Sex in the imperial garden: an unpublished Chinese pillow book, or manual of love-making, in the Kinsey Institute is a remarkable version of a celebrated album without any erotic content painted in 1738 for Emperor Qianlong by the court painter Chen Mei, as Efrat El-Hanany reveals.
Such scenes of love-making in a garden setting form the subject of an elegant twelve-leaf album in the collection of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University, Bloomington. This anonymous work, painted in coloured inks on silk, has never before been published. In each leaf, court ladies appear in palace gardens swinging, embroidering, boating and admiring flowers. Each leaf also includes a depiction of ardent love-making in various positions, either within the garden itself or in one of its pavilions or studios. A private collector donated this album to the Kinsey Institute in 1973, where it is catalogued simply as Emperor and ladies of the court. Other than this general characterisation, and an estimated dating of between 1750 and 1850, absolutely nothing was known about it and it had escaped scholarly notice.
Overlooked until now is the fact that the Kinsey album closely resembles a well-known twelve-leaf album (with no explicit erotic content) known as The pursuit of pleasures in the course of the seasons (Yueman qingyou), (3) which was made in 1738 for Emperor Qianlong (who reigned from 1736 to 1795) by Chen Mei, one of his court painters. This original album has never left the Imperial Palace (now the Palace Museum) in Beijing. In the absence of textual evidence relating to the album in the Kinsey Institute, only a close comparison of the two works can shed any light on their relationship. The present study compares the twelve leaves in the Kinsey Institute with Chen's original album, and attempts to elucidate the later album's function, meaning and historical context.
Chen Mei's The pursuit of pleasures in the course of the seasons
The twelve leaves of Chen Mei's album take as their subject the conventional theme of the activities of the ladies of the imperial court. (4) This iconographic tradition was first established in the Tang dynasty under Emperor Xuanzong, when official court painters such as Zhang Xuan and Zhou Fang specialised in depictions of the beautiful concubines in their private quarters. This genre came to be known as Life in the palace (gongzhong tu). (5) A famous example of this theme is Spring morning in the Han palace (c. 1540, National Palace Museum, Taipei), traditionally attributed to Qiu Ying (c. 1501-c. 1552), which offers an imaginary tour of the forbidden inner quarters of the imperial precinct. Here the graceful court beauties promenade in elegant garden settings and engage in conventionally female activities. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), sets of twelve compositions illustrating beautiful women became very common, each leaf depicting an activity associated with a certain month of the year, and Chen Mei's album is just one of many which explore such imagery. (6)
Qianlong, for whom Chen's original album was painted, apparently passed much of his time in his palace gardens. (7) The painting Qianlong composing verses in his garden is a typical record of the pleasure he took in his garden, (8) where he was known to have escorted his favourite feminine companions on leisurely walks, which presumably were undertaken with erotic intent. His beautiful maidens had been carefully educated for that purpose, having been taught the Chinese classics as well as the arts of dancing, singing and playing musical instruments; in addition, many could paint pictures and compose poems. (9) The pleasure gardens of the Forbidden City were a place of female elegance, beauty and erotic charm--the Emperor's earthly paradise.
Records show that Qianlong commissioned The pursuit of pleasures in the course of the seasons from Chen Mei in 1738. (10) Chen came from the region of Shanghai and worked for the imperial household between the years 1720 and 1740, mainly under Emperor Yongzheng, and into the beginning of Qianlong's reign. It was a period when vivid and realistic means of representation were being introduced into the court by European missionaries, among them the Italian Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who came to Beijing in 1713, shortly before the arrival of Chen Mei. Castiglione remained there for fifty years, working under the Chinese name Lang Shih-ning. Qing academic painters, Chen amongst them, were impressed by Western techniques such as the representation of space through linear perspective, a novelty which makes itself apparent in Chen's compositions of the Pursuit of pleasures leaves. (11)
Chen's album bears graphic evidence of the Emperor's appreciation: each illustrated leaf received Qianlong's personal stamp. (12) In his old age, the Emperor restamped most of the pages a second time as a token of his enduring admiration. Furthermore, the Emperor even went to the extent of having the album duplicated in costly ivory inlaid with jade and gold. This work of remarkable craftsmanship, dated 1741 and also in the Palace Museum, Beijing, was executed by five famous Cantonese artists, Chen Zuzhang, Gu Pengnian, Chang Cun, Xiao Hanzhen and Chen Guanquan. (13) Here verses composed by Qianlong, written in his own hand and painstakingly reproduced in mother-of-pearl inlaid on a black lacquer ground, appear on twelve facing ivory leaves.
An erotic version of Chen Mei
The Kinsey album has the same dimensions and number of leaves as Chen Mei's earlier album in Beijing, and follows Chen's compositions almost exactly. Under close examination, however, it must be admitted that the Kinsey artist was not as skillful as Chen, being notably less interested in creating illusions of space and making use of simplified details and colour schemes. Additionally, the Kinsey album has no seals of any sort, and its facing leaves are bare, lacking any poetic writings. (14) The most important difference between the two works, however, is that the Kinsey artist has transformed Chen Mei's staid depiction of palace beauties into a pornographic version of the original. Into each composition, he has inserted a scene of explicit love-making between a man and woman, often assisted by eunuchs. To make room for these erotic vignettes, slight modifications were made to Chen's original composition, usually by adding or omitting some element of the architectural or garden setting. However, these changes were carried out with such elegance and discretion that in the majority of cases the transformed scene appears completely natural.
In all twelve leaves, we see that the Kinsey artist has followed Chen's compositions quite closely, with the obvious exception of the insertion of two lovers. In some cases the couple has simply been dropped into the scene, as we see in the ninth, eleventh and twelfth months. Other leaves, however, witness three distinct ways in which the original compositions were slightly altered in order to accommodate this addition. In the second, sixth and eighth months the artist has inserted the couple without any noticeable change in the composition but objects or figures seen in the original album have been discreetly replaced. A second and perhaps more noticeable transformation occurs when the artist shifts some figures from their original location in order to make room for the couple, as in the first, fourth and seventh months. Finally, the most extreme alterations made by the Kinsey artist might be those leaves--the third, fifth and tenth months--in which he has omitted major architectural elements of the garden. In all cases, however, the Kinsey artist has been concerned to manipulate certain features of the setting in order to highlight their sexual connotations and to make the garden a more suitable setting for amorous activities.
The first month
The opening leaf of Chen's album, Visiting flowering plum trees on a chilly night, illustrates the first lunar month of the Chinese year. A group of five court ladies strolls in the foreground of the composition, preceded by a maid who walks ahead with a large lantern to light their path--it is night, and they are on their way to see a flowering plum tree. Another group of three court ladies with their lantern bearer appear further back in the garden, seated or standing in a pavilion decorated with lanterns. The Kinsey leaf (Fig. 1) is nearly identical with Chen's original except for the sexual vignette in the lower left foreground of the composition. Here the artist has shifted the maid with a lantern to the extreme left, making place for a bearded naked man, who sits on a bench while giving an intimate embrace to his naked lady companion. The latter stands with her hands ecstatically raised in the air, watched by a eunuch who loiters in close proximity.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
The love-making here would seem to be a form of sexual foreplay, and we might surmise that the artist correlated this particular activity with the appearance of the first seasonal pleasures--i.e., the early plum blossoms--at the beginning of the year. (15) The man, it might be worth mentioning, is completely naked, as he appears in all the subsequent scenes, with the understandable exception of the final, wintry month. However, we can easily guess his social status from his elaborate coiffure: in the manner of high-ranking men, his hair is done up in a topknot, kept in place by an ornamental hairpin. This particular feature would also seem to identify the man as the same person through all the leaves of the album, whereas the variant facial features, hairstyles and body types of his female companions would suggest the presence of different lovers in later scenes. Here the inclusion of this sexual activity was erotically heightened by the manipulations of various elements of Chen's garden scenery: we particularly notice the distinctive openings in the tree trunks, which allude to female genitalia. Such witty visual puns typify all the scenes that follow.
The second month
The following leaf of Chen's album, Playing chess in a pleasure pavilion, finds a group of court ladies engaged in a friendly game of Chinese chess while seated in a garden pavilion (Fig. 2). The women gather around the table on which the chessboard has been set up as two maids enter from the left with refreshments and a tea tray. The Kinsey album shares a similar composition (Fig. 4), although here a love-making couple and their attendant eunuch join the group of chess players, whose game inexplicably continues with no apparent disturbance. The intimate activity taking place completely unnoticed in such a public setting doubtless was intended to intensify its eroticism. In this case there are no further alterations to the scene, beyond the noticeably lusher foliage in the trees and the repeated emphasis on suggestive cracks in the tree trunk in the foreground.
[FIGURES 2 & 4 OMITTED]
Without wishing to overly complicate my argument, I think it is important to point out that in order to create this composition the Kinsey artist had to be familiar not only with the original silk leaves by Chen Mei (1738), but also with its ivory duplicate (1741) (Fig. 3). There are several minor discrepancies between Chen Mei's work and the ivory album, including (in this scene) the number of figures, certain architectural elements and parts of the garden: in the back wall of the pavilion in Chen's leaf, for example, we see a door with a curtain pulled to the side. The Kinsey artist copies this detail exactly, although in the ivory version this opening is blocked by a decorative screen. On the other hand, in Chen's composition only one women stands in the far right-hand corner of the room, while in the Kinsey version we find two women in her place. These two women appear in the ivory duplicate. I would therefore suggest that the Kinsey artist clearly had access to both albums (or perhaps further unknown copies of these), since he was able to introduce elements from both sources into his own scenes with great accuracy. Such combinations can also be found in other leaves of the erotic album.
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
The third month
Swinging under the willow trees heralds the beginning of spring, the season of erotic awakening. Here six court ladies are seated on a garden bench. They avidly observe one of their companions, who is standing on a swing that has been set up in front of a low balustrade (Fig. 6). The women are located on an upper terrace of the garden; a stone wall marks the border of a lower level. In the Kinsey leaf, however, this wall has been removed to make room for a second bench, where love-making is in progress (Fig. 5). Yet the removal of the wall and the addition of the love-making couple with their everpresent eunuch are not the only alterations: the bench on which the women are seated in Chen's original composition now assumes the character of a large rock, a familiar feature in Chinese garden architecture. Nevertheless, this changed emphasis implicitly enhances the erotic ambience of the scene: romantic usage of rocks can be found in many erotic texts, such as the influential dramatic narrative of Ming times written by Tang Xianzu (1598), the Mudan Ting (The Peony Pavilion). This tells the story of a scholar's daughter who falls asleep in the garden on a hot spring day and dreams of a passionate rendezvous with a young gentleman. After she wakes up, she pines for her dream-lover until she eventually falls ill and dies. One of the scenes in the story describes a fantasy encounter with her imagined paramour in the garden:
How my longings stir to recall that moment!/ Against the weathered rock/ He leaned my wilting body,/ Then as he laid my jade limbs down/ 'smoke issued from jade in warmth of sun'/ by balustrade/ past swing/ there I spread the folds of my skirt,/ a covering for earth/ for fear of the eyes of heaven/ then it was we knew/perfect mystery / of joy ineffable (16)
[FIGURES 5-6 OMITTED]
In this context, we can see that the combination of willow trees, swing and court ladies in Chen's composition are in themselves sufficient to suggest erotic overtones. (17) (In a western parallel, one need only think of Fragonard's contemporaneous The swing of 1766 to confirm the clear sexual connotations of the action of swinging.) In the Kinsey album, such elements essentially serve to reinforce the more explicit sexual activity now happening in the centre of the composition.
The fourth month
In Enjoying flowers in the courtyard the ladies are again engaged in admiring spring blossoms, a traditional female activity at the court. (18) Several women congregate on a terrace, while another group of four strolls within the garden. As with the lantern-bearing maid in the first month, here too the artist of the Kinsey album has chosen to shift these ladies slightly to either side of the composition: the women admiring the blossoms on the left-hand side have been moved back closer to the terrace, while the two central figures have been advanced slightly along the paved path. This group of four women, previously the focus of the composition, is thus parted to make place for a pair of lovers, who occupy a decorative rug which has been spread out in the central background of the scene (Fig. 7): the female lover sits on the man's lap as he playfully nibbles at a breast which protrudes from her robe. (19) The first two women, rather than taking in the beauty of the blossoms, now thus seem to enjoy an intimate view of the passionate couple, whom they point out and discuss with some interest.
[FIGURE 7 OMITTED]
The fifth month
As late spring arrives, the garden activities become more actively gendered and more sexually vigorous. In Dressing oneself in a water pavilion, Chen illustrates an intimate feminine activity taking place in one of the garden buildings within a bamboo grove. The court ladies gather around a woman who examines her features in the mirror at a dressing table. Such depictions, as Ellen Laing has shown, are meant to signify women's vanity and their loneliness in their living quarters. (20) In love poetry, the mirror can symbolise the emotional state of the enamoured women. A dusty mirror for example, indicates a neglected woman, weak and sickly with love, who has lost interest in her appearance. More commonly, however, and as we see here, women were shown as being obsessed with their looks, hoping to attract men by fostering their physical beauty. For these women it was customary to apply cosmetics and to dress their hair in the morning. Throughout the day they constantly freshened their makeup and adjusted their hair ornaments, and a mirror was of course basic to these tasks.
As in the third month, here too the Kinsey artist has altered the foreground of the composition. The stone staircase at the left has now been replaced by a low terrace topped by a red wooden fence with green ceramic columns. On top of this, a bench has been provided as an appropriate site for love-making. The addition of these columns, like the replacing of the bench with a rock two months ago, serves to increase the eroticism of the garden. The columns have been painted to resemble jade (celadon), and in Chinese erotic poetry the male phallus is often symbolised as a jade column or a bamboo shoot. (21) Here the jade columns, in conjunction with the lush garden growth of bamboo, are clearly linked to the more active status of the man in this scene. In previous months the love postures were more in the nature of foreplay rather than actual penetration, but it is exceptional in this album that the man is here shown as erect, and that the love-making vignette is especially overt--now taking place emphatically in the foreground of the composition (Fig. 8). Moreover, not only does the sexual act include a eunuch (as in the first three months of the album), but here he is a naked and active participant, firmly supporting one of the woman's legs in order to facilitate his master's role in this particularly energetic sexual position.
[FIGURE 8 OMITTED]
The sixth month
This explicit activity is contrasted with a return to more gentle love-making in the following scene, which is a variant of the sixth leaf of Chen's album, Picking lotus flowers in a jade pond. Five court ladies stroll on a wooden pier leading to the water, while another group of three stands in a boat which a maid poles out into the tranquil pond. As in the second month, the Kinsey artist again inserts the intimate activity with some subtlety, while heightening the mood of eroticism by adding blooming lotus flowers to the pond (Fig. 9). Here the love-making couple makes its appearance between the three women and the maid on the boat, replacing a vase with open blooming lotuses in Chen's original composition. Flowers in a vase themselves have a sexual connotation, and here the lotus flowers bursting open suggest sensual awakening. Somewhat ingeniously, the Kinsey artist has replaced this metaphor of awakening love with the sexual act itself.
[FIGURE 9 OMITTED]
The seventh month
In the following three leaves of his album Chen depicts activities that are part of the Chinese lunar festivals. On the seventh day of the seventh month a women's festival was held in which young girls had to thread their needles correctly by the light of the full moon. (22) In the seventh leaf of Chen's album, Begging for nimble fingers, we find a group of four court ladies gathered in a circle around a tall wooden stand in the garden on which a ceramic bowl has been set (Fig. 10). Following the traditional rites of this festival, two of them reach out to soak their fingers in the bowl. (23) The artist of the Kinsey album rather forcefully breaks apart this group of women, extending the diameter of their circle in order to accommodate the love posture that now replaces the wooden stand (Fig. 11).
[FIGURES 10-11 OMITTED]
As in the fourth month it now seems that the court ladies closely observe and actually participate in the love-making. One of the women who had previously been reaching for the ceramic bowl now seems to be reaching indelicately towards the couple. A subtle ceremony is now transformed into an erotic gathering. The part of the garden where this ceremony is held seems to continue the scene of the fifth month: in the right foreground of this leaf of Chen's album (as in the Kinsey album), two court ladies are escorted by two attendants across a stone bridge over a small stream, evidently heading back from the lotus pond where they or their companions had just been boating. The structure in the far background with its red decorative screens would seem to be identical with that seen in the fifth month--by now the garden has already become familiar to us.
The eighth month
Watching the full moon from the Jade Terrace finds the court ladies admiring the misty glow of the full moon from the roof of a garden pavilion (Fig. 12). In this time of late summer the Chinese believe that the moon is at its most beautiful, and a special festival is held on the fifteenth day of the eighth month. (24) A group of five women crowd the upper balcony, one of them pointing out the celestial phenomenon. A fan bearer, hinting at the warmth of the night, accompanies them. A second group of four occupies the lower terrace of the pavilion. While admiration of the moon is a distinctive women's activity in a garden setting, this was not purely a female prerogative. As expressed in painting, writing and calligraphy, the moon inspired many Chinese scholars throughout the centuries. In reference to women, however, and particularly in this scene, the moon also symbolises womanly beauty and is associated with the female principle yin.
[FIGURE 12 OMITTED]
Like the mirror in Dressing oneself in a water pavilion, the moon, rising above the confines of their luxurious enclave, can also serve to emphasise the loneliness and isolation of the ladies in their Imperial quarters and courtyard gardens. As Daphne Rosenzweig has pointed out, the tranquil and orderly garden setting often functioned simultaneously as both shelter and prison. (25) Emperors and wealthy men often housed their lesser wives and concubines in garden pavilions, as described, for instance, in the erotic novel The Golden Lotus, whose heroine, neglected by her lord, has a romance with one of the young gardeners. (26) Here again the Kinsey artist inserts his amorous couple as barely noticed presences within the group of women on the lower balcony--not forgetting, however, to give his foliage a more vigorous appearance, even to the extent of replacing Chen's pine trees with luxuriant stands of bamboo, with their stronger sexual connotation (Fig. 13).
[FIGURE 13 OMITTED]
The ninth month
Enjoying the chrysanthemums continues Chen's recording of the festivals of the Chinese lunar year. On the ninth day of the ninth month it was customary to appreciate chrysanthemums, then at their most beautiful. The women gather near a row of flowerpots which has been set in front of one of the garden structures, discussing and admiring the blooms. This is the only leaf in the entire album in which the Kinsey artist did not alter the original scene in any substantial way--with the obvious exception of the couple making love on a rug, who appear in the centre foreground (Fig. 14). The sexual posture also differs from others in this album, for it now involves two naked eunuchs, who exchange smirks while ineffectively screening the amorous couple from view with a cloth. In any case, the ladies who converse nearby would seem to have no interest in the activity.
[FIGURE 14 OMITTED]
The tenth month
Returning to more everyday activities in the court, the following leaf, Embroidering inside patterned windows, finds the court ladies occupied with the art of embroidery in a garden pavilion. A second group stands admiring a finished work depicting red peony flowers. Here the Kinsey artist eliminated an entire garden wall, as illustrated in Chen's work (Fig. 15), to make place not only for the acrobatic sexual activity between the man and his female companion, who sits with exposed legs in the lap of a eunuch, but also in order to reveal to the spectator the two partially hidden rocks of unusually vertical proportions that now stand fully exposed. These features clearly bring emphasis to the sexual activity now taking place at their base. Additionally, the embroidery of a ripe red peony nearby also carries strong sexual overtones. (27) Here we also notice that the red wooden fence with ceramic jade-like columns in the foreground, a feature present in both the original and altered scenes, evidently provided the Kinsey artist with the prototype for the fence he had previously introduced back in the fifth month (Dressing oneself in a water pavilion). This re-use of preexisting features of the garden serves to reinforce the album's sense of visual and topographical unity.
[FIGURE 15 OMITTED]
The eleventh month
In the penultimate month, Admiring antiques on a winter day, Chen for the first time invites us to witness a completely interior scene. In a lavishly appointed room, the court ladies admire a large set of beautiful objects, including ancient bronzes and porcelain vessels (Fig. 16). One of them has unrolled a large scroll, and the group examines the painted landscape appreciatively. A maid approaches the group with a further handful of unopened scrolls. The chill of imminent winter is evidenced by a large brazier of white-hot coals in the foreground as well as a smaller one by the bed visible in a room to the rear.
[FIGURE 16 OMITTED]
In this bed the artist of the Kinsey album has inserted his love-making couple--finally granting them a measure of appropriate privacy (Fig. 17). And here a particularly interesting change appears on the large open scroll: Chen's original landscape has now been replaced by illustrations of two sexual positions. Here the demure court ladies, previously engaged in the refined perusal of antique artifacts, are now made to study various sexual positions--their landscape scroll now converted into a sex manual. While obviously echoing the intimate activity taking place in the adjacent room, such imagery also suggests the need for court ladies to be familiar with the physical aspects of love (commonly known as 'the art of the bedchamber').
[FIGURE 17 OMITTED]
Women studying representations of the art of love is in fact a common theme in Chinese erotic art, as for instance in album leaves illustrating the famous novel Jin Ping Mei from the Qing period. It was customary for women and for couples to look at these pictures as a form of instruction. (28) In the poem T'ung-shen-ko, written by the celebrated Hart poet Chang Hen (78-139), a bride talks to her husband about sex on their wedding night, suggesting that they can refer to the illustrations in her copy of the Art of the Bedchamber so that 'we can practice all the variegated postures'. (29) 'Such manuals', as Charles Humana puts it, 'were frequently as much a part of the bedroom as cooking utensils in a kitchen'. (30) And indeed, many such manuals--presumably of a sexual nature--are shown piled on a bookshelf beside the bed in both Chen's album and its variant. Here the viewer encounters an interesting parallelism, for the figures he or she is observing in the Kinsey album--in essence a pillow book--are themselves engaged in the viewing of erotic drawings.
The twelfth month
A cold and chilly garden is the setting for the final month of Chen's album, Looking for plum blossoms in the snow. The court ladies retreat to one of the garden buildings for a cosy cup of tea, while on the path a late arrival, bundled up in winter furs and accompanied by two maids, hurries to join them. Perhaps she is returning from a quick stroll in the garden to look for the first plum buds that will soon be in blossom, thus suggesting a circular return to the first month of the album. Continuing the relative sense of privacy introduced in the previous month, the couple here make love on a rug within a small garden edifice (albeit with no walls) in the far back of the composition (Fig. 18). Here they can at last be alone, with no assistants, enjoying their mutual pleasure at a discreet distance from the court ladies. Even here, however, the coldness of the weather is evident, for finally the man is allowed to don a single article of clothing--a bright red cloak--to help keep him warm.
[FIGURE 18 OMITTED]
Chen's album definitively celebrates the twin loves of Emperor Qianlong: his garden and his women. It brilliantly combines visual praise of the Emperor's garden--the abundance of vegetation and the elegant garden structures--with that of female intimacy, beauty and sexuality. Chen emphasises the pleasant and relaxed leisure of the court ladies, while not forgetting to emphasise their feminine charms--their fragile bodies wrapped in magnificent silk clothing and draperies. Given the Emperor's admiration for this exceptional album, the verses he composed for it, the repeated stamping of the album, and finally the creation of the ivory duplicate only three years after the original was completed, his desire to commission a further variant of this favorite album would not be at all surprising. Consequently, it is very probable that the Kinsey album was, in fact, commissioned as a personal pillow book--a sex manual--by the Emperor or one of the Imperial princes as an x-rated copy of Chen's original for his own delectation and for the instruction of his consorts.
The exact date of the Kinsey album and the history of its commissioning may never be accurately determined. Nonetheless, I believe that it must have been an 'inside job' by one of the royal academy painters, since both the 1738 version by Chen and the 1741 ivory album appear never to have left the imperial collection. Only a close and painstaking study of the particulars and differences of both the silk and ivory albums could have generated the hybrid compositions of the Kinsey album leaves. In its witty and mischievous manipulations of the original compositions, this remarkable album throws further light on some of the most intimate dimensions of Qing court culture and imperial workshop practices, as well as on the history of sexuality and sexual fantasy.
An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the 2002 Graduate Student Seminar at the Art Institute of Chicago. I am very grateful to Susan Nelson of the Department of the History of Art at Indiana University, Bloomington, for her invaluable guidance with this project and for her ongoing support. I would also like thank my fellow seminar participants for their input, especially Naoko Hioki for her assistance in translating primary sources. At the Kinsoy Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University I owe both personal and professional thanks to Catherine Johnson, Curator of Art and Photography, for her enthusiasm, useful comments and friendship, as well as to Shawn Wilson. I am also grateful for the support and sponsorship of the Department of the History of Art at IU, with special thanks to Bruce Cole, Janet Kennedy, Michelle Facce and Guy Tal. James Cahill kindly correspanded with me on this subject, and Nicholas Penny gave me important suggestions and much encouragement. Finally, I would like to thank Christopher Pearson at Trinity University, San Antonio, for his dedicated assistance and careful editing.
(1) Princess Su'e's story is presented in the erotic novel of the Unofficial History of the Bamboo Garden (Zhu-lin ye-shi) from the Ming dynasty in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 and 476 an) as a very lustful and sexually skilled woman. One of her passionate adventures that takes place between her and her husband, King Ling of Chen, in a bamboo grove in the palace garden. See Fang Fu Ruan, Sex in China: Studies in Sexology in Chinese Culture, New York and London, 1991, especially pp. 90-96; Robert H. van Gulik, Sexual Life in Ancient China: A preliminary survey of Chinese sex and society from ca. 1500 BC till 1644 AD, Leiden, 1961, p. 315,
(2) Judith T. Zeitlin, 'The Secret Life of Rocks: Objects and Collectors in the Ming and Qing Imagination', Orientations, vol. XXX, 1999, p. 41.
(3) Hung Wu, 'Beyond Stereotypes: The Twelve Beauties in Qing Court Art and the "Dream of the red Chamber"', Writing Women in Late Imperial China, Stanford, 1997, p. 336. For the complete set of leaves of Chan Mei's album, see Zhongguo gudai shuhua tumu (Illustrated Catalogue of Selected Works of Ancient Chinese Painting and Calligraphy) vol. XXIII, Beijing, 2000, pp. 174-75, no. 1-5628, figures 1-12.
(4) Each illustrated leaf corresponds to a facing leaf featuring a poem on a corresponding theme by Liang Shizheng (1697-1763), a member of the Imperial academy. See J.R. ter Molen and E. Uitzinger, The Forbidden City: Court Culture of the Chinese Emperors 1644-1911, exh. cat., Museum Boymans-van Beuningan, Rotterdam, 1990, p. 160.
(5) J. Larsan, 'Women of the Imperial Household: Views of the Emperor's Consorts and Their Female Attendants', in Chuimei He and Cheri A. Jones (eds.), Life in the Imperial Court of Qing Dynasty China, Proceeding of the Denver Museum of Natural History, series 3, no. 15,1998, p. 32.
(6) Ter Molen and Uitzinger, op. cit., p. 160.
(7) Young-tsu Wong, A Paradise Lost: The Imperial Garden Yuanming Yuan, Honolulu, 2001, p. 118.
(8) Ju-hsi Chou and Claudia Brown, The Elegant Brush: Chinese Painting Under the Qianlong Emperor 1735-1795, Phoenix Art Museum, 1985, p. 296; Howard Rogers, Howerd and Sherman E. Lee, Masterworks of Ming and Qing Painting from the Forbidden City, International Arts Council, Lansdale, PA, 1988, and Boda Yang, 'The Development of Ch'ien-lung Painting Academy,' in A. Murck and Wen C. Fong (eds.), Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy and Painting, New York, 1991, pp. 333-56.
(9) H. Danby, The Garden of Perfect Brightness: The History of the Yuan Ming Yuan and of the Emperor who lived there, London, 1950, pp. 90-91.
(10) The date 1738 is indicated on the last page of the album. See Ter Molen and Uitzinger, op. cit., p. 160.
(11) Maxwell K. Hearn, Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures from the National Palace Museum Taipei, New York and Taipei, 1993, p. 123.
(12) Ter Molen and Uitzinger, op. cit., p. 160.
(13) Ivory is used for figures, building, trees and flowers. But jade, agate and other semiprecious stones make up the ground, rocks water and sky, as well as lanterns, vessels and ornamental object. The ivory is accented, sparingly and judiciously with colour and some painted gold on the ladies' hair, collars, sashes and ribbons and jewellery. The red and blue lantern shades are made of translucent material that adds a touch of realism and richness See: Weng Wang-Go, The Palace Museum: Peking; Treasures of the Forbidden City, New York, 1982.
(14) These might suggest that the album was never finished.
(15) For further reading on Chinese sexual positions and their meaning, see Valentin Chu, The Yin-Yang Butterfly: Ancient Chinese Sexual Secrets for Western Lovers, New York, 1993; Jolan Chang, The Tao Of Love and Sex: The Ancient Chinese Way to Ecstasy, New York, 1977; Hua Ying Jin Zhen, The Fragrant Flower: Classic Chinese Erotica in Art and Poetry, translated by N.S. Wang and B.L. Wang, New York, 1990, and Douglas Wile (ed.), Art of the Bedchamber. The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics Including Women's Solo Meditation Texts, Albany, NY, 1992.
(16) Scene twelve 'Pursuing the Dream' from Jang Xianzu, The Peony Pavilion (Mudan Ting), translated by C. Birch, Bloomington, 1980.
(17) For further reading on female beauty and aesthetics, see James Cahill, 'The Three Zhang, Yangzhou Beauties, and the Manchu Court', Orientations, vol. XXVII, 1996, pp. 59-68; Ellen Johnston Laing, 'Notes on Ladies Wearing Flowers in Their Hair', Orientations, vol. XXI, 1990, pp. 32-39.
(18) Alice R.M. Hyland, Deities, Emperors, Ladies and Literati: Figure Painting of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Seattle and London, 1987, p.71.
(19) Whereas in previous scenes the female lovers were naked apart from the stockings or tiny shoes sometimes kept on during the sexual act in order to heighten male arousal, this is the first scene in the album in which the woman is partially clothed. Chinese women's most intimate article of dress, as Gulik has shown, was the mo-xing which is a kind of broad brassiere, fastened in front with buttons or at the back with bands. See Gulik, op. cit., p. 299.
(20) Ellen Johnston Laing, 'Chinese Palace-Style Poetry and the Depiction of a Palace Beauty', The Ad Bulletin, vol. LXXII, June 1990, p. 284.
(21) Because of the special sensual characteristic of the material, such as smoothness and coolness, jade has frequently been addressed, in traditional Chinese poetry, as having sexual connotations For instance the saying playing with jade (nong you) is a metaphor for sexual intercourse. And the 'jade stem stands for the penis. See Wolfram Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought, London and New York. 1986, pp 153-54
(22) Success in threading their needles was a sign that the young girls had pleased the goddess and would henceforth be skillful in all forms of handiwork. See ibid., p. 130.
(23) Wu Hung entitled this scene Making an offering on the double seventh day; unquestionably this title refers to this festival. However, the title given by Wang Yi Begging for nimble fingers, for the same festival, seems more descriptive of the activity in Chen's narrative. See Yi Wang, Daily life in the Forbidden City: The Qing Dynasty 1644-1912, Hong Kong, 1985. fig. 372.
(24) Eberhard, op. cit., p. 193.
(25) Once the girls became concubines they had to abandon their families, and were permitted to pay their parents only a single farewell visit one year after they had entered the Imperial court. See Daphne Lange, 'Garden of Languishing Ladies' (unpublished paper); Alice R.M. Hyland, Deities, Emperors, Ladies and Literati: Figure Painting of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Seattle and London, 1987, note no. 81; Danby, op. cit., p. 90.
(26) Maggie Keswick, The Chinese Garden: History, Art and Architecture, London and New York, 1986, p. 117.
(27) In Chinese slang, for instance, a 'peony' was a term for an attractive young woman, while a popular song ran I am waiting for the peony to bloom in the garden. That is to say: when a young woman reaches a certain age, she is seen as ready for initiation into sexual activity. See Eberhard, op. cit., p. 232.
(28) Such sex manuals were common in Chinese society from early times. We know in fact of three such works dating from the 2nd century BC, discovered in 1973 in the Ma wang dui, Han tomb number 3, Mawang dui, Chang sha, Hunan province. These ancient treatises, Ten Questions and Answers (Shi-wan), Methods of Intercourse between Yin and Yang (He-yin-yang-tang), and Lectures on the Super Tao to the Universe (Tian-xia-zhi-tao-tan), were found among fourteen medical texts and provide explicit instructions regarding techniques of sexual intercourse. The art of the bedchamber, we learn, was in fact an important academic field within medicine. See Ruan, op. cit., p. 2 and pp. 29-92.
(29) Gulik, op, cit., p. 73; Clifford and Xenia Osthelder Bishop, Sexualia: From Prehistory to Cyberspace, Cologne, 2001, especially pp. 450-65.
(30) Humana and Wang Wu, op. cit., p. 76.
Efrat El-Hanany has published in the fields of renaissance and contemporary art, and is presently completing her PhD dissertation 'Beating the Devil: Images of the Madonna del Soccorso in Italian Renaissance Art' at Indiana University, Bloomington.