Gu's lanterns are equally distinctive.

Fig. 28

Fig. 29

The event pictured in another leaf (Fig.30), one of the openly erotic ones, happens when Ximen Qing visits Wang Liu’er, the wife of the manager of his silk store, to arrange for the marriage of her fourteen-year-old daughter, and unexpectedly finds the mother more inviting than the girl. They retire to an inner room for sex while old Mother Feng and Ximen’s servant (?) wait in the entryway. Here the spatial scheme is more conventional, with the two rooms opening directly toward the viewer. Wang Liu’er, a mature and large-bodied woman, lies back on her hastily-removed clothes, watching with open mouth as Ximen Qing holds up her tiny feet and takes her for the first time.[8]

Fig. 30

The Jin Ping Mei illustrations, to the degree that they are still dependent on a text, differ in that respect from Gu's part-erotic album discussed earlier, in which the pictures, so to speak, create their own texts; in the illustrations the temporal extensions of the event, what precedes and follows the depicted moment, are in some part supplied by the story and need not be so fully suggested in the pictures. Gu has nevertheless constructed and furnished many of his compositions as though they were meant to stand alone--in effect, creating what in some respects is a hugely extended part-erotic album. In representing the sexual encounter of Pan Jinlian (Golden Lotus) with Wang Chao'er in Chap. Eighty-six, for instance (Fig.31), Gu laid out, much as he had done in one of the leaves in Album B (Fig.19), the indicators of a U-shaped path--from a farther room at left whence she arose "to relieve herself" but actually in order to have sex with Wang Chao'er, into the foreground space of his bedroom and then back into his bed-- setting or strewing discarded clothes, teacups, and an untouched weiqi board along the way. 

Fig. 31

Assuming, then, that the series of pictures was produced for the Kangxi emperor, and perhaps for the enjoyment of others in the court, how can we best understand the motivation behind the command, the "painter's brief," that Gu Jianlong received from the throne? First of all, the pictures are certainly not simple illustrations in the usual sense. There is no indication that they ever physically accompanied a written text; the albums, each containing fifty large paintings and mounted originally in the elaborate court style, would have been too ponderous to hold as one sat reading the novel. They could, of course, have been placed nearby on a table, and the leaves turned as one read.

If the emperor had only wanted simple illustrations, moreover, they were already available: a set of two hundred woodblock-printed Jin Ping Mei illustrations (two for each of the hundred chapters, as in the painted set, corresponding to the pair of eight-character lines, a kind of couplet, that heads each chapter) had been published with the Chongzhen-era (1628-1644) printing of the novel. Since that edition was the most popular in the early and middle Qing, the emperor must have known it. The artist who designed the pictures for these is unidentified; the blocks were carved by at least four Anhui (Huizhou) block cutters, whose names are on the prints--two of them are otherwise known from their work in other books. These pictures were reprinted several times later in the seventeenth century, either from the original or from recut blocks.[9] Most of Gu Jianlong's two hundred painted leaves adopt figure groups, and some of them whole compositions, from this woodblock series.

Fig. 32

Fig. 33


Just how Gu adapted the pictures from small prints into large paintings can be illustrated with two representative pairings. The first is from Chap. Twelve of Jin Ping Mei, the scene in which Pan Jinlian (Golden Lotus) is humiliated by being made to kneel naked before Ximen Qing, who holds the maid Chunmei on his knee (Figs.32,33). The composition of the painting is little changed from the print, and the figure group is simply copied, with only the additions of Pan Jinlian’s discarded clothes and a pair of amorous rabbits, a motif of unsubtle symbolism often seen in meiren pictures and in erotic paintings as well. But the enlargement of the figures, both in their scale within the composition and in absolute size--the paintings are about four times greater in area than the prints--allowed the artist to draw them with more attention to anatomical plausibility, and the addition of color permitted subtle flesh tones. (In other erotic paintings, but not here, male and female exposed flesh are commonly differentiated in color, the male darker; see, for instance, Figs.3 and 30).  In these ways the sensuality of the scenes, especially those portraying open sexual encounters, was heightened, made more vivid and arousing.

The other pairing, of printed and painted depictions of a scene

from Chap. Seventy-eight of Jin Ping Mei , reveals more of the devices by which Gu Jianlong has enriched the earlier compositions in adapting them to his medium and purpose (Figs.34, 35). The episode takes place in the period of Ximen Qing's worst sexual excesses, which lead to his death in the following chapter. He has taken a medicine that has to be ingested with woman’s milk, and calls the wet nurse Ruyi'er for this purpose; he then has her perform fellatio on him, while the two maids Yingchun and Chunmei play chess in the next room. Whereas the print had located the main figure group in a small room opening frontally onto the courtyard, Gu Jianlong has set it, as he liked to do, in a larger, fully realized interior. The change produces an increased sense of privacy, and permits the spatial resonances that Gu used so skillfully for his narrative effects. Here the presence of the two girls playing weiqi in the farther room, which opens onto the foreground space, adds to the sexual act a fillip of potential voyeurism and the implication of more participants. Their presence also contextualizes the event, much as was done in high-quality erotic fiction, which sets sexual acts in larger contexts that comment on them and suggest reverberations beyond their specific time and place. The rich, strongly variegated colors of the paintings in this series enhance their visual impact, and, along with the visual near-surfeit provided by the sumptuous settings, affect one's readings of the events depicted, both narrative and erotic. On the other hand, devotees of the novel, in these and other pairings, may well find the simpler compositions of the printed pictures more effective as illustrations, and see the added color and detail of the paintings as distractions.

Fig. 34

Fig. 35

The above observations lead, I think, toward two conclusions: that the painted pictures were intended largely to stand on their own, being more tenuously tied to the novel than illustrations commonly are; and that although they could be enjoyed by anyone familiar with the novel simply as pictorializations of its incidents and characters, the openly erotic content of some of them (actually only about thirty-three out of the two hundred) and the titillating depictions of amorous relationships in many others must have been a large part of the motivation for the whole project. Ordering a set of "illustrations" to a recognized work of fiction, even one notorious for its lurid accounts of sexual goings-on, was surely less open to criticism, of a kind to which the Manchu rulers were acutely sensitive, than ordering erotic pictures as such would have been. We cannot know who in the palace had access to the albums, or the situations in which they were viewed by Kangxi and others--did the emperor, like the hero of Roupu Tuan, look at them in the company of his consorts and concubines?--since we have no such visual access to Kangxi's inner chambers as we have, through Gu Jianlong's art, to Ximen Qing's.

The foregoing account of the Jin Ping Mei painted illustrations, how they came into being and how they can best be understood, is admittedly provisional and inferential. The same will be true of my discussion below of another series, done under Qianlong, which similarly depends on a cluster of clues and scattered materials that have come together into a provisional pattern in the course of my research. But both sets of inferences are the only ones, so far as I can see, that fit all the evidence we have, and so can be accepted tentatively, in the hope that more evidence will come to light to confirm or correct them.

Gu Jianlong appears to have produced also a series of illustrations to Li Yu's (1610-after 1680) novel Roupu Tuan; the paintings do not, so far as I know, survive in the original, but are attested by an eleven-leaf album of close (although somewhat stiff) copies (Album F).[10] The paintings correspond in numerous features of style and subject with the Jin Ping Mei illustrations, and it is possible that Gu made the set for some member of the imperial family, or for a high official, while he was in Beijing. Since Roupu Tuan was written in 1657, the existence of these copies testifies to Gu's artistic engagement with high-level erotic fiction ranging in date from Jin Ping Mei to his own time, and to his role in creating both illustrations to it and pictorial equivalents for some characteristic features of it. Other sets of Roupu Tuan illustrations exist that are in part based on Gu's and appear to be by followers of his.[11]

Since the album is important in preserving compositions from what must have been one of Gu Jianlong’s major works, we reproduce two leaves. One (Fig.36) depicts the scene in Chap. Fifteen of the book in which Vesperus makes love to one of two sisters, Lucky Pearl, while the other, Lucky Jade, is comforted by Cloud, already one of Vesperus’s lovers. Both the compositional type (cf. Fig.30) and the figure style are by now familiar as features of Gu’s painting, as is the screen at left with an album leaf and fan painting mounted on it. The other (Fig.37) is the scene in Chap, Seventeen in which Vesperus engages in anal copulation with Flora, while the other three (those in Fig.36) assist him and hold her down.[12] Behind them is a stone table strewn with erotic albums (which Flora collected), wine ewer and cups, and dishes of things to eat. A tray landscape with dwarf trees and rocks in lower right, along with a pot of orchids, strike the note of aesthetic refinement that was evidently felt to alleviate somewhat the effect of grossness that the subjects of such pictures might impart to them.

FIG. 36

FIG. 37

[1]See Rogers, “Court Painting Under the Qianlong Emperor,” in The Elegant Brush, pp. 305-6. I depend here on unpublished notes on the artist by Rogers, written to accompany a painting of 1693 (former Kaikodo collection) on which the artist signs with this title ("Painting Attendant to the Inner Court") and uses a seal with the same title.

[2]She Ch'eng. "The Painting Academy of the Qianlong Period," in The Elegant Brush, p. 319. I cannot identify the Zeng Ao mentioned in his paper as the artist of the album Gu copied, and assume that this is a mistake for the great portraitist Zeng Jing. She Ch'eng does not identify the source of his quotation. An album by Gu of portraits of forty Ming dynasty officials is recorded in Pei Jingfu,  Zhuangtaoge Shuhua Lu, preface 1924.

[3]For the painting, see Nie Chongzheng, Qingdai Gongting Huihua, pl. 1. For portraits by Gu Jianlong see PUP, Chap. 4, note 2.

[4]This was an observation made by the late Laurence Sickman, as reported by his successor as director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Marc Wilson.

[5]The albums are said to have been looted from the palace by the warlord Zhang Zuolin (1873-1928) during his occupation of Beijing in 1926--or, in an alternative version, from the Shenyang Palace during his much longer period as military governor of Manchuria, 1918-28. They were inherited by his son Zhang Xueliang (1898-2001) and, after their publication in Shanghai during the 1940s, were taken by him to Taiwan in the Nationalist exodus of 1948.  Zhang, who was kept under house arrest there for many years, reportedly sold or gave away paintings from his collection during the 1970s-1980s. Of the two hundred leaves of the Bimei Tu albums, twenty-five were purchased in the 1980s by the then British consul in Taipei, Andrew Franklin, C.V.O., C.B.E.; of these, eight were bought by the late Laurence Sickman for the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City. Franklin kindly showed me the seventeen he still owned in 1991. Thirteen more leaves were formerly in the collection of Mr. C. C. Yeh, Taichung, who showed them to me in August 2001 and related the story of how they were acquired (indirectly) from Zhang Xueliang. It would appear that Zhang gave groups of them as political and other gifts; these thirteen had been given to a member of the Legislature, from whom Yeh received them in payment of a debt. Yeh’s leaves were sold at auction, Beijing, Han Hai, Nov. 21, 2004, Lot #1593. The whereabouts of the remaining leaves are not known to me, and I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has information about them.

[6] An annotated translation by David T. Roy is underway as The Plum in the Golden Vase, or, Chin P’ing Mei. Vol. 1, The Gathering (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1993); vol. 2, The Rivals (same publisher, 2001); vol. 3, The Aphrodisiac (same publisher, 2006). These three volumes render the first sixty chapters of this hundred-chapter work.

[7] See Berthold Laufer, “Skizze der Manjurischen Literatur,” Keleti Szemle vol. IX (Budapest, 1908), pp. 32-33.  A reprint of this translation is A Manchu Edition of Chin P’ing Mei (San Francisco, Calif.: Chinese Materials Center, 1975). Chinese characters appear beside the Manchu transcriptions of names. Other instances of discrepancies between public stance and private behavior in the Manchu emperors were suggested in Chap. 2 of PUP.

[8] For this incident, which is in Chap. 37, see the second volume of David Roy’s translation, The Plum in the Golden Vase, vol. 2, The Rivals ( Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 372-7.

[9]The earliest, Wanli-era  edition had no illustrations; the Chongzhen-era edition was the first to be illustrated. A modern facsimile reprint of the Wanli edition adds the Chongzhen-era illustrations: Jin Ping Mei Cihua: Wanli Ben, 20 vols. (Taipei, Publisher? 1979), David Roy's translation is illustrated with the Chongzhen-era woodblock pictures.

[10]See Dreams of Spring (cf. n. 2 above), pp.  60-67, eight leaves; Le Palais du Printemps 97-115, all leaves.

[11]One series of twenty-four illustrations (Album E) is reproduced as an appendix, apparently copied from an old reproduction album, in vol. 15, Roupu Tuan, of the series Siwuxie Huibao (Taipei: Taiwan Daying Boke, Ltd., 1994). Another set, mostly based on these, with eight paintings and eight leaves of calligraphy, was offered at auction: Christie's New York, December 1994, Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, no. 308.

[12] For these passages in the novel, see Li Yu, The Carnal Prayer Mat, trans. Hanan, pp. 229-32 and 271-74.


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