Courtesans, Concubines, and Willing Women


A. Real Portraits of Courtesans

In opening the first chapter with the "false Mme. Hedong" (fig. 1/1) and arguing that the pose and demeanor of the woman in this painting would have been unacceptable to Liu Yin as a way for herself to be portrayed in 1643, the purported date of the work, I left answered the question of how she would have been represented in a true portrait done in her own time. A partial answer is provided by a painting done in 1696 by Yü Zhiding (known now only in an old and bad reproduction) which I termed the "real Mme. Hedong" (fig. 1/3)--painted some thirty years after her death and possibly based on a portrait from life, it shows her as a respectable literary woman (which she was), not as a purveyor of sexual services, and affords the viewer no scopophilic pleasures of the kind offered by the pseudo-Mme. Hedong and its relatives, the generic meiren paintings. An examination of real and imaginary portraits of courtesans will support these observations.

Imaginary portraits of famous courtesans and concubines of the past are relatively numerous among Chinese paintings of women; true portraits of individual courtesans done from life, by contrast, are rare--in fact, I know of only two believable examples. One was painted in 1651 as the joint work of two Nanjing masters, Wu Hong, whose distinctive style can be recognized in the tree and landscape setting, and the versatile Fan Qi, who is presumably to be credited with the figure (fig. 4/1.) The woman represented is Kou Mei or Kou Baimen, a courtesan of the Qin-Huai pleasure district in Nanjing who was a contemporary of the artists. An inscription written later on the painting supplies information about her: an officially registered courtesan in the Southern Entertainment Bureau, she was bought out at the age of eighteen or nineteen by a high official named Zhu Guobi and became his concubine. When, upon the fall of Nanjing to the Manchus in 1644, Zhu was put under house arrest and suffered the confiscation of all his property, Kou Mei repaid him by purchasing his freedom with a thousand pieces of gold. She went back then to the life of prostitution, presumably to recoup her fortunes and provide for her later years; she would drink all day with her guests, who are described in the inscription as "scholars and dandies," and when by evening she was inebriated, she would give vent to her feelings in singing and weeping. It is at this stage of her career that she is portrayed, presumably from life, in the 1651 portrait. (See also Li Waiyee in Writing Women p. 61 on her.)

Like Liu Rushi in her posthumous portrait, Kou Mei sits modestly outdoors, not provocatively in her boudoir. Her posture is decorous, so far as one can discern it beneath the heavy robe; her gesture and tilted head seem expressive of an inner state or feeling, not directed outward to some imagined viewer; she seems in fact to be comfortably alone in nature, perhaps composing a poem (detail, fig. 4/2.) Her face, while simply drawn, reveals the "refined, quiet beauty" credited to her in the inscription, and is the face of an individual, not accomodated to some impersonal ideal of beauty for the time. And the manner in which she is portrayed is not the illusionistic style (of which Fan Qi was quite capable) but the baimiao or "plain drawing" that had signified, from its first effective use in the works of the 11th century figure master Li Gonglin, a classicizing presentation of the subject, a fastidious restraint.

The portrait of Kou Mei, situating her figure drawn by one artist in fine line beneath a tree drawn in rougher strokes by another, follows a pattern used commonly for portraits of men; an example is a portrait of the literatus-artist Shao Mi done only a few years later, in 1657, by the portrait master Xu Tai and the landscapist Lan Ying (fig. 4/3.) All this de-emphasizing of sensuality and avoidance of the gender-specific could be explained simply as a decision to portray Kou Mei, as Liu Rushi is portrayed in the "real Mme. Hedong" painting, as an individual person of strong character, not as a courtesan, and the nature of the painting is no doubt partly to be accounted for in that way. But the phenomenon is more general: other paintings of courtesans, at least through the 17th century, tend to present them in this asexual aspect. Whatever the circumstances and purpose of such a painting can have been, it was clearly not intended as an advertisement for the woman's physical charms. Moreover, since the courtesans favored by literary men were typically praised, not for their voluptuousness or sexual skills but for their aesthetic refinements and high-minded reserve, it is understandable that paintings of them should convey the same qualities. The writer of an inscription on a portrait (which does not survive) of the courtesan-artist Xue Wu, for instance, says of it: "Studying her portrait, one sees a fastidious woman, but without pretentions."

In the extensive literature on courtesans we find the same heirarchy of values continually asserted. These books offer brief characterizations and evaluations of the women of particular pleasure districts in the writer's time, sometimes in the form of guidebooks and sometimes nostalgically, like the account of the Qin-Huai quarter in Nanjing in late Ming, written by Yü Huai (who also inscribed the portrait of Kou Mei) as a remembrance of a paradise lost. A late work of this type, the 1879 Wumen Baiysn tu or "Pictures of the Hundred Voluptuous Ones of Suzhou," grades the women in classes, much as paintings are graded in old catalogs: in descending order, they are the gaopin or "lofty class," the meipin or "beautiful class," the yipin or "untrammeled class"--a grouping that especially recalls a category of painting, besides stimulating one's curiosity about the c riteria for entry--the yanpin or "voluptuous class," and the jiapin or "pretty class." (Look at Van Gulik 230: Chou Mi on dif. classes of courtesans.) Evaluations of paintings and prostitutes were alike in their assumption that the more commonly met with, in each case, were those projecting an obvious appeal, as though they wanted to be purchased; but that the true connoisseur will pursue those dignified by a quality of reserve, and by subtler attributes that demand deeper levels of appreciation. Even when, by the middle Qing period, techniques for charging images of women with sexual allure had been highly developed, they were seldom employed in pictures of particular courtesans and concubines. The reason, we can assume, is that those who were portrayed were not common prostitutes but women of refinement and, often, literary attainments, and admiration for these qualities is embodied in the portrayals.

The other surviving portrait-from-life of a courtesan is an equally remarkable picture bearing the title "The True Face of Courtesan Dong" (fig. 4/4.) A woman of the Qin-Huai district in Nanjing, she herself had it painted around 1560 by the well-known artist Qian Gu (1508-after 1574) to send to her lover Wang Huai, an official who came from a prominent family of Xiuning in Anhui. The well-known poet and collector Huang Jishui provides this information in the preface to a series of poems he composed in 1561 to accompany the painting; two other noted literati of the time, Mo Shilong and Xiang Shengmo, wrote titles for it (Xiang's is inscribed in the upper left of the painting, opposite the artist's seal), and many other prominent people added inscriptions. According to Huang Jishui's account, Dong Ji or Courtesan Dong was worried that her lover's memory of her face would fade over a separation of several years, and had this "true image" of it made to send to him, to remind him of her beauty. Through the medium of Qian Gu's artistic skill she also reminds him, and persuades us, that this beauty was more than a surface attribute. The sensitive drawing is enhanced with white pigment to shape the columnar neck and set off the raised facial features--forehead, nose, chin--from the recessed areas around the eyes and mouth, an old Chinese technique that renders satisfactorily the lineaments of the face without recourse to the heavier shading of western style. Courtesan Dong's hair is done up plainly in a bun; her adornments, earring and hairpins, are similarly modest, as is her unornamented jacket; she turns away in a reserved three-quarter view, not looking out toward us--or, more properly, toward her lover Wang Huai, the intended viewer of the picture. And once more, the drawing of her eyes, eyebrows, and mouth indicates intelligence and character more than conventional prettiness.

Beyond these two, we have only literary accounts of portraits of courtesans done from life. A Yüan dynasty text on famous courtesans of that period claims that one of them, Harmonious Cloud, was portrayed by three noted artists of the age: Zhao Mengfu, Shang Tao, and (implausible as it may seem) the landscapist Gao Kegong; it adds that "so many famous people inscribed poems on them that there was hardly any room left." The best clue we have to how the great Zhao Mengfu might have depicted a courtesan is this painting of a flute-player ascribed to him (fig. 4/5); although the attribution is insecure, it is supported by the fact that Zhao's more reliable figure paintings are in the classicistic fine-line manner seen here. But the whole story of his portraying Harmonious Cloud may well be fiction.

B. Imaginary Portraits of Courtesans

Portrayals from imagination of particular famous courtesans of the past are by contrast fairly numerous, and make up one of the principal sub-genres within meiren or beautiful-women paintings. Our series can begin with two are from the Yüan period, when a newly-risen popular literature frequently told romantized stories of courtesan-scholar encounters in the past, the Tang and Song. A short handscroll by Liu Yüan (fig. 4/6) illustrates the story of how the Northern Sung scholar Sima Caizhong sees the Tang-period courtesan Su Xiaoxiao in a dream and hears her sing; years later he sees her again, and joins her in death. She appears as a bewitching ghost, with swirling scarves, dissheveled hair, and a distraught facial expression and gesture. In the other (fig. 4/7), a little-known Yüan master named Zhou Lang conjures a cool image of another courtesan of the Tang, Du Qiuniang; his picture may be based on Tang tomb figurines, and is about as sexy as those. The appearance of the beautiful-woman image as sexual icon would seem to lie far in the future. Or it may be that such pictures existed in earlier periods but have not survived, and that the more decorous works considered suitable for preservation give a false report.

In a previous chapter the late Ming figure painter Chen Hongshou was offered as an example of a man whose sympathetic treatments of women in his paintings are somewhat compromised by his own reputation as a dedicated womanizer, and the18th century poet Yüan Mei was presented as exemplifying the same pattern in his writings and his behavior. The pattern may be observed earlier than either, in two major artists of the middle Ming, Wu Wei and Tang Yin. Of Wu Wei (1459-1508) it was said, as it was later of Chen Hongshou, that the best way to get one of his paintings was to turn up with an attractive courtesan on one's arm. Wu's fondness for the wine-shops and brothels of Nanjing interfered continually with his career as a court painter in Beijing, and he shuttled between the two capitals, ending his life in Nanjing from overdrinking while still in his early fifties.

Once more, our natural expectations of sensuous portrayals that betray the artist's personal attachment to feminine beauty go unfulfilled; the courtesans in Wu Wei's paintings are drawn in cool baimiao and sit or stand in unprovocative postures. The figure in one well-known example of the woman with a pipa or lute from Bo Juyi's famous "Pipa Song," walking with bowed head and cradling her lute in her arms, echoes the melancholy of the poem (fig. 4/8.)
Wuling-chun (whose real name was Qi Huizhen), a contemporary of the artist in Nanjing who was famed for her "devotion to her lover until death," appears in another of Wu Wei's paintings (fig. 4/9) seated pensively at a stone table in the garden holding a scroll, and is surrounded with the attributes of the cultivated scholar-poet--qin or zither, brush and books, inkstone, bonsai tree--instead of the mirror and hairpins and cosmetics of the courtesan. (Uneasy about this one: is it Chang Ta-ch'ien's work, like the one I published? Formerly his collection.)

A strange and remarkable painting by Wu Wei, along with the six inscriptions written on it by others, is a curious tribute to a girl of the Qin-Huai district named Li Nunu or"Little Slave Li" (fig. 4/10.) Wu Wei's painting presents her at the age of ten (by Chinese count, nine by ours), a diminutive figure with flowers in her hair, singing and dancing to entertain guests at the brothel. The onlookers offer a study in differing reactions: one of the two women who are presumably her tutors looks down at her with a smile, while the other, who beats time with wooden clappers, looks away; the oldest and (from his size and position) most important of the four men fingers his beard and gazes down at her intently and as if designingly. The six inscriptions are poems in praise of Li Nunu's beauty and talents; one writes of her smile as able to topple cities, and reveals that she has wealthy admirers. The earlier of the two dated inscriptions was written by the painter Tang Yin in 1503; another is by his close friend, the great calligrapher Zhu Yünming. The second dated inscription, by an unidentified writer, is from 1508, and reveals that Li Nunu was by then a "broken gourd"--no longer a virgin.

Wu Wei and and his younger contemporary Tang Yin, who was active in Suzhou, exemplify on the highest level a new type of artist that had arisen in the middle Ming period, the type I have termed "cultured professional" because they possessed all the attributes of the scholar-official except rank; typically, they turned to painting for their livelihood after somehow aborted attempts at official careers through the examination and appointment system. They made their livings in the great, prosperous cities, principally Nanjing and Suzhou, and were associated in the popular imagination, and to some extent in reality, with the pleasure quarters and the urban popular culture that flourished there. Artists of this type, no doubt partly in response to the expectations of their townsmen, had as one of their specialties pictures of courtesans past and present, and of liaisons between them and scholar-poets. Tang Yin's life fit this pattern: his hopes of an official career were dashed when he fell under suspicion of involvement in an examinations scandal in which a rich friend obtained copies of the essay topics in advance through bribery; although probably innocent, Tang came back to Suzhou in disgrace, and established himself there eventually as a highly successful professional painter. And prominent among his figure paintings are portrayals of lovely concubines and courtesans. Best-known among them is his painting of "Court Concubines of Former Shu" (fig. 4/11), on which the artist himself displays his erudition and his calligraphy in an inscription relating how these women, who wore lotus hats and Daoist robes at the whim of their lord, continued to do so after he and the Shu state had fallen.

Another of Tang Yin's paintings (fig. 4/12) presents the story of the Tang-period Yangzhou courtesan Li Duanduan and the poet Cui Hui, a story that illustrates the mutual dependency and exchanges of favors that ideally characterized the scholar-beauty relationship. Annoyed with her over something, Cui Hui scribbled a poem making fun of her ugliness on the wall of her mansion; the poem was repeated all over town, and Li Duanduan's customers forsook her. She came to apologize, bringing a white peony, and he improvised another short poem, this time praising her as like "a sprig of white peony walking gracefully in the air." Knowing that peonies were used in the Tang period to arrange assignations, we can assume that Cui Hui was granted more than a flower as his reward for restoring her reputation.

Imaginary portraits of courtesans by Qing painters are relatively numerous, making up a special group within the large genre of beautiful-woman paintings. The same artists who did the generic meiren painted these as well; they are often not easily to be separated from other depictions of learned women, and properly should not be, since the courtesans portrayed were indeed that, educated and cultivated. Gai Qi's 1825 picture of the Tang-period courtesan Yü Xiangji (d.848), who became both distinguished poet and Daoist nun (fig. 4/13), accomodates her to his standard type, adding only a book in her lap as a nod to her literary eminence. Jiang Xun's rather saccharine portrayal of Qiungxian or "Beautiful Immortal" from around the same period (fig. 4/14) is surrounded with inscriptions praising her beauty and wishing that she could be made to reappear; the literati apparently loved to compose melancholy poems for paintings of this kind and inscribe them for others to read. As imaginary portraits, these are not rich in imagination.

A woman artist named Jin Liying (1772-1807), portraying in a painting of 1799 the famous third to fourth century beauty Lüzhu or "Green Pearl" (fig. 4/15), accords her more dignity and even a kind of monumentality. In her long inscription Jin writes that "Beauties [too] must be imbued with the spirit of heroes," and explains in the text that follows, composed in the manner of traditional historical writing and preceded by the phrase "The Female Historian comments...", why Lüzhu can serve as an example of heroism in women. She was one of the two favorite concubines of the rich and powerful Shi Chong, living with him in his Golden Valley estate near Luoyang. Although less beautiful and talented than the other, a woman named Fan Feng, she proved her loyalty and strength of character when another powerful official demanded that Shi Chong give her to him and threatened to make serious trouble if he did not comply. Lüzhu ended the stand-off by leaping to her death from a high building.

In a painting of 1732 by Hua Yan, by contrast (fig. 4/16), Lüzhu is reduced to a functional role: she was an excellent flutist, and is shown playing the flute for Shi Chpng in the Golden Valley Garden. Unlike Jin Liying's portrayal, this one is more about Shi's enjoyment of her beauty and her music than about herself. Ren Bonian, in a painting done in 18?? and based loosely on Hua Yan's (fig. 4/17), makes the theme more explicit, portraying Shi Chong with a lascivious leer and Lüzhu looking sideward, a bit apprehensively, at her maidservant. Surely we are justified in seeing in these three a clear distinction between female and male views of a famous woman. Other portrayals of women by women will be considered later in this chapter.

(Does Xue Tao appear anywhere here? on her, see Carlitz in writing women, p. 102.)

We end this section, then, with observations that echo those with which we began it. The qualities ascribed to these women in both real and imaginary portraits of them tend to be the same qualities that were felt to distinguish them from ordinary women of pleasure: literary cultivation, reserve, refinements of personality, strength of character. Blatant expressions of sexual invitation, whether through exposure of parts of the body or the use of erotic symbols, are confined to generic pictures of beautiful women, and are virtually never to be seen in portrayals of individuals. Paintings of these two types, then--the generic, pseudo-Mme. Hedong type and the portraits of particular courtesans-- although they are conventionally lumped together and frequently confused, are not only usually distinguishable but in a sense are reverse images of each other.

C. Criteria of Beauty; Li Yü and Yüan Mei

What the two types share, of course, is that both were considered to represent some ideal of feminine beauty; and while portrayals of individual women could on occasion, as we have seen, depart somewhat from conventional models of beauty, they were more likely to conform with them, to the point where the generic paintings could be passed off as portraits without the deception being immediately detected. There must, then, have been generally accepted criteria for feminine beauty in late-period China, as there will be in any time and place. We turn now to a consideration of what these were.

(Note somewhere: Cao Dachang, 1521-75, cited by Dorothy Ko, Writing Women 84-85, on criteria for ranking courtesans: appearance & deportment are last. But ...) (Carlitz in same vol, p. 107: good sentence on "erotic connoisseurship"--quote?)

The profound social changes of the Ming-Qing transition might open new roles for women, expand the range of their permissable activities, and bring about an increased appreciation of their talents; what does not seem to have changed much, even among those men who advocated education and freedom for them, was the fundamental belief that beauty was women's prime attribute, and pleasing men with it their principal function. When a collection of biographical notices on Chinese women painters is finally compiled in the 19th century, gentlewomen-artists are grouped in a section headed "Famous Beauties." (Other sections are devoted to, in descending order, concubines and prostitutes.) The famous 17th-century litterateur Li Yü may be satirizing this obsession with external appearance in the scene from his play recounted in the previous chapter, in which the audience watching a woman painting ignores her skill with the brush, commenting only on the beauty of her face and demanding to see her bound feet. But Li himself, for all his respectful relationships with female writers, also "treated women as sex objects," as Chun-shu and Shelley Chang put it in their book about him, and discusses aspects of feminine beauty from the viewpoint of his own sexual tastes. He deplored, for instance, the custom of binding women's feet so tightly that they could scarcely walk, but also confesses that the sight of their tiny feet is irresistible to him; what he opposes, evidently, is only excessive footbinding.

For Li Yü and most other men, a light complexion, smooth and unblemished, was of prime importance in a woman's appearance; he cites a line from the Book of Odes, "Ah, paleness makes for beauty." Next, in Li's opinion, are the eyebrows, which must be gracefully curved, and the eyes, which must be clear, with a steady gaze (fig. 4/18, detail from fig. 1/1). After these come the hands and feet. Literary conventions for describing beautiful women offer endlessly-repeated similes: hair like clouds, eyebrows like moth antennae or distant mountains, a mouth like a cherry, flesh like snow or white jade, and so forth. The woman is characterized in terms that tend to emphasize transitory loveliness: she is like the willow beneath a spring moon, or a lotus rising from the water. Properly sexual attributes are seldom named, although a series of poems on marks of female beauty composed by the heroine in a 15th century story does include, along with cloudlike hair, willow-leaf brows, sandalwood-red mouth, slender fingers, and tender feet, the uncommon attribute of milk-white breasts, about which the poem says: "Spring brings the breasts full and white to blossoming,/ After the bath a place of tender games/ For the beloved,/ Cool as dewy flowers/ With purple berries."

An even more remarkable and singular exception is a prose fragment from the second century B.C., probably a survival from the secret archive of the Han dynasty, a report written by a serving woman sent to examine a sixteen-year-old girl who was to become empress, in which she describes in detail the girl's body and bearing. "Her skin was white and fine," she writes, "and so smooth that my hand slipped as it touched it. Her belly was round and her hips square. Her body was like congealed lard and carved jade. Her breasts bulged out, and her navel had enough depth to permit a half-inch pearl to go in. Her mons veneris rose gently. I opened her thighs and saw that the vulva was bright red, while the labia minora slightly protruded. I was satisfied that she was a chaste virgin. . . She had no piles, no bad marks, no moles, and no sores, or defects in the mouth, the nose, the armpit, the private parts, or the feet."

These are rare departures from a general avoidance by Chinese writers of explicit description of sexual aspects of the feminine. The same Li Yü who lists the attributes that make up a woman's physical attractiveness, as quoted above, argues elsewhere that beauty derives less from the woman's physical attributes than from her deportment, and from an elusive "charm." This, he writes, is what not only "causes the beautiful to be more beautiful, and the captivating more captivating" but can even "cause the old to be youthful and the homely to become attractive." This charm, he continues, must come naturally, and cannot be forced or learned. A modern writer quoting this passage points out that although these were perceptive insights for Li's time, they are undermined by his lack of real respect for the woman's character and spirit; women for him were still playthings.

Implicit and unexamined in the attitudes of Li Yü and other male writers who enjoyed the romantic companionship of women is the assumption that "beautiful and talented," the compound term with which they praise those they admire, is like a single, indivisible attribute. Although they must have known women who were good writers or painters but plain in appearance, they do not have much to say about them. Men could be portrayed as self-sufficient, somewhat independent of roles; women seldom are, and since their primary role is to be beautiful, for the pleasure of men, they must be portrayed that way. That the famous courtesans who best embodied this ideal could please men with both their physical attractiveness and their aesthetic cultivation is unsurprising, since it was just this combination that made them famous and successful in the first place. Men could enjoy their sexual charms along with the pleasure of consorting with talented women, meanwhile feeling a virtuous satisfaction over sympathizing with their misfortunes. The beauty-and-talent ideal, with its assumption of the two conjoined in a single charming person, was obviously incompatible with truly open and balanced relationships between the sexes, based on mutual admiration of literary or other attainments. It was surely preferable, however, to the alternative that set beauty and talent at odds, as the 18th century philosopher Zhang Xuecheng does in his essay Fuxue or "Women's Learning": "A woman who is beautiful is called 'a maid at rest' (jingnü). To be at rest is very near to learning. But the women we now call 'talented women' (cainü)--how they move about! what a dreadful racket they make!"

Zhang Xuecheng's "Women's Learning" essay is among other things an attack on his contemporary Yüan Mei, the famous 18th-century poet well known to English readers from Arthur Waley's entertaining book. Like Li Yü, Yüan Mei admired and actively supported the engagement of women in literary composition, and had many gentry women writers among his friends and students. His practice of giving some of them poetry lessons in his Suiyüan Garden in Yangzhou, instead of in their homes, was considered scandalous by strict Confucianists such as Zhang Xuecheng, for whom a literary (instead of a properly classical) education for them was already an affront to traditional morality. A handscroll painting portraying a gathering that Yüan Mei and a group of woman poets held at the West Lake in Hangzhou in 1792 (fig. 4/19), allows us to visualize, although the place is different, the gatherings in the Suiyüan Garden, idealized and overlaid with literary and pictorial resonances. The composition evokes such precedents as the "Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden," in which the eleventh-century Su Dongpo and his friends are seen practicing painting and calligraphy, and the "Orchid Pavilion Gathering" in which the calligrapher Wang Xizhi, seated in a pavilion at one end of the scroll, writes a preface to the poems composed by the other participants. Here it is Yüan Mei, at the age of 76, who sits in the pavilion with paper before him and brush in hand; the women engage in such long-established literati pursuits as fishing, painting a branch of blossoming plum, playing the zither and the flute, inscribing a banana-palm leaf, and leaning on a stalk of bamboo (fig. 4/20.) The two minor artists who collaborated on the scroll, a portraitist and a landscapist, differentiate the figures only a little by age and facial type, although they are intended as portraits of particular literary women.

A mock legal deposition denouncing Yüan Mei's conduct accuses him of having "ransacked the neighborhood for whatever was soft and warm, not minding whether it was boy or girl," and of having enticed young ladies of good family to his house for purposes not strictly literary. The document was composed playfully by his poet-friend, but no doubt echoes, even if parodistically, real charges made against him. They may, for all we know, have some truth behind them: Yüan Mei was notorious for his dalliances with women (and sometimes, the rumours had it, with men); late in his life he had at least a literary romance with one of his female pupils, and we read of him staying for a time with another, a young widow.

Like Li Yü, Yüan Mei saw women ultimately as sexual objects and had his own strong beliefs about criteria for choosing among them; also like Li Yü, he placed a good complexion uppermost among these. He may have shared in principle the belief that "beauty is only skin-deep," but in moments of decision he goes for great skin. Criticizing a man who had rejected a concubine because her feet were too big, he pronounces loftily that men who are really "enlightened in sexual matters . . . know that a girl's face, eyes, and skin complexion are far more important than the size of her feet." Moreover, he carries that preference, presented there as a universal aesthetic judgment, into the particulars of his own life. In 1748 he went to inspect a young girl whom a fellow-official had offered him as a concubine. "She was eighteen and had a very good figure," he writes. "She let me look her up and down, draw back her dress and lift the hair from her temples without seeming to resent it in the least. I had half a mind to take her. But her complexion was not quite up to the mark, and I gave up the idea." In 1754 he rejected another girl, who had been taken into his household on the assumption that she would become his concubine, because she had caught smallpox and was pock-marked; he gave her instead to a Mongol general, whose tastes may have been less fastidious.

How Yüan himself looked--somewhat later in his life, to be sure, and portrayed with a strong element of caricature--is revealed in the famous 1781 portrait by Luo Ping (fig. 4/21.) Presented to Yüan in the preliminary-sketch form that survives, it was rejected by the sitter and his family as too unflattering, and was never re-done as a finished portrait. This is the man for whom the two young women lost their chances of becoming concubines through having less-than-perfect complexions. Blemishes in physical appearance could be tolerated in a man, but not in a woman, especially a woman who was to become one's property; one would not acquire a painting with mildew spots, or a ceramic vase with badly stained or pitted surface. Yüan's rejection of Luo Ping's portrait, at the same time, betrays his deep concern about his own physical appearance, as does his confession that in his old age he could not stand seeing himself in the mirror, and dressed his hair using the shadow thrown by the lamp on the wall.

In 1790, when Yüan Mei was 75 (by Chinese count), a certain Sungpo asked him, on their initial meeting, to compose an inscription for an anonymous meiren or beautiful-woman picture; Sungpo may have been a newly-rich Yangzhou merchant too unsophisticated to know that eminent literati were not ordinarily asked to inscribe such low-class paintings (fig. 4/22.) (Note that editors of tumu take Songpo to be the artist! Not. necessary.) Yüan, presumably after accepting some gift that obligated him to the man, dashed off a quatrain spontaneously (as he acknowledges in the prose note that follows it) ending with the line "We don't know what man she is thinking of in her heart." And he concludes his prose note by saying that if the beauty could read his inscription, it would add to her artful smile. Imaginary though the woman may be, Yüan's urge is still to engage himself somehow with her, to be the imagined lover in her thoughts. Like other beauties in meiren paintings, she conforms with Yüan's ideal in the unnatural whiteness of her face and breast, presumably achieved by the application of cosmetics (her exposed hand is a more natural color.) Here it is the taihu shi or eroded garden rock that supplies the visual penetrations, and the suggestively-shaped flower on the banana palm a distantly displaced forbidden image--the last chapter will explore the use of flowers and other symbols in painting to stand for the female sex.

D. Turn-ons, I: Androgeny, Footbinding, Nudity

A lovely face and good complexion, then, were basic criteria for desirability in women; voluptuousness of the kind celebrated in western art, what we call the Rubensesque, was not. Women in later Chinese paintings are slender, with no pronounced indications of breasts or buttocks; often they can be properly described as boyish-looking. As noted in the previous chapter, androgeny and cross-dressing appear to have been turn-ons as popular in traditional China as in the modern west. Popular courtesans of the Ming-Qing transition liked to wear male attire, and their lovers must have enjoyed seeing them in it. Some of them were capable of taking both male and female roles in plays. Liu Yin, when she came to study poetry with Qian Qianyi, was so convincingly a young man that he failed at first to penetrate the disguise. (again, Lee Waiyee on this: Writing Women 60.) An anonymous painting, known only in an old and bad reproduction, imagines how she must have looked (fig. 4/23.) She also signed herself, in letters to male friends, as their di or "younger brother"--or with what Dorothy Ko calls the "contradictory but revealing" designation "female younger brother" (nüdi).

Numerous accounts of women who disguise themselves as men can be found in Ming-Qing fiction, and part of their attraction for readers was the way in which, as Judith Zeitlin puts it, "The narrative exploits the ambiguous erotic charms of a girlish boy (or boyish girl)..." Zeitlin is writing about one of the Liaozhai tales by Pu Songling (1640-1715); in another, the heroine, Miss Yan, goes with her handsome but less-than-brilliant husband to take the examinations disguised as his younger brother, and, since she is smarter than he is, passes with top honors. She enjoys a distinguished career as an official, finally retiring and yielding her title to him. Here, too, the narrator relates that "Everyone who glimpsed his [that is, her] fine features became an admirer," and adds that his/her hand was much sought after in marriage. The thinly-disguised young lady in a painting by Fei Danxu (fig. 4/24), wearing a scholar's cap and belt and carrying her travel belongings on a pole, would probably not have fooled anyone but would have collected admirers, of whichever sex, all the same.

Among erotic turn-ons for the male, the most powerful for them and most repellent for us, which I will pass over quickly, is foot-binding. All this needs to be rewritten in light of recent Dorothy Ko etc. publications. Perhaps more written about by foreigners than any other aspect of Chinese sexual lore, these "man-made fetishes that had become the locus of the erotic imagination in late Imperial China," as Zeitlin calls them, depended for their allure on the tactile and olfactory senses as much as on the visual, and so appear only as minor elements in pictorial art. A courtesan in the tenth-century Southern Tang state named Yaoniang is said to have been the first to deform herself in this way, to please the ruler Li Yü or Li Houxhu. As Dirk Bodde points out, the growth of this practice brought to an end, or at least weakened, a long tradition of female dancing. Sung-period writers refer to the practice, and several 13th century tombs have been excavated that contained diminutive women's shoes, even one in which the occupant, a young woman, had bound feet. By Qing times, tiny feet had become the essential sign of female identity, which women could prove (at least in stories) only by displaying them. In speaking of bound feet as "minor elements" in pictures I refer only to their size and prominence; viewer response is of course not so simple. Confronted with such a scene as we see in the detail from Xu Mei's erotic album (fig. 2/20), or one from an anonymous album to be considered later (? what did I mean?), the typical Chinese male viewer might well have directed his attention to the dainty shoe, where we direct ours elsewhere.

The pleasures of foot fetishism are the theme of two similar leaves in the pair of anonymous albums (which we have termed Albums A and B): in each, the man has mischievously captured the woman's shoe as she sits on the bed binding her feet--or perhaps unbinding them, preparatory to sex? and she grasps his robe to pull him back (fig. 4/25.) One is uncertain about how to read the pictures--that the men still wear hats argues against their representing a moment after love-making, as the dissheveled bedclothes might otherwise suggest. The intensity with which one of the men presses the shoe to his face may recall stories of parties at which wine was drunk from cups put in the courtesan's shoe. The Yüan-period litterateur and bon vivant Yang Weizhen did this on one occasion and invited his fastidious friend Ni Zan to do the same; Ni was so disgusted that he left the party. (Look at Dorothy Ko on role of bound feet in erotic ptgs: Writing Women 98-9.)

By way of balancing this unpleasant obsession with deformed feet, we may note the near-absence from Chinese painting of representations of violence against women, or of women suffering or mutilated, of the kind so commonly seen in Japanese erotic imagery both ancient and modern, and in some of our own. It is true that passages in the Soushan tu or "Clearing the Mountain" composition, which survives in a number of versions, depict women being attacked and injured by demons, eagles, and dogs (fig. 4/26.) Closer inspection and knowledge of the story, however, reveal that these are not real women but evil consorts of the beast-magicians, who are themselves part beast, with claws and tails; they are being driven off the mountain by the forces of the hero Erlang. (fill in.)
These elements in the paintings respond, that is, more to requirements of the narrative than to any gratuitous misogyny. The same is true of hell scenes in which naked women are seen being tortured along with men: they do not appear to be aimed primarily at gratifying sado-masochistic impulses, although there were doubtless some viewers who read them that way. And both kinds of pictures are exceptions to the general absence of violence against women--themes of ravishment corresponding to the "Rape of the Sabines" and the like in European art are virtually never found in China. To be sure, both this and the relative scarcity of nudity in Chinese painting (to which we will turn shortly) are in part simply matters of taste and decorum, the same that later, when Christian images were introduced to China, made the Chinese uncomfortable with depictions of Christ on the cross. But it is nonetheless true that themes of the domination and subjugation of women by men, of which sado-masochistic imagery is considered to be only a sub-category, are to be found far less frequently in Chinese fiction and pictorial art than in those of Japan or the west.

The theme of the single male spying on the woman bathing or otherwise nude, although less common in Chinese than in western art (with its biblical pretexts of the "Susanna and the Elders" type), is found sometimes in both stories and pictures. Two well-known accounts tell of emperors who became infatuated with concubines upon secretly observing them in the bath. Emperor Chengdi of the Former Han was captivated in this way when he watched Hede, the younger of the two Zhao sisters who were successively his consorts, as seen in a section of a handscroll painted by Yu Qiu in 1573 (fig. 4/27.) The other, better-known story is of Emperor Xuanzng of the Tang, whose passion for Yang Giofei was inflamed, if we believe Bo Juyi's familiar poem, when he watched her bathe in the hotspring at the Huaqing Gong or Floriate Clear Palace. An anonymous painting, probably 16th or 17th century in date (fig. 4/28), is usually taken as a pictorial re-imagining of this notorious event, although, since the woman sits in a tub and not a hotspring, it might also represent Chengdi peeking at Hede. In any case, the emperor's gaze is fixed on her, while she looks out at us, in a pattern of interlocked looking. [Add more on this: same ptg I reproduce in PUP as work of Gu Jianlong..]

The quasi-classical theme of Yang Guifei emerging from the bath permitted artists to produce mildly titillating pictures such as Kang Tao's (fig. 4/29.) The see-through robe enveloping Yang Guifei does not really reveal much; like strip-teases in an earlier age, pictures of this kind offer ever-deferred promise in place of any actual exposure of the forbidden parts. A closer look reveals, in fact, that Yang Guifei wears a petticoat under the robe; what is meant to arouse is the act of glimpsing the body at all, not the revealing of any particular parts of it. A lurid and lower-class painting of the same subject (is it? Lisa Claypool, p. 10 ff., says Fei Danxu's insc. identifies her as "Lady Lan", check) with a false signature of Leng Mei offers more overt suggestions of voluptuousness, with its bared shoulder, provocative posture, simpering smile, and ambiguous interplay of lines of body and robe (fig. 4/30.) Here we arrive, perhaps, at the closest Chinese equivalent to the sexy, partially undraped pin-up in the west.

(Insert: ptgs of partly-unclothed women in bed, by followers of Qiu Ying--one in Met (29.100.521), one in Jap. col., one in BM with (probably spurious) indications of a pre-Song date; one (mine) fig. 4/31, popular late Ming? picture, was in Japan in 18c since print by member of Harunobu circle, 1760s? is based on it (Margaret Gentles book on prints in Chicago Art Inst.)

What follows, on nudity in Ch. ptg., replaced by passage near end of PUP 4, in which it's noted that it isn't all that rare, just not looked at.) Except for a few paintings like these and the leaves in overtly erotic albums, nudity is a rare sight in Chinese painting, and this striking near-absence of what is such a staple in western art must be confronted in any study of paintings of women in China. It is true enough, but not enough, to say that the practice of representing the nude female form was inhibited by Confucian morality and prudery, the same that dictated a mode of female dress from the Southern Song onward ruling out the bare throats and low-cut bosoms that had been acceptable in the Tang, and forbade even married people bathing together, as well as open expressions of love of any kind. Ways of circumventing these strictures could always be found, as we have seen, especially in the late period that principally concerns us. Nor can we resolve the matter by supposing that paintings of the nude were made but have not survived, since recorded examples are few and of dubious reliability: the Tang emperor Xuanzong ordering his court painter Zhou Fang to depict Yang Guifei emerging from the bath; the Ming artist Tang Yin doing "large-size nudes," as van Gulik claims without documenting.

An argument might be made based on the notion that the Chinese were not so aroused as we are by the sight of the unclothed female body, but there is considerable evidence that they were, and are. Quite a few pictorial and literary instances of voyeurism will be introduced later in this chapter, and quite a few others could be added. In one of Li Yü's stories a young man climbs to the upper storey of a temple and, using a telescope, ogles two girls skinny-dipping in a pond; his passions are enflamed. We read of brothels that had peep-holes through which passers-by on the street could, for a small payment, spy on the naked prostitutes; once inside, they would be treated to a parade of unclothed women from among whom they would choose. Lurid stories of the excessive sexual activities of early emperors and their consorts make a point of noting that they did not turn out the light; and the hero of Li Yü's Carnal Prayer Mat advises his new wife that sex is "ten times more enjoyable in the daytime," because it is "precisely when we're looking at each other that we really get excited." Representations of nude women, along with copulating couples, are common on snuff-boxes and other bibelots from late-period China; and the fact that these are commonly done in westernized styles should not mislead us into thinking that they were intended for sale to foreigners--Baoyü in Hung Lou Meng carries a snuff box with a nude yellow-haired girl represented in enamels in the foreign manner inside the lid.

We may also note, before contrasting Chinese attitudes toward the female nude too sharply with our own, that once the prohibitions imposed in P.R. China through an oppressive reinforcing of Confucian with Marxist puritanism were relaxed, as they were after the death of Mao and the fall ofJiang Qing in 1976, a number of ingenious ways were found to allow the representation and viewing of the unclothed female body: dances performed in skin-colored body-suits that professed to celebrate the ethnic customs of tropical peoples; the Beijing airport murals painted by Yüan Yünsheng in 1979 (and covered up by government order in 1980) that depicted the water festival of the Dai minority; body-building performances and magazines in which female body-builders are prominent; and, as a grand climax, the great nude oil painting exhibition of 1988 with its catalog, which was followed by numerous picture-books of the same kind that are still hot items in Chinese bookstores (cf. fig. 5/63, the painting that appeared on the cover of the catalog.) These, along with the fierce but reportedly unsuccessful efforts of the government to keep pornographic films and pictures out of China, indicate a powerful desire for visual gratification of sexual urges that breaks through the repression whenever the opportunity presents itself. The prudery and taboos operating in earlier periods can be assumed to have generated similar desires under the social surface: Edward Schafer argues that they did, citing the custom of Chinese merchants living in Cambodia in the thirteenth century "of holding river-bank parties for the purpose of watching native women bathe."

Still, it remains true that neither literary nor pictorial descriptions of the woman's body in China seem to aim at effects of real voluptuousness; sexual characteristics go unstressed, if we ignore the bound feet (fig. 4/32.) Kenneth Clark's well-known distinction between the naked and the nude, and his pointing out how undressed figures in medieval drawings are "painfully ugly," might suggest another explanation: that the style used by Chinese painters was inadequate for portraying the human body with the qualities that define, in the west, the true nude. But this suggestion, while it may contain some truth, is also ultimately unsatisfactory, since even after western-inspired illusionism became accessible to the Chinese it was never, so far as we know, employed for any Titianesque sensuality, much less any Olympia-like realism, in the portrayal of the unclothed female body. Again, see the passage near the end of PUP 4, which replaces this.

As has often been remarked, the Chinese did not ennoble or idealize the physical body as Europeans did by charging representations of it with humanistic or spiritual values--harmony, heroicism, purity, and so forth. The human form was never made godlike, or seen as symbolic of a universal order. Nor did it serve as an open expression of sexuality--gazing at a nude female might be a short-term turn-on for the man, but being nude was not an expression of strong or confident sexuality for the woman. In addition to the traditional taboo against exposing one's body to another person of either sex, a certain social opprobrium attached to it: in pictorial art other than erotica, those who exhibit the most bare skin are likely to thus identified as belonging to the lower and ruder classes. In Ming and Qing printed illustrations, it is the burly toughs who have stripped to the waist to free their arms for fighting, while the fully-clad gentlemen watch from the sidelines. In an illustration from a late Ming story, it is the dancers or women of the harem who disrobe before the ruler, while the lady of rank looks away and hides her face with a fan (fig. 4/33.) Truly desirable women, those presented as ideal objects of imaginary conquests in the paintings of meiren, project their sexuality in subtler, more oblique ways that demand from the man a cultivated response, not unlike the connoisseurship that he exercises in choosing works of art. The ways in which erotic and invitational messages were encoded in representations of women, a topic explored in this book; constitute a system alongside which exposure of the body, with its sexual characteristics emphasized, might appear rather crude. Or so, at least, the artists would have answered if confronted with the question.

All these factors combined do not account fully for the sparsity of nude or semi-nude images of women in Chinese painting, but they suggest ways of approaching the question and provide partial and provisional answers to it. And perhaps in the end we should turn the question around to point the other way, as scholars are now inclined to do with the old one of why China did not develop an empirical science, and ask instead why we in the west did do it--neither conducting scientific experiments nor making pictures of undressed women is a particularly natural or unavoidable thing for an advanced civilization to do.

E. Turn-ons II: Erotic Paintings, Voyeurism
Note: all that follows is superceded and replaced by the discussions of erotic painting in my book on that, also essays.
A more powerful stimulus than nudity, for both men and women if we are to believe the evidence of paintings and popular fiction, was gazing at erotic albums and handscrolls, either alone (fig. 4/34) or together. Albums of this kind are sometimes called "pillowbooks," and the claim made that they were intended for the sexual instruction of brides; but this is another genteel misdirection--their function seems to have been more in providing models for variety in modes of lovemaking, and in raising the intensity of it. That they served this way as early as the Han dynasty is attested in two poems by Zhang Heng (A.D. 78-139). In one, the bride describes to her husband their coming wedding night: they will lock the door and turn up the lamp; she will remove her clothes; and they will "roll out the picture scroll by the pillow's side. . . So that we can practice all the variegated postures,/ Those that an ordinary husband has but rarely seen . . ." Another poem by the same author details the pleasures of lovemaking with a beautiful girl: "While she is staying with you in the night/ And you feast and sport with her,/ Pointing at the pictures you observe their sequence;/ While she keeps being bashful and ashamed/ And coyly protests." The Qianlong Emperor is supposed to have used an erotic album in the same way in sporting with his sister-in-law, and in Li Yü's Carnal Prayer Mat the hero, Vesperus, purchases a 36-leaf album painted by no less an artist than Zhao Mengfu and looks at it with his new wife, who has up to that time balked at expanding their sexual repertory; they get no further than page five, and have great sex. As for larger pictures of the kind, popular literature tells of emperors of the pre-Tang period who commissioned their court artists to paint erotic murals in the chambers where they engaged in debauchery with their teams of concubines, or on the ceiling of a banquet hall for the dinner guests to gaze up at. None of these, needless to say, have survived; they may never have existed. The great early Qing collector
Zhang Chou in his Ch'ing-ho shu-hua fang writes of obtaining in 1618 a painting of "Secret Play on a Spring Night" which he took to be a work by the great eighth century figure master Zhou Fang; it had, moreover, been in the collection of Chao Meng-fu. Note: a fenben probably based on this still exists: see the Cernuschi catalogue Le Palais du printemps.where I identify and discuss it.

Many leaves from Chinese erotic albums of the later 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries--few if any extant examples seem to date earlier than that --have in recent years been reproduced in picture books on Chinese erotic art; but no one has written seriously about them, except in brief accounts of the genre as a whole. The few mentions of them in the Chinese literature of painting are mostly brief and scornful, suggesting that the writers did not want to be identified as admirers of such things. The early Qing landscapist Zou Zhe writes in a letter that his friends all praise Chen Hongshou's "Scenes of Intimate Play" as wonderful beyond compare, but that he himself finds them offensive. Zhang Geng in the mid-18th century, writing in his book of artists' biographies about two little-known masters, Wang Shi and Ma Xiangshun, comments on erotic paintings at greater length, admitting their allure but castigating those who produce them because of their capacity for corrupting their viewers:

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 Guang-chuan 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 accordingly became popular. It is human nature to like lascivious things, and there is no one who wouldn't want to obtain one of these for secret enjoyment.

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

I once said: If secret-play pictures aren't done skillfully, there is no point in painting them; but if they are done skillfully, they incite lasciviousness in people. Long ago Shangu [Huang Tingjian] liked to write erotic poems, and Master Xiu [who?] used these for [a verbal crime? what?]. For this they 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.

In modern western writings, distinguished sinologues who must have had ample opportunities to see high-quality examples dismiss them even more summarily: Derk Bodde, who describes the Chinese attitude toward sex as "repressive, puritanical, and masculine," writes about Chinese erotic pictures that "one cannot but be struck by their aesthetic crudity, painful literalness, anatomical clumsiness, and general unattractiveness," and Mark Elvin that "Chinese pictures of the human body, clothed or semi-clothed (in a furtive pornography), are--to Western eyes--meager, schematic, and inadequate." Without pursuing the obvious point that such pilings-up of dismissive terms appear to betray the writers' own discomfort with representations of the erotic, I would claim to the contrary that the best of these albums are not only among the most technically proficient and aesthetically attractive of late Chinese paintings (once we have divested ourselves of Chinese prejudices against realistic and semi-westernized styles) but also offer a perhaps unequaled richness of visual information about the leisure-time activities and physical surroundings of upper-class people in this period. Gardens and interiors, furniture and furnishings, how paintings were made and displayed (fig. 4/35), how wine was served and finger-games played or courtships pursued in a garden (fig. 4/36)--all these are set out for us in loving detail, in the leaves that do not contain hard-core sexual activity as well as in those that do. But the paintings as evidence for material culture and daily life lie outside our present concern.

The world portrayed in the albums is like that of the Honglou Meng: large households made up of families along with their servants and concubines, all living in elegantly-appointed mansions with well-kept gardens. Bodde assumes that late-period erotic literature and art was "probably all produced for . . . a small, well-to-do, predominantly mercantile urban class"; and when we have added (perhaps redundantly) "male," we have probably defined as well as we can the principal clientele for the albums. No! Opposite argument made in my Chinese Erotic Painting. The pictures reflect in some respects the real lives of these consumers, in other respects their desires: for even more sensual elegance of living, more sexual permissiveness and variety than their own wives and circumstances ordinarily permitted--in short, for that enjoyment of excess by which luxury was defined.

The assumption behind these sets of pictures is that female members of the households are all open to sexual advances, whatever their age and rank, and prone to yield: the man's urgency is answered by the woman's willingness (fig. 4/37, 4/38.) Since no one has determined whether there are narrative sequences of any kind within the albums, or how to distinguish the class and role of the participants by clothing, hairstyle, or other indicators, we cannot say whether the woman being seduced in one leaf is the same who is engaged in open sexual play in the next; but the assumption appears to be that the one leads smoothly to the other. No: opposite argument made in CEP!)

The pictures read, then, as episodes with implied aftermaths within generalized narratives which, while ambiguous, end unproblematically in sexual fulfillment. The seduction of the maid sometimes take place in the presence of the mistress, who is unaware of it, or pretends to be (fig. 4/39, 4/40.) Cheating or deceiving the wife adds to the flirtation the excitement of risk. But the risk was in fact small. The ideal wife as portrayed in Qing literature was supposed to turn a blind eye to the husband's dalliances; if she tried to hinder his access to maids or concubines or prostitutes, she could be branded a shrew and bring his anger down on herself. In Honglou Meng, Wang Xifeng when she catches her husband in bed with someone else's wife is reprimanded by the family matriarch Grandmother Jia: "Young men of his age are like hungry pussy-cats, my dear. There's simply no way of holding them. This sort of thing has always happened in big families like ours." The concept of fidelity to one's spouse was one-sided, expected strictly of women but not of men. Female servants in a household were expected to make themselves sexually available to males of higher station; they might be designated as "chamber wives," with some attendant rise in status--in Honglou Meng Baoyü's principal maid Aroma is taken on in this way as his bed-partner after his sexual awakening --and sometimes might be raised to the position of proper concubines.

The role of the maid in the erotic leaves, however, is less often that of active participant than that of voyeur--or écouteur--providing a titillating third-person presence in scenes of lovemaking. She may listen outside the alcove within which the couple are making love, their presence indicated delicately by the large and tiny shoes placed before the bed-curtain (fig. 4/41); she may sit (on a chamber pot) beside the bed, seeming inattentive to the sounds they are making (fig. 4/42.) The three-way relationship--or four-way, if we consider how the viewer of the painting is implicated--heats up when the voyeuristic maid hides behind a screen and peeps around it at the copulating couple, who, intent on their own sexual engagement, are oblivious to her presence (fig. 4/43.) It is raised to another level of intensity when the male indicates with a sidelong look his awareness of the voyeur (fig. 4/44.) We then observe him experiencing the pleasure of exerting his sexual dominance simultaneously on two women, one through physical penetration, the other through eye contact and implicit promise. In a scene on a verandah (fig. 4/45), the woman hides her eyes in a futile attempt to escape complicity in this criss-cross of illicit seeing, while the maidservant peeps from behind the bamboo blind. The voyeur's gaze, and ours, converge with the man's in focusing on the forbidden sight; their looking authorizes ours. [Reread McMahon, "Eroticism," pp. 255-58 on voyeurism etc.]

A garden scene in the album by Xü Mei (fig. 4/46) is subtler: the recumbent woman looks out abstractedly, 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 (fig. 4/47, detail.) The boy (girl?) servant at right turns back furtively to watch them both; and we apprehend all three in our own gaze, while assuring ourselves that our interest is purely aesthetic and scholarly. It is all very convoluted and pleasurable.

Replacing the single voyeur with a couple compounds and extends the implied narrative by raising the likelihood that they will be inspired to imitate what they are watching. In one leaf (fig. 4/48) both are women, and they hold hands, leaving us unsure about whether or not a lesbian relationship is implied. Another (fig. 4/49) permits no doubt: the two servants are of opposite sexes, and although fully clothed they repeat the actions of the partly-undressed couple in bed on whom they are spying. In all these tableaus, the quasi-chance voyeuristic encounters are between lovers and their servants or family members, and the relationships are intimate and comfortable; we assume that for the sexually-engaged couple, being observed only enhances their pleasure, to the extent that they are aware of it.

Truly illicit viewing by a total outsider who is a single male, a far more radical intrusion on privacy, is a less frequent theme in Chinese erotica, probably because it tends to have the effect of excluding the viewer--we are fastidiously disinclined to identify with the night-soil gatherer standing on his bucket to peer over the wall at the copulating couple (fig. 4/50), or with the servant who, while fanning his master and masturbating, sneaks a look through the rockery at his mistress bathing, touching her own sex, and fondling the dildo worn by her maid (fig. 4/51.) With these leaves from an anonymous late 18th century (?) album we enter the realm of the genuinely coarse and kinky, and had best leave quickly.

Of scenes of voyeurism in Chinese painting, the great majority are not simply of men looking illicitly at women's bodies, pictures of the "Susannah and the Elders" type; what the voyeurs watch is women or couples doing something: making love, masturbating, exhibiting themselves. What is arousing in the garden scene is not the sight of the woman's sex, which is scarcely visible, but her exhibiting her bare bottom to the man, his looking at it, her looking out at us, and our own gaze visually embracing both--our scopophilic pleasure is intensified by the complicity and reflexivity with which we become implicated in the exchange. The same is true on a simpler level with a leaf from a later and cruder work in the westernized-illusionistic manner in which the voyeur is included in the picture, observed by us observing the woman both in "reality" and in the mirror (fig. 4/52.) Mirrors and erotic reflections will be considered in the final chapter. The self-absorption of the woman at the sight of her own sex becomes the object of the male stranger's gaze, and both are objects of ours. Annette Kuhn writes about an image of this kind (but minus the voyeur) as "the Peeping Tom's favorite fantasy," looking at a woman when she does not know he is there. Her example is a photograph in which, she writes, "The woman ... appears to have been caught by the camera in a moment of autoeroticism. She is enjoying her own body . . . her own touch, her image in a mirror, some erotic fantasy. Alone, she is transported by her pleasure." And she adds that the voyeur's fascination arises partly from his feeling that "He might even find out what women are really like, what their pleasure really is."

The Chinese pictures would seem to provide ample information about what the pleasure of women really is, what sexual stimulants worked for them. But in fact we are in the same situation as with other aspects of female sexuality: we know of them, at least so far as the pictures go, only from male imaginings, which cannot be relied on to coincide at any point with real feminine feelings. (Robertson on problem of how a female subject can be recovered through or outside male representation: WritingWomen 265.) In these somewhat fantasized versions, women are turned on by the sight of copulating cats, as in a late Ming print (fig. 4/53)--the accompanying poem speaks of the two women as "love-crazed," too dazed by sexual longing to ascend the pavilion or notice that autumn has come; in fact they appear to be only mildly amused. Or the woman may sit on her lover's lap, as does the girl in a leaf from another anonymous erotic album (fig. 4/54), reading a romantic or perhaps erotic novel (with a pair of rabbits nearby providing an added fillip of suggestiveness.) Lin Daiyü, we recall, in a well-known episode in Honglou Meng, was disturbingly aroused when she encountered books of this kind for the first time in Baoyü's room and read them. Sights that arouse erotic feelings in fictional women range from accidental viewings of a man's penis, or a dog's, to seeing mating moths.

Is there, then, no escape within Chinese paintings of women from the sexual preferences and obsessions of men? Two potential ways out suggest themselves. One, which we have already explored at the end of the foregoing chapter, is to look into paintings of women by women artists; these do indeed offer some escape from male preoccupations. The other, which I believe is largely a dead end, was suggested already in the foregoing: seeking out more or less authentic expressions of sexuality in women, in the hope that these will offset somewhat the overweighting, among the paintings, in favor of those of men. Again, this was contradicted in my Chinese Erotic Painting, and also in my "Ptgs for Women?", in relation to the Boston album. All obsolete.

F. Depictions of Women's Sexuality

On a quick look, portrayals of women's sexuality in literature would seem to be abundant: lubricious women appear frequently in lurid popular stories in China, and sometimes in paintings. The twin sisters Zhao Yizhu (known as Feiyan or Flying Swallow) and her younger sister Hede, for instance, both of whom captivated the Han emperor Chengdi; when the younger succeeded the elder as his favorite consort, Flying Swallow took a secret harem of male lovers. Stories about the twin sisters are illustrated in a handscroll in the baimiao or "plain drawing" manner by Yu Qiu, painted in 1573 (fig. 4/27.) Or the mother of the first Qin emperor in the third century B.C., or Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang, both of whom in popular stories had multiple lovers, favoring especially those with huge penises. Or the Princess Shanyin, who, when her younger brother became emperor in 473 at the age of seventeen, complained that while he had ten thousand women at his disposal, she had to sleep with the same man night after night. He responded by choosing for her thirty lusty young men, one for each night of the month. This last story was well enough known in the Qing period that a husband in one of Pu Songling's Liaozhai stories, when his wife jokingly asks why he can have concubines and she can't, refers to it in telling her to go ahead, take thirty. But, while women as sexually obsessed as these may well have emerged at some junctures in the long history of China, and infatuated emperors or even occupied thrones themselves, the stories are in the end easily recognizable as the familiar stuff of male fantasies about lustful women.

The same is true of representations of women masturbating, the theme about which Annette Kuhn was quoted earlier. The voyeuristic appeal of these paintings is strengthened, typically, by the deep-penetration spatial device, and by that of the round window, both by now familiar to us. In an eighteenth-century picture (fig. 4/55), which is furnished with a spurious signature of Leng Mei, the proximity of one of the woman's tiny feet to her groin indeed prods our imagination, by the phallic shape of the foot, about what she will do next.

The paintings seldom suggest that voyeurism might operate the other way, that women can be erotically aroused by observing the undressed male, or the male organ. Whether or not a leaf from one of the anonymous albums (fig. 4/56) is an exception is uncertain, since the response of the two women is not made clear, and is just as likely to be amusement or simple curiosity as arousal.

An exceptionally sophisticated and fine album of erotic pictures bearing seals of Leng Mei, introduced in an earlier chapter (cf. fig. 2/41), includes several leaves in which sexual desire in women is the theme; and although these, too, probably must be dismissed in the end as the fantasies of a male artist intended for a male audience, they are redeemed from the category of the crudely pornographic by refinements of implied narrative and comic imagination, as well as by a finesse of execution that makes us want to know who the real artist may have been. The women in them are at least presented as active agents, not merely as passive sex objects. In one, a country girl contemplates a donkey's penis while a boy takes advantage of her revery to reach under her skirt (fig. 4/57). In another, the young woman, probably a maid in the household, chews her sleeve as she gazes down from the window at the gardener boy who points proudly to the extension of his trousers (fig. 4/58.) The point of the joke does not emerge until we look closer and see that the extension is faked. All these pictures, along with the stories cited earlier, depend on the common (but insecurely founded) male belief that what matters most to women is the size of the penis. This alone would call into question the authenticity of the paintings as genuine expressions of female sexual attitudes.

In another leaf from the same album (fig. 4/59), three playful women are about to subject a fourth to violation by eggplant, while the baby looks out at us knowingly, as if part of the prank. A Chinese folk custom, we are told, was for young women to go out on the seventh moon night, the night when the legendary weaving maid and herdboy enjoy their annual conjugal visit, to pick a cucumber, which will foretell the luck they will have in a husband. And the hero of Li Yü's comic-erotic novel The Carnal Prayer Mat, we should remember, begins his career of debauchery by enlarging his member with an implant from a dog's penis. Whether we can find any legitimate reflections of female desire in the midst of all this masculine penis lore is a question I will leave for someone else to argue.

What follows is again conradicted and rendered obsolete by my later writing, especially about the Boston MFA album. Paintings suggestive of lesbian relationships are scarcely to be seen in China, excepting a few leaves in late, low-quality albums. Another leaf from the album attributed to Leng Mei (fig. 4/60), although the implicit narrative situation is even less easily readable than in the others, may again be an exception: the young servant girl kneeling at left appears to be hesitating over whether to accede to the demand of the plump, matronly woman seated in front of her, clad only in a transparent robe, for some sexual service, presumably cunnilingus or oral sex. A young man in the doorway behind, pants off and penis erect, signals her not to yield.

Assuming that this album, like some other works we have seen, is a solitary survivor from an almost-lost genre, we can surmise that along with others of the kind it may have presented the closest pictorial counterpart to the witty literary erotica of Li Yü and Pu Songling. And we can hope that other survivors will eventually come to light, perhaps in Chinese museum collections (where mixi or secret play albums are preserved, but cannot be viewed, as I learned on a visit to the Palace Museum in Beijing, without special permission from the Vice-Premier, who at the moment is Li Peng, not a noted libertarian.)

The inescapable fact, in the end, is that all these paintings and stories are made by men for men, and we cannot reasonably look to them for sympathetic revelations of the nature of sexuality in Chinese women. Revelations of that kind can sometimes be found in literature--Liu Rushi, for instance, composed a "Rhapsody on the Male Spirit of the Luo River" in imitation of the classical "Nymph of the Luo," in which she praised the physical beauty of her then-lover Chen Zilong, and other women poets were able to adapt or rewrite the conventions of love poetry by male authors into forms of expression of love and erotic themes that were their own. To my knowledge, no comparable expressions can be found among surviving Chinese paintings.

Inspired by the Liu Rushi rhapsody, and by the recent popularity of literary "women's erotica" in the U.S., we might reasonably look for portrayals of women's romantic and sexual activities by women artists. But as we saw in the section on these in the previous chapter (pp. ), they are few and mostly disappointing. Eric Chou, author of a popular book on sex in China, writes that Qiu Zhu or Ch'iu Shi, the daughter of Qiu Ying, followed her father and his contemporary Tang Yin in painting erotic pictures, and that such pictures were commonly made by women artists in the centuries after that. Typically for his entertaining but unscholarly book, however, Chou cites no source, and no such paintings can be identified among extant pictorial erotica. Until they are (if they ever will be) we cannot know how far the women producers of pictorial erotica, if there were any, simply accepted the agenda and conventions of the genre as established by men, and how far they adapted these to specifically feminine purposes.

Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...