Sex and Early Chinese History
According to some old sayings “eating and having sex is human nature” and “after you have enough food and clothing, your thoughts turn to sex.." China was relatively open about sex until the Tang dynasty. After that a more moralistic, Confucian view on the subject was adopted.
Chinese "Wedding Tiles"—paintings on silk with erotic pictures—have traditionally been used to educate new brides. Tiles from the Eastern Han period (A.D. 23-220) show a ménage à trois—one couple copulating and a man watching—beside a mulberry tree filled with monkeys.
In the old days in northern China, men sometimes let travelers sleep with their wives in the belief, one Chinese scholar told National Geographic that "outsiders were distinguished and would bring their family new blood and a better future." On the subject Marco Polo wrote of a man who runs a boarding house and "tells his wife to do all that the stranger wishes...And the stranger stays with his wife in the house and does as he likes and lies with her in bed." Polo called the women who did this as “fair and gay and wanton.”
According to an old Chinese punishment, a couple accused of adultery were beheaded together. If their faces turned towards each other the adultery was confirmed, if the did not an injustice had been done.
Sex in China USA Today piece usatoday.com ; China Sex Museum hu-berlin.de/sexology ; Sex Incidents in China zonaeuropa.com ; Sex Industry guardian.co.uk ; Chinese sex toy maker lacyshaki.en ; Books: Sexual Life of Ancient China , written by Robert van Gulik in the 1920s; The Illustrated Handbook of Chinese Sex History by Professor Liu Dalin and Sex China Studies in Sexology in Chinese Culture by Fang-ju Juan’. The Sexology Research Institute of China is at People's University in Beijing.
Sex History and Literature Ancient Sex Culture China.org ; Chinese Sex Literature yellowbridge.com ; Sex in Ancient China Book Review dannyreviews.com Prostitution in China : China Law blog chinalawblog.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Shanghaiist blog shanghaiist.com ; Prostitution warning gochina.about.com Homosexuality in China Purple Dragon gay travel specialists Purple Dragon ; China Daily article chinadaily.com ; National Institute of Health paper /gateway.nlm.nih.gov ; Articles from the 1990s brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Some Sources on gay life in China fordham.edu/halsall ; Gay in Rural China sfgate.com ; Gay Scene in Shanghai shanghai-guy.com
Links in this Website: SEX IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; SEX AND HISTORY IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; PROSTITUTION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; HOMOSEXUALS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO'S PRIVATE LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; MARRIAGE, LOVE AND DATING IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CONCUBINES AND DIVORCE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
Sex and Early Chinese Emperors
Chinese emperors often had thousands of concubines because they believed that the more sexual partners they had the longer they would live. The Yellow Emperor, the legendary first emperor of China, from whom all other Chinese are believed to have descended, is reputed have become immortal by making love with a thousand young virgins.
The last Sui emperor, Sui Yang To (A.D. 581-618), took the throne after murdering his father and older brother. He had a queen, two deputy queens, 6 royal consorts, 72 madames and 3,000 palace maidens but even that wasn't enough to satisfy him sexually. He had a particular thing for teenage virgins and reportedly used a "virgin wheelchair" to capture them. According to a palace historian after the girl was seated "clamps would automatically spring up to hold her arms and spread her legs apart, while the mechanized cushion would place her body in the right position to receive the royal favor." [Source: People's Almanac]
In the 14th century brothels were registered and courtesans paid taxes. Shan-Yin, a Chinese princess during the Sung Dynasty, had a special bed made that could accommodate 30 men who all made love to her at the same time.
Emperor's Sex Life
The Emperors had many women to keep them occupied. One emperor in the 11th century had 121 women (the nearest round number of one third of 365, the number of days in a year) at his immediate disposal, including one empress, three consorts, nine spouses, 27 concubines, and 81 assistant concubines.
Some emperors believed they could gain immortality form having sex with as many women as possible but never ejaculating. See Yellow Emperor Above.
Emperors also had male consorts. According to legend the Han Dynasty Emperor Ai said he would rather cut off the sleeve of his robe than disturb his male lover who had fallen asleep on it. Some Chinese still refer to homosexuality as “the passion of the sleeve.”
Imperial women also indulged themselves. Empress Wu Ze Tian was a 7th century ruler who was previously a nun and then a concubine and briefly changed the Tang dynasty’s name to Zhou. She had her own harem of men.
Emperor's Sexual Rotation Schedule
It was believed that organizing the Emperor's sex life into a regimented order was essential to maintaining the well-being of the entire Chinese empire. The great Chinese calendar clocks of the 10th century were not used to keep track of time but rather to decide the schedule, rotation and time for the women who slept with the Emperor. Secretaries kept record of the Emperor's sex life with brushes dipped in imperial vermillion.
In China and some other Asian countries age is determined from the moment of conception not from the moment of birth. The Imperial Chinese believed that women were most likely to conceive on the nights nearest the full moon, when the Yin, or female influence, was strong enough to match the potent Yang, or male force, of the Emperor. It was believed that on these nights children with strong virtues would be produced. As a result the empress and spouses slept with Emperor around the full moon and the lower ranking women, whose main function was to nourish the Emperor's Yang with their Yin, slept with him around the time of the new moon. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
A rotation described in the Record of the Rites of the Chou dynasty (1120-256 B.C.) was as follows: "The lower-ranking [women] come first, the higher ranking come last. The assistant concubines, eighty-one in number, share the imperial couch nine nights in groups of nine. The nine spouses and the three consorts are allotted one night to each group, and the empress also alone one night. On the fifteenth day of every month the sequence is complete, after which it repeats in reverse order." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Some emperors kept the names of their favorite wives, consorts and concubines on jade tablets kept in their bed chambers. The most active emperors had 50 or more of these tablets. When an emperor selected the woman he wanted he turned over the tablet with her name on a teak table. A eunuch then rushed to the woman's chamber, took off her clothes to make sure she wasn't concealing a weapon, wrapped her in gold cloth, carried her through the palace since she could barely walk with her bound feet and deposited her at the foot of the emperor's bed. The eunuch then recorded the date to verify later whether or not the emperor was the father of any children born to the woman.
Erotic Literature in China
China has a rich history of erotic literature and painting. China's most famous examples of erotic literature—The Prayer Mat of the Flesh and Jin Ping Mei ("The Golden Lotus")—were written in the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty.
Jin Ping Mei is a 2,000 page novel about the sexual exploits of a horny young merchant, Hs-men (pronounced semen), and his mistress, Golden Lotus. Because some of the descriptions are very explicit, the story has been banned since the Ming Period. In one passage, for example, Hs-men tosses a plum into Golden Lotus's vagina, moves it around until she has an orgasm, and then eats the plum. In the Mao era, the Communist government edited out sexy parts of Jin Ping Mei but unedited versions were available if you had connections.
Golden Lotus was an unhappy housewife before she became Hs-men's lover. "Her hair was black as a raven's plumage; her eyebrows mobile as the kingfisher and as curved as the new moon. Her almond eyes were clear and cool, and her cherry lips most inviting...Her face had the delicate roundness of a silver flower, and her fingers as slender as the tender shoots of a young onion. Her waist was as narrow as a willow, and her white belly yielding and plump. Her feet were small and tapering; her breasts soft and luscious. One other thing there was, black-fringed, grasping, dainty and fresh, but the name I may not tell...it had all the fragrance and tenderness of fresh-made pastry, the softness and appearance of a new-made pie."
Juicy Passages from the Jin Ping Mei
One night after Hs-men returned home drunk, Golden Lotus "played delicately with his weapon, but it was as limp as cotton wool and had not the slightest spirit. She tossed about on the bed, consumed with passionate desire, almost beside herself. She squeezed his prick, moved it up and down, put down her head and sucked. It was in vain. This made her wild beyond description."
Later she gave him three pills with a strong aphrodisiac that kept his penis erect while he was asleep. When she climbed on top of him "her body seemed to melt away with delight...she moved up and down about 200 times. At first it was difficult because it was dry but soon the love juices flowed and moistened her cunt. Hs-men let her do everything she wished, but he himself was perfectly inert. She could bear it no longer...She twisted herself towards his penis which was completely inside her cunt, only his two balls staying outside."
"She stroked his penis with her hand, and it was wonderfully good. The juices flowed and in a short time she had used up five napkins. Even then Hs-men kept on, although the tip of his penis was swollen and hotter than a live coal. It was so tight that he asked the woman to take off the ribbon, but his penis remained stiff and he told her to suck. She bent over and with her red lips moved the head on his prick to and fro, and sucked."
"Suddenly white semen poured out, like living silver, which she took in her mouth and could not swallow fast enough. At first it was just semen, soon it became blood which flowed without stopping. Hs-men had fainted and his limbs were stiff and outstretched...Golden Lotus was frightened. She hastily gave him some red dates. Blood followed semen, and the blood was followed by freezing air. Golden Lotus was terrified. She threw her arms around him and cried, 'darling, how do you feel?'...Readers, there is a limit to our energy, but none to our desires. A man who sets no bounds to his passion cannot live more than a short time..."
Sex in the Mao Era
Mao-era marriage poster For decades the Communist government pretended that pre-martial sex, extramarital sex, prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases were problems that existed in foreign countries but not in China.
In the Mao era, brothels were shut down; people were fired for having affairs and sent to jail for living with their boyfriend or girlfriend; married couples in communes were forced to live in sexually segregated barracks and were allowed 30-minute conjugal visits once a week.
Prostitution and other vices were controlled in part by monitoring people’s housing, appearance and lifestyle. The government outlawed pornography, called recreational sex a bourgeois pastime, abolished sex education classes, and encouraged women to dress in baggy Mao suits rather than "immodest clothing."
Writing a love letter was considered a crime. A small romantic gesture could result in a person being labeled a “bad element” and persecuted along with counter-revolutionaries and rich peasants. During the Cultural Revolution any traditional erotica and pornography found by the Red Guard was destroyed.
In 1981 the Communist Party declared young men and women should control the “sluice gates of passion: and not have sex until they were married.”
One Chinese doctor told the New York Times, "For decades sex was totally unmentionable; people who talked about it were persecuted and regarded as hooligans. But in the '80 the subject came up in fits and starts. And today, if a magazine doesn't have sex, is sales will certainly fall."
Mao's Sexual Activity
Mao’s own lifestyle contradicted the policy of his government. See Mao’s Private Life, China Under Mao, History
Image Sources: All Posters com http://www.allposters.com/?lang=1 Search Chinese Art except 3000 B.C. vessel, Columbia University, and marriage poster, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/
Revolution of the Heart
In a review of the book Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 by Haiyan Lee, Charles Laughlin of the University of Virginia wrote: “Haiyan Lee's study of literary discourses about love in modern China is one of the most engaging and broad-reaching books written about modern Chinese culture in recent years. It crystallizes important works published over the past several decades on the issues of human relationships, cultural and personal identity, and revolution and romanticism under one coherent theme--the discourse of love.
Works that hold a high place in her analysis include: Ban Wang's The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China (Stanford, 1997), Jianmei Liu's Revolution Plus Love: Literary History, Women's Bodies, and Thematic Repetition in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction (Hawai'i, 2003), and Jing Tsu's Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895-1937 (Stanford, 2005).
Revolution of the Heart won the Joseph Levenson Prize for a monograph about modern China in 2009, attesting to its quality and impact. Laughlin wrote: “Revolution of the Heart begins long before the dysfunctional marriage of culture and revolution around the late 1920s and early 1930s and is thus more focused on love than on "revolution" as a cultural phenomenon. Nevertheless, the book culminates in a discussion of the Chinese revolution and its aftermath in terms of love and emotional expression, which is the crux of its unique contribution to modern Chinese cultural studies. Lee retraces the genealogy of modern Chinese love discourse through three overlapping phases, which she calls the Confucian, enlightenment, and revolutionary "structures of feeling."
Lee takes pains to clarify that she is reconstructing and historicizing love as a moral discourse, which overlaps with but is not coextensive with discourses of desire...Lee accounts for this marginalization of desire and sexuality in terms of the focus of her argument (it is love, not desire), but the result is that where desire is conveyed less explicitly, it falls outside the purview of her analysis.
An example of this isolation of love from desire occurs in the section on the enlightenment structure of feeling is the analysis of Feng Yuanjun's "Gejue," in which Lee points out that the heroine Junhua's mother sequesters her because she assumes that Junhua had sex with Shizhen as they traveled together, whereas the crux of the generation gap is that the young man and woman's love is "noble and pure"--i.e., unsullied by sexual gratification. What they really desire--liberty and autonomy--is more threatening than immediate sexual gratification. But in a key passage Lee discusses, Junhua and Shizhen undress each other and sleep together, a scene this is meant to prove the nobility of their love. As Lee puts it, "As they huddle together in bed, sex is both the closest and furthest thing on their minds."
Book: Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 by Haiyan Lee (Stanford University Press, 2007)
Academic View on the Origin of Maoist Views on Love and Sex
In a review of the book Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 by Haiyan Lee, Charles Laughlin of the University of Virginia wrote: Lee’s discussion of the Confucian structure of feeling, and its connection through the role of the Ernü yingxiong zhuan (“Tales of heroic sons and daughters”) model in the development of the revolutionary structure of feeling, helps explain the denigration in many quarters toward "earthly love" as antithetical to a "healthy" (read "public-spirited") modern identity. The Ernü yingxiong zhuan and similar early modern works differ from other kinds of traditional and modern fiction in tending to elide sexual tension from the depiction of young men and women interacting with one another.
This begins to answer questions that have puzzled me for some time: When/where/how did the desexualization that characterizes modern Chinese culture from the 1930s through the Cultural Revolution get started? Are revolutionary narratives meant to subliminally consummate desires, or suppress their arousal? Are these considerations even relevant to revolutionary stories? Lee's contribution to this argument...is to view love and revolution as supplementary, rather than revolutionary zeal as sublimated love.
Lee introduces the "logic of supplement" as a preferable alternative to the structure of sublimation. Reading Hu Chenbing's play Ai de geming (Revolution of love), Lee writes: Although I agree that the process of sublimation is certainly at work, the term does not capture the persistently ambivalent standing of love in revolutionary literature. The supplementary logic enables us to discern the double-speak of "revolution + romance": on the one hand, love must be recognizable in the conventions of romantic love stories--to wit, the revolutionary lovers must still be erotic beings, rather than robotic sloganeers . . . On the other hand, love must be denied of its centrality or claim to transcendence. . . . In short, as the internal supplement to revolution, love is simultaneously affirmed and disavowed, it is coopted as an indispensable ally and repudiated as an intransigent rival.”
But Lee also demonstrates, on the one hand, that the Ernü yingxiong zhuan as a literary model probably contributed not a little to the monotony of revolutionary literature and, on the other hand, shows that many important cultural figures in the Republican period appeared to advocate the unfolding of sexuality and sexual discourse in modern China. In chapter 4, Lee goes in depth into the 1920s discourse on love and sexuality, including Zhang Jingsheng's "four rules of love" in response to a female college student leaving her betrothed in favor of a professor, special issues of Women's Magazine on love, and conservative, radical, and enlightenment voices appearing in books and series edited by Wang Pingling, Zhou Jianren, and including Pan Guangdan. In a suggestive but unusually confusing statement Lee says that "it is ironic but logical that May Fourth romanticism, at least in its non-Freudian moments, should denigrate 'earthly love' along with the pursuit of wealth . . ." This raises a number of questions: what are May Fourth romanticism's "Freudian moments"? Are they atypical or typical of May Fourth romanticism? Why is this denigration "ironic" if sexual desire is actually not primary?
Academic View on Love and Sex in the Maoist Era
Turning to the revolutionary and socialist periods, Lee presents the early "love plus revolution" convention as an awkward negotiation between the ideal of love emerging from the enlightenment structure of feeling and the need for social and historical engagement to reign supreme in the world of youthful passion. Criticism from the late 1920s and early 1930s on "love plus revolution" was largely negative and focused on its formulaic aspects rather than the cracks and fissures that emerged in literary practice, and Lee seems to follow the critical assessments in their assumption of the incompatibility of revolution and love. Moving into the socialist period, she rightfully points to the Ernü yingxiong zhuan/Xin ernü yingxiong zhuan model as the apparent "solution" to this problem; most socialist treatments of young people and their romantic involvements cleave to the unproblematized subsumption of the interests of love to those of revolution.
But Lee reads Xin ernü yingxiong zhuan almost satirically, focusing on a peasant couple's awkward utterances about each other as indicative of a lack of passion/desire, or of the author's lack of interest in the couple, and highlighting the "tenderness" and attention to romance and love the novel lacks . The inflection of satire in Lee's description of socialist realism's "effortless," "perfect" solution to the love vs. revolution problem strips them of any possibility of complexity or ambiguity. In this Lee joins the long list of commentators on socialist realism in reinforcing the self-fulfilling prophecy of its unreadability. We still await critics willing to wade through the sea of (presumed) insipid material to explore the contradictions and ambiguities that saturate it. Lee's unwillingness to read against the author's stated or perceived intentions, the blandishments of socialist realist "theory," or the perfunctory interpretations of supportive or unsympathetic commentators can only lead to the confirmation of conventional wisdom about such literature, or earlier revolutionary literature, for that matter. This is regrettable, because Lee's overarching argument about the vagaries of love in modern Chinese culture creates unprecedented potential for unfolding its at times surging presence not far beneath the surface of social realist literature.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated October 2011