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CLP 37: 2000 "Painted Illustrations for Jin Ping Mei and Chinese Erotic Albums." Assoc. for Asian Studies, San Diego

Painted Illustrations for Jin Ping Mei and Chinese Erotic Albums

Paper for panel at AAS 2000, San Diego, “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Jin Ping Mei.”


This brief presentation--more a report than a paper--has two main aims. First, to pass on to people in other fields of Chinese studies some discoveries and conclusions to which my recent research has led me, and so to open up materials that may be of interest to you; and second, to ask for your help in following up some of these new directions, with information and references that are outside my field of competence. I have already received a great deal of that kind of help from David Roy, Keith McMahon, Charles Stone, and others; but large areas of the picture I’m trying to put together are still fuzzy, and major questions remain unanswered. Because of these aims, today’s talk will be broad rather than focused, a rapid run through a set of interlocked matters, spreading well beyond the Jin Ping Mei illustrations that are its proper topic. Everything I will speak about grows out of a book project on which I’ve been engaged for several years, tentatively titled “Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Urban Studio Artists in High Qing China”; parts of it, including nearly everything in today’s talk, have been published in three articles, which are listed on the bibliographical handout, and I refer you to those if you want to read more on these matters.

The paintings I’m writing about make up a large and important but unstudied area of Chinese painting, ignored or even scorned by traditional Chinese critics and collectors because they were functional rather than self-expressive. They include (among others) pictures of the kind one would purchase or commission for such occasions as special birthdays, New Year’s celebrations, and weddings; family group pictures, narrative pictures, beautiful women (meiren); and erotic pictures, chiefly albums, my subject today. One of several sub-themes that have emerged unexpectedly in the course of my work is the close relationship between these “urban studio artists,” working chiefly in the great Jiangnan or Yangtze Delta cities, and the painting academy in the imperial court in Beijing, which was in fact staffed mostly with such artists from the cities. The production of beautiful-women pictures and (I argue) erotic pictures within the court was mostly the work of painters from the Jiangnan cities, and reflects, I think, a powerful desire in the Manchu emperors to appropriate some elements of the romantic and erotic culture of the pleasure districts of those cities, more or less covertly, into their courts and their lives. I have tried in my published articles to develop this idea and support it with evidence, and can only allude to it here.

S. (Leaf from late Ming woodblock-printed album pub. by van Gulik.) Up to late Ming, the most common form for erotic paintings appears to have been the handscroll; from the late Ming-early Qing, the album is favored. This change in form accompanies, and partly permits, a deeper change in character. Evidence both literary and pictorial (for the latter, late Ming printed albums such as this one) suggests that typical works of erotic painting before the 17th century presented a series of depictions of sex acts, with titles such as “Twelve Postures” or “Ten Glorious Positions.” (No erotic albums from Ming or earlier survive, to my knowledge.)

S. (Another leaf from the same.) These series correspond loosely with erotic fiction before Jin Ping Mei, such as the 16th century Ruyijun zhuan translated and studied by Charles Stone, of which the second half details serially the debaucheries of Wu Zetian with her lover Xue Aocao. This type of erotic album continues into later periods, and accounts for the great majority of surviving examples, which can mostly be dismissed as crude and uninteresting.

S. (Leaf from album by early Qing master Gu Jianlong, about which I’ll speak in a moment.) A new type of erotic album, however, appears to have been created in early Qing, in which leaves with erotic imagery are interspersed with others presenting scenes of flirtations, seductions, poignant moments in love affairs. Even in the overtly erotic leaves, the hard-core images appear in richly complex settings with sub-themes such as voyeurism that embed them in quasi-narrative situations.

S. (Leaf from another album from same period; the erotic image in the mirror has been painted out by the publisher.) These new elements serve, in Stephen Owen’s term and sense, to contextualize the erotic imagery. It scarcely needs pointing out that this new form, which I call the part-erotic album, can be seen as corresponding loosely with the new type of erotic fiction, notably Jin Ping Mei, and was probably inspired by it, perhaps by the artists’ experiences in making illustrations for it.

S. The earliest identifiable example of the new type of erotic album bears seals of the early Qing Suzhou master Gu Jianlong, and is known only through an old reproduction album--in which the publisher has expunged the unprintable parts by painting them over. Here, for instance, the young man is offering a sheaf of bills instead of, as he surely was in the original, his penis; in either case, he is soliciting oral sex from the reluctant maid, while another watches from behind.

S. In another leaf, the young man shows an erotic scroll to several girls, to soften them up for seduction. The intricate spatial schemes of these leaves contribute to their effect in ways I cannot analyze here; they are in some part derived from European pictures, especially northern European pictures (Dutch and Flemish), that were to be seen in China by this time, mostly in engravings.

S. A leaf in which three maids gaze at a sleeping man, whose penis must have been exposed before bowdlerization. Another observation that I can only assert, since time doesn’t permit a full exposition, is that this new type of album introduces an unprecedented form: a set of self-sufficient scenes that I am calling vignettes, which neither illustrate any pre-existing text, nor present successive episodes in any story that binds them together. (Textually oriented people seem inclined to disbelieve this and look for passages in fiction and plays that the pictures can be seen as illustrating, or try to establish some narrative sequence within the leaves; both, I think, are misdirected projects.)

S. A leaf with no overt erotic content at all, only a group of women--wives, concubines, and servants?--playing cards around a table. Because of the limitations of single slide projection, I will ask you to hold this image in your minds while I show

S. This one, a leaf from the series of two hundred large leaves (over 15” tall), painted with heavy colors on silk, making up a set of illustrations to Jin Ping Mei. Numerous correspondences with the published album and others of his works allow us to attribute the set confidently to Gu Jianlong--figure style, compositional method, furnishings, and so forth. Originally mounted in four albums, the work has been published in reproduction (see handout), without an attribution, as Qinggong zhenbao bimei tu (Two Hundred Beauties Pictures [Formerly] Treasured in the Qing Palace.)

S. (Another leaf: Ximen Qing and Li Ping’er). It must have been produced in the palace during Gu Jianlong’s period of service as court artist under the Kangxi Emperor, from around 1662 to the late 1670s, when he returned to Suzhou. The albums remained in the palace through later reigns (they bear seals of Qianlong and Jiaqing) until they were removed in the 1920s, reportedly by Zhang Zuolin; his son Zhang Xueliang took them to Taiwan, where some part of the series was sold. I know the whereabouts of 25 leaves, eight in the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City, 17 in a private collection. I would be very grateful for any news about the whereabouts of the remainder.

S. A sumptuous use of gold and pigments not easily available outside the palace, along with the lavishness of workmanship in detail and decorative patterns, confirms that this is a court production, probably accomplished by Gu with the help of assistants.

S. It seems most likely that the albums were done for Kangxi himself, seen here as a young man in an unsigned portrait that might well be by the same Gu Jianlong, since it belongs to the period when Gu was at court, producing among other things portraits much like this one. But while he was a capable portraitist, Gu’s reputation as a painter of high-level erotic pictures, and more broadly as a purveyor of Jiangnan popular culture, may have been another factor behind his invitation to court. The attraction exerted on Kangxi by the pleasures of the southern cities is expressed in his fear of being ensnared by them; in a poem he composed in 1705 he pities Sui Yangdi, who fell victim to them, and writes: “Oh, that I would not let [my heart] be driven to follow my lusts and my craving for extravagance.”[1]

S.
Many of the scenes, but not all, follow the compositions of the better-known series of 200 woodblock-printed illustrations (two for each chapter), by an unknown artist, which accompanied the Chongzhen-era edition of the text. (These are the pictures that appear with David Roy’s translation.) In some, such as this scene in which Pan Jinlian is humiliated in the garden,

S. the composition is adopted by Gu Jianlong in a fairly straightforward way, only reversed and with minor changes in details. But of course the addition of color, and the larger size, alter the effect fundamentally, even raising the question: in what sense can the painted series be called illustrations at all? There is no indication that they ever accompanied a written text, and the albums would be too ponderous to hold while one read. They stand on their own more than the woodblock illustrations as self-sufficient works, less dependent on the text, although of course knowledge of the novel infused any cultivated viewer’s reading of them.

S. In some cases the painting adds resonances and depths to the event, as in the scene of Ximen Qing being fellated by the wetnurse Ruyi’er. The woodblock picture sets the figures in a small room opening onto the garden, while

S. the painting places it in a fully-realized interior, of the kind Gu Jianlong was so skilled at creating, and adds the presence of the two maids in the next room as at least potential voyeures.

S. Gu brings to the series of illustrations the skills he had developed earlier, presumably, in erotic albums such as the one introduced before. In one leaf of that album, the woman is in bed with her lover (absurdly replaced in the overpainting with two cats); the artist lays out in his composition an elaborate narrative leading up to the moment depicted: they enter in upper left from the garden, drink tea, move into another room where she starts to play the qin (it is partly out of its wrapper) before they both succumb to more urgent urges; they remove their clothes (seen draped hastily over furniture) and retire to the bed.

S. The implied narrative in one of the Jin Ping Mei illustrations is constructed along more or less the same U-shaped path: here it is Pan Jinlian who rises in the night, ostensibly to relieve herself but really to have sex with Wang Chao’er, and who makes her way from a further room into the foreground space of his, removes her clothes, and joins him in the bed--a course one follows by tracking the visual clues. In these ways and others, Gu Jianlong is expanding the capacities of narrative painting and erotic painting--the two are linked more closely than one might have expected, without the parallel linked development in fiction of the same period--to permit elaborate discursive programs that had scarcely been attempted in earlier Chinese paintings of interiors with figures. My analyses of these, while opening new lines of investigation, will leave a great deal of room for others who know the novel better than I to develop further parallels--and, of course, differences--between literary and pictorial means of expression.

S. Another of the leaves. From the historians, I would appreciate information and views, even conjectural, about this large question of the Manchu emperors’ involvement with Han Chinese erotic culture, a matter continually raised in my three articles but only on the basis of what I have been able to put together from the paintings and from limited readings, chiefly in secondary sources. A Manchu translation of Jin Ping Mei was made only in 1708, probably by one of Kangxi’s brothers; the emperor himself is said to have opposed translating it, because of its obscenity.[2] (If we find a contradiction here, it is not an isolated one; other discrepancies between the public stances and private behavior of the Manchu emperors in this area of their lives are touched on in my articles.) So Kangxi, if we are right in thinking that the albums were made for him, must have known the novel from reading it in the original (as Hal Kahn assures me he could have done.) It may simply be that he knew the original woodblock illustrations and wanted a larger, more revealing and engrossing set in color. This is another question best left open, but I will welcome informed opinions.

S. I’ll note quickly, in passing, that Gu Jianlong appears to have made also a series of illustrations for Rou Bu Tuan, but to my knowledge they exist only in copies, notably a sixteen-leaf album from which this is one leaf.

S. Among the fairly few other surviving examples of the artistically high-level part-erotic album known to me is an eight-leaf example by Xu Mei, another versatile master from Suzhou who was at court later in the Kangxi period; he was one of the team of painters who in 1713-14 produced the huge celebratory scroll for the emperor’s sixtieth birthday. So subtle are some leaves of this album that it may require close and sustained looking to absorb their erotic content. In a garden scene, for instance, the recumbent woman gazes out insouciantly, almost at us, as if oblivious to the exposure of her bare bottom through the transparent pantaloons. Her young husband or lover stares fixedly at what she reveals, while fanning the stove, with a corresponding air of calm that is belied by the erection faintly visible through his own. The girl servant at right turns back furtively to watch them both, as the cat does more openly;

S. (detail) and we apprehend all four in our own gaze, completing the criss-crossing pattern of looking, while assuring ourselves that our interest is purely aesthetic and scholarly. It is all very convoluted and pleasurable. Erotic pictures in China had come a long way from the time when they served principally for simple arousal and masturbatory purposes, a function assumed for the whole genre by those who dismiss it as unworthy of attention.

S. One more excellent erotic album bears seals of Leng Mei, who was a prominent figure master in the imperial academy in the late Kangxi period and again under Qianlong. But the paintings do not match Leng Mei’s in style or period, and are, I believe, by an artist active a bit later who was more sophisticated than Leng, perhaps a relative or studio assistant. Several of the leaves are set outdoors, and have an attractively bucolic character. In one, for instance, 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, with pastoral-like dreams of return to a pre-blasé state where youthful freshness can somehow be recaptured. It hints also at the allure of child sex, and thus, like so many leaves in these albums, contains a tinge of the near-perverse, which is somehow intensified here by the way the ox 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.

S. Finally, a series of leaves, probably originally around 50, produced by a so-far unidentified academy master under the Qianlong Emperor, whose seals are on it. Like the Jin Ping Mei illustrations, the work remained in the palace until some time in this century. 24 of the non-erotic leaves were published in an old reproduction album (see the handout); half of those were sold at auction in 1991. They must have been accompanied originally by a like number of openly erotic leaves, but the whereabouts of these is unknown, nor have they been reproduced.

S. We can get some sense of what they looked like from a similar album, probably by the same artist, in which the erotic leaves are preserved; this, again, is known only from its having passed through auction in recent years. There is no evidence of its having ever been in the palace; the artist, whoever he was, seems to have worked both inside and outside the court academy. Again, the questions raised by the production of this large-scale series, a work of particular refinement and elegance, within the Qianlong palace cannot be answered now, at least by me. But identifying it and placing it is a first step.

S. Some of the available leaves from the palace series are simply scenes of upper-class or aristocratic family life in sumptuously appointed villas; some of the men wear scholar-officials’ caps. This was exactly the milieu in which the leaves of the high-level erotic albums had from the beginning been set. What particular significance this imagery might have had in the Qianlong court is another question still to be answered. I will only point out that the pictures in these albums make up a largely untapped resource for social historians, historians of material culture, and so forth, offering imagery of a kind that can’t easily be found elsewhere.

S. I will conclude, and illustrate that final observation, with two leaves from an 18th century album by some follower of Gu Jianlong. This leaf I’ill show but immediately disown--as a true representation, that is, of typical reader response to Jin Ping Mei (which is the title on the book lying on the floor.) I show it for its immediate relevance to this panel--this is a new interpretation, whether or not interdisciplinary--and as another example (rather coarse) of the characteristics I ascribe to these albums: thematic inventiveness, an implied narrative, an ironic tone, a voyeure, a composition that encourages visual penetration, and so forth.

S. Another leaf from the same album. If these drop us to a lower level of refinement, we are compensated by a higher-than-usual level of entertainment. The master of the house is attempting sex in a garden house with a servant girl,

S. but proves incapable of carrying through his purpose. She lies back bored, impatient, and unsatisfied, while

S. the man’s wife approaches over the bridge, wielding a club. I offer this to all those who are looking, as indeed they should be, for images of strong women in Chinese literature and art, even those who paid for their strength by being branded as shrews and viragos. There is no question here about whose side the artist was on; she comes through far more positively than he. With this final image I look forward to the day when paintings, along with texts, will serve as more than illustrations, as part of the data, in our accounts of Chinese social history of the late period.

References in the text


[1] Silas Wu, Passage to Power, p. 90.

[2] Berthold Laufer, “Skizze der Manjurischen Literatur,” Keleti Szemle IX, 1908, p. 32. I am grateful to James Bosson for this reference.

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