Sex in Chinese Culture
Sex in early Chinese culture revolved around the joining of yin and yang to create elemental unity.
The sexual life of the occupant of the Dragon Throne in early Chinese culture was a factor of paramount importance. It was second only to eating and drinking. A constant of the varying fortunes of the succeeding dynasties was their adherence to the principles of Yin (woman) and Yang (man). The Tao or "Way," saw man and woman as a fundamental part of the great cosmos and when Yin and Yang enjoyed sexual intercourse, the climax or the ultimate (orgasm) brought a brief explosion that swept them into the elemental unity of the universe. An emperor with his queen was that same ritual on a very much higher plane.
The term ch’i denoted the degree of life force or vital essence possessed by an individual, and as the Dragon Ruler was regarded as having a superhuman measure of ch'i, which had to flow and receive constant nourishment from the female Yin-essence, an establishment of women, apart from queens, was an essential feature of every palace, in large numbers. This tradition evidently went back as far as the Yellow Emperor (2697–2598 B.C.), because legend claims that he had 3,000 concubines and enjoyed regal coitus with 1,200 of them during the course of "every 10 full moons."
With so much importance, both social and religious, given to sex in early Chinese culture, particularly since the harmony of the whole of society was increased by their ruler's sexual fulfillment, it was not surprising that this aspect of court life was not confined to the royal bedchamber. The palace, or indeed courts with many palaces, was the setting for orgies and sex carnivals, excesses and strange practices, which could usually be justified by their contribution to the total Yin-Yang harmony generated by the community.
The Emperor Hui-ti (2nd century B.C.), for example, ordered the palace eunuchs and the palace boys to make their contribution to sex in early Chinese culture. They were dressed in women's robes, given jewelry and peacock feathers, had their faces powdered and rouged, and were turned over to the palace guard. The Emperor also decided that too many of his subjects were not participating in sex, and appointed special officials (messhih) to draw up a register of unattached men over the age of thirty, and women over twenty who were not married or part of a harem. The names on the register were then given until the following spring to marry or consummate a union with one of the opposite sex. The punishment for defaulters was 100 strokes of the lash.
A thousand years earlier, before the establishment of the Empire, the life of a Yin dynasty king, Chou-hsin (1154–1122 B.C.), serves to illustrate the style of court life in the feudal states, and the precedent it set for later rulers regarding sex in early Chinese culture. He is described as a man “built like a bull yet with the lithe strength of a tiger," and he kept himself fit by a strenuous program of exercises and combat which included contests with wild animals in a specially-built arena, and jousting with five or six of his knights at once. His manly feats, however, were not confined to physical combat, and his palace establishment included: one queen, three consorts, nine second rank wives, 27 third rank wives, and 81 concubines. Three thousand palace maids provided a permanent reserve for junketing, festivals, and displays of exhibitionism. He would assemble his court to watch his sex feats in the same arena as he fought wild animals, and one of his exploits was to march round it with a naked woman supported on his erect member. In one hand, he held a roast leg of venison, in the other a two-liter bronze vessel of wine, and as he ate and drank he urged the concubine, whose legs were round his waist, to raise and lower herself to complete his satisfaction.
It was at the court of Chou-hsin that the role of the court matrons (t’ung kuan) was first regulated, duties that were later carried out by palace eunuchs. The matrons had the responsibility for arranging the emperor's sexual program, choosing the girls for the night and occupying a special chair in the royal bedchamber to be sure that congress was actually completed. Regal coitus was recorded with special calligraphy brushes, which in later periods created a genre of erotic literature known as "Stories written with the Red Brush," and the palace matron also enforced a strict individual timetable. The higher consorts were allowed to remain with the emperor so long as he wished, the concubines had to retire before the light of dawn, the lowly palace maids were sent away immediately after congress. Those who pleased the emperor were given a silver ring, and when they actually conceived, this was exchanged for a gold one.
Ssu-ma Ts'ien's records of the life of Chou-hsin list a number of aphrodisiacs favored by the dragon-lover. They were:
- Three-Day Glory: Red cock (soya), ox-penis, fresh root-ginseng, and dried human placenta.
- Celestial Thunder: Tongues of 100 peacocks, spiced with chilis from the western provinces and flavored with the sperm of pubescent boys.
- Hunting Lion: Long-simmered bear paws flavored with ground rhinoceros horn and distilled urine (sex unspecified).
Yang Ti’s Pleasure Palace
The grand style of living of the kings in early Chinese culture could not, however, be compared with the more ambitious of the later emperors. The Sui emperor Yang-Ti (581-618 A.D.) began with the idea of building the greatest palace on earth, for which he conscripted 2 million laborers of both sexes. The Dragon Palace was set in a walled park that covered 100 square miles, in the center of which was an artificial lake. On the banks of the lake, 16 palaces were built for the concubines and palace maids, and Yang-Ti’s later taste for making love while afloat on water certainly began with moonlight excursions from the steps of these palaces. He took a special interest in defying the ravages of nature and the changing seasons, and an army of gardeners was employed to replace the falling leaves of trees and the withering petals of flowers with replacements of identical colors in satin and soft paper.
On his outings through the palace grounds, whether riding on a horse or being carried in a sedan chair, Yang-Ti was followed by an entourage of 1,000 palace maids. As he was subject to sudden and uncontrollable attacks of sexual desire, small pavilions surrounded by a spiked fence were scattered at regular intervals. When he withdrew, in the company of the chosen girls, into one of the pavilions, the others assembled outside and sang and played the Emperor's favorite tunes. A painting of the period shows Yang–Ti, in the company of three girls, indulging in regal coitus in one of these pavilions. He is standing at the foot of a high couch on which lies a naked girl, her legs held high and apart by two other maids at either side of the Emperor. This requires only one of their hands, however. The maids other hands are raising the loose robes of the Emperor and guiding his jade stem into the pleasure chamber.
When the palace suited to a Celestial Emperor had been completed, Yang-Ti then decided to construct a circular track, 1 mile in circumference, the surface of which was corrugated in such a way that when a carriage was pulled round it, the jogging motion made it unnecessary for the copulating couple to make movements of their own.
Beginnings of a Foot Fetish?
From about the time of the Mongol Dynasty (1280–1368) until China became a republic in 1912, a new factor entered into considerations of feminine beauty. The sudden discovery of the sexual attractiveness of bound feet was revealed and became a part of sex in early Chinese culture. Whether it is regarded as a fetish or a fashion, the historical fact remains that in a remarkably short time, it had claimed women of all classes, except for a few maidservants and peasants, and since no revolts against the painful practice are recorded, there must have been very real (psychological) reasons for its adoption.
The bandages were usually applied in early childhood, the technique being to fold the toes and the front part of the foot underneath, very painful at first, more bearable as the deformity finally set into the pattern of a hoof. This hoof-like shape was given the romantic name of "golden lily" or "golden lotus," the ideal dimension being when the base measured only 3". Apart from the physical discomfort, the result of foot-binding was to handicap movement and to make even walking an awkward exercise. But it was widely believed to cause the thighs to swell, thereby making them more voluptuous to the male.
Another theory put forward to explain its popularity in sex in Chinese culture and with males was that female's virtual immobility in the bedchamber reduced her to helplessness. In Lord Macartney's Journal recording his stay in Peking at the end of the 18th century, he is told by a Mandarin attached to the Embassy: "Foot binding might possibly have arisen from oriental jealousy, which has always been ingenious in its contrivances for securing ladies to their owners, and certainly a good way of keeping them at home is to make it both troublesome and painful for them to gad about."
The tightly bound feet were covered by decorative leggings tied round the ankles or sometimes rising to mid-calf and the modesty surrounding the "golden lilies" was such that a woman indulging in sexual intercourse would allow herself to be stripped of everything except her leggings. In erotic prints and paintings usually in pillow books, the women are shown in every imaginable position, sometimes two or three with a single male, and the only garment invariably in evidence is the foot covering. The almost sacred nature of the bound foot, however, gave it a special importance in courtship, and for a man to lightly brush the leggings with his fingers was the most direct invitation to sex in early Chinese culture. This was often managed with some pretense at subtlety by the man accidentally dropping objects on the floor when seated close to the woman of his choice, then whispering to be allowed "to walk between the golden lilies."
As the feet remained hidden even when the women unconcernedly exposed her vagina, it was not surprising that they became the object of the deepest sexual longings and the commonest cause of male involuntary ejaculation. To be allowed to remove the bandages was a favor seldom permitted in the early stages of a sexual relationship, and an exciting love posture was for the man to have the embroidered leggings dangling in front of his face as he thrust into the jade pavilion. To effect this added pleasure, lengths of rope were needed to suspend the feet from the ceiling or if the couple were lying on a traditional bed, to tie them to the high frame. A compromise between keeping on the bandages and exposing the feet was to use the bandages for the tying-up, an arrangement that possibly allowed a glimpse of the crumpled toes.
Alternative Chinese Medicine
A story is told, for example, of the Emperor in early Chinese culture who chose all his concubines from a certain area of Fukien. Although a virile man himself, he could hardly satisfy girls with such passionate natures and gradually they began to lose their gaiety and vitality. He, therefore, consulted his doctors and was told that the best medicine for the girls' sickness was a company of the palace guards. The Emperor's sense of magnanimity prevailed and he agreed to this, and some days later he decided to visit his harem in person to see whether the girls were feeling better. He was at once delighted by the transformation, but as he turned from the radiant women he was surprised to see sprawling on the couches a number of prostrate and haggard men. On demanding an explanation for their presence, one of the girls exclaimed: "Oh Dragon Ruler, these are the empty jars of the medicine you prescribed."
Attempts to increase the size of the penis were conducted at two levels, one being by medicaments, the other by surgical grafting. The prescriptions could be taken orally, applied to the member, or, in some instances, rubbed round the jade gate, and the favored ingredients were: powdered deer-horn, sea cucumber, human placenta (both dried and powdered), hawk excrement, sea grass, dog's liver, and bull's genitalia. A diligent application of such potions, it was claimed, increased the organ by half its usual length.
The second area of experimentation, that of transplants and grafts, is not so incredible as it sounds. The eunuch was a common figure in society, not only a the Imperial Court but at less exalted levels, and since one of the methods of effecting castration was to remove the penis, as well as the testicles, an organ bank was always available to those scientists and surgeons working in that field.
Whatever modern scientists and historians may say, however, about sex in early Chinese culture, the evidence of history and the proof amassed by the whole corpus of his literature and traditions would suggest that in his virility and his concern with sex, Chinese masculinity need hardly be measured by body hair or the width of his shoulders. In fact his worship of the pleasure pavilion was the fundamental religion of his life, as the following poem inscribed on the wall of a Peking brothel makes clear:
"Through the Jade Gate we enter this life,Once born we are forever seeking to return.How many men wake in the night Their Iron Rod stiff with desire;And with this eternal truth, that other message—That the joy of life and everlasting youthIs found in the same place as his creation."