Four Eighteenth Century Erotic Albums

Chapter 7

G. Four Eighteenth Century Erotic Albums

Four high-level erotic albums from the eighteenth century can represent what might be called the golden age of the art, and also illustrate the growing sophistication and wittiness that characterize this later phase of its development. Their broadening of thematic range is not, as in the print series J30 and to a lesser extent in the other print series, a relatively simple matter of adding more participants and devising more devious sexual pursuits. Three of the albums explore, through direct portrayal or suggestion, a diversity of subjects including voyeurism, masturbation by both sexes, homosexuality, bestiality, and incest, along with simple sexual ennui and impotence. The artist and his audience regard all these, however, not so much with prurience as with amusement, enjoying the foibles and absurdities into which a wide spectrum of sexual urges can drive ordinary people. The fourth album, by sharp contrast, is innocent of both humor and explicit sex, offering instead complexities of a different kind: romantic and potentially sexual situations in which more people are involved than the simple amatory couple, so that any straightforward outcome seems ruled out. And both kinds, representing different types of expressive complexity, take us further and further from the simple series of pictures of people engaged in bisexual couplings, with which this genre appears to have begun.

Among the few surviving erotic albums whose authorship can be determined, apart from the Gu Jianlong group, is the album of eight large horizontal leaves by the Suzhou master Xu Mei (Album L), which was briefly introduced in PUP (pp. xx). The paintings may seem at first closer to soft-core than to hard-core erotica, since they offer little of openly visible lovemaking; the amorous couples are seen through bed curtains or set-back windows, and remain mostly clothed, with only small glimpses, if any, of engaged genitalia. Again, nothing could be more unlike the blatant exhibitionism of the older, Ming, type, or typical ukiyo-e erotica of Japan. In the leaf reproduced there (PUP Fig. 2.3) one’s attention is caught first by the foreground group, three women at a table engaged in some domestic activity. All appear oblivious to what is happening in the farther room, where a man, presumably the husband-father, is having sex in a lounge chair with another young woman. Like other leaves in the album, this is a provocative vignette, a seeming illustration to an imagined story, that allows the viewer to construct his own set of relationships and circumstances around it.

Fig. 42

Another leaf, which seems innocuous enough on first glance, turns out on further looking to suggest an even more improper relationship (Fig. 42). A woman sitting on the ground in a garden is suckling her baby; a teen-age boy, perhaps her older son, appears inspired by her bared breast and loose clothing to make amorous advances, which she gently repulses, holding off his reaching hand and turning to him a sympathetic face, as if herself moved and a bit regretful. The context of the album virtually rules out any more innocent reading of the scene, which has strong implications of incest. (For a similar theme in a later album, see Fig. 58 below.) That this is happening in an upper-class, scholarly household is made clear by a view into a study at right, with books, scrolls, antiquities, and a blue-and-green landscape hanging scroll all meticulously rendered. In the foreground are two pencai, tray gardens with dwarf plants. As we have seen throughout this study, the enhancement of erotic imagery with loving portrayals of lavish material settings is a near-constant feature of these paintings.

Fig. 43

The outré inventiveness of these leaves carries through in the others. A group of women and children at the entrance to a house watch a pair of dogs, still joined after coupling, while another dog tries to mount the bitch and others circle around them.[1] An older man is seen through a moon window practicing cunnilingus on a younger woman, both spied on by a boy servant. A man having sex with a woman in a chair, observed by a girl servant leaning on the back, pauses to gaze at the woman’s tiny bound foot. One leaf (Fig. 43) presents a couple escaping the summer heat in a grotto opening onto a lotus pond, a place not only cool and moist but also charged with the vital essence qi, which accumulates in caverns and hollows near running water and presumably enhances the pleasure of their lovemaking. (This belief is not without scientific basis: negative ions in the air, which induce clear-headedness and exhilaration, are more concentrated at the bases of waterfalls.) The woman continues to fish with a long bamboo pole as the man embraces, kisses, and enters her; a lightly clad girl sitting on the railing of a bridge nearby, presumably a maid, adjusts the shoe on her bound foot and looks abstractedly out at us. It is a measure of the extraordinary refinement of detail that we can read the design of flowering trees on the girl’s fan. Throughout the album, the artist sensitively embeds his prurient imagery in settings that otherwise appear to be merely decorous portrayals of domestic scenes.

One of the finest of the erotic albums (Album M) is usually attributed to the famous and prolific northern figure master Leng Mei (ca. 1670-1742 or later), and it is true that Leng Mei seals appear on the leaves. But his seals and signature, like Qiu Ying's, were often placed on figure paintings that are not by him. Some of these are crude imitations, forgeries of Leng Mei; others, including this album, are works of high quality to which Leng’s seals were added, presumably to make them more saleable. One of the finest of the meiren or beautiful woman paintings, for example, the well-known “Woman Resting from Reading” in the British Museum ( PUP Fig. 5.14), bears Leng Mei seals but is a later, more sophisticated production, very different from the distinctive image of woman that can be seen consistently in Leng Mei’s reliable works. Leng Mei’s own paintings, moreover, mostly reveal nothing of the urbane wittiness that distinguishes this album. It must be by an artist working around the third quarter of the 18th century, probably in the north. The style resembles not so much Leng Mei’s as that of Cui Hui, active around the same time as Leng (cf. PUP Figs. 3.20-3.22); it may be one of Cui’s followers, not famous enough to market his work under his own name, who painted this album. We would like very much to know who he is, and to identify more of his work.


Fig. 44

The album is executed in a highly finished, realistic style that owes much to European art, but with a lightness of touch, in both brush and conception, that tempers the indelicacy of the subjects. Several of the leaves are set outdoors, and have an attractively bucolic character. In one, for instance, (Fig. 44) a herdboy is about to take the virginity (we assume) of a young girl, who may have come out onto the hillside to fly the kite that lies on the ground at left. This seemingly spontaneous and uncomplicated encounter evokes an interplay of innocence and knowledge, and pastoral dreams of return to a state of youthful freshness. It hints also at the allure of child sex, and thus, like other leaves in the album, has a tinge of the near-perverse, which is somehow intensified here by the way the cow and nuzzling calf, behind, roll their eyes back to watch. The rendering of the animals and the riverbank setting in the semi-Westernized illusionistic manner contributes to the ingenuous plein-air openness of the scene.

 Fig. 45

A non-physical encounter, subtler and wittier, is set in a small courtyard (Fig. 45). The gardener boy pauses from sweeping leaves to entice a girl in the household, who watches from behind a split-bamboo blind at the window, by drawing out the front of his pants and pointing meaningfully at the farthest extension. The girl chews her sleeve and gazes intently, captivated by what she is shown. But the artist has made us privy to the boy’s deception by allowing us to glimpse, through a gap in his trousers, his much more modest member.

In another outdoor scene, two women hold down a third, exposing and fingering open her sex, while another picks an eggplant with which to violate her; a baby she carries looks slyly out at us, as if privy to the game. In still another, a girl holds and gazes at the extended penis of a braying donkey, too absorbed to notice a boy who is reaching under her clothing as she squats. Our artist treats these as good clean fun, and almost persuades us that they are that. In one of the indoor leaves, a confused-looking girl kneels before a portly, stern-faced woman, presumably the mistress of the house, who appears to be demanding oral sex, while a young man in the doorway behind, penis exposed, signals a more attractive offer.[2] These leaves suggest a reading of the album as, among other things, an artist’s fondly amused (and partly imagined) exploration of female sexuality. In any case, the extraordinary refinements of execution and an air of bucolic innocence give these pictures more the character of mildly off-color pleasantries, of the kind the Chinese love, than of real erotica, and rescue them from any effect of coarseness that their subjects might evoke.

We are a long way from albums of the type that presented simple portrayals of one sex act after another. In none of these leaves is the act really taking place--the one with the ox and calf (Fig. 44) comes closest, showing the moment before penetration. In the more straightforward scenes of less sophisticated albums, sex is unproblematic: he and she come together and go at it, with no interference. This album, by contrast, is devoted to subtle pictorial explorations of how young people and old attempt to negotiate the complex situations into which sexual desire, their own or others’, has drawn them. The effects are achieved, moreover, through truly pictorial means: no literary descriptions of the scenes could capture the nuances conveyed here (although, of course, literary description opens other possibilities, such as telling what preceded the moment depicted, or describing what the people are feeling.) The intricacy of the album’s program and its excellence as a work of art must place it, eventually, high up within this neglected genre.

Fig. 46

The only leaf among the eight that might properly be called coarse (Fig. 46) presents an old, gap-toothed traveling merchant bargaining with a tavern girl, or perhaps a prostitute, over how much it will cost him to induce her to pull down her pants the rest of the way--or, in a different reading, preventing her from pulling up her pants while demanding, with his two raised fingers, a second bout for his money. When we turn our attention from this rather gross tableau, however we read it, we may be captivated by the meticulous reproduction of wood-grain on the partly-open door, and the glimpse through it into the stable below, from which wild-eyed horses look out. Even more absorbing is the townscape viewed through the open window, likewise painted in an enchanting version of the Sino-European illusionistic manner. Light snow is falling, and a traveler with an umbrella is leading a horse along the canal; the figures, together with the houses behind and the foreshortened wall of the building at left, are reflected in the water. All this, quite irrelevant to the erotic theme (apart from its usual function of lending to it a kind of credibility), is rendered with a delicacy and skill that make us wonder why an artist of this attainment did not become better known (it is quite beyond the capacity of Leng Mei, judging from any of his reliably signed works), or turn his abilities to other uses than settings for erotica. In planning this complex composition, with the main arena of action opening downward into a more constricted space at right and outward into an expansive one at left, the artist would appear to betray some visual acquaintance, perhaps through engravings after paintings, with mid-seventeenth century Dutch genre paintings, in which similar split-view schemes are similarly used to deepen and contextualize mildly improper narrative situations.[3]

An anonymous album by a follower of Gu Jianlong  (Album K), which must have been painted, like the preceding one, some time in the mid or later eighteenth century, further expands the thematic repertory of the erotic albums, and further persuades us that the Chinese artists of this period were unmatched in their capacity for inventing comic-erotic situations for their pictures.[4] The album presently consists of nine leaves, out of an original ten or twelve or more. Not only the figure style but also the compositional types and the furnishings--notably the screen with many small paintings affixed to it (cf. Figs.15, 29, 38)--belong to Gu’s repertory. At the same time, the thematic diversity of the album goes far beyond anything Gu could have conceived, or at least painted. In this respect it is closer to the album with Leng Mei seals just considered, with which it is probably roughly contemporary.

Fig. 47

A few of the nine leaves offer relatively straightforward scenes of heterosexual sex: a traveling scholar dreaming of his faraway lover,[5] a fisherman making love to his wife in a boat while their small child looks on, a nude couple copulating in a garden. But others are anything but straightforward. One remarkable leaf (Fig. 47) sets the tone, perhaps, for the entire album: we see the ultimately blasé and permissive couple enjoying their favorite pursuit, which has by now, however, become a bit tiresome. They have adopted a position for intercourse that requires little movement or even muscular strain; she passes her time looking through an erotic album, perhaps in search of some novelty that will spice up their sex life, while he, the typical philandering male, turns to flirt with the maid. The Mi-style landscape painted on the screen behind them, a high-culture emblem that was itself by now rather tired, must be an ironic touch; the artists who made these pictures delighted, as was noted several times in PUP, in demonstrating their ability to paint perfectly acceptable literati landscapes as minor adjuncts to their creations. In another leaf (Fig.48), a mature, bearded man has stretched out naked on a lounge chair on the verandah outside his study to rest from reading a steamy passage in Jin Ping Mei, “The Plum in the Golden Vase”—that is the title written on the open book on the floor beside him, one ce or fascicle from a large set seen in the bookcase inside the room.  He may be fanning his erect penis with the feather fan, or else is tickling it for stimulation. His eyes are closed, whether in a doze or in satisfied enjoyment is not clear. A young housemaid looks out at him, her sleeve-covered hand to her face in a gesture of concern and uncertainty, feelings that are hinted at also by her raised eyebrows: should she intrude on him, and what would she be risking if she did?

Fig. 48

The picture is, of course, an undeserved slur on Jin Ping Mei, which, although it doubtless sometimes elicited in its readers responses of the kind depicted here, was far more than a stimulus for sexual arousal. In such a picture as this, however, the urbane artist is not so much presenting a theme directly as playing on a theme, or on a common notion about it. What we see is the painter’s facetious report of someone’s imagining of how the lofty scholars, in the privacy of their studies, really appreciated this great work of Chinese fiction. That such a subtle concept could underlie a picture in an erotic album is still another indicator of the level of sophistication that this genre had attained by this time.

Three more leaves from this entertaining series will be introduced below, in connection with particular themes (Figs. 63, 75, 83.)

The fourth album (Album S) is so seemingly innocent in the colorful pictures it offers, so devoid of open sexual imagery, that it could be acquired early in the twentieth century by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as a high-quality, inoffensive work of Chinese painting. In style, it continues the tradition of Qiu Ying and his less original followers , the minor Suzhou masters of late Ming and early Qing who painted, among other subjects, illustrations to popular novels and plays. The V&A album appears at first to follow closely that tradition: the interiors with their furnishings, the garden settings with rocks and flowers and trees, the rich coloring, the faces and costumes of the figures, seem scarcely to have changed since the time of the great Ming master himself. One might at first, then, dismiss this as simple decorative and derivative painting, naive, lacking the knowing nuances of the others. But while it is true that the V&A album has none of the slightly world-weary tone of those, it also, in a different way, presupposes sophisticated viewers familiar with complex patterns of love and sexual desire as they had been developed in fiction and drama, as well as in earlier painting. That the pictures, while they are individual vignettes, seem to follow in some aspects a tradition of narrative illustration--for instance, in the relatively small size of the figures within the compositions--encourages viewers to try to construct stories around them in the old way. But that urge is frustrated by the artist, who disrupts the familiar patterns while evoking them, inserting additional figures who seem to be implicated in undefined ways in the webs of relationships between the others. The effect, in the most interesting of the pictures, is to skew the narrative so as to prevent straightforward readings of the pictures based on established conventions; the narrative situations are thus left unresolved, and open to variant readings. In this openness lies the special character and the attraction of the album.

Fig. 49

A consideration of five leaves will illustrate how this unusual artistic stratagem works. One leaf (Fig. 49) appears at first to present a familiar scene: the woman works at embroidery while awaiting her lover; he climbs over a wall; her maid is there to welcome and guide him. So far, it might recall the principals and events of the Western Wing play. But what does it mean when the man and the maid are kissing, and he is untying her girdle? Is the older woman unaware of what they are up to? Can she see them through the open window? Does her twisted posture express erotic eagerness or anger? No simple story emerges from the picture, but various stories can be imagined around it.

Fig. 50

Another (Fig. 50) seems more straightforward, but is also not without its ambiguities. A man escapes the summer heat in a garden pavilion, attended by two women, older and younger. The mood of eroticism is heavy: discarded garments are already draped over the railing and table. The older woman plays a flute, leaning forward, one tiny foot resting on a stool. Since "playing the flute" refers to fellatio in the erotic lexicon, there may be a suggestion here that she will join in that role when active sex begins. The young girl, who was playing a samisen-like instrument, perhaps to accompany her singing, sits now astride the man's knee, turning toward him and grasping his jacket. The pair of mandarin ducks swimming in the lotus pond at left, commonly symbols of marital devotion, must here be read as ironic commentary. Once more, the situation and feelings of the older woman are the focus of ambiguity. Is she a permissive wife? She shows no sign of jealousy. Is she simply enjoying vicariously the dalliance of the other two, or, as just suggested, anticipating joining in? Or can we imagine her herself amorously attached to the girl? The picture opens all these possible readings; the last, an amorous relationship between the women, while it may seem far-fetched in the context of this leaf alone, is made plausible in others, as we will see.

Fig. 51

Several of the leaves offer compositions familiar from earlier usage: a woman tries to wake her scholar husband, who has fallen asleep reading, while the maid prepares the bed; a man helps his wife or concubine remove her hair ornaments in preparation for their retiring to the bed behind them. Other leaves add a second woman or girl, in a more ambiguous role than that of voyeur, to otherwise familiar scenes. In one of these (Fig. 51) the man displays an erotic scroll to a girl, presumably to arouse her and render her more submissive to his sexual advances. What distinguishes this picture from others of the kind (cf. Figs. 1, 2, 3) is the presence of an older woman, probably the man's wife, who stands behind him; it is she who grasps the girl's wrist and draws her toward him, against the girl's shy reluctance to look at the scroll. (The tiny erotic image to be seen there is the only one of open sex in the whole album.) Another maid, more mature, stands listening behind the wall. As commonly in these pictures, antique bronze vessels and ceramics, along with cases of books, indicate the wealth and cultivation of the household.

Fig. 52

A scene of late winter or early spring (Fig. 52), identified as that by the blossoming plum tree in foreground and layers of snow on the green rocks and slopes, locates the man and his consort on the open verandah of their house. Dressed in heavy robes, they hold hands inside their sleeves as she nestles in his lap. A brazier in front of them gives warmth while also heating pots of wine. They are gazing, and directing the viewer's gaze, at two figures in the foreground of the picture: a woman bringing another pot of wine, and a girl servant. The woman with the winepot pauses to look back significantly at the younger one--something is passing between them that draws the attention and excites the interest of the other three. We can recall how in Hong Lou Meng, which may be roughly contemporary with this album, affairs that develop between members of the household, including servants, become topics of innuendo or open commentary among the others--little could be kept secret in such close-knit and densely inhabited domestic establishments.

Fig. 53

Any lingering suspicion that the above accounts overread the pictures, that we are seeing nothing more than another set of paintings devoted simply to the sexual pleasures of men, should be dispelled by another leaf in which all participants are female (Fig. 53). A woman and girl have been enjoying the spring weather on a garden terrace by a stream, reading or looking at paintings in the books and scrolls beside them. Their tranquility is interrupted--the woman has dropped her fan--by the sight of a pair of cats mating. The girl, aroused and perhaps a bit disturbed, clings tighter to the woman, who embraces her with more than protective warmth. Another artist might have let this provocative image suffice as the theme of the picture; this one, typically, complicates it with the addition of another woman, perhaps midway in age between the other two, turning as she crosses a bridge to look back at them and at the coupling cats. Is she another member of the household, or a friend, or a stranger passing by chance, who might now become somehow implicated in the potentially erotic aftermath?

Although the ostensible themes of most of the leaves are the sexual pleasures of males, or of heterosexual couples, those pleasures are not portrayed so blatantly as to stimulate male fantasies, and in the end are subordinated to the real matter of the album, which is subtle evocations of the responses and relationships of the women who appear in it, and the complex feelings we are invited to read into their images in these contexts. Taken together, the leaves seem designed to kindle in women imaginings of a diversity of romantic and erotic situations, and leave little doubt that women were intended as the main audience for the album. It is not impossible that the artist was a woman, who could judge more finely the effect her pictures would have on others of her sex; she could have been some follower of Fan Xueyi, who was active as a figure and narrative painting specialist in early Qing Suzhou, and who worked in an earlier version of more or less the same style (cf. PUP Figs. 4.34, 4.35). Hints of sexual attachments between women make up an undercurrent in these leaves; the underlying message appears to be that submission to the erotic desires of a man, even as only one of his consorts or sexual partners, does not rule out romantic liaisons with other women. In the ideal world of the album, the two kinds of sexual engagement can coexist comfortably. The same message will be seen in a later section to underlie another album (Album T, Figs. 84-87 ) composed entirely of women-only scenes, and the implications of female bisexuality and its portrayal in Chinese literature and painting will be further pursued.

[1] This leaf is reproduced in Bilishi Yulunsi Fufu Cang Zhongguo Shuhua Xuanji (Chinese Painting and Calligraphy in the Collection of Guy Ullens de Schooten) (Beijing: Forbidden City Pub. Co., 2002) no. 13.

[2] For these, see Moss, The Literati Mode, nos. e, f, h.

[3] See, for example, Peter C. Sutton et al., Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting, exhib. cat. (Philadelphia, Pa: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1984), pl. 90 (cat. no. 96), Cornelis Saftleben, “Barn Interior,” ca. 1665, and pl. 99 (cat. no. 67), Nicholas Maes, “The Eavesdropper,” 1657. About the latter we read: “The unlikely structure was inspired less by actual domestic architecture than by Maes’ concern with the formal problem of creating an illusion of space and by the peculiar narrative requirements” (notes by Cynthia von Bogendorf-Ripprath, ibid. p. 242.) On “The Eavesdropper,” see also Martha Hollander, “The Divided Household of Nicholaes Maes,” Word & Image, vol. 10, no. 2 (April-June 1994), pp. 138-55.

[4] The previous owner of this album, from whom the present owner received it as a gift, was the late Alan Priest, longtime Curator of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He acquired it in Beijing, and reportedly described it as “the best erotic album [then] on the Peking market.”

[5] For this leaf, see Liebeskunst: Liebeslust und Liebesleid in der Weltkunst (cf. n. 49 above), no. 162, p. 212.

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