Map Magazine, December 2007
No one told the people of Shanghai that sex sells. When Shanghai University professor Liu Da Lin first opened the Chinese Sex Culture Museum in that city back in 1998, it seemed a bold but safe move. He had accumulated over 1,600 ancient and modern Chinese sex-related artifacts and art works that, cumulatively, were a window into a rarely seen part of China’s past. Shanghai, China’s most famously-forward thinking and steamy city, seemed an ideal home.
Shanghai ren, however, took little interest. More crucially, local government leaders were less than, well, stimulated by the museum. The city elected not to provide the museum with public funding or to promote it to tourists. By 2005 the museum, no longer able to afford its rent, searched for a new home. Officials in the ancient southeast Jiangsu canal town of Tongli, looking to increase tourism, offered the museum space in a former young women’s academy.
I was surprised to learn that such a museum existed at all in China. It raised questions too interesting to ignore: What would the museum say about the place of sex in Chinese culture? How did Chinese views on sex change throughout the centuries? How would that information be presented?
After arriving in Tongli, I concluded that the town was an unlikely host for the Chinese Sex Culture Museum. Quiet and traditional, Tongli seems a world apart from the liberal vitality of Shanghai, though it’s only an hour and a half away by train. The town is crisscrossed by maze-like cobblestone alleys and canals, and during my 24-hour stay, I saw not one ex-pat cafe, karaoke bar or disco. If you squint just enough to ignore the modern products for sale, it’s easy to imagine Tongli as it was one thousand years ago.
The museum lies at the end of a long, moss-tinged alley at an edge of the city. A large sign in front of the entrance announces that the museum is a “witness to history” and a “source of knowledge.” The conclusion of the English text sounds like it came from the megaphone of a carnival barker: “Welcome to you for visiting this museum, you can see what you never see, know what you never know, and be no [sic] disappointed at all.” All but guaranteed a memorable experience, I exchange 20 yuan for a ticket and enter.
The first thing that greets visitors to the Chinese Sex Culture Museum is a courtyard statue of a troll-like immortal with a massive erection. It’s a striking introduction, and I’m unsure if I should admire the sculpture reverently from a distance or giggle like a 10 year-old.
The museum’s wide and well-preserved grounds – with their original brick and wood buildings, high walls, large shade trees, gardens and pagodas – give the place a peaceful and contemplative air. The exhibition halls are divided into four main sections: “Sex in Primitive Society,” “Marriage and Women,” “Sex in Daily Life” and “Unusual Sexual Behavior.” There is also a sculpture garden, which I pass through on my way to the first hall. Setting a lighthearted tone for the artwork here, the garden’s large central sculpture depicts a potbellied immortal carrying a small boy on his back. The immortal’s head is sprouting a giant erection capped, improbably, by a turtle. Another sculpture shows a woman joyfully embracing a five-foot tall, freestanding phallus. “Women’s dependence,” reads the accompanying sign.
“Sex in Primitive Society” is the museum’s first exhibition hall. “Primitive people worshiped sex,” reads the brochure I received upon entering the museum, and the hall provides plenty of supporting evidence for that claim. Among the pottery, jade tiles, wooden statues and porcelain artifacts here is a clay “goddess statue” from 7000 BC, which depicts a pregnant woman. There’s also the “oldest erotic statue” from 3500 BC, showing a man and woman copulating in a standing position. I take a few minutes to consider why a series of photographs of genitalia-shaped mountains and rock formations adorn the walls before giving up.
Next up is the “Marriage and Women” hall. The hall begins by introducing a 1st and 2nd century-era sculpture series depicting Fuxi and Nuwa, the “legendary ancestors of the Chinese nationality.” Fuxi and Nuwa were brother and sister and also a couple, the accompanying text says, indicating “brother and sister might get married in ancient China.”
I then entered the “Sex Oppression on Women” section. My brochure tells me that, throughout the ages, “wives were always ruled and oppressed by men, acted as tools for men to satisfy their sexual demands, to give birth to children, and to do homework.” Surveying the coming parade of horrors on display in this hall, I’m inclined to think that, historically, extra trigonometry was the least of women’s worries. The first artifact in the first subsection, called “Outlook on Chastity,” is a “Licentious women saddle” from the 18th century. The saddle, “an implement of punishment,” includes a retractable wooden dildo. Further along are a series of chastity belts from the 18th and 19th centuries, a 16th century-era finger vice “to punish women,” and a foot-binding wheel.
Further evidence of the spectacularly raw deal women have received historically follows with the next subsection, “Disgusting Prostitution.” Despite its unnecessarily judgmental title, it is a generally sympathetic and comprehensive exhibit. The introductory text states that there were various kinds of prostitutes throughout the ages in China, including those for the home, court and army, as well as service prostitutes who played music, sang and danced. “The ancient prostitutes were a result of money and power oppression,” the text reads. “Most of them had a miserable destiny but the superior prostitutes occupied their special place in literature and art.” There’s also a “Prostitute Guide” made by the Kuomintang government in 1929, which provides a geographical breakdown of the number of prostitutes in the country at the time.
Next door is “The Prostitute’s Room.” Recreated in part to resemble what a 17th century-era brothel may have looked like, the room includes a 19th century-era double-backed “happy chair” which allowed couples to sit face to face during intercourse, and a beautifully designed, enclosed “special bed for high grade prostitutes.”
The next exhibition is the “TV Room/Sex of Religions” hall. The text and artifacts stand in harsh judgment of sexually active monks and nuns throughout the ages. Taoism and Mizong Buddhism, a sign reads, “call for cultivation of sex.” However, “Many records show some of these religions improper behaviors.” A series of porcelain statues from the early 20th century depict licentious monks, while a wooden pillow belonging to a nun in the 15th century hides a box containing a wooden dildo.
Hoping for a more healthy and optimistic look at sex, I eagerly enter the “Sex in Daily Life” room. Unfortunately, this area is also easily the museum’s dullest. It’s essentially a modern collection of sex education books kept behind glass.
The penultimate hall promises to be the museum’s most scintillating. “Unusual Sexual Behavior” begins with an exhibition of sculptures honoring the classic erotic novel Jin Ping Mei, which depicted “undisguisedly [sic] the abnormalities of the society” and described “hardcore not healthy sex.” The “Sexual abnormalities in ancient China” area includes historical evidence of bestiality, including a jade carving from 3,000 BC.
Things get really fascinating in the “Long-Standing Homosexuality” section. All debates aside about whether homosexuality belongs alongside bestiality, the artifacts here – including double-ended jade dildos and ox-horn anal dildos from the 11th and 12th century – indeed demonstrate that homosexuality has long been a part of Chinese culture. Homosexuality in China, it seems, “was first found in the Shang Dynasty according to related records.” Amazingly, the text also tells us that “about half the emperors of the Han Dynasty were homosexuals.” Supporting evidence includes elaborate copper coins made and given to Han Emperor Wen by a man named Deng Tong, apparently his “personal favorite.”
The final and easily most puzzling area in the museum is the “Exhibition of Erotic Stamps of the World,” which includes 1,300 erotic postage stamps from 70 countries. I pause to consider how the Princess Diana commemorative stamps on display fit alongside the rows of dildos and implements of torture I’ve just seen before again giving up.
I leave the museum as a group of teenage boys enter. They laugh hysterically at the aroused immortal, climbing onto his oversized member. Like everyone’s first time, the museum is often clumsy and confusing. But it’s also often fascinating and bravely honest. Professor Liu states the goal for the museum is to help society “find a balance between the extremes of sexual containment and indulgence.” His museum, in showing the historical place of sex in China’s culture, as well as the way it has helped to shape it, gives the impression that sex has caused as much pain here as it has joy. It’s a troubling, vital and contemporary statement, and one that may have finally found a voice in this most blissfully nostalgic of places.