Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Culture of Sex in Ancient China

The Culture of Sex in Ancient China

Paul Rakita Goldin
Copyright Date: 2002
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Culture of Sex in Ancient China
    Book Description:

    The subject of sex was central to early Chinese thought. Discussed openly and seriously as a fundamental topic of human speculation, it was an important source of imagery and terminology that informed the classical Chinese conception of social and political relationships. This sophisticated and long-standing tradition, however, has been all but neglected by modern historians. In The Culture of Sex in Ancient China, Paul Rakita Goldin addresses central issues in the history of Chinese attitudes toward sex and gender from 500 B.C. to A.D. 400. A survey of major pre-imperial sources, including some of the most revered and influential texts in the Chinese tradition, reveals the use of the image of copulation as a metaphor for various human relations, such as those between a worshiper and his or her deity or a ruler and his subjects. In his examination of early Confucian views of women, Goldin notes that, while contradictions and ambiguities existed in the articulation of these views, women were nevertheless regarded as full participants in the Confucian project of self-transformation. He goes on to show how assumptions concerning the relationship of sexual behavior to political activity (assumptions reinforced by the habitual use of various literary tropes discussed earlier in the book) led to increasing attempts to regulate sexual behavior throughout the Han dynasty. Following the fall of the Han, this ideology was rejected by the aristocracy, who continually resisted claims of sovereignty made by impotent emperors in a succession of short-lived dynasties. Erudite and immensely entertaining, this study of intellectual conceptions of sex and sexuality in China will be welcomed by students and scholars of early China and by those with an interest in the comparative development of ancient cultures.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6465-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: The Aims of This Book
    (pp. 1-7)

    This is a study of intellectual conceptions of sex and sexuality in China from roughly 500 B.C. to A.D. 400. Ancient Chinese writers discussed sex openly and seriously as one of the most important topics of human speculation. This sophisticated and long-standing tradition has been almost entirely neglected by historians for a number of reasons that will be considered presently. The consequence is that studies of writings dealing with sex are sorely needed to redress our ignorance of a subject that was central to the ancient Chinese tradition. The sources for this book are primarily philosophical, literary, and religious texts....

  5. 1 Imagery of Copulation
    (pp. 8-47)

    Some of the oldest and most problematic love poems in the Chinese tradition are those contained in the anthology calledCanon of Odes(Shih-ching詩經), one of the most venerable collections in the Confucian corpus. It has been observed for centuries that this text contains many poems that describe in straightforward language the pleasures and emotions associated with carnal love. The following is a typical example.

    維鶴在梁 There is a pelican on the bridge.

    不儒其味 It does not wet its beak.

    彼其之子 That boy there

    不遂其購 does not consummate his coition.

    薈兮蔚兮 Oh, dense! Oh, lush!

    南山朝躋 The morning rainbow...

  6. 2 Women and Sex Roles
    (pp. 48-74)

    It has become something of a scholarly commonplace to criticize traditional Chinese thought—and especially traditional Confucian thought—for its repressive and deprecating stereotypes of women.¹ Indeed, there appears to be no shortage of textual justification for this point of view. We have already seen the different descriptions in theOdesof the treatment of infant boys and girls: the boys cry lustily as they play with their toy scepters, whereas the girls instead receive little pieces of clay in order to establish their subordinate status.² Similarly, other poems in theOdesdepict vividly the chaos that must ensue when...

  7. 3 Sex, Politics, and Ritualization in the Early Empire
    (pp. 75-110)

    The career of the historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien 司馬遷 (145?– 86? B.C.) took a fateful turn in 99 B.C. His contemporary Li Ling 李陵 (d. 74 B.C.) was a general who had had great success in fighting the Hsiungnu 匈奴, a nomadic empire on the steppes that had been plaguing China’s northwestern frontier for more than a century. After having penetrated deep into Central Asia, Li Ling was unexpectedly defeated by the enemy, whereupon he surrendered to the “barbarian” nomads—the supreme disgrace for a Chinese general.¹ When Emperor Wu 武帝(r. 140–187 B.C.) asked Ssu-ma Ch’ien for his opinion of...

  8. Epilogue: Privacy and Other Revolutionary Notions at the End of the Han
    (pp. 111-122)

    The last century of Han rule saw a dismal succession of ineffectual emperors and a national bureaucracy paralyzed by factionalism and resentful of what it perceived as the inappropriate rise in the power of palace eunuchs. This bleak period in China’s political history, which has been well documented elsewhere,¹ witnessed protracted struggles among the three prepotent and mutually antagonistic political groups: the scholar-officials; the eunuchs; and the great clans, who pretended to support the imperial structure by providing the emperors with their consorts but whose real goal was complete autonomy. The general sense that the world was coming apart induced...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 123-192)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 193-224)
  11. Index
    (pp. 225-231)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 232-232)