Shanghai’s Museum of Sex

Published in: May-June 2003 issue.


HALFWAY UP the stairs to the second-floor entrance of The Museum of Ancient Chinese Sex Culture in Shanghai, one comes to a landing. There, set up on a pedestal, a kitschy, 19th-century porcelain statue of Guanyin, the goddess of compassion, greets the visitor. Dressed in flowing robes, the goddess holds a child in her arms––a pose that will surely remind many Western visitors, as it did me on my visit there one afternoon last summer, of a Madonna and child. Below the statue a sign, in Chinese and English, proclaims: “Everybody is the result of sex.”

The juxtaposition of the mawkish, sentimental figurine and the in-your-face slogan gave me pause. What exactly was this place all about? First opened in 1999 as a temporary exhibition, the museum so “won the great admiration of the masses,” as the guidebook declares with proper Marxist sentiment, that the collection was soon moved to a permanent space at 1133 Wu Ding Road, where it has remained ever since. The museum, I was told, is unique in China, displaying rare, in some cases one-of-a-kind pieces. “If you can visit only one place in China, this should be it!” proclaimed the flyer I’d picked up earlier at my hotel.

Erotic painting, 18th or 19th century

I turned from the landing and walked up the rest of the stairs to the ticket window, paid my thirty yuan (about four dollars), and entered the attractive galleries. It was soon clear that this is a museum with a mission. The introductory brochure put the case in charmingly awkward English: “Because of the historical prejudice, sex culture has been neglected and depreciated in a long time. In recent years, professor Liu Dalin in Shanghai University studied Chinese sex culture and collected more than 1700 pieces of sex antiques for his research work. Now we display professor Liu’s collection, in order to help understand the impact that traditions have had on modern Chinese.”

Liu’s stamp is everywhere. In the entrance foyer to the galleries, several display cases feature his books and monographs, including Sex Culture of Ancient China, Sexual Behavior in Modern China, A Dictionary of Sexology, and Chinese Sex Artifacts over 5000 Years. Unfortunately, none of these volumes is yet available in English. The museum is too small to exhibit all of the sexologist’s extensive collection. Nevertheless, what’s on view offers a broad and intriguing sampling of artifacts, some explicitly sexual or erotic in nature, others mystifyingly obscure as to their connection to ancient Chinese sexual behavior. Like Duke Senior in As You Like It, who found tongues in trees and books in the running brooks, Professor Liu seems to have found sex in everything.

A stone incense burner decorated with fish and lotus blossoms, we are told by the helpful note cards in English that accompany each piece, is a symbol for a vagina. On the other hand, carvings of birds, tortoises, and calabash gourds are to Professor Liu’s eyes stylized penises. “Primitive people,” notes the museum’s guidebook, “attributed what they failed to understand to some kind of supernatural and mysterious forces, which then gave rise to various forms of worship. Sex worship was among them. Even some purely natural things, such as rivers and mountains, have been assigned implications of sex worship, and as a result many things have since taken on sexual connotations.”

Indeed sex has always had a central, if unspoken, place in Chinese life. One scholar has even argued that sex, more than culture or politics, was the fundamental influence underlying ancient Chinese ritual and ethics. Several ancient classics stress that making love as much as possible—and as far as possible into old age—was beneficial to health and spiritual well-being. These texts were based on the naturalist philosophy of Taoism, which taught that sex was a way to harmonize the energies of heaven and earth. Sexual arousal in men and women was thought to be accompanied by the secretion of yang (male) and yin (female) essences or energy. A person not only needed to cultivate his or her own inherent sexual energy, but also was supposed to absorb the energy of the opposite sex in order to maintain a healthy balance of yin and yang.

“Erotic skills [became]exceptionally important,” write Philip Rawson and Laszlo Legeza in Tao: The Chinese Philosophy of Time and Change (1973). Handbooks and illustrations provided lovers with instruction as to the frequency and times of day and year that people would most benefit from sex. From ancient times, polygamy was the norm, especially among the aristocracy, who maintained households with both concubines and wives. It was a man’s duty to sexually satisfy many women. “The fundamental skill,” Rawson and Laszlo continue, “was for the man to be able to bring several women to frequent orgasms, without himself experiencing orgasm.” We read in the Su Nu Jing, one of the ancient treatises on sex, written in about the 3rd century CE: “Intercourse without ejaculation strengthens the energies. … After intercourse twice without ejaculation, one’s hearing and sight improve. After three such experiences, all physical disorders disappear.”

Among the most fascinating objects in the collection are the artifacts that illustrate sex education methods from the past. Small porcelain pieces, called “trunk bottoms,” were a primary vehicle for teaching the inexperienced about marital consummation. These innocuous-looking objects, in the shape of fruits, boats, children, and the like, were in fact little ceramic boxes. When the lid was removed, the interior revealed a naked man and woman having sex. These objects were hidden in the bottom of a trunk or hope chest of a soon-to-be-married woman. On the eve of the girl’s wedding, her mother would take out the “trunk bottom” and show the girl what she and her future husband were supposed to do on their wedding night. Similarly, erotic dowry paintings, of which the museum has several, were tucked away for the future bride and groom. The newlyweds would spread out the scroll and make love in imitation of the poses in the paintings.

The museum’s collection of artifacts reflecting homosexual behavior––which had prompted my own visit––is somewhat disappointing. Indeed, the language in the official brochure becomes particularly contorted when it turns its attention to the last of the ten topics into which the exhibition is divided: “Unusual Sexual Behavior.” Among the practices included under this rubric are homosexuality, fetishism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadism, and masochism. The brochure explains: “In past period, people usually treated unusual sexual behavior as crimes and punished it seriously. … But according to modern science, in general speaking, the unusual sexual behavior is psychological disease, or only sexual behavior in different forms, we should make a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. We should help and guide them, and not discriminate and crack down on them.”

Despite this awkward and condescending language, there are a number of artifacts (small in comparison to the museum’s total collection) that give the visitor a tantalizing glimpse at the world of homoerotic behavior in ancient China. A small painting on glass of two lesbians frolicking on a bed while nearby two (male?) dogs copulate is one of the most delightful. In fact, the museum owns several fine erotic paintings that depict lesbian sex, including scenes of women pleasuring each other with hand-held dildos and strap-ons. Not all of these were on display the day I visited, but a 32-page view book that I bought in the gift shop reproduced several such images.

There is also a sizeable collection of stone, bronze, and jade penises, including the oldest stone penis yet found in China, dating from around 3000 BCE. Of particular note is a double-headed jade penis from the Ming dynasty (15th and 16th centuries CE) for use by two lesbians, and several porcelain penises used by eunuchs to simulate coitus with palace girls.

During the 18th century, male homosexuality was so common in China that, as one contemporary witness observed, “it is considered in bad taste not to keep elegant manservants on one’s household staff, and undesirable not to have singing boys around when inviting guests for dinner.” Out of this culture grew a market for homosexual erotica. Marketed for popular consumption, the erotic art of this period explicitly portrayed sexual acts, including representations of male homosexual acts. “Most of the art of this kind,” writes Bret Hinsch in his excellent study Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China (1990), “has either been destroyed or remains in      accessible in private collections.” If the Shanghai Sex Museum owns any of it, none was on display the day I visited.

Nevertheless, I spent several delightful hours examining (and photographing on the sly) many of the extraordinary objects that Professor Liu has collected over the years: a 10th-century painting of home prostitutes; the tiny shoes worn by women whose feet had been bound to make them more sexually alluring to Chinese men; a Han dynasty tile depicting an orgy in a mulberry field; an exquisite Song dynasty plate with delicate erotic scenes in relief; a delightful little clay sculpture of a dog masturbating. Professor Liu’s collection proved to be both extensive and catholic. How he acquired all this stuff is anybody’s guess.

On our way out, my companion and I noticed three statues of jolly old sages near the exit. A message was affixed to the base of each one: “Welcome to guests from afar.” “No shame for nature.” “It was the source of life.” I left, tickled by the quaint but earnest tenor of the museum’s philosophy, but also a little more aware of the artistry, cleverness, enthusiasm, and good-natured sanity of China’s marvelous past.


Philip Gambone’s novel, Beijing, is being published this spring by the University of Wisconsin Press.