Spring Palace Paintings: Chinese Erotic Art


 Spring Palace Art


Erotic Chinese art in letters and pictures was a tradition that spanned from antiquity until its apex in the Late Ming Dynasty (early 17th Century). This art was not just produced for stimulation. Chinese erotica was layered in ideals of feminine beauty, narratives on imperial and vernacular life and most importantly, humor, tenderness and love. However, after the last dynasty and between the two republics (1912 and 1949), Chinese sexual art was suppressed by modern Confucius followers and Western missionaries resulting in the destruction of many pieces. Today it is very rare to find authentic Chinese erotica.

Why is Chinese erotic art called spring palace painting?

The word ‘Spring’ refers to the archaic springtime rituals during which girls and boys separated by a brook sang love-songs to each other. Later, when love-making became part of refined imperial court culture, the word ‘palace’ was added as an allusion to the emperor’s residence. Erotic fiction in China spun tales of the misbehavior of rulers and their consorts. Fervid imaginings of what happened behind the walls of the Forbidden City and the pleasures one might enjoy if in the possession of absolute power were irresistible to novelists, painters and the audiences for whom they were created.  Erotic art developed concurrently with the rise of the rich mercantile cities of southern China from the 10th century on. 

What is a Pillowbook?

In China, the long tradition of erotic literature, or pillowbooks, ranges from poetry and novels to instructional manuals. Like spring palace paintings, erotic poetry typically embodied attributes of humor and flirtation. However, novels often blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction, integrating a mixture of historical figures, and narratives that are themselves factually questionable. The ambiguity of what is real and what is not, is due to the fact that sex attracted its share of bad writers and poor artists, as well as the inconceivable idea that tales of imperial sexual escapades could ever leave the palace walls.

What are the Mediums and Motifs of Chinese Erotic Art?

Chinese erotic art can be found on inlaid boxes, porcelain figurines, silk or rice paper paintings, and even on the soles of ceramic shoes. However, the album (a series of paintings loosely bound in book form) was the preferred form of erotic art. album is not unified by a narrative, and the participants in the scenes do not reappear from leaf to leaf. Also found in albums are non-erotic or subtly erotic leaves that serve to contextualize the sexual acts depicted.

Snuff Bottles are another medium where sensual scenes can be found either through reverse painting or through the craftsmanship of the glass. Reverse painting on snuff bottles is just as it sounds, executed from the inside of the bottle facing out. Tobacco was believed to have medicinal benefits in China and was consumed both in the imperial court and in the larger population; hence the production and popularity of snuff bottles. With the simultaneous increase in popularity of snuff bottles and erotica, it is only natural to find the two paired together.

Although clothing, hair and even the scenes for seduction can vary (gardens, brothels, palaces, bedrooms, and even boats) there are a few visual hallmarks that are reoccurring in spring palace paintings. The notorious practice of foot binding was widespread in China until the twentieth century and – not surprisingly – feet play an important part in Chinese erotic art and literature. It was not a national epidemic of foot fetishism as much as an alternative object of secondary sexual interest. Small feet in China were analogous to ample breasts in the West. “Oh, a little foot! You Europeans cannot understand how exquisite, how sweet, how exciting it is!”  Almost uniformly, even among erotica created in the 1920s, extremely small feet are a hallmark of feminine beauty and sensuality.
The most important hallmark of erotic painting in China is the tender treatment of the figures and the exquisite detail of their settings. The faces of the lovers are soft and sweet. The luxurious folds of their robes add to the sensuality of the scene, as it is not always apparent what is happening under all of that fabric. Even the settings add to the narrative. Because there was not much documentation about design and the use of furniture during ancient times, there is much to learn by studying the context of the paintings. Not only are they beautifully composed in perfect detail, the scenes are layered. For example, there is usually a garden that can be seen from the bedroom or a garden divided by scholars’ rocks or lattice. This layering makes the viewer wonder, is there more to see? Is there someone watching along with us?




 To view a selection of Chinese erotica from Pagoda Red’s collection, click here


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One Response to “Spring Palace Paintings: Chinese Erotic Art”

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