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 as famous 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.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!