CLP 159: 2002 "Erotic Painting in China." published in German as "Erotische Malerei in China" (Erotic Painting in China), in Liebeskunst: Liebeslust und Liebeslied in der Weltkunst (Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 2002), pp. 201-215.

Erotic Painting in China

(Essay for “The Art of Love” exhibition, Museum Rietberg, from November 2002.)

Erotic painting has a long history in China. Examples are mentioned in texts from the early centuries of the Christian era, and a few crude representations of sexual couplings can be seen on painted tiles and relief designs from even earlier periods. The eighth century figure master Zhou Fang, who worked in the imperial court, is said to have made erotic pictures, and artists as prominent as Tang Yin, Qiu Ying, and Chen Hongshou in the Ming are reported to have included them in their output. However, no genuine erotic works by any of these survive. The erotic woodcut-printed pictures from the late Ming published by Robert van Gulik[1] probably represent a continuation of an early type of painting, in handscroll or album form, that presented a series of images of couples in various settings demonstrating different sexual postures; recorded works purportedly by Tang Yin and Qiu Ying have such titles as “The Ten Glorious Positions.” If we can believe accounts in poetry and fiction and a few pictorial representations, scrolls and albums of this kind were enjoyed by couples before lovemaking, to intensify passion and inspire sexual experimentation.

From the late Ming on, the album was the preferred, all but exclusive form, and in the best examples the simple series of copulating couples in different positions gives way to a more sophisticated and richer type in which open depictions of sex acts are interspersed with leaves portraying, or hinting delicately at, flirtations and seductions, even scenes of romantic love. Although the leaves of these, which can be called “part-erotic” albums, are not unified by any narrative or other program, and the participants in the scenes do not reappear from leaf to leaf, the non-erotic or subtly erotic leaves serve to contextualize the sexual acts depicted in the others, much as the non-erotic materials in the new high-level erotic fiction, beginning with the late 16th century masterwork Jin Ping Mei (Plum in the Golden Vase) and continuing with Rou Pu Tuan (Prayermat of Flesh) and others, frame and contextualize the more lurid accounts of sexual activities. This development in fiction probably inspired the new type of erotic album; in both, the way is opened for a much broader palette of literary and pictorial effects: irony, implicit narratives, intricate interactions among the participants.

Central to this expansion of the capacities of the erotic album, it would appear, was the Suzhou master Gu Jianlong (1606-1687 or later.) An undated album by him, known now only in an old reproduction book, is the earliest datable example of the new type.[2] The pictures in it make good use of complex spatial schemes--rooms beyond rooms, seen through doorways and other openings back. These not only draw the viewer’s gaze deeper and more insistently into the picture, for scopophilic effects of penetration, but also permit the introduction of sub-themes of voyeurism, sexual rivalries, and the like, as minor figures observe and become potentially engaged in the actions of the major ones. Spatial effects of this kind can be seen in some leaves of the Ellsworth album (no. ), which is by a follower of Gu Jianlong. Individual leaves in these albums are vignettes, charged with narrative implications beyond what is directly portrayed in them; the ingenious artists plant clues that arouse both curiosity and imagination: what is the relationship between the people? What has led up to the moment depicted, and what will follow it?

The creation of the new erotic album by Gu Jianlong and others, chiefly in Suzhou and in the early Qing period, does not supplant altogether the older type, which still dominates the large-scale production of erotic albums that continues down to recent times. The former C. T. Loo album (no. ), probably dating from late 17th or early 18th century, still exemplifies the older type, but on a level of quality well above the routine production. Chinese erotic albums truly worthy of scholarly study and museum exhibition--those comparable or equal in quality, that is, to the best paintings of other kinds from the same periods--are relatively few. I know only about twenty-five or thirty, in reproductions or originals. Most of what survivives--and, unhappily, most of what has been published--appears to be copies or copies of copies surviving from the copious commercial output of painters of lesser skills and little originality, made in response to a heavy and continuing demand. A mid-19th century prefect in Suzhou complains that the market in his city is flooded with lewd books and paintings, and that worst of all, these have even penetrated the women’s quarters. The paintings are worse than the books, he adds, since books can only affect those literate enough to read them, while just looking at the pictures is enough to corrupt.[3] Edicts prohibiting their production and dissemination seem to have had little long-term effect.

The painters who made the best of the erotic albums were not specialists in that genre, but highly trained, broadly versatile professional masters of the type that I term, in the title of a forthcoming book about them, “urban studio artists”: Gu Jianlong and his followers, Xu Mei, followers of Leng Mei, many others.[4] They might be summoned for some period of service in the imperial court, as Gu Jianlong and Xu Mei were: the Manchu emperors, fascinated by the popular and erotic culture of the southern (Jiangnan, Yangzi Delta) cities, employed painters from those cities to make pictures that captured some of its alluring aspects. The Kangxi Emperor probably commissioned a series of large painted illustrations to Jin Ping Mei from Gu Jianlong, and the Qianlong Emperor appears to have had one of his court artists, still unidentified, produce some of the most finished and elegant erotic paintings that have survived.[5]

Erotic paintings were associated with the imperial court in the popular imagination from much earlier times. Stories (probably apocryphal) about depraved rulers tell of lewd paintings executed on the walls or ceilings of their palace chambers, as stimuli for debauchery. An erotic handscroll that the antihero Ximen Qing in Jin Ping Mei gives to his favorite concubine Pan Jinlian is said to have come from the palace. This association is reflected in the common name for the genre, chungong-hua or “Spring Palace Pictures.” Erotic fiction in China similarly takes as its frequent subjects the misdoings of rulers and their consorts. Fervid imaginings of what went on behind the walls of the Forbidden City, and of the pleasures one might enjoy if possessed of absolute power, were irresistable to novelists and painters and the audiences for whom they worked.

[1] Especially the 24-leaf album titled Huaying Jinzhen published by him as vol. 2 of his Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period (Tokyo, 1961; reprint, Taipei, n.d.), based on woodblocks he had acquired in Kyoto. Other “late Ming” materials reproduced by van Gulik should be used with caution, since some are clearly from his own hand and may be his own invention, not based on any Chinese originals.

[2] Gu Yunchen Huachun Tuce (Shanghai: Yiyuan Zhenshang She, n.d.). The only copy I know was in the library of the late Osvald Sirén, and is now in the library of the Rietberg Museum, Zürich (M XI B81).

[3] Wang Xiaozhuan, Yuan Ming Qing Sandai Jinhui Xiaoshuo Xiqu Shiliao (Historical Materials on the Banned Fiction and Drama in Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties) (Beijing, 1958) p. 111-112; quoted in part in Evelyn Rawski, Education and Popular Literacy in Ch’ing China (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979), p. 118.

[4] The book is Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Urban Studio Artists in High Qing China, forthcoming. A second part, on Chinese erotic painting, will be separately published. A few passages from the latter book have been excerpted for these essays.

[5] For these, see James Cahill, "The Emperor's Erotica" (Ching Yüan Chai So-shih II) In: Kaikodo Journal XI, 1999, pp. 24-43.

Beginning with an important album by the Suzhou master Xu Mei, active in the early decades of the 18th century,[6] and continuing with other high-level 18th century examples such as the one that bears seals of Leng Mei but is probably by a somewhat later artist (no. ) and the Ellsworth album by some follower of Gu Jianlong (no. ), the erotic album in China develops in the direction of greater thematic diversity and complexity: voyeurism, masturbation by both sexes, homosexuality, bestiality, and incest are all portrayed or hinted at, along with simple sexual ennui and impotence. If this change had been directed only at titillating audiences bored with simpler sexual themes, the outcome might have been a descent into grossness. What saves the best of the later albums from that is a combination of high aesthetic quality and wit. The people in these leaves, engaged in devious, sometimes bizarre sexual pursuits, are observed and presented by the artists with an amused delicacy, so that actions and situations that may cross the line into the seriously kinky become somehow inoffensive. The same refinements, through which aesthetic response tempers the erotic, render the pictures unsuited to the function of simple arousal that the cruder albums performed, for instance as aids to masturbation.

Very little of comparable quality can be found in Chinese erotic painting done after the end of the 18th century, although a few albums from the Shanghai School in the later 19th century may eventually find places in the small body of surviving high-level examples. Erotic paintings from the best periods and artists, as represented in this exhibition, fully deserve to be included, I believe, in our accounts of later Chinese painting. That they play no part in Chinese histories is easily understandable when we note that the infrequent mentions of them in Chinese writings, down to the present day, are virtually all condemnatory. Although the acquisition and enjoyment of the albums was widespread and more or less tolerated, writing positively about them was evidently impermissable. The many denunciations of them, often virulent, are only rarely directed at consumers--the assumption, implicit or stated, is that if pictures of this kind are made available, people will acquire and enjoy them. Zhang Geng, writing around 1735, says of Qiu Ying’s erotic paintings, “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.”[7] It is the artists who paint them and the dealers who sell them who are assigned to hell in one moralizing fulmination after another, Zhang Geng’s included. An exception is a late Ming writer who considers ownership of them a transgression, assigning “ten demerits a day” for “keeping lewd books or lewd paintings.” But even he goes on to assign “unlimited demerits” to those who sell them.[8]

Foreign writers in recent times, by contrast, have looked for ways to sanitize the Chinese erotic paintings, meaning perhaps to defend the Chinese against the stigma of having made pornography or “dirty pictures.” Dealers and collecters sometimes call them “bride’s books,” and argue that their purpose was to instruct newlywed women about the ways of sex. Some writers have associated them with religious sexual practices, whether Daoist or Tantric Buddhist; some maintain 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 used and understood in a diversity of contexts, none of these foreign beliefs about them is, to my knowledge, supported in Chinese writings, or in the pictures themselves. Perhaps, living in a society that is more open and uncensorial toward sex in its manifold forms of expression, we should no longer feel the need for seeing Chinese erotic paintings as anything but what they are: pornography, if you will, but most importantly, pictures that explore the intricate byways of human sexuality with perception and wit, and present them with a sensitivity that allows viewers to find in them images of their own open or hidden fantasies, and to experience vicariously the fantasies of others--and even to understand some aspects of Chinese culture and society that sources of other kinds leave out. What matters is that when all the copies and mediocre examples are removed from consideration, what remains makes up a tradition of erotic painting hard to match in world art in its depth, diversity, and high artistic quality.

Essay for “The Art of Love” exhibition: the former C. T. Loo album.

Of the three Chinese erotic albums represented in this exhibition, this is the simplest and oldest in type. It 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.) The skilled and readable delineation of furniture, railings, and architecture, along with other well-drawn materials, suggests that it is an original work, not a copy. 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; the women exhibit little public hair. (All this is in strong contrast to Japanese erotic pictures, in which the size of genitals is typically exaggerated, pubic hair is abundant, and the participants often grimace as if in pain, or otherwise betray the intensity of their ardor.) The furnishings and appurtenances indicate 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, no tension between desire and circumstance. 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. We can imagine that erotic albums by conservative Ming masters may have looked like this, allowing for updates in style.

Leaf with Couple Looking at Erotic Album

The young man and woman are looking at an erotic album before making love. He, at least, is looking at the album, and encouraging her to do the same; it is unclear where her gaze is directed, and she appears more engaged in clutching him and spreading her legs impatiently. The leaf exposed in the album is a composition quite like the one they themselves occupy: the couple on a mat beside an ornamental rock beneath a tree in a garden. This is one of several representations in the erotic albums of this theme, which is to be found also in fiction of the time--it is as though the artists are advertising the efficacy of their own creations.

Formal repetitions in the leaf are almost too apparent: the rock and tree backing up the leftward lean of the figures, the rhythmic disposition of their limbs, the similar ovals of the two faces in close proximity. The distinction in skin color, the woman’s whiter and the man’s darker, is common in the albums but more marked here than in other leaves; it may indicate a difference in social status, a possibility strengthened by his simple shirt and hairstyle. He may, that is, be dallying above his station. The peaches and lizhi fruit in the basin and the flowers in the bronze pot make this a scene of summer.

[6] In the collection of Guy Ullens de Schooten; see Bilishi Youlunsi Fufu Cang Zhongguo Shuhua Xuanji (Beijing: Palace Museum, 2002), no. 13. The whole album is reproduced in Sotheby’s New York Chinese paintings auction catalog for March 21, 1995, no. 52.

[7] Zhang Geng, Guochao Huazheng Lu, Huashi congshu ed., pp. 40-41.

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

Leaf with Girl Leaning Over Pine

Small white chrysanthemums identify the season as autumn. Lovemaking is languid. The girl leans over a pine which leans over a stream; she rests her head on her crossed hands, looking more meditative than aroused. as he enters her from behind. The tips of her tiny bound feet protrude from beneath a red skirt below. These, along with the red rails of the low balustrade and clusters of red-brown leaves, add warm touches to the otherwise cool blue-green coloring. Here, too, the way the nearly horizontal leaning of the rockery and the pine echo the postures of the figures betrays an artifice typical of the professional master working at a late stage in a long tradition.

Leaf with Boy and Girl Beneath Willow

This, in contrast to the other leaves shown here, appears to be a scene of young love, carried out with enthusiasm and after some preparation; this is not a spontaneous encounter. They have spread a mat on the ground beside a garden pond, beneath a willlow. With an orchid in her hair, she leans against a backrest, and has set down a fan decorated with butterflies in flight, an emblem of light dalliance. She rests one hand on his shoulder, the other on a pile of painting albums, presumably erotic. She wears a light green gauze jacket over a red moxiong, a garment that Chinese women had worn since the Tang dynasty as a kind of broad brassiere[9]--it is often the only piece of clothing that the woman has not removed in Chinese erotic pictures, an indication, perhaps, that gazing at the female breasts was not the turn-on for Chinese males that it has been in the West. Far more arousing for them were the woman’s bound feet and the small embroidered shoes worn over them, which are shown prominently in the pictures.

Spots of color and movement around the two lovers animate the scene and suggest the exhilaration they feel: white flowers, swallows darting over the pond, bright-green moss-dots on the tree trunk, the red and blue of their discarded clothes. But all this is peripheral, and the viewer’s gaze, like the gazes of the two lovers, returns always to the scopophilic focus, the point of their sexual union.

Leaf with Northern Nomadic Man and Chinese Woman

Leaves with this theme appear frequently in Chinese erotic albums; they recall the stories of Lady Wenji and other Chinese women who became the wives or consorts of nomadic chieftains and lived long stretches of their lives in the cold northern steppe region. The man shown here, however, appears to lead a more settled life, with Chinese-style furniture and amenities. The setting, in fact, is not unlike a Chinese garden, with rocks, a rivulet beside which narcissus grow, and a plum tree beginning to bloom. The season is early spring, the weather still cold enough that the two cover themselves with heavy robes and look out upon a charcoal brazier heating pots of tea or wine. They clasp each other for love and warmth; both smile with pleasure. Two scrolls on the table may be erotic, but may also simply indicate that he is cultivated in Chinese ways, even though his facial features, beard, skin coloring and cap identify him as ethnically other than Han Chinese. The severe linear patterns of the thick robes and curtains, the sheer weightiness of the rocks and furniture that surround the central area with the figures, make this a more somber scene than others in the album.

Moss Album

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

The album is executed in a highly finished, realistic style that owes much to European art, but with a lightness of touch, in both brush and conception, that tempers the indelicacy of the subjects. In one outdoor scene, for instance, two women hold down a third, exposing and fingering open her sex, while another picks an eggplant with which to violate her; a baby she carries looks slyly out at us, as if privy to the game. In another, a girl holds and gazes at the extended penis of a braying donkey, too absorbed to notice a boy who is reaching under her clothing. Our artist treats these as good clean fun, and almost persuades us that they are that.

We are a long way from albums of the type that presented simple portrayals of one sex act after another. In none of these leaves is the act really taking place--the one with the ox and calf (no. ) comes closest, showing the moment before penetration. In another, a confused-looking girl kneels before a plump, stern-faced woman, presumably her mistress, who appears to be demanding oral sex, while a young man in the doorway behind, penis exposed, signals a more attractive offer. In still another, a young man just arisen, still naked and erect, from the bed where his wife (?) lies sleeping after sex is already kissing the maid in the doorway. In the more straightforward scenes of less sophisticated albums, sex is unproblematic: he and she come together and go at it, with no interference. This album, by contrast, is devoted to subtle pictorial explorations of how young people and old attempt to negotiate the complex situations into which sexual desire, their own or others’, has drawn them. Some of the leaves suggest a reading of the album as, among other things, an artist’s fondly amused (and partly imagined) exploration of female sexuality. The effects are achieved, moreover, through truly pictorial means: no literary descriptions of the scenes could capture the nuances conveyed here (although, of course, literary description opens other possibilities, such as telling what preceded the moment depicted, or describing what the people are feeling.) The intricacy of the album’s program and its excellence as a work of art must place it, eventually, high up within this neglected genre.

Moss Album, Leaf with Garden Boy and Girl Servant

A garden boy has set down his bamboo broom to engage in a wordless interchange with a servant girl at the window. He pulls out the front of his pants and points to their furthest extension; her response is shown in her cautiously impressed look, and in the way she chews on her sleeve. But the artist has made us privy to the boy’s deception by allowing us to glimpse, through a gap in his pants, his much more modest member.

The composition exemplifies a device introduced to the erotic albums, it would appear, around the time of Gu Jianlong in the early Qing, and probably by him. It is seen also in much other pictorial art of the time, including the leaves of the imperially-commissioned Gengzhitu or “Pictures of Sericulture and Rice Culture,” based on paintings by Jiao Bingzhen (act. 1680-1720) and first printed in 1696. This is the opening back of the space of the picture through a door or other aperture in a wall, so that the viewer’s gaze is drawn into depth, beyond the figure group that constitutes the main subject. In the erotic paintings, the effect is of moving in imagination beyond the participants in the erotic action--or, in memorable cases, beyond and around the woman in her boudoir--so as to seem to surround and embrace them, heightening the sense of visual engagement and scopophilic pleasure.

Moss album, Leaf with Buffalo and Calf

Several of the leaves in the album are set outdoors, and have an attractively bucolic character. In this 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, and pastoral dreams of return to a state of youthful freshness. It hints also at the allure of child sex, and thus, like other leaves in the album, has a tinge of the near-perverse, which is somehow intensified here by the way the cow and nuzzling calf, behind, roll their eyes back to watch. The rendering of the animals and the riverbank setting in the semi-Westernized illusionistic manner contributes to the ingenuous plein-air openness of the scene.

Moss album, leaf with Traveling Merchant and Tavern Girl

This is the only leaf among the eight that might properly be called coarse. We see an old, gap-toothed travelling merchant bargaining with a tavern girl, or perhaps a prostitute, over how much it will cost him to induce her to pull down her pants the rest of the way--or, in an alternative reading, preventing her from pulling up her pants while demanding, with his two raised fingers, a second bout for his money. When we turn our attention from this rather gross tableau, however we read it, we may be captivated by the meticulous reproduction of wood-grain on the partly-open door, and the glimpse through it into the stable below, from which wild-eyed horses look out. Even more absorbing is the townscape viewed through the open window, likewise painted in an enchanting version of the Sino-European illusionistic manner. Light snow is falling, and a traveller with an umbrella is leading a horse along the canal; the figures, together with the houses behind and the foreshortened wall of the building at left, are reflected in the water. All this, quite irrelevant to the erotic theme (apart from its usual function of lending to it a kind of credibility), is rendered with a delicacy and skill that make us wonder why an artist of this attainment did not become better known (it is quite beyond the capacity of Leng Mei, judging from any of his reliably signed works), or turn his abilities to other uses than settings for erotica.

Moss Album, leaf with Boy and Girl in Garden

This leaf, set in a garden, is another of the scenes of teenage sex of which this artist, or his clientele, appear to have been so fond. The boy’s pants are down, and the girl is taking off hers, while he unties her jacket. He appears younger than she; his smile expresses eager anticipation, hers a touch of uncertainty. Here, too, the contrasts are subtle but effective. Their respective moods and imagined responses are echoed in the energetic thrusts of the garden rock on his side, strongly outlined and colored with heavy blue-and-green pigments (qing, for youth and emotion), and the finely drawn banana trees on hers, the tips of their leaves browning, perhaps intimating the transience of her youth and beauty. The validity of this reading, and others proposed for these pictures, matters less than recognizing the power of the pictures to permit and encourage readings of this kind.


Ellsworth album

The previous owner of this album, from whom the present owner received it as a gift, was the late Alan Priest, longtime Curator of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He acquired it in Beijing, and reportedly described it as “the best erotic album on the Peking market.” It is indeed a work of high quality and extraordinary imagination. The unknown artist was a follower of Gu Jianlong working some time around the mid or later 18th century. Not only the figure style but also the compositional types and the furnishings--notably the screen with many small paintings affixed to it--belong to Gu’s repertory. At the same time, the thematic diversity of the album goes far beyond anything Gu could have conceived, or at least painted. In this respect it is closer to the album with Leng Mei seals (no. ), with which it is probably roughly contemporary.

A few of the nine leaves (there may originally have been ten or twelve) offer relatively straightforward scenes of heterosexual sex: the traveling scholar dreaming of his faraway lover (no. ), a fisherman making love to his wife in a boat while their small child looks on, a nude couple copulating in a garden. But others, including three of the four included here, are anything but straightforward. One that is not included sets the tone, perhaps, for the album: we see the ultimately blasé and permissive couple having sex in his study. They have adopted a seated 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 the other away to flirt with the maid. In another, 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, not at all permissive, approaches across the bridge, wielding a club. Gu Jianlong’s capacity for creating scenes that imply narratives is continued here--it would not require much imagination to build around the album nine erotic stories of some complexity.

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. Irony and aesthetic distance are generally beyond them, and their pictures as a whole exhibit the usual traits of the copyist’s hand: stiff or heavy-handed drawing, insensitivity to nuance, fixed expressions on faces, unintended distortions. Fine erotic albums from the 19th century and even the 20th may turn up in years to come, necessitating changes in the above judgments; for now, based on what we know, they seem valid.

Ellsworth album, leaf with Scholar’s Dream

In the context of the other leaves in the album, this one seems old-fashioned and innocent. Travelers dreaming of their wives and lovers far away are a common theme in literature and art; dreams are customarily enclosed in ovoid shapes, like the balloons in our comic strips, emanating from the dreamer’s head. Here it is a young scholar, still in his cap and robe, sleeping overnight in some hostel; he may be traveling to take the examinations that led to official appointments. The snow on the budding plum tree outside and on the pine tree at right suggest late winter as the season. Even in this cold environment he dreams of being with his lover in a warm garden, perhaps far to the south. His dream itself resembles an erotic album leaf: it is quite close to one in the former C. T. Loo album (no. ). Garden rocks in the dream take on the cloudlike forms of those in old paintings; the ordinary rocks in the “real scene” are plainer, inexpressive. This leaf is imbued with a concept of romantic love that other leaves in the album seem to mock.

Ellsworth album, leaf with Mirror and Voyeur

A man carrying a fan is skulking in a garden; from his dress and his manner, it appears that he is a member of the household, not an intruder from outside. He is spying on a woman through a very large moon window, seeing her image in a big mirror on a stand at the far side of the room. She is on a couch just inside the window; he sees directly only her head from the back, and her whole semi-nude body, with her sex visible, as reflected in the mirror. If she also looks into the mirror, as perhaps she is doing, she will see him plainly reflected in the window and become aware of being watched. Or she could turn her head and look directly at him. The whole pattern of illicit seeing here is more complex than it at first appears.

Mirrors and their reflections had played a part in erotic paintings at least since the time of Gu Jianlong, to compound the scopophilic experience of looking at the pictures by adding internal lines of sight to cross or repeat our own. In their simplest usage they enable a maid outside the room to watch a copulating couple inside. A woman having sex with a man may hold a mirror to admire her own face, or compare it to his; a woman masturbating can gaze at her body in a full-length mirror, while a man peering through a window behind her uses the same mirror to watch her doing it. Here the large size and square shape of the mirror gives it the added function of seeming to open a far window through which we look into a reversal—a true mirror image—of the already complex spatial scheme of the composition.


Ellsworth album, Leaf with Jin Ping Mei

A mature, bearded man has stretched out naked on a lounging 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 is the title written on the open book on the floor beside him, one ce or fascicle from a large set seen in the bookcase inside the room. He may be fanning his erect penis with the feather fan, or else is tickling it for stimulation. His eyes are closed, whether in a doze or in satisfied enjoyment is not clear. A young housemaid looks out at him, her sleeve-covered hand to her face in a gesture of concern and uncertainty, feelings that are hinted at also by her raised eyebrows: should she intrude on him, and what would she be risking if she did?
The picture is among other things an unfair slur on Jin Ping Mei, which, although it doubtless sometimes elicited in its readers responses of the kind shown here, was far more than a stimulus for sexual arousal. In such a picture as this, however, the urbane artist is not so much treating a theme directly as playing on a theme, or on a common notion about it. What we see is the painter’s facetious report of someone’s imagining of how the lofty scholars, in the privacy of their studies, really appreciated this great work of Chinese fiction.


Ellsworth album, Homosexual Leaf

It was not uncommon for erotic albums otherwise devoted to heterosexual encounters to include one homosexual leaf. In this one, 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 in feminine garb and catered to the same-sex desires of men. For well-off males to enjoy sex with partners of both sexes 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. Recent studies claim to recognize bitong in some of the boy servants who accompany scholars in paintings.

As in the Jin Ping Mei leaf (no. ), 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.

The screen behind the figures, with rows of small paintings affixed to it, belongs to a type commonly seen in paintings by Gu Jianlong and his followers; to my knowledge, it is seen nowhere else, nor are examples extant.[10] The antique bronze gu and ding vessels on the table indicate the man’s wealth and cultivation. The loosely-rolled handscroll is presumably an erotic painting; and the book, one fascicle spread out as if they had been reading it together, proves when one looks closely (its title is exposed by the open tao or case on the table) to be none other than the Qing shi, a collection of love stories by the late Ming Feng Menglong (1574-1646) which includes a chapter on homosexual love.[11]

[9] See Robert H. van Gulik, Sexual Life in Ancient China (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1961) p. 299; also Valery M. Garrett, Chinese Clothing, An Illustrated Guide, Hong Kong, 1994, pp. 22-23, where it is referred to as a "bib brassiere."

[10] In China, that is; in Japan such screens are common. For the absence of extant examples, I depend on a personal communication from Sarah Handler.

[11] For a discussion of the book and a translation of a selection of the stories, see Hua-yuan Li Mowry, Chinese Love Stories from “Ch’ing-shih” (Hamden, Connecticut, Archon Books, 1983.)

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