CLP 55: 2002 “The Place of the Secret Spring Album in Chinese Erotic Painting.” Lecture, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Boston MFA lecture, November 2002 ("Secret Spring" album)

I have been coming to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for over fifty years, and have many pleasant memories of visits here. The first was as a fellowship student sent by the Freer Gallery of Art during my first year there, 1950-51; I was well treated by Kojiro Tomita and, especially, by Robert Treat Paine, whom I remember with affection and respect—among other things he gave me, a student out of nowhere, a rare book he owned, reproducing a work by one of the artists I was working on. That kindness has stayed with me for many years, as an example of how we should act and usually don’t. Across the river I met Langdon Warner and Ben Rowland, along with younger people who were to be my colleagues, notably Dick Edwards and Michael Sullivan. Later, during the MFA years of my friend Jan Fontein, I was a frequent visitor; and on the other side of the river I lectured often enough. Now Tom Wu, another very old friend, has invited me to give a second MFA lecture—the first was a rather inconsequential talk on quality in Chinese painting--but so late in my career that instead of early or middle or even late Cahill, you get late-late Cahill, jaded with most literati painting, absorbed in kinds of Chinese painting he himself could not have imagined taking seriously thirty years ago. Robert Treat Paine would raise an elegant if uncensorious eyebrow, But then, he probably would have done the same upon hearing that the MFA had acquired and exhibited a Chinese erotic album. We live in a different world. So I dedicate this lecture, oddly perhaps, to him, the person with whom this place is most pleasantly associated in my mind. Let us not, in our rush into the 21st century, leave behind altogether the patrician and humane values that Robert Treat Paine stood for.

Shortly after this lecture was announced, Tom Wu informed me that some people were asking: how could such a prominent scholar be talking about such trivial material? If more than a very few people still feel that way by the end of this lecture, I will have failed, because I hope to persuade you that the best of Chinese erotic paintings, the things I’ll be showing, aren’t trivial at all. On the other hand, you may still wonder: why is such a prominent scholar showing us these dirty pictures? and against that I have no defense, except to point out that the centerpiece of my lecture is an album titled “Secret Spring” bought and exhibited last year by the MFA, so that at least I have a co-defendant in Tom Wu.

To understand the art-historical standing of that album as I want to do, we need to begin much further back and outline the development of erotic painting in China. Leaving aside early literary references and a few archaeological finds with rather crude erotic pictures on them, we begin in the late Ming dynasty, the first half of the seventeenth century, with what appears to be the earliest Chinese erotic painting and printing to survive.

S,S. (van Gulik prints) Erotic prints from that period—or, in one case, a set of woodblocks from which they were printed—have been published by Robert van Gulik (the same Dutch diplomat who wrote the Judge Dee detective novels). These were imported early to Japan, and had a lot to do with the development of erotic prints there, and early Ukiyo-e more generally. The pattern they follow is simple: each leaf, or all but an introductory leaf, portrays a couple making love in one posture or another. This is, as many of you know, the same pattern seen in early European erotica, notably the early 16th century series of engravings I Modi by Giulio Romano and others. It continues to be the preferred model in most Japanese erotica, down into the 19th century. Japanese erotic handscrolls, of which some fine examples were exhibited and published here recently, mostly take this form.

S,S. Erotic painting in the Ming appears also to have been made up of series pictures of that kind, in either handscroll or album form—we read of works by Tang Yin and Qiu Ying with titles such as “The Ten Glorious Positions.” The earliest work of Chinese erotic painting known to me that can be reliably ascribed to a known artist is a signed album by a minor master working in Suzhou named Wang Sheng; another of his works is dated 1614, so this must be around that time. The first leaf depicts the couple in a romantic moment on the shore of a lake; the rest are all pictures of couples copulating. A homosexual scene ends the series. This pattern corresponds to erotic fiction before the late Ming, which chronicles in detail the dissipations of the main participants in one sex scene after another, without much of narrative or other material intervening.

(S,S) With the appearance of the great late Ming novel Jin Ping Mei, The Plum in the Golden Vase (a translation by David Roy is underway, two volumes so far), followed in the early Qing by Li Yu’s Rou Pu Tuan and others, a new model with far richer potential is introduced to Chinese fiction. Now the erotic acts are contextualized, elaborate human interactions are chronicled between a larger cast of characters, and the expression of complex and nuanced feelings becomes possible. As if in response to this development in literature, and quite likely inspired by it, artists of the early Qing, especially those working in Suzhou, create a new type of erotic album in which, similarly, the openly erotic scenes are interspersed with others depicting courtships and seductions, romantic interludes and scenes of voyeurism. These I call part-erotic albums. (Identify it)

S,S. The two earliest identifiable examples are both known now only through reproduction albums published in the 1940s in Shanghai; both have the improper bits painted over (on the photos or the plates, one hopes, not on the originals.) This one bears a signature of Qiu Ying, the great sixteenth century master who established the tradition for this kind of painting in Suzhou. But the signature is false, and the album is really by some early Qing follower of his. (Describe)

S,S. The other work known only in an old reproduction book has seals of Gu Jianlong, a highly versatile painter working in early Qing Suzhou whom I credit with the early development, if not the invention, of this type of album. (Describe leaves)

S,S. Two more. Include leaf w. screen.

S --. Numerous correspondences, in figure style, compositional devices, and many physical objects—lamps, the screen with small ptgs affixed to it—indicate that Gu Jianlong was also the artist of a large series of illustrations to the great 16th century erotic novel Jin Ping Mei, a project apparently carried out when Gu Jianlong was serving in the court under the Kangxi Emperor, 1660s-70s. I mention it here only to inform those interested of this discovery, and to alert everyone to watch for leaves from this album.

S,S. Two more leaves. Produced in the court and handed down through later emperors—it bears Qianlong imperial seals--it was reportedly taken from the palace in the 1920s by Zhang Zuolin, whose son the late Zhang Xueliang had it published in Shanghai in the 1940s. After Zhang was taken to Taiwan, where he lived under house arrest, he seems to have broken it up into groups of leaves that he gave as gifts or sold. I know the whereabouts of 42 (comprising two groups) of the 200 leaves, and would like to know about others.

S,S. Continuing briefly with the theme of erotica produced in the Manchu court, another large-scale project was carried out under the Qianlong Emperor (ruled 1736-96) by an unidentified painter whom I call the Qianlong Albums Master, who appears to have worked both inside and outside the court. Two albums by him also bear Qianlong imperial seals, and similarly came out of the palace in the 1920s and were reproduced in the 1940s in Shanghai. Another album by the same master bears no imperial seals, and was apparently produced outside the court.

S,S. The paintings by this anonymous master offer a remarkably diverse and detailed, if idealized, pictorial account of life and loves in large upper-class or princely households in Qianlong-period China, made up of families along with their servants and concubines, all living in elegantly appointed mansions with well-kept gardens. A long section is devoted to the works of this artist in my book-in-progress, and I can't spend more time on them here, except to say that one of the albums may, if all goes well, enter the collection of this museum.

S,S. Three high-level erotic albums from the eighteenth century can represent what we might call the “golden age” of the art, and also illustrate the growing sophistication and wittiness, as well as the thematic broadening of the genre, that characterize this phase of its development. The thematic diversity to be seen in leaves of these albums includes voyeurism, masturbation by both sexes, homosexuality, bestiality, and incest, along with simple sexual ennui and impotence. The artist and his audience regard all these 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. And in these we move further and further from simple series of pictures of people copulating, with which this genre appears to have begun. One of them, which is among the few surviving erotic albums whose authorship can be determined, is an album of eight large horizontal leaves by the Suzhou master Xu Mei, active in the early 18th century—he took part in the imperial project of a birthday scroll for the Kangxi emperor in 1713.

S,S. 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 bedcurtains or set-back windows, and remain mostly clothed, with only small glimpses, if any, of engaged genitalia. But the pictures nonetheless reward close attention.

S,S. A scene of voyeurism in a garden is typical of the subtleties of this album. The recumbent woman looks 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 pantaloons. The girl servant at right turns back a bit furtively to watch them both, as the cat does more openly. What is mildly arousing is not the sight of the woman's sex, which is scarcely visible, but her exhibiting it to the man, his looking at it, her looking out at us, and our own gaze visually embracing them all, completing the crisscross pattern of looking. Our scopophilic pleasure is intensified by the complicity and reflexivity with which we become implicated in this pattern, while assuring ourselves that our interest is purely aesthetic and scholarly. It is all very convoluted and pleasurable.

S,S. The other album bears seals of the northern figure master Leng Mei, but is not, I think, by him—the style points to a slightly later and more sophisticated artist. In one leaf, a 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.

S,S. The album is executed in a highly finished, realistic style that owes a lot 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 this one, 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 roll their eyes back to watch.

S,S. The only leaf among the eight that might properly be called coarse presents an old, gap-toothed travelling merchant bargaining with a tavern girl 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.

S --. Even more absorbing is the townscape viewed through the open window, 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, is rendered with a delicacy and skill that make us wonder why an artist of this excellence didn’t become better known, or turn his abilities to other uses than settings for erotica.

S,S, The third album is by a follower of Gu Jianlong, and bears no signature or seals; we haven’t enough datable material for comparison to allow a firm dating of the work, but I would guess at mid to later 18th century. The capacity of the part-erotic album, as pioneered by Gu Jianlong, to suggest mini-narratives in its individual leaves reaches a high point here. In this leaf, the aging master of the household is attempting sex in a garden house with a servant girl, but proves incapable; she lies back bored and unsatisfied. Meanwhile, his wife approaches across the bridge, wielding a club.

S.S. Another leaf presents us with the ultimately blasé and permissive couple enjoying their favorite pursuit, which has by now, however, become a bit tiresome. They’ve 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 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.

S,S. In this leaf 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”—for that’s 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? I sent a slide of this leaf to my colleague in Chicago David Roy, who is translating Jin Ping Mei; but only for his amusement—that great novel cannot be dismissed as a simple vehicle for erotic arousal, any more than these albums can.

S,S. It was common for erotic albums otherwise devoted to heterosexual encounters to include one homoerotic leaf. In this one (before we turn our attention elsewhere, note the screen with small pictures affixed, an item from Gu Jianlong’s repertory), a scholar in his study is sodomizing a youth, whose effeminate face and hair ornaments suggest that he is a bitong, a boy or young man who dressed sometimes in feminine clothing and catered to the same-sex desires of men. For well-off males to enjoy sex with partners both female and male was commonly accepted, not taken to be unnatural or censorable. Consorting with bitong not only carried no special stigma, but in some times and situations was considered more refined than heterosexual relationships with female courtesans and prostitutes. As in the Jin Ping Mei leaf, female onlookers complicate the scene; here it is two young women in identical postures who look in from the doorway, one from behind a split-bamboo blind. Both raise their sleeved hands to their faces, as does the girl in the other leaf, expressing the same ambivalent feeling. If we suppose that the artist included two young women here because the central scene involves two males, the implications for what might follow become too devious to pursue.

S,S. Having come this far—which is pretty far indeed for what has been considered a rather staid tradition—we learn new things about Chinese painting all the time—we are ready to take on the central work of my lecture, the Boston MFA’s “Secret Spring” album. Many of you will be familiar with it from its exhibition here last year, but I’ll show all the leaves anyway. This, too, is an anonymous work, with no signature or identifiable artist’s seals; the inscriptions mounted opposite each leaf, by three different writers, are poems, and give no clue to the authorship or date. In this leaf—the most innocent, and the one reproduced in the auction catalog—a woman stretches before repairing to the bed in the farther room.

S --. It was common for artists of these albums to adopt compositions from earlier works, and the Secret Spring Master, as I will call him, has done that for several of his leaves. In this case, it’s from the early Qing album ascribed to Qiu Ying with which we began, a work probably about a century earlier. In the earlier leaf, the woman rises after playing cards and drinking tea; the two cups and two chairs indicate a partner, whom in the context of this album we assume to be male, for whom she is waiting, and with whom she will end up in the bed. For the Secret Spring album we have to make different assumptions, as we’ll see.

S,S. In this leaf the Secret Spring Master adopts another composition from the album attributed to Qiu Ying, portraying a woman in her boudoir making up her hair, probably preparing for the visit of a husband or lover, while her maid picks a flower in the garden to put in it.

S --. The Secret Spring Master adds a touch of more open naughtiness: the maid’s skirt hikes up as she climbs over the railing, revealing her sex. We might think that this exposure was meant to titillate male viewers of the album; but we would be wrong, I think; something quite different is going on here.

S,S. A common scene in part-erotic albums by Gu Jianlong and his followers showed people playing a game at a table, with some detail hinting at hanky-panky—here, from an album by Gu Jianlong, the scholar reaching behind to hold hands with the maid. In the Secret Spring leaf, the participants are all women, and one of them is reaching through the chair to place a cylindrical pile of what appear to be game-pieces? on it for one of the others, who is leaning out over the table, to sit down on, unexpectedly, when she sinks back. Another turns her head to watch the reaction. (This, in the Museum of Fine Arts?)

-- S. (Detail) The truth is that the people portrayed in the album are all women, and it is same-sex activities that they are all engaged in—that’s what the album is about. Before pursuing further the implications of that, let me point out the highly distinctive figure style of this master, which allows, I think, the attribution to him of other pictures we’ll see later. The heads are small and oval, with eyes squinting and arched upward, prominent noses, and fixed smiles. Bodies are elongated and often shown in contorted postures, with the heads cocked sideward; clothing folds are heavily shaded.

S,S. Showing the pictures in no particular order (the original order of leaves usually can’t be determined in albums, since they can be shuffled in remounting): An old woman comes to the door selling dildos, which the younger women in the doorway seem eager to acquire. Two maids doing laundry in a stream admire the extended penis of a donkey on the opposite shore, with a cock and hen beyond echoing their imaginings.

-- S. This leaf has a kind of counterpart in the so-called Leng Mei album; here, the young girl holds and contemplates the penis of the animal, which brays with excitement or irritation, while a boy takes the opportunity to reach under her skirt. Chlld sex again.

-- S. The two girls in the Secret Spring leaf, themselves loosely dressed and posed to suggest physical intimacy, provide another clue to the underlying theme of the album. This is not a household of full-time lesbians, but of women who, in the absence of their spouses and masters (for whom the donkey is a stand-in), or perhaps because they are unmarried or simply by personal inclination, devise homoerotic amusements for their own pleasure and satisfaction.

S,S. A similar theme is seen in another leaf from the so-called Leng Mei album, which presents another all-women tableau, again in a manner more designed to amuse than to arouse. It’s an outdoor scene, in which 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. If we can avoid either, on the one hand, turning away from this as revoltingly gross, or on the other, going all ethnological and citing the Chinese folk tradition by which women, on a certain day of the year, go out to pick eggplants to prophesy certain important characteristics of their future spouses, we can see it as harmless fun, the mode in which I would like to understand the MFA album, in which all of the participants appear to be enjoying themselves.

S,S. Two outdoor scenes from the Secret Spring album. In one, the older woman supports the younger as she reaches up to rescue the cat; again, a certain physical intimacy is suggested in this seemingly innocent action.

S,S. In the other, a night scene, the maid is about to insert something—some kind of stimulant perhaps—into the vagina of her sleeping mistress. Details that appear a bit mysterious to us, or at least to me, were probably easily readable for people of the time, especially women. The same is true of an album of scenes of women in interiors that will be a centerpiece in my lecture tomorrow in Cambridge. That one is non-erotic, but includes a leaf or two that delicately suggest amorous relationships between the women. I am inclined to believe, for these and other reasons, that both were intended primarily for an audience of women, and will elaborate on that point later.

S,S. In this leaf, a group of women are gazing together at an erotic album. Other albums, presumably of the same kind, are on the seat beside them, and two white rabbits are on the floor, standard symbolic items in these scenes. The picture they are looking at is one of heterosexual sex, since the two figures in it are distinguished in skin coloration, following a convention of these albums, he darker, she lighter. Pictures and literary accounts of women looking at erotic albums, whether alone or with a man prior to sex, are common in Chinese erotic literature and painting, but are sometimes dismissed as the imaginings of male artists, and so of no value in indicating how the albums were actually used. But that seems to me carrying fastidiousness too far, and refusing to acknowledge the likelihood of women as well as men enjoying erotica. Quite a few recorded edicts outlawing salacious literature and pictures are collected in a modern compilation (Wang Xiaochuan), and several of them make a point of including women among the purchasers and viewers of the paintings. A mid-nineteenth century prefect of Suzhou named Wang, for instance, visiting the book and painting markets in his city, was appalled by what he saw there, and issued a vehement edict: (a similar one dates from the Qianlong era, the later 18th century, but I haven’t yet worked through it):

“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.”

This last point, that the evil effects of pictorial erotica are not confined to the literate, is especially pertinent to the likelihood of a women’s audience, since literacy was less common in this period among women, and largely limited to gentry women. In my lecture tomorrow, on paintings done for women in Ming-Qing China, I’ll read this same edict and then add: if you wonder what he means by heterodox licentiousness in the women’s quarters, you need only go across the river. Or something like that.

The edicts seem to have been ineffective, and the large-scale production of erotica continued. Critics directed their anger at the artists who painted it and the dealers who sold it; users, or consumers, are seldom even chastised. The general attitude seems to have been: one can’t blame people for wanting to look at these pictures, once they’re available; the blame goes rather to artists, for painting such things--they are consigned to hell over & over. There is no suggestion that people could choose not to look at them, or that parents could keep them away from children, etc. The situation sounds familiar.

S,S. The remaining four leaves all depict groups of women engaged, or about to engage, in sex. As I said before, these are not necessarily women with lesbian inclinations, although some of them might be that; they are meant to portray women who are making do with available partners, in the absence of men. But the artist makes clear, in their postures and expressions of delight, that they are enjoying themselves. The time in this picture is dusk; they have been playing the game of throwing arrows into a vase, and the mistress of the house, looking tipsy, now wants to cavort a bit with two of her maids before sleeping. Two younger maids in the foreground look coy, perhaps wondering whether to join in.

Van Gulik writes in his Sexual Life in Ancient China (not an entirely reliable book, but informative if used with caution) that homoerotic love among women was “quite common and viewed with tolerance. Provided that excesses were avoided, female homosexual relations were considered as a custom bound to prevail in the women’s quarters, and even praised when it gave rise to self-sacrifice or other beautiful acts of love and devotion.” And we have evidence of the same from other sources. Bisexual women also appear in Chinese fiction and other writing: In Li Yü’s play Loving the Fragrant Companion, Mrs. Shih, a young married woman, visiting a temple, meets a beautiful & talented young girl called Yün-hua. The two fall violently in love; Mrs. Shih arranges for the girl to become her husband’s concubine—an arrangement with which the husband is very happy. A similar occurrence, but this time real-life, is recorded in Shen Fu’s autobiographical Six Records of a Floating Life (trans. by Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-hui) (London, Penguin Books, 1983) pp. 50-51). In 1797, when Shen Fu is considering taking a girl on as his concubine, with his beloved wife Yün’s encouragement, Yün takes the girl off into her room for a private talk, and when she comes out, reveals that she is intending to follow the pattern of Li Yü’s play. Shen Fu, again, seems entirely happy with this comfortable triangular relationship.

S,S. Another scene of dusk; the woman of highest station prepares for bed, unwinding the wrappings of her bound foot while a maid removes her other clothing, another undresses herself, and a third watches at the door for intruders. The shallow tub bath in lower right with a board laid across it is familiar to anyone who has had to make do with this simple facility in a temple or other old-fashioned accommodation in China. The dance-like postures of the women, echoed in the banana palm outside, are characteristic of figure scenes painted by the Secret Spring Master, who uses this device to further enliven his pictures and lighten their content. The question of female nudity in Chinese painting, dismissed in one learned article as a non-problem because there are no nudes in Chinese art, will receive more informed consideration in my forthcoming book. (They do not, by the way, appear only in erotica.)

To return to the question of why I think these were intended principally for an audience of women: for a complete answer I would have to spend time showing, for contrast, a series of pictures aimed at male viewers, and cataloguing their identifying characteristics, and then say: none of these are to be seen here; they are replaced by a different set. And then I would identify those. Lacking time for that, or for any extended treatment of this important question (on which I will have more to say in tomorrow’s lecture), I will simply state that first, I’m not arguing that any particular work or type is aimed exclusively at this or that gender; they could be enjoyed by sensitive and open-minded people in either camp. And then, that in certain features this album seems to answer to what I tentatively take to be feminine tastes or preferences: not much of exposed genitalia or blatant depiction of sex acts; subtleties instead of emphatic effects; a concentration on matters directly relevant to feminine experience.

S --. Lesbian scenes could, of course, be depicted for the arousal of men, but they would be very different from these, I think. This, a leaf from a late and low-level album, can represent that type.

S,S. In this leaf, the sex act seems at first glance more openly presented, in a way that would contradict my observation; until, that is, you try to read it, whereupon it turns out to be rather puzzling. There are obviously two women involved, although the space between the bottom and the top of the one with the blue jacket, against whose back the other is resting, is beyond belief. Anatomical exactitude does not concern the Secret Spring Master. Nor is it completely clear what exactly is going on: There appear to be two small animals, brown and white, perhaps small dogs, the brown one held by the blue-jacketed woman while the white one licks the vulva of the other woman. Remarkable in this album is the avoidance of direct depiction of the usual forms of female homoerotic sexual activities, which van Gulik lists as: rubbing pudenda against each other, rubbing or massaging the clitoris, cunnilingus, and the use of a dildo, especially a double-ended dildo. (Double your pleasure, double your fun . . . ) None of these is more than hinted at in this album. Such an avoidance of the expectable and free invention of the unexpected, which may remind us of certain kinds of Chinese “strange stories” such as those in Liaozhai Zhiyi, tells us something about the Secret Spring Master and his audience, something that we will see confirmed later.

S,S. A leaf that may have been the last; it bears a seal in lower left that could be that of the artist, but unfortunately doesn’t identify him. Tom Wu reads it as Yuzao, “Bathing in Elegant Prose,” and no painter who used that name can be located. He speculates that he could be the same as Mr. Song Siwen, one of the three who wrote the poems; but he can’t be identified either, and I myself think it’s unlikely that they are the same. Here the maids are playing around in the outer room while their mistress sleeps in upper left; one of them is tickling the sex of another with her toe.

Finally: Tom Wu would shoot me, and with good reason, if I ended my discussion of this album without remarking on its high quality, in which an air of wild freedom and sometimes clutter combines with remarkable refinements in details—here the design on the embroidered cloth draped over the chair, the designs on clothing, or

-- S. the drawing of the sleeping woman, which has an almost Yamato-e-like elegance. The whole effect is of a wealthy household lavishly appointed but occupied by rather messy and undisciplined people. All in all, this is a highly entertaining and visually rewarding work.

So far, what we have seen can be accepted as mildly titillating entertainment. Why not? Nobody is hurt, and the assumption is that everything will go back to a more heterosexual condition when the men get back from official posts, or commercial travel, or warfare, or whatever was keeping them away. But other works by the Secret Spring Master, known in originals or from reproductions and tentatively be ascribed to the same master on the basis of the highly distinctive style, compositional method, and content. Since the style of any two albums, even by the same master, is not going to be exactly the same, one might argue for attributing these all to different artists; but to my eye, they all fall easily within the range of possible variance in the oeuvre of a single master (although, since we can't get at the originals for most of them, we should continue to allow the possibility of copies or studio works), and they exhibit quirks of temperament and imagination that for me speak of a single artist behind them all, whom I will continue to call the Secret Spring Master. These are two leaves from an album of nine male homoerotic pictures, which was offered at auction in 1995. Two men strolling with their youthful favorites, perhaps bitong, pass on the street and observe each other, one of them through a monocle; a third man may be sending the boy some kind of signal, pointing to his eye, or his nose. In the other, two men and three boys sport together much as the women do in the Boston album (but perhaps a restaurant or a gay bordello instead of a domestic setting), striking similar postures and playing similar tricks.

S,S. Two leaves that I know only from poor, heavily-printed reproductions in books on Chinese erotic art; they may be from the same album. In one, a younger man fanning an older one in the street peeks through a wall at the scene inside, where a woman in her bath is about to masturbate with a dildo handed to her by her maid. The young man, aroused by the sight, is himself masturbating. In the other, a sewage collector stands on his bucket to peer over a wall at a couple having sex. Since this sexually engaged heterosexual couple is the only depiction of that theme known to me in the oeuvre of this master, it’s worth noting that he manages to make it look somehow like an unnatural act.

-- S. A leaf with a similar theme from the album by some Gu Jianlong follower reveals the difference--even the melon vine growing on the wall adds somehow to the effect of excess and transgression in the Secret Spring Master's picture.

S --. A single leaf, again known to me only from a reproduction in an otherwise useless exploitation book on Chinese erotic art, depicts another heterosexual couple, this time engaged in cunnilingus. (I hope you haven’t begun to feel sorry you came; worse is still ahead.) The clumsy design of the book has made the plate overlap the binding, and cut off some at right, but enough remains to identify another voyeur, who seems to be looking through an eyeglass of some kind. The setting corresponds closely, again, with the Secret Spring leaves, as do the figures.

S,S. Two leaves from what was probably a larger album, kept in the Museum of East Asian Art in Cologne, also appear to be the work of the Secret Spring master, and take us into the realm of the seriously perverse. The domestic setting and the props suggest that this is a family scene; if so, what we are seeing is homosexual incest, as the seated father sodomizes the boy. The mother--in this context it must be she, although we would prefer to think not--combs the boy's hair, while he ties a sash around his head. This is no longer harmless fun, but, however we draw our boundaries (and mine would follow the standard formulation, "anything non-injurious between consulting adults is OK), this is real depravity. Our artist compounds the nastiness by the device, brilliant in itself (and known to me nowhere else in Chinese painting--a true invention) of placing in the lower left corner a large, round mirror, seen from the back, into which the participants are gazing delightedly, observing their own dissolute behavior. And he locates us, as viewers/voyeurs, just behind and above the mirror, so that we inescapably watch them watching themselves--enough, change slides.

S,S. The other leaf is less disturbing, only very kinky; it seems more the work of someone who is nearing an exhaustion of imagination: what to give them next? As with one of the Secret Spring leaves, the one with two dogs, it is not easy to make out what is happening, so I'll read it for you. It's a double-header composition of the kind our master likes (but which isn't limited to him). A woman leans back against a table, one knee on a chair, masturbating against the rounded end of the chair's armrest. Meanwhile, the man, his large penis dangling, uses a razor to shave the woman's pubic hair. Beside them, a woman raises a ewer to pour a thin stream of water from high up onto the sex of the woman who lies back, looking very satisfied, in the bath. Supposing these were two leaves from an album, one has difficulty imagining what might have gone on in the rest; but, perversely perhaps, one would like to see, since it would surely expand even further the sexual repertory of world art. (Pointed out afterwards: man is circumcised, and wears cap/yarmaluke? shaving woman's pubic hair has religious significance in judaism? weird but possible.)

How can we understand all this? As the work, I think, of a highly inventive master who was willing to produce specialized erotica for people with a great diversity of proclivities and tastes--or, alternatively, for people who wanted to imagine themselves into a great diversity of sexual situations. About his own leanings it tells us nothing at all; and that is in itself worthy of note. With most modern Western erotic painting and drawing by known artists, we are inclined, rightly or wrongly, to associate the sexual proclivities portrayed or suggested in the pictures with those of the artist: Picasso liked this kind of sex, Jean Cocteau that kind; Balthus was turned on by these, Robert Mapplethorpe by those; and so forth. I leave their proclivities blank to avoid being chided for thinking this way by more severe-minded colleagues, and perhaps I still will be; but it’s hard to resist making such associations, in view of the nature of the pictures and the consistency they exhibit. When there are exceptions—E.M. Forster, for instance, writing penetratingly sensitive fiction about heterosexual love through most of his career—we recognize these as exceptions, and admire the artist or writer all the more for transcending the personal.

For the Chinese makers of erotic pictures, we don’t have enough evidence yet to say categorically that the same pattern doesn't apply to them, although the thematic diversity to be seen in some of the albums, especially later ones, suggests that it doesn’t. In any case, I can say with confidence that it certainly doesn’t apply to the Secret Spring Master. We have no idea what his sexual preferences can have been, and we don’t care; he was a master at, among other things, imagining himself into multifarious, sometimes extreme sexual feelings and situations, and embodying them in pictures for the pleasure and gratification of people of every sexual persuasion imaginable, and some beyond our ordinary imagination. There will be those who see this as nothing more than evidence of a dirty mind; I would prefer to see it as an advanced level of empathy, especially because he detaches himself a bit from his creations through his bizarre distortions, which turn most of them, if we are sympathetic (I exclude the pedophilic, those involving children), into good clean dirty fun.

S,S. This stage in the (still only sketchily discernible) history of the Chinese erotic album should not, I think, be taken as a decadent phase, since both the artistic quality and the level of sophisticated imagination remain high. Decadence comes rather in the form of thematic monotony--most of the later artists, except when they are copying old models, simply cannot think of anything beyond the obvious for their amorous couples and their cohorts to do. (These, our next-to-last slides, are leaves from an erotic album by an early 19th century artist named Yin Hung, also in the MFA). Irony and aesthetic distance are generally beyond them

S,S. And even that rises above the level of the great majority of Chinese erotic albums that one encounters, either in collections or reproduced, in which the pictures as a whole exhibit the usual traits of the hack artist's or the copyist’s hand: stiff and heavy-handed drawing, unoriginal compositions, insensitivity to nuance, fixed expressions (often empty grins) on faces, unintended distortions. And these appear to make up most of the production of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fine and original erotic albums from this late period may well turn up in years to come, necessitating changes in these judgments; for now, based on what we know, they seem valid. And in this context we can congratulate the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Tom Wu for acquiring one of the finest from the best period. Thank you.

Notes toward BMFA lecture:

Van Gulik Sexual life p. 163: Mentions Li Yu’s play Lien-hsian-pan, “Loving the Fragrant Companion,” on the subject. Methods: rubbing pudenda agst each other, rubbing or massaging clitoris, cunnilingus, use of dildo. (A plant used that way among “tartars”. Silver ball inserted, etc.

Li Yü’s play Lien-hsian-pan: Mrs. Shih Yün-chien, young married woman, visits temple, meets beautiful & talented young girl called Yün-hua. Two fall violently in love with each other; Mrs. Shih arranges for her to become her husband’s concubine--husband also very happy.

Something like this in real life (?): Shen Fu, Six Records of a Floating Life (trans. by Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-hui) (London, Penguin Books, 1983) pp. 50-51. While Shen Fu is considering taking girl on as concubine, his wife Yün takes her off into room for private talk, comes out, reveals that she is intending to follow pattern of Li Yü’s play. This was in 1795. Husband, who is the writer Shen Fu, seems entirely happy with this arrangement.

On homosexuality: Wang Xiaozhuan book, CL era prohibition on officials keeping “singing boys.” See also pp 109-110: edict denouncing “kind of petty-minded literatus who, whenever he goes out to view the landscape (scenery), has to take along a boy or young monk: this is called “elegance” fengya; really a kind of intimidation and exploitation (check this trans.) More on pp. 112-113.

Paul Goldin, The Culture of Sex in Ancient China, p. 7 (end of Intro): on few notices of homoeroticism in early Chinese writings. Lesbianism in the harem.

Go on to present “Secret Spring” in this way: good clean dirty fun. Why not? Nobody hurt, assumption is that everything will go back to normal condition when men get back from official posts, or commercial travel, or warfare, or whatever was keeping them away. But: (on to other works by this artist.)

- lack of S&M, as in Japanese erotica, notable. van Gulik makes big point of that. Ch erotic can seem unhealthy to us in involvement of children--not so opprobrious in their culture and time?

Trying to get at question of how women might have responded to erotic ptg, and what they might have liked within it, is always hampered by our inability to get at authentic expressions of women’s tastes and opinions—they are always somehow tainted by filtering through some kind of control and rewriting by men. For instance (shan’ge from Kathy Lowry).

Matter of borrowings from west: Giovanni points out that early erotic fiction (his Chi pozi zhuan, 2nd half 16c) uses “sustained first-person narrative” which is “thought to have been imported from the West only during the century just gone.” Cf. Other things—cross-cultural adoptions heavier in erotic realm—no resistance from those who don’t want to contaminate native culture---.also, lure of lifelike, or effects of immediacy.

Giovanni p. 7: “As it is also the case in Renaissance pornography, postures play a crucial rhetorical role in late Ming pornographic fiction.”

His novel, and much of literary pornography, takes place inside household, so that all kinds of improper relationships, including incestuous, are generated: also, breakdown of nei and wai, penetrable women’s quarters. “. . . offers a dark and disenchanted view of the family …”

Possible that costumes, hair etc. identify participants in leaves I show so as to suggest improper relationships w/in family; will need more work. For instance—(young boy and woman?)

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