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China Sex Museum

December 4, 2010


I have about 8-10 research pieces to put up on here because I am VERY behind on this blog but I wanted to first write about my trip to the China Sex Museum (中华性文化博物馆, I have also seen it as: 中国古代性文化博物馆, which is the Ancient Chinese Sex Culture Museum). I went thinking that a museum about sex culture would have to have something about breast-binding or at least some interesting information about gender and sexuality in Imperial China, a topic I studied a bit while at Columbia. The museum has a kitsch quality to it with a smattering of giggling visitors and some questionable placards.

The museum used to be in Shanghai but was moved to Tongli, a sweet tourist town/canal village about an hour outside of Suzhou. The grounds of the museum are beautiful and its collection is impressive. Former PLA general and Shanghai University sociology professor Liu Dalin began collecting the materials on display in the 1980s, while writing about sexology and China. He’s the Chinese version of Alfred Kinsey. In the 1990s, Dr. Liu and Dr. Hu Hongxia, a “famous expert of sexology,” opened the museum. I appreciated the effort but for two “experts,” the museum pushes a few narratives about the history of sex in China that, while not totally unexpected, were totally and completely wrong. It is totally possible that these narratives are just a way of conforming to CCP policies and views on the Chinese past and thus it is unclear if this is what the museum creators/curators believe or what they think they should say about the history of sexuality in China.


Erotic painting scroll, 17-19th C

The museum is broken into four segments: Sex in Primitive Society (“The Hall of Human Evolution,”) Marriage and Women (“Hall of Marital Evolution,”) Sex in Daily Life, and Unusual Sexual Behavior. It should be noted that homosexuality and “other psychosexual disorders” are in the last hall, which seems to neglect the history of (accepted!) male-male scholarly love as discussed in the work of scholar Sophie Volpp and the famous Li Yu story “The Male Mencius Mother.”


Museum placard about marriage

The first hall wasn’t particularly interesting to me as it mostly consisted of a series of photographs of natural elements (rocks, mountains, etc.) that were in the shape of human genitalia, as well as stone phalluses and animal statues. In Part 2: Marriage and Women, the opening placard states that the establishment of (monogamous) marriage was a huge progress in history because promiscuity “is not conducive to the healthy development of human societies.” There seem to be two arguments at play in the exhibit, the first being that marriage was a huge step for human beings because it stopped us from having sex with everyone in our tribe, and the second being that marriage was oppressive and involuntary. The argument is also made that the essence of the marital system is to restrict sexual intercourse. That’s not exactly true since marriage was first and foremost (at least in the European setting and I would argue in some ways in the Chinese setting) an economic and social exchange.


Map cataloging prostitutes in Republican Shanghai

Within the exhibit on marriage, there were bits about early marriage, the desire for sons, prostitution, footbinding, concubinage, and torture. There is a bit of a tabloid quality to the early marriage portion of the exhibit as one descriptive placard claims that in the early 20th century an 8 year old girl and a 9 year old boy had a child together. Just below that there was a few words on a couple who had 9 children in the 1980s (How? Didn’t the One Child Policy exist?) and how “they all wore raggedy clothes.” Throughout the museum I would try to check the Chinese against the English descriptions and the English wasn’t that far off. The museum has tons and tons of pieces that belonged to prostitutes, like make up cases, wooden beds, erotic paintings, and artificial penises, but there is no discussion of the very interesting place of prostitutes and courtesans within Imperial Chinese culture and the differences between different kinds of prostitutes. Some were talented, artistic companions to male scholars, while others fit more closely to the Western definition of a prostitute. Instead, all one sees at the museum is that prostitution is bad and that it will be hard to eliminate as long as “men flirt with women” and commodity exchange, poverty, and hunger exist. Footbinding gets quite a bit of attention as well, largely negative. It is claimed to be one of the three global abnormal sexual phenomenon along with prostitution and eunuchs.


“Trunk Bottom” (压箱底)

However, there were aspects to the museum that had something to offer. Far and away the most interesting and least troublesome, in terms of historical narrative at least, part of the museum was Part 3: Sex in Daily Life. This is where all of Liu Dalin’s sizable erotic art (春宫画 – Spring Palace Paintings) collection lives. There are tons of fascinating paintings and objects here, including something I had never heard of before: a trunk bottom (压箱底.) A trunk bottom was a small porcelain object placed at the bottom of a girl’s dowry as a means to instruct her on sexuality. However, like many of the pieces in the museum, there is no proof that this was its function. How do you know that these are what they were used for? Are there textual or literary references that point to this? Were these passed down from mother to daughter over generations or just in one generation? Who made them? The description argues that it would be “sacrilegious” for a father to teach his son about sex, which is why mothers passed this information down to daughters, but why? None of these questions are answered. The other issue is that the placards often would merely say “17th-19th Century” as a date for the piece. That’s quite a large gap of time that included a CHANGE OF DYNASTIES. While I understand that dating and tracing pieces is particularly hard, couldn’t there be a little more effort?


Erotic scroll from 18th-19th century. The woman is wearing a doudu!

Another interesting argument made here, which coincides with my own thoughts on Chinese erotic art, is that women were the initial audience for these pieces. When I did a project on erotic art for Prof. Ko’s footbinding class, I argued that erotic art and erotic manuals were teaching devices not only used to arouse but to educate women and couples on every possible way of having sex because sex was NECESSARY for a healthy life. These were necessary educational materials! Furthermore, and the museum totally ignores this, they were a way for male viewers to get a look at the inner chambers. In the Chinese household, men/husbands did not have their own bedrooms. Women, who lived in the inner chambers, had bedrooms and men were merely visitors to these places. I find the portrayal of bodies quite interesting in these pieces. Typically there is a voyeur looking in on the couple having sex and often, the only exposed parts of their bodies are their highly detailed genitalia. Their bodies are often flat and doll like, with few differences between male and female except for gentalia, footwear, and hair. Women’s breasts are not particularly detailed, at least not the way they would be detailed in erotic Western paintings. And men often have darker skin, a visualization of the wai/nei space divide. A lot of this is displayed in the piece below:

The museum argues that dowry pictures (嫁妆画) were placed at the bottom of a girl’s dowry and one her wedding night, she would put them on the bed so that her and her new husband could look at them and emulate them. I don’t disagree with this at all but where is the proof? What texts support this? Give me answers!




Dowry Paintings, 18th-19th C

It should be said that breast-binding is not mentioned throughout the entire museum, or at least I couldn’t find it anywhere. There are tons and tons of erotic paintings where women are wearing undergarments/breast-binding garments but no mention of breast-binding. There was an interesting undergarment piece on display called “open seat pants,” which were used for women who were “too modest” to be naked during sex. As you can see, there is a convenient hole at the center of the pants:

The only time a breast-binding object is displayed is in the section on torture and chastity belts (贞操带):

But I think the new doudu on display here was not here to educate about breast-binding but rather to cover up the mannequins breasts. However, it is interesting to note the implicit connection made here between the doudu and torture/male oppression.


This is a modern sculpture in the garden of the museum…am I the only one that finds this slightly offensive and totally fucked up?

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