A brief history of Chinese porn

The origins of Chinese erotica and pornography can be traced way back into antiquity. Though remnants have been found dating from as early as the 1st century, production of erotic artwork appears to have properly flourished around the 10th century and reached its peak during the late Ming Dynasty (17th century).

Ancient Chinese erotica drew its influences from both Daoist religious practices and the courtesan culture that was developing in the imperial courts. The spread and increases in production of erotic works coincided with the rise of the mercantile middle classes particularly in cities such as Suzhou, Hangzhou and Guangzhou. Pornographic artworks produced during the Ming dynasty were called ‘spring palace paintings’ (春宫画, chungong hua) a reference to the presumed debauchery that occurred behind the walls of the Forbidden City.

Much fiction, erotic and otherwise, during the Ming and Qing dynasties focused around the imagined practices of the imperial court. Whilst we can’t be sure how much truth there is to these works, its safe to say that the Emperors weren’t playing mahjong with their thousands of concubines. Chungong hua are similar in style to the Japanese shunga tradition of art of the same period. The paintings depict an incredible diversity of sexual practices, including threesomes; lesbianism; homosexuality; oral and anal sex, and orgies; enough to make the most hardened Communist Party censor blush. Some collections of artwork, termed ‘pillow books’ were given to newly married couples as instruction guides, but the main purpose of the artwork does appear to have been to titillate.

Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, the erotic classic The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅, Jin Ping Mei) was published. Written under a pseudonym, the book is a naturalistic masterpiece composed in the vernacular language. It is sometimes considered to be the ‘fifth’ of the Four Great Classical Novels (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Journey to the West, Dream of the Red Chamber). Jin Ping Mei was the first full-length Chinese work to depict explicit sex scenes and despite being acclaimed as “a landmark in the development of the narrative art form” it has often been suppressed as pornography in China. Within the Middle Kingdom has a scandalous notoriety akin to Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Britain.

The novel focuses on the downfall of a great household and its patriarch who, over the course of the story, has nineteen sexual partners encompassing a wide range of acts and a surprising number of sex toys. Jin Ping Mei predicated a proliferation of Ming-era Chinese erotica from lowbrow bawdy scripts designed to scandalize and titillate to works of great literature such as The Embroidered Couch (termed “the most licentious and inflaming book of its age” by contemporary translator Lenny Hu.

Much erotica produced during this period focused itself on the practice of foot binding. Bound and small feet were considered to be especially erotic, analogous to the obsession with big breasts in the West. Rich husbands would even put their wife’s shoes on display to show off to the world how minute their loved ones’ feet were. One especially notorious work that came from this boom-period of Chinese erotica was the Carnal Prayer Mat (肉蒲團, rouputuan) an erotic novel written by Qing dynasty author Li Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat was illustrated in a style similar to the earlier chungong hua paintings and features an outrageous plot in which the main character seeks to seduce a woman away from her well-endowed husband and so undergoes surgery to replace his penis with that of a dog. Each chapter ends with a short critique of the action, ostensibly by a reviewer but presumably written by the author himself, enhancing the tongue in cheek humour of the novel.

Illustration from 'The Carnal Prayer Mat'
Illustration from 'The Carnal Prayer Mat'

But The Carnal Prayer Mat was published at a time when the ruling elite’s attitudes to sex and pornography were beginning to change. Whilst authors and artists during the Ming Dynasty had prospered under relatively liberal policies promoting science and the arts, the Qing Dynasty ushered in a conservative attitudes to sex and eroticism inspired both by Christian missionaries from the West and a resurgent Confucian movement.

This eventually resulted in the banning and even destruction of many previously treasured works of art; indeed, the oldest and best-preserved copy of the Carnal Prayer Mat only survives by dint of having been taken to Japan (it currently resides in Tokyo University).

A previously thriving genre of painting and literature was all but stamped out in the 17th and 18th centuries. Following the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the first republic, and the country’s traumatic experience during the world wars, which finally resulted in the emergence of the People’s Republic of China, attitudes remained conservative. Today the ruling Communist Party hierarchy continues to take a hard line on issues relating to sex and erotica.

However, whilst government rhetoric stridently opposes them, both prostitutes and pornography remain easy to come by in modern China. Despite regular crackdowns and highly publicized raids on brothels, the sex industry thrives, with one 2005-study suggesting that Beijing alone has over 200,000 prostitutes. Pornography too has proven a thorn in the government’s side, particularly since the advent of the internet. Today China has the most internet users of any country in the world.

Despite the worlds most sophisticated monitoring and filtering software arrayed against them, tech savvy Chinese jump the Great Firewall with ease. For those less computer literate, pirated porn DVDs and VCDs are easy to buy if rarely on display. Porn is big business on the black market. In one 2008 bust in Shanghai authorities confiscated over 8,000 DVDs on their way from Guangdong. Internet crackdowns are frequent; the most recent was launched in 2009, with over 60,000 websites confiscated and shutdown by the authorities. Pornographic materials remain easy to acquire however, through p2p services, torrent sites and numerous websites that have escaped the censors. The futility of the authorities’ attempts to police this area was illustrated by the Edison Chen scandal that broke in early 2008.

A number of photos depicting Chen, a Canadian-Chinese film star, and several Hong Kong and Chinese actresses and musicians engaging in sexual activities and posing naked, were posted on a Hong Kong forum. The images spread almost instantaneously around the Hong Kong internet community and quickly found their way onto foreign and mainland Chinese websites.

For several weeks major sites such as Baidu turned a blind eye, and they were widely viewed all over China. When a belated crackdown began, officials declared that sharing the photos or posting them online could be punishable by up to 15 days detention. A number of people were arrested in Shenzhen on suspicion of producing CDs of the images, which had apparently been selling “like hotcakes”. Baidu, which had made it particularly easy to find the photos thanks to its image-search function, was instructed to make a public apology by the Beijing Internet Self-Discipline Organization. However, once the dust had settled over the scandal and the authorities attention turned elsewhere the photos remained, and are still viewable on the Chinese internet.

Whilst the Edison Chen incident had more in common with a traditional tabloid scandal than pure pornography, it demonstrates Beijing’s limits in suppressing materials when there is high demand. The spread of VCDs and DVDs during the Chen scandal may also give us a glimpse as to how illegal pirated pornography was spread before the advent of the internet. Unfortunately, statistics on the spread of pre-internet pornography are impossible to come by as the Chinese government does not publish them and researchers of pornography in China have too drawn a blank. It is safe to assume however that the practice was similar to the under-the-table sales of DVDs and videos still taking place today.

It remains difficult to gather statistics even on modern porn usage in China though some idea can be gleaned from apocryphal sources. During a call for tougher measures against the spread of erotic materials, education authorities stated that over 50% of under-18s had visited porn sites. Several porn stars have also become minor-celebrities in the China. The so called ‘Kappa Girl’ shot to fame after a video surfaced on micro-blogs of the Kappa employee having sex in a hotel room. Once a ‘human flesh search engine’ had named the girl, she took to her blog offering herself for hire as a model, rates starting at 20,000 RMB. She was later detained by Shanghai Police.

One porn star, who has managed to both find fame and stay out of trouble with the authorities, is Japanese AV Idol (porn star) Sora Aoi. Famous as the baby-faced, large breasted star of such films as Illegal Tits Violation 14 and Sexy Butt Climax 2004, Ms. Aoi is very popular in mainland China where she is currently attempting to branch out into mainstream stardom. Internet searches for her Chinese name return over 41 million hits, more even than Chinese NBA star Yao Ming. Ms. Aoi initially drew the ire of the authorities when the discovery of her Twitter handle by Chinese fans had netizens flocking to join the banned site, leap frogging the Great Firewall in the process, to leave Ms. Aoi messages in Mandarin and broken English and Japanese.

In late 2010 Ms. Aoi joined the Twitter-like Sina Weibo and quickly became the most popular micro-blogger in China, with over 2.8 million followers. She has proven so popular that at an appearance in Jiangxi province she was forced to flee the stage after just three minutes, such was the chaos caused by fans rushing towards the AV Idol.

Sora Aoi
Sora Aoi

Far from getting in trouble with the authorities, one police station in Dalian was discovered by netizens to have a Weibo account that solely followed Ms. Aoi’s updates. Officials from the station quickly claimed that the account had been hacked and that they would issue complaints with Weibo’s parent company Sina.com. (See also Adult video star Aoi Sola writes to China fans on blog and AV actress entices Chinese netizens to go on Twitter.)

Representatives for Ms. Aoi declined an invitation to comment on this story.

It remains unclear what the future holds for Chinese pornography users. Despite the tide of public opinion turning against the current approach: a recent Sina poll showed that only 2% of respondents supported the current prohibition; as well as a long history of Chinese erotic art and literature, the authorities haven’t shifted from their hardline stance against pornography. PRC officials have maintained an anti-pornography rhetoric since the country’s founding and, with internet regulation tighter than ever following the Arab Spring; China’s porn viewers are going to have to continue slipping by the censors for their gratification.

You can find more of James Griffiths’ writing at his blog; see also his piece on Danwei People’s Pornography – An interview with Katrien Jacobs.

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