This article is part of an ongoing series examining erotic culture in modern China.
Standing side-on in the foreground, a man is having sex with a woman lying face up on a bed opposite him. At the same time, a naked younger woman — perhaps a maid — gently pulls on the man’s arm from behind, entreating him to shift his attentions to her. In another image, a man is engaging in group sex with eight women at once, his arms and legs akimbo, every limb contorting in an effort to pleasure the writhing bodies around him.
These are just a few of the bacchanalian scenes taken from a cache of Ming-dynasty woodblock prints. Rediscovered in 2008, some of the pieces constitute fine examples of late-imperial Chinese art and buttress a broader corpus of existing erotic prints, paintings, poems, novels, and sex manuals that would have graced the residences of the empire’s literati. Taken together, the materials form a picture of Chinese sexuality — one in which sexual expression, erotica, and even libertinism were overt aspects of elite life — very different from that which prevails today.
In comparison with most Western cultures, modern Chinese society is frequently depicted as holding conservative, even puritanical, attitudes toward sexual expression. Pornography, where it is consumed at all, is done so without wider social acceptance. This view is compounded by an official stance that moralizes pornographic materials, victimizes those who consume it, and criminalizes those who produce, duplicate, or disseminate it.
While it is true that Western societies are generally more tolerant of porn than the Chinese, a glance back through China’s imperial history shows that the country has not always been so censorious of erotica. In fact, the roots of porn’s current negative reputation in China can be traced back to the 17th-century decline of the Ming dynasty and the advent of its successor, the Qing.
Although other erotic works that emerged in the late Ming failed to match the prints in terms of explicitness — the act of sex is often described euphemistically as “clouds and rain” or “the bounds of ecstasy” in literary works — they often deal with sex in surprisingly frank terms. The most famous erotic novel of the era — “Jin Ping Mei,” or “The Plum in the Golden Vase” — details no fewer than 72 sexual episodes, with the male protagonist eventually dying from taking too many aphrodisiacs in an attempt to prolong his arousal. Other novels describe a wide variety of sex acts, including oral, anal, and homosexual intercourse.
Yet within the first few decades of the Qing, the supply of erotic works began to dwindle. The new dynasty brought with it a broader ideological shift that demonized so-called pornographic literature and art — an attitude that has largely remained dominant in present-day China. While erotica had previously flourished in the presence of a receptive literati class, Qing control of the printing presses brought about a more stifling form of official censorship. As the American scholar Keith McMahon puts it, the censors’ ideology held that “the obscene and the erotic in literature [led] to promiscuity in real life, and thus to crimes against the cardinal virtue of filiality.”
Filial piety — the Confucian principle of respecting and obeying one’s parents — lay at the heart of the Qing government’s claim to legitimacy. Sweeping through China from the northeast, the original Qing invaders were of Manchu descent and were acutely aware that they had come to rule over a Han majority. In response to these circumstances, the government enforced a policy of segregation designed to ensure that Manchu blood ran through the veins of every emperor and his cohort. To do this, they constructed idealized notions of five cultures to which the empire’s subjects belonged. This system cast the Han as inheritors of a grand tradition of Confucian philosophy, an identity that stood in contrast to the four other officially designated constituencies of the realm: Manchus, Tibetans, Mongols, and Uyghurs.
Qing censors conceived a direct link between people’s sexual habits and the state’s legitimacy and stability. Sexual excess, it was presupposed, was a form of immoderation that served to distract men from their duties as heads of their households, as filial sons, and — at the top of the hierarchy — as directors of state affairs. This framework sought to normalize procreative sex as the only morally correct form of intercourse and cast alternative sexual behaviors, including consuming erotica, as dangerous perversions. Consequently, while people presumably continued to produce, distribute, and enjoy porn, the practice was forced underground.
By institutionalizing the link between chastity and stability through measures like offering compensation to widows who refused to remarry after their husbands’ deaths and incorporating principles of purity into the empire’s later legal codes, the Qing were able to modulate sexuality in a way that has been largely co-opted and repackaged by the modern Chinese state. Today, when the state invokes notions of Confucian moralism, it is harkening back to an idealized system of patriarchal government in which it is not only the enforcer of criminal justice but also the arbiter of public morality.
According to the Confucian model, the ideal form of statehood is modeled on the family unit. Just as fathers are responsible for ensuring the positive moral conduct of wives and children, so too are heads of state the ultimate moral paragons whose goodness radiates outward to those lower down in the hierarchy. This holds true whether the leader is the emperor of a dynasty or the Chinese government today. Seen in this light, the government’s popular campaign to eradicate official corruption, as well as its policy of cleansing porn and other forms of supposed spiritual pollution from the Chinese internet, can be interpreted as attempts to strengthen the legitimacy of China’s political elite.
For those of us brought up under the tenets of Western liberalism, China’s crackdown on porn can come across as overly invasive. After all, we tell ourselves, the state’s role is to guarantee our freedom to choose how to live our lives — so long as those choices do not conflict with the rule of law — and not to concern itself with what we do with our bodies. However, China’s well-established tradition of ideal governance has long considered the family — and, indeed, the body — to be sites of political discourse. As the country’s moral guide, the state actually does have a vested interest in your sexuality.
In practice, of course, modern Chinese society has a confused relationship with sex. Searches for internet porn will yield no results, but the road you take to work may be lined with sex shops and massage parlors. Men may expect their girlfriends to be demure and obedient in public but sexually unrestrained behind closed doors. What the Ming woodblock prints show us is that our attitudes toward porn and sexuality in general are molded by the sociopolitical environment around us — a truth that applies equally to China as to any other society.
(Header image: A man looks at an erotic image in an ancient-looking book in Beijing, Sept. 22, 2005. VCG)