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Understanding Ancient China Through Erotic Art

Chinese erotic art emphasizes the equality of man and woman both enjoying their pleasure.
Chinese erotic art emphasizes the equality of man and woman both enjoying their pleasure.
Wang Jun

BEIJING — Ancient Chinese erotic drawings have been well-documented throughout history — in the Book of Han, for example, a classical Chinese history finished in 111 AD of the Han dynasty between 206 BC to 25 AD.

Numerous well-respected classical artists have also been painters of erotic art. The most famous is Zhou Fang, the Tang painter whose “Spring Night Secret Game Picture”has been just asfamous throughout the ages as his other more traditional works such as “Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers.” The erotic painting depicts the boudoir pleasures of the Tang Dynasty’s Emperor Ming and his favorite consort, Lady Yang Guifei. Though the original painting no longer exists, there is a copy by Qiu Ying, another important Ming dynasty painter.

Ming Dynasty painters Tang Bohu and Qiu Ying, two of the most notable painters in Chinese art history, both took interest in this form. Qiu Ying’s Palatial Bedroom Pleasure, a collection of 12 paintings held by Beijing’s National Palace Museum, depict the dignitaries’ playfulness with their wives and courtesans in their gardens and living rooms. The paintings are very subtle. They do not directly depict sexuality, but they imply it. In one, a maid stands by the bedroom where a fabric hides the bedroom couch, in front of which the master’s shoes are arranged. They are both beautiful and sultry.

While they were originally used as tool for sexual initiation, the artworks have become instead a tool for understanding the lifestyle of the Ming dignitary. The Chinese-style garden is decorated with Tai Lake stone and dwarf pine as well as with Meirenkao, a common garden bench that combines the functions of seat and railing. Inside the moon-shaped door lays a Ta, the Chinese-style couch, with a coverlet and a pillow. Of course, the most important of all are those elegant and tender-looking harem ladies, on the patio or beside a banana tree, with slender bodies and slim oval faces.

Ferdinand M. Bertholet, a Dutchman known as the world’s biggest collector of erotic art, says that “these erotic paintings are like documentaries, the best medium for understanding ancient China’s multiple facets.” he says. “Traditional Chinese art such as calligraphy or ink landscape painting are a more scholarly and higher level of art experience in which daily life is rarely depicted. Meanwhile, erotic art offers viewers a lot of different information — the social status, hairstyle and clothing of each era, architectural design, garden layout and furniture.”

He says the furniture, in particular, is often depicted in detail, which gives furniture collectors significant references for identification. “This is of great importance when studying the specifics of living of the time,” he says.

From the perspective of deeper cultural significance, “erotic art also reflects that ancient Chinese pursuit of harmony between man and nature,” Bertholet says, evoking his collection entitled Gardens of Pleasure, which is currently on view at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery.

“For a long time, erotic art was only reserved for the imperial court and the rich, and was painted by scholars originally,” he says. “It was prohibited during the High Qing period (1684-1799), but rich men continued to order such works in private. Therefore, only high society was able to possess it or have access.”

Not just about sex

Bertholet says Chinese erotic art contains “profound” Taoist philosophy, and implies a lot of hidden symbolism and metaphor, such as Chinese people’s connection of spring with sexuality and the sexual and cultural implications of foot-binding.

Bertholet is not the the only Dutchman who is particularly interested in erotic art. The first serious scholar who carried out a textual study of erotic art was Robert van Gulik, another Dutchman and sinologist who wrote the book Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period: With an Essay on Chinese Sex Life from the Han to the Ch'ing Dynasty. The book helped to change a lot of the West’s dull speculation and fallacies about ancient China.

Objectively speaking, China’s erotic art is relatively routine and less exaggerated compared with that of other countries. For instance, “Japanese art is famous for its graphic design. Erotic art is no exception, with a relatively more abstract composition, a cartoon sense and unreal imagination,” Bertholet says. “As for Chinese erotic art, it has a stronger narrative with a rich implication of story. It expresses sexuality as a natural, healthy and joyful thing. It also emphasizes the harmony of man and nature, the blending of yin and yang, the equality of man and woman both enjoying their pleasure. On the contrary, male chauvinism is very much expressed in Japanese erotic art. Rarely is the gender balance or mutual complementarities evoked.”

Asked whether Amsterdam’s openness about sex tends to make the Dutch more interested in erotic art, Bertholet dismisses the suggestion. “I don’t think I’m inspired by Amsterdam particularly,” he says. “Most European countries don’t have an obvious sex culture and do not talk about the philosophical elements of sexuality. The reason why I collect Chinese erotic art is because I am profoundly fond of Chinese art. Erotic art only accounts for part of my collection.”

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