Despite being seen as a conservative country, China enjoys a profound culture of eroticism with a long history of more than 2,000 years. The Fashionable Truth rediscovered the mysterious kingdom’s sensual legacy, under the guidance of a world-famous collector.

Wooden Chair for Foot-binding and Golden Lotus Shoes

Wooden Chair for Foot-binding and Golden Lotus Shoes

China’s magnificent culture has given the country a great reputation in all forms of art. Poems, paintings, porcelain, calligraphy and sculpture have all been used to reflect on social issues, depict beautiful landscapes, record significant events and express sentimental feelings.

This spring, Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery unveiled another perspective on China’s cultural heritage, displaying work that tells extraordinary stories of sex and eroticism in the country’s ancient past.

The exhibition, titled Garden of Pleasure: Sex in Ancient China, featured over 100 beguling pieces from the Ferdinand M. Bertholet Collection, the world’s largest gathering of Chinese erotic art. It was the first exhibition dedicated to Chinese erotic art in Hong Kong,

Visitors were able to stroll among silk paintings of an intimate couple enjoying pre-coital bliss in a flowering garden, view phalluses in different sizes and materials and discover the wooden chairs used for “foot-binding” and silk “golden lotus” shoes. The erotica was in an impressive range of materials, including paintings, porcelains, ivory and woodcarvings.

The exhibition spanned over 2,000 years from the Han (206 BC – 220 AD) to the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD), offering visitors a unique opportunity to witness the development of Chinese erotic culture.

“Through this exhibition, it feels like we are bringing home the remnants of an almost lost heritage and offering a tribute to the masters of Chinese erotic art,” says Ferdinand M. Bertholet, a famous Dutch artist and collector of Chinese erotic art whose pieces formed the contents of the exhibition.

Bertholet’s collection began with his visit to Hong Kong in 1978, when he discovered a Chinese erotic album in an antique shop on the Hollywood Road.

“There were two ladies in the shop, who giggled and kept saying ‘shall we show him or not’. And finally they opened a cupboard and pulled out the most beautiful album I’d ever seen in my life,” Bertholet said, whispering as if he was revealing a long lost secret.

Although he didn’t have enough money with him to purchase the album, he still bargained on the price, and promised to buy it upon his next trip to Hong Kong. Six months later, he returned and the album was his, along with what became a life-long passion for Chinese erotica.

Brought up in Netherlands, Bertholet developed a keen interest in Chinese culture, especially Chinese paintings, at a very young age. “The tranquil villages, the beautiful mountains, all were so attractive to me,” Bertholet says.

A panel from a scroll with 20 scenes of lesbian sex

A panel from a scroll with 20 scenes of lesbian sex

The interest gradually transformed into a passion for collecting unusual work. He describes acquiring art as “bringing poetry into your surroundings”. He says this poetic factor has been diminished in modern times, when people are continually occupied with high-tech products and electronics.

“When people are walking on streets, they are all like this,” he says, staring down at an imaginary cell phone screen. “They don’t see the sky, they don’t see their surroundings and they just keep talking (on the cell phone) all the time.”

Bertholet takes a different approach. He says he prefers to seize every moment to appreciate the beauty that art offers, as “ancient artworks give me some kind of comfort. It’s like escapism.”

With its alluring style, exquisite use of colour and harmonious balance between its figures and their surroundings, the erotic album Bertholet bought in Hong Kong soon became the source of his inspiration, driving him to find more, until he owned the world’s largest collection of Chinese erotic art.

To him, the magic of Chinese erotic art evolves from its strong narrative power and its precious reflection of a lost heritage,

“What I saw (in those artworks) is not just the erotic parts. These paintings are narrative. They tell us stories, which are much deeper than the sexual acts they depict.”

The narration of such art is so powerful that it reveals vivid stories about people’s lives and their culture in ancient China, casting a light back over the past 2,000 years. The origin of Chinese erotic art can be traced back to the Han Dynasty with the earliest examples being found in the 1st century, while descriptions of Chinese erotic paintings were included in the Book of Han, a classical Chinese history around the same time.

The 10th century witnessed the flowering of Chinese erotic artwork and it continued to blossom into the 17th century, when the art form reached its peak during the Ming Dynasty’s relatively liberal policies toward arts and science.

This era of free expression brought forth the artists Tang Bohu and Qiu Ying, two of the most prestigious painters in Chinese art history. They both took a great interest in producing erotic pictures. Their works are of great aesthetic value for their exquisite style, depth of colour and vibrant portraits.

With paintings being a dominant form of communication during the Ming Dynasty, various forms of erotic art were not only used for sexual arousal, but also became tools for innocent brides and young couples in need of sex education.

“In all the classic erotic novels such as Jin Ping Mei (The Golden Lotus), you can read that the young husband bought an erotic album for the young bride, who didn’t know anything (about sex) and they would look at it together,” says Bertholet.

An interesting tradition in ancient China reveals the significance of erotic art in providing couples with a guide to their new sex life. Erotic porcelains were a must-have in any sophisticated dowry. They were usually about the size of a fist with a lid, and they came in the shape of a fruit, such as a peach or a tangerine, with a ceramic couple copulating inside. As they were usually put at the bottom of the dowry case, the bride would never know the existence of the porcelain until their mothers dropped hints about it on their wedding day.

Meiren at Her Bath

Meiren at Her Bath

Chinese erotic art is like a precious documentary, offering a glimpse into ancient China’s multiple facets, things that are not easy to see in other well-received artworks such as ink landscape paintings. The attention to detail in erotic art, including the garden setting, architecture, furniture, clothes and hairstyles makes it an invaluable source of information about the atmosphere and visual environment in which people lived.

In addition, the pieces provide a better understanding of Chinese culture through a faithful and authentic representation of social customs and lifestyle in ancient times.

In ancient China, lovemaking was considered as a natural practice, a sacred duty for both men and women. One of the strongest pieces of evidence for this view can be found in a famous quote of Confucius from The Book of Rites, “the things which men greatly desire are comprehended in meat and drink and sexual pleasure.” Gaozi, another renowned ancient philosopher also said in The Works of Mencius that, “by nature, we desire food and sex.”

As it turns out, ancient China’s attitude toward sex was more liberal and open than had previously been imagined. Homoerotic love was prevalent, as shown in the paintings of upper class sybarites having sex with both men and women. In a polygamous society, tantalising phalluses in different sizes and materials suggest the importance of self-pleasure for lonely females forced to wait their turn in a harem setting.

Moreover, the fact that the garden is the most common venue for lovemaking in those paintings reflects the Taoism pursuit of harmony between mankind and nature.

“(When you look at the paintings), you see a beautiful garden, and you will notice that the artist didn’t just focus on the erotic details, but also on the garden and the reflection of the copulating couple in this environment,” Bertholet thinks this is the representation of the Taoist philosophy, being at one with nature.

In Taoism, sex is seen as a path to a happy life and longevity. In particular, “Fangzhongshu” – Taoist sexual practices – are a means for practitioners to achieve this goal through the exchange of energy. Not only did this philosophy have a strong impact on ancient Chinese people, but it also created a thriving Chinese market for erotic art.

According to Bertholet, it is this profound philosophical background that differentiates Chinese erotic art from that of other countries, providing the works with great vitality, unique aesthetic values and distinctive symbolic meanings.

“If you look at western pornographies, you will find no story, no romance, no sensitivity nor philosophical background. It’s just empty and lost,” says Bertholet.

To him, a Chinese erotic painting brings a more delightful and sensational story with great details and suggestive symbols, as shown in the piece Love Games in a Flowering Garden from the Gardens of Pleasure Series in his exhibition. In this painting a couple are entwined with passion in a garden where peonies and magnolias are in bloom, but as these two flowers blossom in different seasons there is a suggestion that the two lovers are in an illegitimate relationship, although other interpretations are possible. The magnolias are blooming near longevity stones, which together make a symbol of long life and happiness.  Part of the pleasure in looking at these expressive narrative paintings is to decipher their meanings, many centuries after the artist committed his sensual strokes of ink and pen to paper.

Bertholet’s interest in interpreting the cultural symbolisms embedded in Chinese erotic art has grown in concert with his collection. His books on the subject matter include Dreams of Spring, Gardens of Pleasure, and Concubines and Courtesans.

A set of seven small porcelain figures

A set of seven small porcelain figures

Although Hong Kong was the starting point for Bertholet’s collection of erotic art, he has not found any more high-quality pieces in the city, nor in Mainland China. Most of his collection was found in western countries. He admits that the heritage of Chinese erotic art suffered serious damages during the Qing Dynasty, the Republican period and the Cultural Revolution, when discussing sex or producing erotic art was strictly prohibited. The politically motivated destruction of valuable erotic artworks annihilated a prolific culture along with the evidence of a unique life style and precious tradition that lasted for more than 2,000 years.

Nowadays sexual taboos are loosening again in China, with the young generation adopting more open attitudes toward sex against a background of Internet erotica and the emergence of sex museums and exhibitions. However, most of these exhibits lack aesthetic values and cultural significance. Bertholet would like to see his collection visit the Mainland in the future and he has already had an invitation from the mayor of Hangzhou, which he turned down for fear that some of his peices might be confiscated by the authorities, which still harbour puritanical attitudes.

Should Bertholet overcome his fears his exhibition would provide an invaluable opportunity for people to reconnect with their ancestors and to experience an enchanting journey back to the mysterious pleasures of a lost and ancient Kingdom. By Libby Zeng

..Read more in Quintessentially Asia.