CLP 158: 2006 "Chinese Erotic Paintings in the Bertholet Coillection." Published in French as "Les peintures érotiques chinoises de la collection Bertholet." In: Le Palais du printemps: Peintures érotiques de Chine., exhib. cat. (Paris, Musée Cernuschi, 2

Chinese Erotic Paintings in the Bertholet Collection

Chinese erotic painting is still an undervalued and understudied genre. The prevalence of late, poor-quality pieces among surviving examples has persuaded too many Chinese art specialists that it is unworthy of their attention. Quite a few books of reproductions have appeared, some with substantial accompanying texts, but a properly art-historical account of the genre has yet to be published. My own attempt, a long chapter in a book titled Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Urban Studio Artists in High Qing China (hereafter PUP), is more or less completed and awaiting publication. This essay will draw on that unpublished text, in addition to offering more specific commentary on the paintings in the exhibition.

Erotic painting in China has a long history. A few paintings and relief designs on tomb tiles, along with references in the literature, testify to beginnings at least as far back as the Han dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 220). The eighth century (Tang dynasty) imperial court master Zhou Fang is said to have painted them; a fenben (sketch copy in ink line) that may preserve one of his compositions is in the exhibition (no. 5a). Famous painters in the Ming, notably Qiu Ying and Tang Yin in the early to mid 16th century and Chen Hongshou at the end of Ming, are recorded as having produced erotic paintings, but so far as is known, none of these are extant. Qiu Ying's name, in particular, is often falsely added to erotic paintings from later periods (e.g. the "Subtle Pleasures" album, no. 10) with the aim of increasing their prestige and value. Erotic paintings with reliable signatures or seals of their artists are less common; the album by Wang Sheng (no. 1) may well be the earliest extant. A seal reading "Xu Guan" on one leaf of "A Private Assignation" (no. 6) is probably the artist's, but he appears to be unrecorded.

An important and unexplored aspect of the place of Chinese erotic painting in Chinese culture is the question of how the Chinese themselves regarded it and wrote about it. The perhaps surprising fact is that their preserved comments on it are almost entirely negative. What Zhang Geng, writing around 1735, has to say is typical:

“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."

[Zhang Geng writes about two early Qing artists who specialized in erotic pictures, and continues:]

“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. [He mentions a writer of erotic poems, and adds:] "For this [the poet] 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.”[1]

The early Qing landscapist Zou Zhe (1636 –ca. 1708) writes that his friends “all praise Chen Hongshou'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.” 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!" A mid-nineteenth century prefect of Suzhou named Wang, visiting the book and painting markets in his city, 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.”[2] The report that women as well as men were consumers of erotica (a report backed up by other evidence) and the observation that it could be enjoyed by those who were illiterate or semi-literate--as most women still were--have important implications in allowing us to break out of the over-protective taboos that have hindered considerations of women's involvement in erotic painting, and other kinds of painting as well, in this period.

Although the acquisition and enjoyment of erotic pictures was widespread and more or less tolerated (it was the artists who painted them and dealers who sold them who are castigated), writing positively about them was evidently impermissable. 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 until then been innocent. Some writers have associated them with religious sexual practices, whether Daoist or Tantric Buddhist, and with Chinese sex manuals--which are indeed suffused with those doctrines, but which cannot, I believe, be shown to have any clear relationship to erotic paintings. Some have maintained that since sex was regarded as a natural part of life by the Chinese, no onus was attached to depictions of it. But, although the erotic paintings were certainly viewed and used in a variety of contexts, none of these foreign beliefs about them is, to my knowledge, supported in Chinese writings or in the pictures themselves. They may well have been used on occasion to introduce women to the byways of sex, a function they perform sometimes 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 high-level examples of the kind included in this exhibition 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 in mind. On the contrary, the best Chinese erotic paintings, besides being estimable works of art, explore the intricate byways of human sexuality with sensitivity and wit, and present them with sharp perceptions that allow viewers to find in them images of their own open or hidden fantasies, or to experience vicariously the fantasies of others--and even to understand some aspects of Chinese culture and society that sources of other kinds have censored out.

[1]Zhang Geng, Guochao Huazheng Lu, Huashi Congshu ed., pp. 40-41.

[2] Translation by Evenlyn Rawski. References for these and other quotations will be supplied in PUP.

Chinese erotic paintings were done mainly in two forms: the handscroll and the album, both of which are suited to intimate, close-up gazing; both have the advantage of concealing the pictures except when they are actually being viewed. The handscroll appears to have been most commonly used in the early periods, the album in the later, from late Ming on. "Secret Play on a Spring Night," the painting that was acquired in 1618 by Zhang Chou (1577-1643), who believed it to be a work by the Tang master Zhou Fang and describes it in detail in his catalogue, was a handscroll. Although the original painting is presumably long lost, the large fenben or study-copy in the exhibition (no. 5a) matches Zhang Chou's description in every respect, besides exhibiting a style distinct from that of all other erotic paintings known to me.

It presents a dramatic tableau with the Tang Emperor Xuanzong and his favorite consort Yang Guifei (or, alternatively, as Zhang Chou suggests, Empress Wu Zitian and her lover) engaged in lusty copulation, she in a chair wearing silk socks, he on a stool wearing a cap and boots. Both are supported by women servants: one pushes the emperor from behind, two more stand beside Yang Guifei, one of them leaning over to provide a backrest for her, while a fourth stands behind her chair to steady it. The large size of the figures within the frame brings the action up close; this, and the volumetric drawing of body parts, typical of Tang figure painting and surprisingly well retained in the copy, set the picture clearly apart from any other erotic painting presently known. Yang Guifei’s body, made up of fleshy, rotund masses, is entirely unlike the typical female nude of later centuries (see, for contrast, the "Meiren At Her Bath," no. 14.). Even her vulva, with its Y-shaped opening and thick labia, differs markedly from the modest slits that women in later pictures reveal. The copyist, while he must have followed the original closely in most respects, was apparently permitted some slight flexibility, as can be seen in the double drawing of the man’s penis, for which he tries alternative sizes and positions. (A distant echo of this composition may be recognized in a leaf in an album not included in this exhibition: see Dreams of Spring p. 78.)

From the late Ming on, the near-exclusive form of choice for erotic painting is the album; most high-quality surviving examples date between then (the early to mid-17th century) and the early or mid-19th century, after which a marked falling-off can be observed. Among albums, some illustrate texts, such as the Xi Xiang Ji and Rou Pu Tuan albums in the exhibition (nos. 2 and 3), while others, the majority, are made up of separate pictures with no narrative or other clear program connecting them. Up to the early Qing period, erotic series paintings, whether in handscroll or album form, typically depicted one sex act after another; they often bore titles such as "The Twelve Glorious Positions" for intercourse. In the early Qing period, albums with a different type of program begin to appear: leaves with depictions of active sex are interspersed with scenes of intrigues and seductions, even romantic love, which serve to contextualize the erotic events. In albums of this latter type, which I call part-erotic albums, the leaves are not linked by any narrative or other program, but are free-standing vignettes that invite the viewer to imagine mini-narratives around them. The earlier, simpler type continues to be used throughout the whole period of production; the "Gardens of Pleasure" album (no. 8) is an example probably from the late 17th or early 18th century. The Wang Sheng album (no. 1) might be seen as transitional, since it includes a single introductory leaf of a romantic scene. The "Scenes of Love" (no. 15) and "Subtle Pleasures" (no. 10) albums, as well as the album formerly published (wrongly) as illustrations to the novel Jin Ping Mei (no. 4), belong to the second, thematically richer type.

The creation of this new type, and its early development, appear to have taken place in the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu province. Suzhou had been the major center of painting for most of the Ming period, but by the end of Ming had slipped into a secondary position, in the eyes of influential critics, overshadowed by the new literati styles and doctrines promoted by Dong Qichang (1555-1636) and his followers in nearby Songjiang. Scorned or ignored by these critics was the continuation in Suzhou of a thriving commercial production of popular, non-elite painting in traditional styles, some of it forgeries of old masters, but including also original paintings, mostly figural, by lesser artists working in the tradition of Qiu Ying. One such "small master" was Wang Sheng, whose signed album (no. 1), as noted above, is probably the earliest erotic album assignable to a particular artist. Several other works by Wang Sheng are known; one of them, dated 1614, places his period of activity in the early 17th century. The style is skilled without being especially distinctive. Small refinements are seen in the fine, even line-drawing of the figures set against the firmer and fluctuating outlines of a bedcover, or the rough-brush depiction of the landscape on a screen against the meticulously rendered pattern of the surrounding brocade. The opening leaf with lovers on a riverbank, the alternation of indoor and outdoor scenes, a picture of sex in a boat, and a male homosexual encounter in the last, signed leaf, impart variety to the album.

A Suzhou artist active in the early Qing period who was known as a painter of erotic pictures was Gu Jianlong (1606-1687 or after); several of his works of this kind survive, in originals, close copies, or old reproductions. Attributable to him by style is a series of 200 illustrations to the great late Ming erotic novel Jin Ping Mei, probably done for the Kangxi Emperor while Gu was serving as a court artist in the 1660s-70s (Fig. 1). The albums remained in the Manchu court down to modern times, and bear seals of the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735-95); they are now dispersed among various collections. The series of illustrations to Rou Pu Tuan or "The Carnal Prayer Mat" by Li Yu (1610-after 1680) in the exhibition (no. 3) correspond to Gu's Jin Ping Mei pictures so closely in style and characteristic motifs as to suggest that they are close copies after a series by Gu Jianlong (which must have been done, one should note, more or less contemporaneously with the novel, written in 1657.) Only some hardness in the drawing and stiffness in the figures betrays the copyist's hand. The series of Xi Xiang Ji illustrations (no. 2), by contrast, are original works by some artist with a distinctive and elegantly mannered style, perhaps another Suzhou small master, who cannot be identified, at least by myself.

Two albums in the Bertholet collection (nos. 2 and 19--only one leaf from the latter is included in the exhibition; for others see Dreams of Spring pp. 102-109) have been misidentified as illustrations to the great late Ming erotic novel Jin Ping Mei. But in truth they do not illustrate any text, but are examples of the part-erotic album, made up of independent leaves, vignettes of upper-class or princely life. Most of the leaves in both are good copies after leaves in two extant albums by an unidentified master who served during the mid to later 18th century within the imperial academy in Beijing but also worked for some patrons, probably princely households, outside the imperial court--one of the albums bears imperial seals, the other has none. He is treated at some length in my chapter on erotic painting in PUP under the name "the Qianlong Albums Master." Part of one of the albums has recently been acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Fig. 2.) Together with a third album by the same artist, known only in reproduction, which also bears seals indicating it was done for the court, they belong among the masterworks of Chinese erotic painting. Nothing associates these albums with Jin Ping Mei or any other text; they bear titles such as "Intimate Scenes of Leisurely Love." A rare copy of one of these reproduction albums is included in the exhibition (no. 24).

Copies of leaves from these albums are found in a number of collections. The two Bertholet albums, besides being technically accomplished works in their own right, are valuable in that they contain some compositions, especially open scenes of sexual engagement, that have been lost or removed from the original series, both in the Boston album and in the publications. These allow us to reconstruct more completely the contents of the original albums. The albums, as noted, are fine examples of the part-erotic type, presenting scenes of seduction and philandering but also of romantic love and family life along with straightforward pictures of sex acts. In one leaf (no. 2x, cf. Fig. 2) a youth is making advances to an older woman, reaching out to loosen her sash, while she raises her hands in a manner more inviting than indignant. A bowl of Buddha's-hand fruits and a painting of peonies, both of which serve as displacements for the female sex organ, underscore the erotic message. The difference in ages between the two figures is more marked in the original than in the copy, and the titillating suggestion of incest (which in China included sex with the father's concubine) more distinct.

These and other part-erotic albums in the exhibition, including the "Private Assignation" album with a seal of Xu Guan (no. 6) and the "Subtle Pleasures" album (no. 10), draw for some of their leaves on an established repertory of themes and compositions, a repertory that was probably formed in early Qing Suzhou and was repeated loosely, after that, from one album to another: scenes involving voyeurs, a man taking the virginity of a young girl who is held by an older woman, a husband deceiving his wife by making sexual advances to (or, in some cases, having sex with) a servant girl, and so forth. Within these familiar themes the artists can exercise their originality in playing variations on them and introducing entertaining departures from them--besides, of course, inventing new themes and compositions in other leaves.

The "Gardens of Pleasure" album (no. 8), by contrast, contains fewer conventional motifs, more that seem entirely original. Each of the eight leaves depicts a heterosexual couple having or about to have sex. In one, a girl servant helps to support the woman, and in another the man appears to be of northern nomadic origin. Other than these minor variations, the pictures all present youthful couples engaged in amorous activities in garden or interior settings. The rich mineral blue-and-green coloring of the rocks, the luxuriant trees and flowers (which also serve to set the seasons), all contribute to the auspicious and comfortable atmosphere created in the pictures. The lovemaking is tender, unhurried; no signs of strong passion appear on the faces—at most, slight smiles of pleasure. Genitals are exposed and in most of the leaves engaged, but they are depicted modestly, not blatantly. (Women in Chinese erotic pictures, in sharp contrast to those in Japanese erotic prints, exhibit little pubic hair.) The furnishings and appurtenances testify to well-off, cultivated households, ideal environments for pursuing amorous affairs. In one of the leaves the man is wearing a scholar’s cap, an indication of status. No irony colors the pictures, none of the tension between desire and circumstance that adds expressive complexities to some other Chinese erotic painting. This is just the kind of album, arousing but at the same time calming, that might well have been used in the way seen in one of the pictures, looked at by the couple together before they proceed with sex. The album probably dates from the late 17th or early 18th century, the Kangxi era, and may be by some artist working in Zhejiang province, perhaps the Hangzhou or Shaoxing region, since elements of style in it are reminiscent of the late Zhe school and even Chen Hongshou (but without Chen’s archaistic distortions.)

Unique, to my knowledge, is the series of six fenben or ink-line sketch album leaves (nos. 5b-g) which accompany the larger fenben, the copy of the work ascribed to Zhou Fang discussed above (no. 5a). Fenben can be either study copies made to preserve older compositions for later use, as the large single one is, or preparatory sketches that precede the finished paintings, as are the set of six. While some older motifs and compositional types can be recognized in them, they are basically original works, and of high quality. According to the Shanghai artist who gave them to M. Bertholet, they came originally from the studio of Gai Qi (1774-1829), and this is not impossible, although a few features, such as the fixed smiles on most of the faces, suggests a somewhat later date and a different hand. There is no artist's signature or seal, or even an associated inscription, and the gap of a century and a half or more since their production allows the possibility of an added or changed attribution. Leaving aside the question of authorship, they can be seen not only as outstanding examples of Chinese brush drawing but also as valuable in revealing interesting aspects of the artist's working practice. Written on several of the leaves are notes on the colors and designs to be filled in the corresponding areas of the finished paintings. In two of the leaves the artist has drawn the amorous pair twice, to try alternatives; in one, the woman's hand grasping the man's penis appears three times, the problem being: how many fingers on each side? At least two of the compositions are very unusual if not unique among the erotic albums: the couple seated on an outdoor bench groping each other's genitals--this is not a practice commonly represented in Chinese erotica--and the one in which the man raises the robe of a sleeping woman to assault her sexually from behind. The leaf in which the cheating husband is about to be attacked by his angry wife wielding a club, while his partner in philandering hastily puts on her robe, is not without parallels in other albums (for instance, one leaf in the "Subtle Pleasures" album, no. 10x), but is entirely original in the unusual dramatic power it achieves by rendering well-articulated bodies in readable space. A “finished” version of it, probably not the only one derived from this fenben, appeared in a recent New York auction.[3]

[3] Sotheby’s New York, “Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art,” March 31-April 1 2005, Lot #309. It is one of a mixed lot of nineteen erotic leaves from different albums; only this one corresponds to one of the Bertholet fenben. A companion leaf, depicting a boy masturbating against a garden rock watched by two women in a nearby doorway, may have been derived from another fenben in the original series.

Welcome in this exhibition is the inclusion of homoerotic scenes (nos. 12, 17, 20, 22, 23)), which have usually been left out of collections of Chinese erotic paintings, perhaps out of fear that readers and viewers will find them offensive or distasteful. Viewers today are less likely to be offended than those of even a few decades ago, and the new openness permits a fuller consideration of our subject. A point to be made at the outset of any consideration of scenes of homoerotic love in Chinese painting is that neither the participants in the pictures nor the intended audiences for them need be understood as gay or lesbian by sexual inclination, although they might be that. For well-off males to enjoy sex with partners of both sexes was in most times and situations commonly accepted, not taken to be unnatural or censorable. Male brothels were common in the cities; boy servants were often subject to the pederastic urges of their masters. Boys and youths who dressed in feminine garb and catered to the same-sex desires of men were known as bitong, catamite boys. Consorting with bitong not only carried no special stigma, but could in certain situations be considered more refined than heterosexual relationships with female courtesans and prostitutes. Early European visitors to China were often scandalized by the prevalence and openness of male homosexuality they encountered.

Examples included in the exhibition are all, as it happens, scenes of male homoerotic sex. But pictures that were in all probability intended for a viewership of women also survive--a good example is an album recently acquired by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to which they have given the title "Secret Spring," by an unidentified artist whom I call, accordingly, the Secret Spring Master. The leaves of this album represent the artist's imagining, or his portrayal of what he believes some segment of his audience might want to imagine, of what might go on among the women and girls of a large and rich household--wives, concubines, maids--when they are left alone too long by husbands and masters away on business or official duties. In one leaf (Fig. 3) the mistress and maids have been playing the game of tossing arrows into a vase--itself understandable as a play on phallic penetration. Tiring of this and tipsy (a wine ewer and cups are on a table in lower right), the mistress now wants to cavort a bit with two of her maids before sleeping; disrobed, she embraces one of them while hooking her leg over the head of the other, as if inviting cunnilingus. Two younger maids in the foreground look coy, perhaps wondering whether to join in.

Such paintings as this can presumably be taken to represent "the filth that extends into the women's quarters" about which the Suzhou prefect, quoted earlier, complained. Bisexual women appear in Chinese fiction and other writing. The passionate friendships formed between literary women in late Ming and Qing sometimes shaded into sensuality and same-sex love; guixiu, cultivated gentlewomen, wrote love poetry to each other or to courtesans. Elite women also patronized courtesans themselves; special pleasure boats in the Yangzhou quarters were made to accomodate them.

From examples known to me, it would appear that albums entirely devoted to homoerotic scenes, whether male or female, were made only in the later period, probably after the mid-eighteenth century. It was not uncommon, however, for earlier albums otherwise portraying heterosexual encounters to include one male homoerotic leaf. An example is the last, signed leaf in the album by Wang Sheng (no. 1) in which an older (but still youthful) man wearing a scholar's cap is about to engage in anal intercourse with a boy who appears effeminate--his skin color is light, like a woman's--and who turns to smile seductively at the man about to sodomize him. Boys, some of them looking quite young, are the sex objects in many or even most of the male homoerotic pictures. Young girls also appear in the heterosexual scenes, but there they are in the minority, and pictures in which the two participants are more or less the same in age are most common. This is an aspect of Chinese pictorial erotica that might cloud our general tolerance or enjoyment of it--pictures in which the sexual object is a child, a young girl undergoing defloration in the Scenes of Love album (no. 15x), a boy being sodomized or practicing fellatio on an older man (no. 16.) Anal intercourse with women was less commonly represented, but is not unknown; in one of the Rou Pu Tuan illustrations (no. 3x), for example, the anti-hero Vesperus engages in this practice with the debauched Flora in a garden, assisted by the three sisters with whom he is also sexually involved, and who are enjoying her discomfort. On a nearby table are a wine ewer and a pile of erotic albums they have been looking at together.

Practices that are traditionally considered aberrational or even perverse appear with increasing frequency in the later albums. This is especially true of the oeuvre, identifiable by its highly distinctive style, of the Secret Spring Master. (His bizarre figure style may reflect, or exaggerate, some local tradition, but the stylistic consistency within this body of paintings attests, I believe, to their being the work of a single master, not a school.) Homoerotic albums accomodating the preferences of both sexes appear within his work, along with pictures offering intricate patterns of voyeurism in which the voyeurs spy on a diversity of sexual encounters: cunnilingus, a woman bathing while her maid straps on a dildo, and even--unusual for this artist--a scene of orthodox heterosexual coition. There is no easy way of determining the Secret Spring Master's period of activity; my guess would be the mid to later eighteenth century.

Two leaves in the exhibition, which might appear to be from a single album but cannot be, since one is on paper and the other on silk and the dimensions of the two differ slightly, represent extreme points in the Secret Spring Master's explorations into deviance and depravity. Both leaves seem the work of a painter who is nearing an exhaustion of imagination: how to escape the ennui of the familiar? One of them (no. 17) takes us into the realm of the seriously perverse. The domestic setting and the props indicate that this is a family scene; if so, what we see is homosexual incest, as the seated father sodomizes the boy. The mother--in this context it must be she, although one 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 (mine would follow the standard formulation "anything non-injurious between consenting adults is O.K."), is true depravity. The artist compounds the nastiness by the device, brilliant in itself (and known to me nowhere else in Chinese painting), of placing in the lower left corner a large, round mirror, seen from the back, into which the three are gazing delightedly, enjoying their own enjoyment. And he locates us, as viewers/voyeurs, just behind and above the mirror, so that we inescapably watch them watching themselves. An experience in cross-patterned looking that might in other pictures be engagingly naughty here becomes distinctly distasteful; we are made to become more visually engaged than we would like to be.

The other picture (no. 21) is less disturbing, only very kinky; it appears to be a parodistic, and no doubt to some viewers offensive, scene of a religious purification rite. The picture is not easy to read or to interpret. A woman leans back against a table, one knee on a chair, masturbating against the rounded end of the armrest. Her right hand holds lightly a fan with a flower design embroidered on translucent gauze--a touch of extraordinary refinement in this context. Meanwhile, the man, his large penis dangling, uses a razor to shave her pubic hair. Beside them, one woman raises a ewer to pour a thin stream of water from high up onto the pudendum (it strikes exactly on the region of the clitoris) of another who lies back, looking very satisfied, in the bathtub. The picture might allude to Jewish practice, since the man is circumcised and wears a round cap that could be a yarmulke. But it could equally, and more probably, allude to ritual purification within Islamic practice, in which women were required to remove body hair and men were circumcised. The cap worn by the man would then be a kind of fez. A Muslim community existed in China in this period, and the Secret Spring Master must have learned enough of their ritual to produce this obscene parody of it, adding the sacrilegious to his repertory of transgressive imagery.

How can we understand these? 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, we are persuaded, liked this kind of sex, Cocteau that kind; Balthus was turned on by these, Mapplethorpe by those; and so forth. I leave their assumed preferences unspecified to avoid being chided for thinking this way by more severe-minded colleagues, and perhaps I still will be; but it is hard to resist making such associations, in view of the nature of the pictures and the consistencies they exhibit. When there are exceptions—E. M. Forster, for instance, writing penetratingly perceptive fiction about heterosexual love throughout most of his career, revealing himself only very late as homosexual—we recognize these as exceptions, and admire the artist or writer all the more for his success in transcending the personal.

For the Chinese makers of erotic pictures, we do not have enough evidence yet to say categorically that the same pattern does not apply to them, although the thematic diversity to be seen in some of the albums, especially later ones, suggests that it does not. In any case, it is possible to say with confidence that it certainly does not apply to the Secret Spring Master. We have no idea what his sexual preferences can have been, and do not 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 deeply dirty mind, or a meretricious catering to depraved tastes. I would prefer to see it as revealing 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 again the pedophilic, those involving children), into good clean dirty fun.

We can conclude with three paintings in the exhibition that are, by contrast, only mildly erotic. The "Meiren (Beautiful Woman) At Her Bath" (no. 14) is a hanging scroll, meant to be hung on a wall and exposed for longer periods. We can only speculate about where it would have been hung; most probable is a man's bedroom. A similar picture, perhaps by the same artist or at least from the same studio, is in the Chicago Art Institute. These two probably represent a sub-genre that has mostly been lost; in later periods, pictures of this kind were not considered suitable hangings for a respectable household and were not preserved by collectors. Scenes of bathing appear also in the erotic albums, for instance in the voyeuristic leaf of the "Scenes of Love" album (no. 15x) The woman in the hanging scroll sits on a bamboo bench beside a large bronze bathtub with tripodal legs. A burning candle on a tall stand is mounted before a bronze mirror that reflects its light, Below is a planter with blossoming orchids. The woman holds her hands within the transparent robe, one raised close to her face, the other holding the robe below; she is about to take it off and enter the bath, but pauses for a moment contemplatively. The extreme delicacy of the picture can be realized if we think of Western depictions of similar subjects, such as, for extreme contrast, those of Degas. This and similar pictures (including, of course, erotic paintings like those in this exhibition) reveal the wrongness of the often-repeated claims that the Chinese did not represent the nude in their painting, and that Chinese males were not aroused by them. Another claim, that Chinese artists were inept at drawing the unclothed female form, also needs correction; it is enough here to observe simply that their depictions of it follow conventions of beauty that differ from ours, but are more or less consistent within surviving examples.

Another hanging scroll, "Beauty On a Verandah" (no. 13), is another that represents an all-but-lost sub-genre within meiren paintings, the erotic female image in an architectural and landscape setting. The woman is seen, most of her body exposed, escaping the summer heat on the verandah of her villa, with willows above and a lotus pond below. She holds a fan in a position that suggests she is cooling her groin area, which is hidden by a loosely-draped robe; her other hand touches her cheek as she gazes out at the viewer. The provocative ambiguity set up here, with the woman appearing aloof but nonetheless somehow available, is a favorite stratagem in meiren paintings. Scholarly paraphernalia in the study behind her, and the general appearance of affluence in the setting, reveal her to be a guixiu or cultivated gentlewomen. This handsome work must be a close copy after an original by the little-known but highly accomplished artist Cui Hui, whose inscription, a poem signed and dated to 1721, is copied in upper left, along with a longer inscription (apparently written by the same hand) copied after one by Yu Ji (1738-1823) that supplies information about the artist. Cui Hui was active in the Beijing region in the early 18th century and worked on the periphery of the imperial painting academy without ever being a member of it. Three others of his paintings of women, all originals and works of extreme refinement, are in the Palace Museum, Beijing.

The third painting, a large leaf from an album, here titled "Nostalgia" (no. 16), represents still another sub-category within the meiren genre, the woman aroused by the sight of copulating animals, here a pair of dogs, with a third watching and waiting. A seal reading Shizhou in the lower left corner is intended to ascribe the album to Qiu Ying, but again, this is transparent deception. The woman wears commoners' clothing and carries a drum, indicating that she is a traveling entertainer; the child accompanying her suggests she is also a family woman somehow separated from her husband. The positioning of her hands inside her shirt may signal that she is engaged in self-stimulation. Pictures of this type, the best of them sensitively evoking the lonely state of women forced to endure long periods of separation from their husbands and lovers (as many women indeed had to do, while the men traveled on business or official service), are common in the Ming-Qing period--a fine example painted in 1642 by the late Ming Suzhou master Shen Shigeng, in which the woman gazes at a pair of amorous dogs as she picks mulberry leaves, is in the Tianjin Municipal Museum. But these belong with another exhibition and another essay.


-Can I refer to Dreams of Spring and Gardens of Pleasure without giving full bibliographical references? (Surely these will be referred to often in the rest of the catalogue?)

- The three illustrations of things not in the show: will you get them? (Identified in my email of November 18.)

- On p. 10 of my manuscript I refer to no. 4x, one leaf in that album. The description I give there should identify it; please insert the proper number for this leaf in place of my x. Same in several places later in my essay: please insert the proper letters for the leaves.

- Do I need to send a copy of this to the woman who sent me the contract? (I returned that signed, and now I can’t find the copy I kept.) Or will you deliver this text to her, after filling in the letters for album leaves? That should be the final step in my essay.

- No. 13 might better be titled “Beauty On a Verandah” rather than just “House in Landscape.”

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