Cornell University Press

Policing Pornography in China, One Hundred Years Ago

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The turn of the twentieth century was a tumultuous time in what is today China: the last Qing emperor abdicated. A new Republic was declared, but regional powers soon arose to compete for supremacy. Colonial violence from Europe, the US, and Japan plus deepening economic connections to a capitalist, industrializing world set off discussions among elites about the past and future trajectories of their society. Concerns ran high, too, about some of the most intimate experiences of their fellow citizens. Were people desiring the right things to make China powerful and modern? Or were they indulging in licentious passions, encouraged by the invention of cheap, reliable contraceptives (which made separating sex from reproduction more possible) and by explicit texts and images that were circulating more widely than ever, thanks to technologies like lithography and photography?

Were people desiring the right things to make China powerful and modern?

Some began to argue that sex (at least, sex between married men and women) should be thought about scientifically as part of a universal human nature, and politically as a liberating force. In their view, freely chosen marriages and categorizing desire as normal or deviant were the fitting counterparts to political, economic, and social reform, and nude paintings were the epitome of modern aesthetics.

So far, this story recaps much of what has already been told by historians of sex and gender—in China, but globally too. At some point between the late eighteenth century and the early twentieth, dominant ideas about sex apparently shifted greatly. But my focus in Reinventing Licentiousness is on contextualizing big changes in Chinese views of sexuality between 1880 and 1930 against the history of erotic representations and attempts to restrict them that had come before.

At some point between the late eighteenth century and the early twentieth, dominant ideas about sex apparently shifted greatly.

In the Chinese-speaking world, there had been centuries of erotic representations on a wide-ranging media marketplace, and sexual desire per se wasn’t seen as a sin. Nonetheless, norms around sex and expressions of desire were highly hierarchical and evolved alongside the moral and legal underpinnings of imperial rule. From about the sixteenth century, though, improved woodblock printing technology (already widely in use for at least 700 years) and intensified commercial connections gave rise to an unprecedented variety of titillating texts and images. Novels featured descriptions written in everyday, vernacular language of all manner of sexual acts, including ones that would’ve violated orthodox morality and even imperial law. “Spring” pictures, ranging from cheaply made prints to uniquely commissioned pieces, depicted erotic scenes.

In the Chinese-speaking world, there had been centuries of erotic representations on a wide-ranging media marketplace, and sexual desire per se wasn’t seen as a sin.

Many late nineteenth and early twentieth-century elites characterized the sexual content in older fiction, drama, performances, and images as at best the misguided products of a society repressed by Confucianism and imperial autocracy and at worst actively harmful junk made purely for profit. But, when I turned to police records about confiscated “licentious” materials in Beijing, once the seat of emperors and now the capital of a new nation-state, I found a more nuanced story. In the streets and alleys, ordinary people—many of them only partly literate—bought and sold items using sexual science’s state-of-the-art terminology alongside older specimens of erotic fiction, drama, and images. Police officers, mostly of meager means themselves, prosecuted these grassroots traders and consumers. But by making “sexual science,” “modern” nude art, “spring” pictures, and old “dirty” novels all contraband, police actually further incentivized marginalized people to turn to producing and peddling these titillating materials.

…when I turned to police records about confiscated “licentious” materials in Beijing, once the seat of emperors and now the capital of a new nation-state, I found a more nuanced story.

The elite tried to draw a bright line between “modern sexology” and “licentious” imperial-era items. But the story of how notions of sexuality (and of sexiness) changed isn’t complete without a view to the rollicking marketplace for pornography, which existed in constant tension with ground-level law enforcement. This was true in urban China from empire to Republic, and the pattern applies to many other places in the world. In fact, the tension between profitable markets for pornography and those who see certain kinds of sexual expression as damaging and dangerous continues today.

*Featured photo: A nude model posing with art students of the Western painting class at the Shanghai Academy of Art, 1936. Credit: From the family collection of Gretchen Liu.


Y. Yvon Wang is Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto. Follow them on Twitter @yyvonwang.

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