Preface and Introduction


What follows--and what will continue to be posted, chapter by chapter, over quite a few weeks--is the text that I call, for short, Chinese Erotic Painting, or CEP for still shorter. The full title that was intended for it, when it was planned for publication as a book, was: Scenes from the Spring Palace: Erotic Painting and Printing in China. It began, in shorter form, as a long sixth chapter to my recently published book Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China (U.C. Press, 2011, referred to hereafter as PUP.) Then the decision was made, jointly by myself and the publisher of that book, the U.C. Press in Berkeley, to split off this last chapter and expand it into a separate, smaller follow-up book, which the Press also agreed to publish. It went through outside reviews and was revised in response to those. But several factors have made me decide instead to publish it here, in digital form. First, virtually everyone whom I knew at the U.C. Press has retired; I don’t even have an editor there. Secondly, they had decided to reduce the number of illustrations I could use, and to print only half of those in color. “Publishing” it digitally here on my website will make it available to everybody, free of charge, and will allow me to use as many color illustrations as I choose to.

I want to emphasize here at the beginning that the paintings I will consider, mostly leaves in erotic albums, are in my opinion works of good artistic quality, equal on the whole to other paintings of their time; they are, in fact, as I will argue, painted by much the same kind of artists. I make a distinction, then, between erotic art, which I take these to be, and pornography, low-level pictures meant mainly for sexual arousal. I am aware of post-structuralist arguments that aim at blurring or erasing that distinction, preferring to see erotic art and pornography as simply representing higher or lower social classes in the consumers.[1] That distinction, on the other hand, is basic to the present book: out of hundreds of Chinese erotic painting albums I have seen over the years, I have chosen those few that I take to be works of artistic quality and originality, aimed at affecting their viewers in ways other than, or above, or beyond, simple sexual stimulation and onanistic arousal. I would argue, moreover, that the distinction is based in properties of the works, not merely in attitudes or status of the viewers. For those reluctant to make this distinction, the whole argument of this book may well seem pointless and unconvincing. The book is intended, that is, for those who still believe that art is different from non-art, even though the distinction can never be sharp and beyond controversy. My whole approach, in fact, will seem simplistic to some; I am not trying to frame or discuss the issues in the methodologically engaged language of contemporary discourse on erotica and pornography. I write, here as elsewhere, in an old-fashioned art-historical mode; I am willing to take criticism for this, largely because of my inability to write otherwise. I believe nonetheless that my study offers insights and information that cannot be found elsewhere.

This book is possible because, over the years, I have made slides of the good erotic albums and paintings I've seen, as they passed through auctions or otherwise became accessible. Many of the works that I will reproduce are thus presently whereabouts unknown. And I am not, for the purposes of putting my unpublished book online here, seeking permissions from the owners, even when I know them. I know from correspondence that the private owner of several of the albums, the Dutch collector Ferdinand Bertholet, is happy to see his holdings reproduced as widely as possible, and I hope that others feel the same.

I have added a relatively brief chapter on Chinese erotic prints, to deliver some general information and observations and to call attention to the single most important--virtually the only--collection of these, the former Shibui Collection that has now become part of the Muban Foundation in London. Essays on that collection by the Muban’s founder and owner Christer von der Burg and by his main bibliographical advisor Soren Edgren appear in a special issue of Orientations, vol. 40 no. 3 for April 2009, along with an essay by myself and several others; a book on the collection by von der Burg and Edgren is planned. These new studies, and the accessibility of the former Shibui Collection, makes the writings on these prints by the late Robert H. von Gulik, who seems to have had only a very limited access to them when he wrote and self-published his Erotic Chinese Colour Prints of the Ming Period (Tokyo, 1952), pretty much obsolete, although some of his scholarly observations on them are still of value, and his Sexual Life in Ancient China, ground-breaking in its time, can still be read, with care, for pleasure and as a basic source (R. H. van Gulik, Sexual Life in Ancient China: a Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society, Leiden, Sinica Leidensica, 1961.) I will argue in my introductory chapter that van Gulik’s insistence on relating the prints and paintings to earlier Chinese texts on esoteric Buddhism and Daoism, an insistence based mainly, I think, on his own deep engagement with those texts and studies, has deceived too many later scholars and sent them in ultimately fruitless directions, since no real basis for it can be found, so far as I can tell, in Chinese writings on the paintings and prints. Van Gulik was both a productive scholar and an old trickster, and we have to try to separate his scholarship from his tricks in using his writings. My own attempt to do that for the Erotic Coliour Prints book is my article “Judge Dee and the Vanishing Ming Colour Prints,” published in Orientations for November, 2003.

The book that follows, the PUP from which it was removed, and the series of lectures on Chinese paintings of women that I delivered at USC in 1994 as The Flower and the Mirror: Representations of Women in Late Chinese Painting (hereafter WCP), have occupied much of my energies as a scholar and writer over the past two decades or so. The Getty Lectures, still unpublished, may also be put onto this website in some form, if I can find the time to locate the slides for illustrating them and otherwise prepare them. I have done a good bit of cannibalizing during those years, as ideas and information were moved from one of these writings to the other, in part according to priorities of publication. Readers will have to put up with that less-than-ideal situation. You will also have to put up with the frustration of not being able to leaf through the entire “book,” look at illustrations for later chapters, etc. You will have access only to what has been posted on my website, and that will accumulate, week after week.

Earlier and contemporary scholars and writers whom I should credit at the beginning are, of course, van Gulik, but also Wilt Idema, Soren Edgren and Christer von der Burg, Helmut Wilhelm, John Finlay, Howard Rogers, and Hiromitsu Kobayashi.  Andrea Goldman served as my research assistant during a crucial early period when I was gathering materials, and put her remarkable gifts to work in helping me assemble and interpret them. In addition to those, I am indebted to a great many people, some of whom are listed in the Acknowledgements section of PUP, so I will not list them all here again. My deepest thanks to all of you.

James Cahill, January 28th, 2012.

"Erotische Malerei in China" (Erotic Painting in China), in Liebeskunst: Liebeslust und Liebeslied in der Weltkunst (Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 2002), pp. 201-215.

"Les peintures érotiques chinoises de la collection Bertholet." In: Le Palais du printemps: Peintures érotiques de Chine., exhib. cat. (Paris, Musée Cernuschi, 2006), 29-42.

[1]See, for instance, Lynda Nead, "'Above the Pulp-line': The Cultural Significance of Erotic Art," in Pamela Church Gibson and Roma Gibson, eds., Dirty Looks:  Women, Pornography, Power (London: British Film Institute, 1993) pp. 144-155.



(Note: this needs some introductory notes that will be in the Preface.)

A. Introduction                                                                                                 1

B. Erotic Painting Up to Early Qing: the Older Album Type                          35

C. Printed Erotic Albums of the Late Ming                                                     51

D. The New Album Type in Early Qing: Gu Jianlong and Others                 66

E. The Emperor’s Erotica, I: Gu Jianlong’s Jin Ping Mei Illustrations            86

F. Other Erotic Albums by Gu Jianlong and Followers                                  103

G. Four Erotic Albums of the Eighteenth Century                                          109

H. The Emperor’s Erotica, II: The Qianlong Albums Master                         128

I. The Audiences for the Part-Erotic Albums                                                  146

J. Three Recurring Themes in the Part-Erotic Albums                                   161

  1. Voyeurism                                                                                           161
  1. Deceiving the Wife                                                                              170

3, Love in the Garden                                                                        176

K. Homoerotic Love and Beyond; The “Secret Spring” Master                   183

L. The Late Period; Conclusion                                                                    207

A. Introduction

Chinese erotic paintings make up one of the subject categories within Chinese painting whose scholarly investigation is impeded by difficulty of access to the works. Like illustrational narrative paintings and some other kinds treated in my previous book Pictures For Use and Pleasure (hereafter PUP), they are likely to surface briefly in auctions and then disappear into the hands of private owners who, even in the present climate of openness, may not be anxious to make their holdings public. Moreover, since the great majority of extant erotic albums are late in date and often crude, most of them copies of copies surviving from what must have been a copious production stimulated by a heavy and continuing demand, the genre as a whole has usually been dismissed by scholars of Chinese art as unworthy of serious attention.[1]

To be sure, among those known to me in originals or from publications, only a minor fraction, perhaps twenty-five or thirty albums, are on the qualitative level of the paintings considered in the PUP book.[2] But those few—which, as always for the scantily preserved kinds of paintings, must be assumed to stand in for many more that have not survived, or at least not surfaced--do merit careful consideration, both for their inherent interest and for their place among the finest works of the urban professional masters. As we will see, they allow us to chart provisionally the art-historical development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of a little-studied genre of painting, much of it quasi-narrative in character, that proves to hold considerable interest not only in itself but also in relation to the development of fiction in this same period. The best of the erotic albums also offer the potential of supplementing our knowledge of Qing social history and material culture, besides serving as important evidence for Chinese sexual iconography and, cautiously interpreted, sexual practice. These academic concerns are, of course, above and beyond their original functions of erotic stimulation and fantasy-feeding--functions that they are still quite capable of fulfilling, as is betrayed by the rigorous suppression of them in China.

The recorded Chinese literature on the erotic paintings is scanty but  important. It includes records of paintings that have not survived. The late Ming collector Zhang Chou (1577-1643) writes of obtaining in 1618 a handscroll painting of Secret Play on a Spring Night which he took to be a work by the eighth century figure master Zhou Fang; it had, moreover, been in the collection of the great artist Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322).[3] Paintings identified by the same generic title as that one, perhaps meant to recall Zhou Fang’s work, were done as well by professional artists of the Song period, according to the Ming scholar Yang Shen (1488-1559.)[4] The two middle Ming masters Tang Yin (1470-1523) and Qiu Ying (d. ca. 1552) are reported in several sources to have made erotic paintings, but since no one of the sources is from the time of the artists, the information is problematic. According to the late Ming writer Shen Defu (1578-1642), erotic pictures by Tang and Qiu were mixed by his time with forgeries, but the genuine and false (literally, "refined and vulgar") were easy to distinguish.[5] Another reference to erotic paintings by those two Ming masters, along with Zhao Mengfu, appears in the preface to an album of erotic prints purportedly published in 1624: "Now Zhao Mengfu painted the 'Twelve Postures', Tang Yin the 'Six Extraordinary Positions', and Qiu Ying the 'Ten Glorious Positions'“. But this is quoted in a source of dubious reliability, and the book itself is not to be seen.[6] Still another questionable source names Qiu Ying's daughter Qiu Zhu among the artists who did pictures of this kind.[7] But if any survive by these masters, or by any artist before the late Ming, they must be hidden in Chinese museums or other collections, unknown and unpublished.[8]

More reliable is a report that the late Ming figure master Chen Hongshou (1599-1652) painted them: the early Qing landscapist Zou Zhe (1636 –ca. 1708) writes in a letter that his friends “all praise Chen's ‘Scenes of Intimate Play’ as wonderful illustrations beyond compare,” but that he himself finds them offensive: “I was not aware that Chen had sunk into such evil pleasures as these are. I am not willing to look at them.”[9] Given the poor survival rate of erotic paintings, which could not easily be handed down over generations in respectable collections, it is unlikely that any by Qiu Ying or Tang Yin will ever come to light. For some erotic work by Chen Hongshou to have survived, on the other hand, is not beyond imagination, and in view of Chen's capacity for sensitive and diverting plays on established subject types, one would like very much to see it.

Zou Zhe’s expression of distaste for erotic paintings, and criticism of Chen Hongshou for painting them, is typical: the infrequent mentions of them in Chinese writings, down to the present day, are virtually all condemnatory. We had best pause to confront directly this large question of how erotic paintings were regarded and written about by the Chinese, since it contradicts assumptions that underlie most foreign writings about them. An especially long and revealing passage, which exemplifies the ambivalence toward erotic painting that is typical of these writings, is found in a collection of critical notes on early Qing artists titled Guochao Huazheng Lu, written about 1735 by Zhang Geng (1685-1760):

“No one knows who first painted secret-play [erotic] pictures. It is recorded in the Hou Han Shu (Later Han History) that Prince Dai of Guangchuan had [the walls of] a room painted with scenes of men and women engaged in copulation, and set out wine and invited his family members to drink there, making them gaze at the paintings. [Because of this he was] destroyed. So we know that this kind of thing was already painted in the Han. The ones painted by Qiu Ying in the Ming are especially skillful, and consequently became popular. It is human nature to like lascivious things, and there is no one who wouldn't want to obtain one of these for secret enjoyment.

“Ma Xiangshun of Datong, zi (style) Shengzhi, and Wang Shi of Taicang, zi Wuni, are the best known [painters of these subjects.] I once saw a small eight-leaf album in which the figures were only about three inches high, and yet their eyebrows and lashes seemed to flutter and move, and they had the look of making loving and hugging movements, as if uttering the [amorous] sound nan-nan. The compositions were varied, the line drawing and coloring all based on Song techniques, with a delicate feminine beauty and archaic flavor, not at all like the hard [literally, "carved"] kind of mannered painting. I've also seen a handscroll in which the figures were eight or nine inches tall, and mostly had the appearances of western or northern foreigners. Although these excited the mind and eyes, the brushwork wasn't at all like Qiu Ying's. Could these have been the work of Ma or Wang? Since secret-play pictures aren't signed by the artists, there is no way to know.

“I once said: If secret-play pictures aren't done skillfully, there is no point in painting them; but if they are done skillfully, they incite lasciviousness in people. Long ago Shan'gu [Huang Tingjian, 1050-1110] liked to write erotic poems, and Master Xiu [a monk?] took these to be a verbal evil [?]. For this [Huang] should be sent down to plow the ground in hell--and those who depict such things in forms are even worse! It would be much better for them not to paint such pictures.”[10]

The painter Fang Xun (1736-1799), approached by a rich merchant who offered him a large sum to make an erotic painting for him, refused indignantly, saying “There is no skill worse than tempting evil minds to lust. Although I am poor, I will not do it!”[11] But many others, including painters of real accomplishment, were less scrupulous, or more open. Xu Mei (act. 1690-1722, see PUP Chapt. 2, p.   ) was able to move easily from participation in an imperial project, a sixtieth birthday painting for the Kangxi emperor, to painting one of the best erotic albums that has survived; it will be discussed below. Continual denunciations and edicts prohibiting the production and sale of erotic paintings, as well as of  salacious literature, appear to have had little long-term effect. An outburst by a Qianlong-era (1735-95) writer condemns the artists of erotic paintings to the ultimate punishment, early death without male heirs:

“Of all the evil things that people do, nothing is worse than painting spring palace pictures. They affect everybody, both those who can read and those who can’t, befuddling their minds and driving their spirits wild, until they descend into the realm of birds and beasts. Isn’t that the ultimate evil? I have seen men who presumed to practice this skill, and few of them escape having their lineage cut off [without surviving male progeny.] With their lascivious pictures circulating in the world, corrupting who knows how many boys and men, ruining who knows how many women--to have their male line of descent cut off is still not sufficient punishment for their sins. What of their wives, daughters, daughters-in-law? Few of them can have escaped debauchery; since they see and hear such things morning and evening, they must live in a state of depravity. Even if the wives begin as upright and high-principled, they must also become depraved in the end. Such men must die young, enjoying no longevity . . . Alas, of all the arts and skills there are none that cannot be practiced; but why this one? Landscapes, flowers and birds--all things can be painted; but why this?"[12] The question is of course rhetorical, the answer simple: the pictures were in high demand, and to paint them was profitable. The vehemence of such a polemic may help to explain, on the other hand, why so many erotic paintings are unsigned and without seals or other identifying marks of authorship: many of the artists must have felt uncomfortable about being identified, even threatened.

A mid-nineteenth century prefect of Suzhou named Wang, visiting the book and painting markets in his city at the Tiger Hill and the Changmen Gate, was appalled by what he saw there, and issued an angry edict:

“Each shop has lascivious books and pictures to sell for profit and to inflame people with lust. The filth extends into the women’s quarters, increasing evil and licentiousness. There is nothing worse than this. The pictures that stimulate heterodox licentiousness are worse than lewd books, since books can only be understood by those with a rough knowledge of letters, while the pictures are perceptible to all.” Visitors, he continues, could even order paintings on the spot. His commands are stern: dealers are henceforth strictly forbidden to sell such things; those they have in stock are to be delivered to the prefectural office to be burned. Dealers who comply will be compensated and will go unpunished; those who do not will be prosecuted without mercy. Painters should cease making them; any who continue to do so will also be prosecuted and “never forgiven.”[13] We will return at a later point to the questions of pictorial erotica in the women’s quarters, and its accessibility to those illiterate or semi-literate.

What is consistent in these denunciations of erotic painting by Chinese writers is that they are not directed at the purchasers and consumers of the paintings, but at the artists who painted them and the dealers who sold them; it is they who are consigned to hell in one moralistic fulmination after another. The assumption, implicit or stated, is that if pictures of this kind are made available, people will naturally acquire and enjoy them. An exception is a late Ming writer who considers ownership of them a transgression, assigning “ten demerits a day” for “keeping lewd books or lewd paintings.” But even he goes on to assign “unlimited demerits” to those who sell them.[14]

Although the acquisition and enjoyment of the albums was widespread and more or less tolerated, writing positively about them was evidently unpermissable. No Chinese written arguments in defense of them are known to me. This is in sharp contrast to foreign writers of recent times, who have typically looked for ways to sanitize the Chinese erotic paintings, intending perhaps to protect the Chinese from the stigma of having made pornography or “dirty pictures.” Dealers and collectors sometimes call them “bride’s books,” and argue that their purpose was to instruct newlywed women in sexual matters about which they had up to that time been innocent. Some writers have associated them with religious sexual practices, whether Daoist or Tantric Buddhist;[15] some maintain that since sex was regarded as a natural part of life by the Chinese, no onus was attached to depictions of it. This pattern of misdirection can be seen as having been initiated by Robert H. van Gulik, who juxtaposed discussions of Chinese sex manuals, mostly pre-Ming and sometimes illustrated, with the erotic albums of Ming-Qing times as they survive, so as to imply a close link between them, the former somehow explaining the latter or supplying their iconography. He writes, for instance, of “the handbooks of sex and the erotic picture albums inspired by them.”[16]

But, although the Ming-Qing erotic paintings that are our concern were certainly viewed and used in a diversity of contexts, none of these foreign beliefs about them is, to my knowledge, supported in Chinese writings or in the pictures themselves.[17] They may well have been used on occasion to teach women the byways of sex, a function they perform sometimes, as we will see, in Chinese stories and pictures. Many of them, especially the cruder ones, surely functioned more commonly at the other, seldom-mentioned end of a scale of gentility: as stimuli for male masturbation. We should add quickly, however, that the high-level examples to be considered here are mostly ill suited to that function, their sexual impact too much diluted by nuances and thematic diversions, and do not appear to have been designed with that usage mainly in mind.

There is evidence both pictorial and literary for how “spring palace” pictures, as they were known, were used in erotic relations between the sexes, and while recognizing always that these are fictional constructions, we can take them as indicators of some real uses to which the pictures were put. In one leaf from an album by Gu Jianlong, a man shows an erotic painting to a group of women, intending surely to render them more susceptible to seduction (Fig.1).

Fig. 1

Most commonly, couples look at them together before sex, to heighten the intensity and increase the variety of their lovemaking. The earliest surviving representation of a man and woman looking together at an erotic painting may be a woodblock-printed illustration to a novel titled Zhao Feiyan Chaoyuan Qushi, published in 1621 (Fig.2).[18] Many others are found in later painted albums; a good example is from an anonymous work, probably late seventeenth century in date, that will be considered later (Fig.3). The artist here gives the familiar theme a minor twist: the young man looks at the album and encourages the young woman to do the same, but it is unclear just where her gaze is directed--she appears more engaged in clutching him and spreading her legs impatiently. Perhaps we are to understand that the album has already aroused her to this state of urgency, and that the artist is in effect advertising the efficacy of his product--the scene in the open album held by the man is very similar to the picture the two lovers themselves occupy.

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

That representations of sexual couplings may have served in this way as a kind of visual foreplay as early as the Han dynasty is suggested by two poems ascribed to Zhang Heng (78-139 CE). The attribution and actual age of these poems is somewhat in question, but at the latest they date from the sixth century C.E., when they are included in an anthology of love poetry.[19] In one, the bride describes to her husband their coming wedding night: they will lock the door and turn up the lamp; she will remove her clothes; and they will "roll out the picture scroll by the pillow's side. . . .So that we can practice all the variegated postures, /Those that an ordinary husband has but rarely seen . . . ." Another poem ascribed to the same author details the pleasures of lovemaking with a beautiful girl: "While she is staying with you in the night/ And you feast and sport with her,/ Pointing at the pictures you observe their sequence;/ While she keeps being bashful and ashamed/ And coyly protests."[20] The pictures in question might have been illustrations to some sex manual such as the Classic of the Plain Girl; the poet Xu Ling (A.D. 507-583), in a letter to a friend, advises that the friend and his female companion use this book and its pictures as a guide to variety in lovemaking.[21]

In the late Ming novel Jin Ping Mei[22] the antihero Ximen Qing borrows an erotic scroll painting taken from the imperial palace by an old eunuch who had once served there, and presents it to his favorite concubine Pan Jinlian, saying "The two of us [can] consult it by lamplight and then attempt to emulate the proceedings." The pictures that made up the scroll portrayed twenty-four positions for intercourse, "each one designed to arouse the lust of the beholder." Later that night the two of them "opened the [scroll] inside the bed curtains, preparatory to enjoying the pleasures of connubial bliss."[23] In the novel Rou Pu Tuan (The Carnal Prayer Mat) ascribed to Li Yu (1611-1680), the hero, Vesperus, purchases a thirty-six-leaf album painted by no less an artist than Zhao Mengfu and looks at it with his new wife, who until then has balked at expanding their sexual repertory. They get no further than the fifth picture, and have great sex. Later in the book one of his many lovers, Flora, turns out to own a collection of several dozen of these albums, and gives Vesperus a brief lecture on when and how they should be looked at.[24] (We can note that in all these, the purpose of looking at the pictures is simple arousal; no mention is made of practicing spiritual disciplines.) A Ming-period sex manual cited by van Gulik advises couples against looking at erotic picture albums together when they are trying to conceive a child, since their minds should be kept “pure and free from all sorrow.”[25]

As noted before, we cannot say how far these reports, whether quasi-historical or openly fictional, give us reliable information about the uses of erotic paintings, and how far they merely reflect male fantasies about stimulating women to higher levels of sexual desire. Serious writers on the subject in recent times have tended to argue in the latter direction.[26] . But to dismiss all these accounts so easily is, I think, to diminish the capacity of late Ming women, or any women, to have varied and personal responses to sexual stimuli, whether fiction or pictures, beyond a uniform fastidious disdain that was considered "proper" for their sex. We can recall that some of the tirades against erotic paintings, and the edicts prohibiting them, are directed especially against their “penetration into the women’s quarters,” meaning their acquisition and enjoyment by women. The question of a women's erotica will be considered in a later section.

Worth noting is the association of erotic paintings with emperors, and the location of them in palaces—an association that underlies the term “spring palace pictures” (chungong hua) commonly used for them, along with the simpler terms chunhua, “spring pictures” (Japanese shunga) and mixi hua, “secret play pictures”. Literary sources tell of emperors of the pre-Tang period who commissioned their court artists to paint erotic murals in the chambers where they engaged in debauchery with their teams of concubines, or on the ceiling of a banquet hall for the dinner guests to gaze up at. (One such account was cited by Zheng Geng in the passage quoted above.) None of these pictures, needless to say, have survived; they may never have existed.[27]

In some part the stories echo the traditional Chinese ascription of dissolute behavior to certain rulers, such as the last emperors of dynasties, who were judged by later historians to have been illegitimate. They also reflect, like erotic literature, lurid popular imaginings about what went on within the palace: many of the erotic novels are set there, and relate the elaborate dissipations of Sui Yangdi, Wu Zetian, and others. Absolute power is conceived as the freedom to indulge one's desires to the utmost. Stories of highly improper goings-on in the palace and salacious anecdotes about court life make up some of the content of "secret histories" or unofficial histories (that is, outside the imperially designated dynastic histories), which exist in some number, especially from the Qing period, and offer risky supplements to the official records; they are sometimes cited by historians, but with suitable cautions. Some such "secret history" presumably supplied the story, told in a popular book on sex in China, that the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736-95) used an erotic album as a stimulus while sporting sexually with his sister-in-law.[28] This is not to soggest that the accounts are altogether without basis: although solid evidence is lacking for the early periods, erotic pictures appear to have been produced within the Qing or Manchu court, as we will see below, very probably for the emperors themselves.

Because of this association of the imperial court with erotic activities, and the assumption that the highest-level examples of pictorial erotica would be produced there by court artists, highly skilled as those were in exactly the techniques required by this genre of painting, examples known or alleged to have come from the palace possessed a special cachet. Zhou Fang’s “Secret Play on a Spring Night” is an example, since Zhou served as an artist in the Tang imperial court. As noted abpve, the anonymous author of Jin Ping Mei has his antihero Ximen Qing borrowing an erotic album that had been presented from the imperial palace collection to an old eunuch. In more recent times, several reproduction albums of erotic paintings that were published (bowdlerized, or with only selected leaves) in Shanghai, probably in the 1940s, include in their titles "Originally Treasured in the Qing Palace." And the popular account of how at least one of these, and quite possibly others of them as well, left the palace to fall into private hands, eventually to be broken up and used as a kind of political capital, is another quasi-"secret history," one that depends on assumptions about the special desirability of these works and the aura of glamour surrounding them.[29]

Scenes of sexual encounters showing nude couples in amorous embrace appear not only in erotic paintings but also on a diversity of objects made for popular consumption, where they are often in some way hidden--ceramic boxes that open to reveal the titillating scene, small figural sculptures that appear innocuous until they are turned over, fans that fold two ways to reveal or conceal the naughty picture. These could be carried on one’s person and shown furtively to friends. From an incident in Honglou Meng in which a purse embroidered with an erotic design is discovered in the garden, we know that for women to possess such pieces was a serious transgression; they must have been owned and carried mostly by men.[30] A great many pieces of this kind survive from recent centuries, and both archaeologically recovered objects and a few mentions in literature indicate that they were also commonly to be seen earlier, as far back as the Han, when they were painted or molded on clay tiles and also painted in shells.[31] The late Ming scholar Shen Defu remarks on erotic carvings in jade and ivory, and embroidery with erotic designs; van Gulik tells of seeing Xuande-era (early fifteenth century) porcelains with such designs on the Peking market, and adds that pieces of this kind were especially popular later in the Ming, in the Longqing and Wanli eras, the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.[32] Extant examples of such objects, at least those known to me, are mostly of small interest either aesthetically or for what they tell about sexual attitudes and practices in China; once they have performed their modest function of titillation, their charm mostly evaporates. Because of limitations in materials, size, and techniques, they continue to present simple images from the old type of serial copulations (as it will be defined below) long after the best painters have gone on to the later, more flexible type of erotica.

Erotic objects of this kind, along with erotic paintings, may well have been items in the furnishings of courtesans' chambers, for the amusement and stimulation of their clients. No early references to that practice are known to me, but an instance is related by an early nineteenth century visitor to the Nanjing pleasure quarters. The objects were hollowed-out walnut shells which held miniature erotic tableaux molded from colored paste. "I saw these once in a certain courtesan's home," he writes. "It was a tiny space, but she had row after row of them. The spirit and feeling of the pictures inside was graphically realistic, evidence of her surpassing skill." The writer evidently believed that the courtesan herself had made them, but they were more likely to have been the handiwork of specialist craftsmen. A late nineteenth century story describes an example in which the figures could be made to move by pulling threads outside the shell.[33]

By the mid-eighteenth century, Chinese paintings and porcelain tiles with erotic scenes had reached Europe, along with erotic pictures of other kinds.[34] Recounting a seduction that he carried out in 1753, Giacomo Casanova (1725-98) describes a casino or apartment rented for this purpose that had formerly belonged to the English ambassador to Venice. "The room was decorated with mirrors, chandeliers, and a magnificent pier glass above a white marble fireplace; and the walls were tiled with small squares of painted Chinese porcelain, all attracting interest by their representations of amorous couples in a state of nature, whose voluptuous attitudes fired the imagination." Further on in his book he tells of seeing in 1761 a room furnished by the Duke of Matalona for the use of his mistress, who is none other than Casanova's daughter Leonilda. She tells her father, "I have a room . . . which the Duke has had hung for me with Chinese designs representing a quantity of the postures in which the people of that country make love." When Casanova is taken there himself, he comments, "The Chinese designs which covered the room in which we breakfasted were admirable rather for their coloring and their drawing than for the amorous acts they represented."[35] Chinese sexual practices evidently offered nothing new for Casanova; also, perhaps more to the point, he was unable to respond to the designs as images of real people performing meaningful actions.

How the pictures looked, and whether they were made especially for export to Europe, along with huge quantities of other “export art” being produced for that purpose in eighteenth-century China, are questions to which a published twenty-five leaf album of Chinese erotic paintings in a strongly Europeanized style may well supply a clue.[36] The number of leaves is odd (properly Chinese albums virtually always have an even number of leaves), and in style they resemble the well-known “export paintings” that were reaching Europe and America in the mid-eighteenth century and later, in which the Chinese artists aimed at pleasing the foreigners’ taste by imitating their style.[37] Most interestingly, one of the leaves in the Chinese album, depicting a woman masturbating before a mirror while a man observes through a window behind her (Fig. 4), appears clearly to have been the source for an engraving printed as a frontispiece to a book titled A Chinese Tale published in London in 1740  (Fig. 5).[38]

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

The priority of the Chinese picture cannot be proven, and it may well be later in actual date, copied after an earlier original; but the conception and design appear to be Chinese, since they fit into a pattern known in earlier Chinese pictures, while nothing comparable is to be seen, to my knowledge, in earlier European erotica. Moreover, the conical hat and drooping moustache of the voyeur in the English engraving identify him as "Chinese," and the woman's headdress probably did the same for her, within a chinoiserie mode to which this engraving belongs. As erotic pictures in both China and Europe come to be more widely published and studied, other correspondences of this kind will no doubt be discovered, and a new area of Sino-European cultural relations will be opened to investigation.

Casanova's experience of finding himself in rooms decorated with Chinese erotic pictures raises the question of whether the Chinese themselves followed the same practice. A late reference to the placing of erotic images (tiny colored sculptures in walnut shells) in a courtesan's bedroom, for her own pleasure and presumably as a stimulant for sexual partners, is cited above; and the boudoir of a lascivious woman in a late Ming erotic novel is described as hung with "all kinds of erotic pictures," along with one of a beautiful woman by Qiu Ying.[39] A painting that is probably a close copy after a hanging scroll by the mid-eighteenth century master Cui Hui depicting a nearly-nude woman escaping the summer heat on the verandah of her house, and another with a false signature of Leng Mei of the same period in which a partly-undressed woman practicing masturbation is seen through a moon window, were introduced in PUP (Fig. 5.25, 5.23); these may suggest a type of erotic hanging scroll offering voyeuristic pleasures. Other than these, and the stories about depraved rulers having them painted on their walls and ceilings, I know of no evidence from Chinese writings or pictures that erotic paintings we re hung or mounted on the walls of rooms.

Two mid-nineteenth century European visitors to China, however, report seeing erotic pictures hanging both in private houses and in inns. Henry Charles Sirr, in his China and the Chinese, published in 1849, offers elaborate descriptions of the interiors of Chinese houses he visited--descriptions that are generally in agreement with what we know from other sources. Then, after describing the practice of hanging scrolls of calligraphy with Confucian maxims, he continues, "In strange contradistinction to these precepts, the most obscene, immodest, and filthy paintings, representing every description of vice and indecency, too frequently are seen suspended in the same apartment, almost side by side with the maxims of the sages . . ." In a description of the domestic sleeping quarters, he writes "The walls of these bedchambers are too oft defiled with obscene paintings." Since he himself cannot enter the women's apartments, Sirr asks a lady companion to do so, and tell him what she sees. After reporting her description of a shrine dedicated to  "the queen of heaven" [i.e. Guanyin] to whom the women pray for children and rich husbands, Sirr continues, in a passage so cleansed of vulgarity as to be almost unintelligible, "The bed-chambers were furnished in the same manner as described in the chapter alluded to, a few lines ago; but the decorations were of such a character as to raise blushes on the cheek of our informant, when alluded to, and to preclude the recital."[40] The French missionary Everaste Regis Huc writes in his 1857 A Journey Through the Chinese Empire of how "the leprosy of vice" had spread through Chinese society, so that ordinary conversation is filled with indecencies, and adds, "There are some provinces in which the inns on the road have apartments entirely papered with representations of all kind of shameless debauchery, and these abominable pictures are known among the Chinese by the pretty name of 'flowers'."[41] Since these passages occur in reports that, while certainly not without biases, are otherwise considered on the whole reliable in their observations, they cannot easily be passed off as merely the orientalist or exoticizing imaginings of foreigners; nor, given the terms they use ("representing every description of vice and indecency") can we assume that the pictures they saw were only of beautiful women and other relatively innocuous subjects. One can hope that more evidence will come to light, ideally in Chinese sources, that will confirm or alter these accounts, perhaps providing clues to how widespread these practices were and how far back in time they can be traced.

[1] A number of collections of leaves from Chinese erotic albums, mostly of mediocre quality, have been published as reproduction books. They include: Woo, Chan Cheng, Erotologie de la Chine: Tradition chinoise de l’erotisme. (Paris: Editions J. J. Pauvert, 1963); Kazuhiko Fukuda, L'Arte Erotica dell' antica Cina (Milan: SugarCo, 1981); Nick Douglas and Penny Slinger, The Erotic Sentiment in the Paintings of China and Japan (Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 1990; repr. 1994); Mixi Tu Daguan (Great Collection of Secret Play  Pictures) (Taipei: Chin-feng Pub. Co., 1993); ; Bret Norton, comp., The Golden Lotus: The Erotic Essence of China (Hod Hasharon, Israel, and Vancouver: Astrolog Publishing House, 2002). Above this level is Dreams of Spring: Erotic Art in China from the Bertholet Collection (Amsterdam: The Pepin Press, 1997), which includes, in addition to quite a few late and lesser-quality pieces, some more estimable examples. Also, since that publication a number of better works have been added to the collection, some of which are included in Ferdinand M. Bertholet, Gardens of Pleasure: Eroticism and Art in China (Munich, Berlin, London, and New York: Prestel, 2003). A good selection from the Bertholet Collection has now been published in the exhibition catalog Le Palais du printemps: Peintures érotiques de Chine (Paris, Musée Cernuschi, 2006). Some passages from the present chapter were incorporated, translated into French, into my essay for that catalog, "Les peintures érotiques chinoises de la collection Bertholet." (pp. 29-42). They were also incorporated, in German translation, into

"Erotische Malerei in China" (Erotic Painting in China), in Liebeskunst: Liebeslust und Liebeslied in der Weltkunst (Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 2002), pp. 201-215.

A book I have looked into only superficially is Nakano Miyoko, Nikuma zufu: Chûgoku shunga-ron josetsu ("Repellent Pictures: An Introduction to Chinese Erotic Painting") (Tokyo: Sakuhinsha, 2001.) The illustrations are nearly all taken from previous publications, but the text, or the little of it I have read, dealing with the types and settings of Chinese erotic paintings, is learned and substantial. Nakano is a specialist in Chinese literature.

[2]See Appendix A, "List of Erotic Albums." The identification by letters used there (“Album A”, etc.) will be used throughout this book.

[3]Zhang Chou, Qinghe Shuhua Fang, chap. 4, pp. 81b-82b. Zhang describes the painting as a handscroll painted in ink and colors on silk.  

[4]Cited by van Gulik, Erotic Colour Prints, p. 152.

[5]Shen Defu (1578-1642), Bizhou Xuan Shengyu, 12b-14b, "Chunhua" (“Spring Pictures”). This passage is discussed and partly translated in Craig Clunas, Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 151. Clunas’s brief but informative discussion of erotic painting in the Ming, ibid. pp. 149-59, is an exception to the above-noted general dismissal of the subject by specialists in Chinese art, as are the essays by Eric Lefebvre and others in the Musée Cernuschi catalog mentioned in note 1 above.

[6]Robert H. van Gulik, Sexual Life in Ancient China (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1961), p. 327. The album, titled Yuanyang bipu ("Secret Handbook for Devoted Lovers"), is discussed as "album e" in the same author's Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period, with an Essay on Chinese Sex Life from the Han to the Ch'ing Dynasty, B.C. 206 - A.D. 1644 (Tokyo: Privately Printed, 3 vols., 1951), vol. I, pp. 187-91. It is said there to have contained thirty pictures printed in color, each accompanied by a poem. Unfortunately, the reliability of the preface is highly dubious, since the reproduced pictures, which van Gulik describes (p. 174) as "reconstructed on the basis of ink tracings kindly sent me by Collector X," are clearly the work of van Gulik himself, and it is highly unlikely that any "Ming originals" ever existed. The preface might well also be his fabrication. See my "Introduction" to the "authorized reprint" of this work (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2 vols., 2004) vol. I, pp. ix - xxv.

[7]Eric Chou, The Dragon and the Phoenix: Love, Sex, and the Chinese (London: Michael Joseph, 1971), pp. 179-80. Chou does not identify his sources, so his information cannot be checked.

[8]In the Palace Museum in Beijing are two large locked trunks full of erotic paintings, the contents of which are unknown to me, since they cannot be opened without high-level government authorization. Because the connoisseurs who built this collection (Xu Bangda and Liu Jiu'an, principally) are not likely to have acquired low-class examples, we can assume that the works are of high quality and that some, at least, are by known artists. No completely adequate account of the subject can be written until these are somehow made accessible.

[9]Trans. by Howard Rogers, in Rogers and Lee, Ming and Qing Painting, p. 155, entry for a painting by Chen Hongshou. Zou’s letter was addressed to the patron-collector Zhou Lianggong (1612-1672.).

[10]Zhang Geng, Guochao Huazheng Lu, HSCS ed., pp. 40-41.

[11] See James Cahill, The Painter’s Practice: How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994) p. 84.

[12] Wang Xiaochuan, Yuan Ming Qing Sandai Jinhui Xiaoxhuo Xiqu Shiliao (Historical Materials on the Banned Fiction and Drama in Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties) (Beijing: Zuojia Pub. Co., 1958) p. 275, quoting a Qianlong-era writing titled Yuan Se Bian or "Banishing Lust."

[13] Wang Xiaochuan, op. cit., pp. 211-212. The translation is taken from Evelyn Rawski, Education and Popular Literacy in Ch’ing China (Ann Arbor, Michigan, Univ. of Michigan Press, 1979) p. 118.

[14] Yuan Huang (1533-1606), see Wang Xiaochuan, op. cit., p. 178; translated in Craig Clunas, Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 150.

[15] See, for instance, Brigitte de Montagnac, “Iconographie des ‘Images du Printemps’” in Revue d’Histoire des Arts 11, 1988, pp. 31-40. A recent publication, The Tao of Seduction: Erotic Secrets from Ancient China (New York, Abrams, 2007), presents (in translations by Lin Liao Yi) three ancient texts of "Daoist sexual alchemy" discovered in the second century B.C. tombs at Mawandui, juxtaposing these with reproductions of erotic paintings from the Bertholet Collection, and implying again that the texts can be understood as explaining the pictures.

[16] van Gulik, Erotic Colour Prints, v. 1, preface p. vii.

[17] . I refer here to writings on erotic art; Daoist and Tantric Buddhist doctrines and admonitions are of course common in the Chinese sex manuals.

[18]See Guben Xiaoshuo, v. 8, pl. 482.

[19] The anthology is Yutai Xinyong,, compiled by Xu Ling (A.D. 507-583); partly translated (but not these poems) by Anne Birrell, New Songs from a Jade Terrace: An Anthology of Early Chinese Love Poetry (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982; reprint, New York, Penguin Books, 1986.)

[20]van Gulik, Sexual Life, pp. 73, 76.

[21]van Gulik, Erotic Colour Prints, p. 151.

[22]David Roy, trans. and annot., The Plum in the Golden Vase, or, Chin P'ing Mei. vol. I: The Gathering. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 271-72.

[23]The translation is Roy's, but I have changed "album" to "scroll," believing with van Gulik (Sexual Life, pp. 319-20) that it is a handscroll that is described. The text twice refers to it as a shou zhuan, or handscroll, and the "ivory pin on a brocade ribbon" would more likely be used to fasten a scroll. The paintings that made up the scroll were evidently square or rectangular in shape. In one of the two woodblock illustrations to chap. 83, dating from the late Ming period, Pan Jinlian is seen having sex with Chen Jingji, with an erotic painting--presumably the same one--on a table beside them; but its form is unclear: it is curled like a scroll but has facing painting and text like an album. The illustrator's understanding might, of course, be at variance with the author's intent.

[24]Attributed to Li Yu, The Carnal Prayer Mat (Rou Putuan), trans. Patrick Hanan (New York: Ballantine Books, 1990) pp. 42, 47-55, 257-58.

[25] Van Gulik, Sexual Life, p. 275. The manual is the Su-nu miao-lun, “Admirable Discourses of the Plain Girl,” preface dated  1566.

[26] Craig Clunas, for one, is skeptical of such stories, pointing out that they are based on a male assumption about women’s responses to erotic pictures, that “they will imitate what they see.” Clunas, Pictures and Visuality, p. 158. I am more inclined to see them as not only possible but likely occurrences, for which the contemporary equivalent in our culture might be couples watching erotic movies before sex.

[27]Chou, Dragon and Phoenix, pp. 176 ff; van Gulik, Sexual Life, pp. 119-21, concerning Sui Yangdi. Their principal source would appear to be Shen Defu, Bizhou Xuan Shengyu (cf. n. 5 above), where accounts of such practices are collected.

[28] Chou, Dragon and Phoenix, p. 74. On the secret histories, see Kahn, Monarchy in the Emperor's Eyes, 50-64. My colleague John Finlay, who lives in Paris, sent me in 2010 a description he had found, written by a former chaplain of the French forces who looted the Yuanming Yuan or Summer Palace in 1860, telling of the large numbers of Chinese erotic albums they had found there and carried away. This is an important discovery, but I will leave it for him to publish it.

[29] I refer here to the story of how the warlord Zhang Zuolin took the four albums of Jin Ping Mei illustrations from one of the Manchu palaces in the 1920s, and how they were inherited and eventually dispersed by his son Zhang Xueliang; see note 74 below. That these may have included others than the Jin Ping Mei series is no more than speculation. The album reproductions designated in their published titles as formerly in the palace are Albums B, D, O, and P (see Appendix, List of Albums.)

[30]The incident occurs in chaps. 73 and 74 of Hong Lou Meng by Cao Xueqin (ca. 1717-1763), trans. David Hawkes as The Story of the Stone (Hammondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973-77) vol. IV, pp. 443-44, 458 ff. The purse turns out to be a love-gift to the maid Chess from her boyfriend, who writes that "it shows you what I dream of!"

[31]Erotic objects from the late period, along with some poor-quality paintings and popular prints, are assembled and discussed by John Byron, Portrait of a Chinese Paradise: Erotica and Sexual Customs of the Late Qing Period (London: Quartet Books, 1987). Philip Rawson et al., Erotic Art of the East (New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1968) includes a chapter (pp. 221-275) on Chinese erotic objects. For mentions in Ming writings of Han-period painted shells with scenes of sexual couplings, see Craig Clunas, “Images of High Antiquity: The Prehistory of Art in Ming Dynasty China,” in Die Gegenwart des Altertums: Formen und Functionen der Altertumsbezugs in den Hochkulturen der Alten Welt, Dieter Kuhn and Helga Stahl, eds. (Heidelberg: edition forum, 2001) p. 247. Two good examples of extant tomb tiles with erotic designs are among the late Han molded tiles produced in Sichuan; see Das Alte China: Menschen und Gotter im Reich der Mitte 5000 v. Chr.-220 n.Chr. (Essen: Kulturstiftung Ruhr, 1995) no. 107.

[32]Shen Defu, Bizhou Xuan Shengyu, 12b-14b.; van Gulik, Sexual Life, p. 318.

[33]For the former reference, see Susan Mann, Precious Records: Women in China's Long Eighteenth Century (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 132. For the latter, Byron, Portrait of a Chinese Paradise, p. 57.

[34] An 18th century Chinese lacquer cabinet with a hidden erotic painting, exposed only when the pair of bi-fold doors are fully opened, was recently sold at auction: see Sotheby's London, :Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, July 13, 2005, no. 231. Made for export in a European style, it was owned in recent times by a member of the Belgian royal family. The erotic painting, done in the export style, depicts a garden and two houses with eight couples, six of them engaged in sex, the other two observing.

[35]Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life, trans. Willard R. Trask (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University  Press, 1997), vol. 4, p. 46, and vol. 7, pp. 216, 220. I am grateful to David Roy for calling my attention to these passages..For a study of the importation of Chinese porcelain tiles to Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and their use as interior decoration, see Rose Kerr, "Hidden Treasure at Sir John Soane's Museum," Apollo, Nov. 2002, pp. 23-29.

[36] Reproduced in René Etiemble, Yun Yu: An Essay on Eroticism and Love in Ancient China (Geneva: Nagel Publishers, 1970), pp. 112-25. The album is in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (no. Ae 37); a handwritten note on the flyleaf reads “acquired in 1810.”

[37]Margaret Jourdain and R. Soame Jenyns, Chinese Export Art in the Eighteenth Century (London: Spring Books, 1967); Craig Clunas, Chinese Export Watercolours (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1984).

[38]The frontispiece came to my attention when it was reproduced in Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, “Pompadour’s Touch: Difference in Representation,” Representations no. 73 (Winter 2001), fig. 5.

[39] The novel is Xiuta  yeshi, by Lü Tiancheng (1580-1618); see Wilt Idema, "'Blasé Literati: Lü T'ian-ch'eng and the Lifestyle of the Chiang-nan Elite in the Final Decades of the Wan-li Period," in van Gulik, Erotic Colour Prints, reprint, 2004 (cf. n. 7), p. lvi. The novel has been translated by Lenny Hu, The Embroidered Couch (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001); this passage on pp. 54-5.

[40] Henry Charles Sirr, China and the Chinese: Their Religion, Character, Customs, and Manufactures: The Evils Arising from the Opium Trade: with a Glance at Our Religious, Moral, Political, and Commercial Intercourse with the Country. (London:   W. S. Orr & Co., 1849; reprint, Taipei: Southern Materials Center, 1977) vol. I,, pp. 324-5, and Vol. II, p. 43. I am grateful to Charles Mason for bringing this and the following reference to my attention.

[41] Evariste Regis Huc (1813-1860), A Journey Through the Chinese Empire (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857) vol. II, pp. 326-27. Pierre Ryckmans, under the pseudonym Simon Leys, writes of Huc as one who, although he was afflicted in his late years with virulent anti-Chinese prejudices, was a "shrewd and lucid observor of Chinese life".  See Simon Leys, The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics (New York: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, 1980), pp. 47-94, "The Perigrinations and Perplexities of Pere Huc"; this quotation on p. 79.

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