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The Dao of Sex

March 14, 2012

Making Sex Safe: The Role of Male Anxiety in Representations of Sex Appeal in Traditional
Chinese Literature
Li Yu’s protagonist in The Carnal Prayer Mat, the young scholar Vesperus, is an

archetypal representation of the desiring subject in traditional Chinese fiction. Being a man of

good social standing, a capable student, and unrivaled in his good-looks, Vesperus enjoys a

position of power within traditional Chinese society by virtue of his age, class, and gender. The

man in a privileged position can, because of the power vested in him by society’s patriarchal

hierarchy, choose for himself one or several sexual partners. Sexual relationships between the

normative male desirer and any of his sexual partners is coded and accepted by society, provided

that the relationship does not violate or in some way compromise the established social order. In

the context of traditional Chinese culture, the normative social and cultural order was a nexus of

Confucian virtue or morality and Daoist philosophy. Under this framework then, safe sex is sex

that can be inscribed within the prevailing cultural mores of traditional China and does not

threaten the hegemonic values of a male-dominated society. Normative representations of sex

appeal and what is sexy conform to these same standards, and encourage the male desirer to be

titillated by women who are safe to have sex with. A common trope of a desirable female body

in traditional Chinese fiction is that she is passive, dainty, and delicate. Such a fragile female

partner poses no threat to patriarchy because she is dominated by the man during sex just like she

is dominated by the man in society at large. Although the role of the submissive female sexual

partner in the maintenance of patriarchy should not be understated, this paper challenges a mere

surface level reading of the passive female in search of an embedded male anxiety about female

sexual potency as well as the importance of sexual cultivation for the lengthening and sustaining

of human life. In so far as the act of coition was represented as a ‘battle of the sexes,’ a desirable

opponent in battle was one who was easily conquered and possessed rich spoils.
In The Art of the Bedchamber, Douglas Wile prefaces the text of the Ho Yin Yang and Su

Nu Ching with the statement that “sexual beliefs and practices outlined in the texts in the

collection express an ethos shaped by other elements in the culture… but they also contributed to

these elements.”1 Wile’s sentiment is valuable for the treatment of the relationship between

sexual desire and society, in that it shows how ideas about sexual cultivation were

simultaneously models of and models for an ideal woman in traditional Chinese society. The

idea that, for a man, there is a ‘right’ kind of woman to engage in sex with follows logically from

the culture that produced sex manuals that showed the ‘right way’ to have sex. Because sexual

relations were integrated into the framework of therapeutic arts of physical cultivation in

traditional China, the “nurturing life” tradition held that sex the right way would result in

physical well-being.2 Sex the wrong way, however, could result in disease, bodily dysfunction,

and even death if the vital substances ch’i (vapor) and ching (essence) were not circulated and

absorbed properly.3 Provided that ‘correct’ sexual practice, according to the Daoist manuals, was

a matter of life and death, what or who is an object of sexual desire becomes infused with a

pragmatism based on the necessity for successful coition.

Since they are written by men and for a male audience, ‘success’ in the context of the

Daoist sex manuals is achieved by the nourishing of the male yang essence by the female yin

essence. The sexual act itself, however, is not sufficient to guarantee that the nurturing of the

male partner is accomplished, thus sex “had to be carefully controlled so that the couple at no

point committed a tactical error that would lead to failure.”4 For this reason, manuals had to

Wile, Douglas. Art of the Bedchamber: The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics including Women's Solo Meditation Texts.
Albany: State University of New York, 1992. Pp 5
Harper, Donald. "The Sexual Arts of Ancient China as Described in a Manuscript of the Second Century B.C."
Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 47.2 (1987). Pp 540
Ibid 548
Ibid 581
exist to prescribe the right sequence and order to the sexual union to achieve the desired result.

Although correct sexual practice was a potent tool for extending life, this sometimes came at the

expense of one of the sexual partners whose vital essence was depleted in order to strengthen the

other. For this reason, absorption of your partner’s vital essence for the sake of nourishing your

own supply did not come without a price and the sex act was called the ‘battle of the stealing and

strengthening.’5 For a male, increasing one’s own treasury at the expense of the partner or enemy

was the only way to guarantee health and extend life, for as the Ho Yin Yang notes, “sucking her

ching spirit upward, one can live forever and be coeval with heaven and earth.”6

Whereas the male body was vulnerable to depletion of vital essence during sex and thus

needed to suck up the female’s ching spirit in order to sustain his life, the female body was

endowed with a much more robust (and perhaps inexhaustible) supply of vital essence which

gave her a distinct advantage in the bedroom. Woman is, by her very nature, dangerous to man

in the bedroom if he is unprepared and unskilled in the ‘combat’ arts of the bedchamber. In the

cultural milieu of traditional Chinese society at large, men have a power advantage over women.

The reversal of the prevailing gendered dynamics of power that occurs within the inner-quarters,

where female sexual potency provides them with an inherent advantage over men in sexual

practice, was a major source of anxiety for sexually active men. The tradition displays evidence

of this anxiety through the way in which “the techniques described in these texts make it possible

for the male to surmount his inherent handicap in the bedroom, to triumph over woman, who not

only has holds the power to bring forth life, but walks away so little diminished.”7 In a

discussion of sexual body techniques within the Mawangdui medical corpus, Rudolf Pfister

Basel states that “male neediness and female (sexual) potency form together some kind of

Douglas Wile, Art of the Bedchamber, 14.
Ibid 17
Ibid 15
unmentionable region within this discourse,” but in fact, this ‘unmentionable region’ manifests

itself into (and is indeed visible in) the construction of what an ideal, attractive, sexually

appealing partner looks like in traditional Chinese literary sources.8

In the Su Nu Ching, or the Classic of Su Nu, The Yellow Emperor describes an ideal

sexual female partner as possessing the following characteristics: by nature gentle and soft

spoken, having a ‘bore hole’ that is elevated and private parts free of hair, emitting copious ching

secretions, and never having born children.9 The Yellow Emperor’s comments are indicative of

the high esteem placed on women whose vital essence was at its peak and could be most easily

extracted by the male partner, guaranteeing his success in ‘battle.’ Similarly, her elevated bore

hole and hair-free vulva provide easy access, a necessary component of female sexiness that

increases the naturally disadvantaged male’s ease of conquering his adversary and performing

well. The soft-spoken nature and gentleness that the Yellow Emperor ascribes to an ideal female

partner in sex reflects not only a prevailing Confucian societal hegemony of patriarchy, but also

reveals the extent to which in the bedroom, the woman had a leg-up (no pun intended) in the

battle. Women, to be desirable, must not only have abundant essence which can be absorbed

through coition; they must also be passive lovers who will not put up too much of a fight in the

battle of stealing and strengthening.

The sexual desire of Li Yu’s famous protagonist Vesperus reflects notions of female sex

appeal that show continuity with the traditional Daoist sex manuals. In his lexicon of beautiful

women, perhaps the first iteration of the ‘little black book’ motif, Vesperus chronicles the

appealing qualities of the females he encounters in order to plan his forthcoming trysts. In terms

Basil, Rudolf Pfister. "The Production of Special Mental States Within the Framework of Sexual Body Techniques --
As Seen in the Mawangundui Medical Corpus." Love, Hatred, And Other Passions. Ed. Poalo Santangelo and
Donatella Guida. Boston: Leiden, 2006. Pp 181
Douglas Wile, Art of the Bedchamber, 93.
of embodied characteristics of female sexuality, the discourse of the Carnal Prayer Mat

highlights the vulva as the focal point of male desire. During Jades Scent’s seduction of

Vesperus under his voyeuristic gaze, “lest the most important part of all be half hidden

underwater, she lay back and spread her legs, giving him a full frontal view.”10 The text

explicitly refers to her genitals as ‘the most important part’ and it also implies that this is the

most powerful force that drives Vesperus’ erotic desire because at the very moment he sees

between Jade Scent’s legs, he is uncontrollable and, at last, enters the chamber. The penetration

of Vesperus’ gaze between the legs serves as a metaphor of (and even foreshadows) his literal

penetration during the sexual act, and thus ignites his passion furiously. The character of The

Knave, who plays the role of the connoisseur and whose gaze penetrates deeper than that of

Vesperus, has intimate knowledge of “such beautiful women with such well-developed vulvas,”

which entitles him to aid Vesperus’ quest for successful adultery.11 Similarly, in another popular

representation created by Li Yu, “A Male Menciu's Mother Raises Her Son Properly by Moving

House Three Times,” the main character Xu Wei declares that women’s breasts are ‘superfluous

appendages.’12 Li Yu’s fiction seems to diminish other physical markers of femininity in sexual

attraction and highlights the vulva or vagina as the ultimate object of sexual desire. In the

context of traditional Daoist notions of sexual cultivation, it is the vagina itself that is the conduit

of vital essence exchanged between men and women during sexual intercourse. Therefore,

despite the man’s concern for outward beauty, it is ultimately the sexual organ of the woman that

will determine the result of their sexual encounter and finally the man’s well-being. In order to

Li, Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Trans. Patrick Hanan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1990. Pp 210
Ibid 69
Li, Yu. "A Male Menciu's Mother Raises Her Son Properly by Moving House Three Times." Silent Operas
(Wusheng Xi). Trans. Patrick Hanan. Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1990. 99-134.
succeed at sex, the man is predisposed to be attracted to the vulva because it is the immanent

source of a potent alchemical elixir; vaginal secretion.

Scholar Vesperus’ desire in The Carnal Prayer Mat is also driven by the relatively young

age of his paramours. This reflects a well-established Daoist ideal that can be labeled the ‘cult of

the youth,’ but more broadly follows the idea that younger people have leaked or spent less vital

essence, and therefore have fuller stores to be plundered in sexual union of yin and yang.

Vesperus names Black Belle as particularly remarkable because of the detail that at the sexually

mature age of thirty-five, she looks like she is only fifteen. Her beauty is derived from her

youthful appearance; “her waist may be thicker than a young woman’s, but the line of her

eyebrows is arched as any brides… her cheeks are as rosy as ever maintaining their flower-like

original brightness.”13 Vesperus is attracted to her physical body to be sure, but instead of being

interested in her physical form as such he is instinctively drawn to those markers of youth which

Black Beauty possesses. Her youthful appearance is both derived from and serves as evidence of

the abundance of chi. Additionally, the narrator’s voice pronounces that “for the five or six years

following the age of thirteen, all girls, good looking or not, have a certain bloom in their cheeks

that men find subtly appealing.”14 This passage is striking because of the way it negates other

aesthetic qualities of beauty (‘good looking or not’) and places the abundance of chi, in this case

marked by youth and embodied as ‘a certain bloom,’ at the pinnacle of female desirability and

sex appeal. The male desirer is driven by an uncertainty of his sexual proficiency and the burden

of a vulnerable, declining male essence so he is attracted to women who possess markers of an

abundance of chi that is his for the taking.

Li Yu, The Carnal Prayer Mat, 85.
Ibid 77.
Both Jade Scent and Pale Rose Maid attract Vesperus because he perceives them as

docile, passive partners, ergo easy targets for sexual warfare. Pale Rose Maid is described as

having “sexual desires as yet undeveloped” and “walking with delicate steps, moving as lightly

as a swallow is able to fly,” which marks her as approachable and conquerable for the lascivious

student.15 It is assumed that a woman’s light and delicate appearance outside her home is

matched by a similarly yielding personality in the bedroom. Vesperus’ passion is similarly

enflamed by Jade Scent’s beauty because she is easy to caress, “soft as though flesh alone,” and

“in fact…put up no resistance, but let him loosen her golden bracelets, undo her silk sash, and

strip off all her clothes.”16 Despite the man’s lingering sexual disadvantage, he can guarantee

victory if a lady’s conduct in society is matched by her behavior in the inner quarters of the


Vesperus also marks the young girls as being sexually undeveloped, at least in terms of

their sexual desire. Although arousal is integral to the secretion of vaginal fluid, the sexual

desire of the female apparently does not need to be developed. At face value the absence of

female desire from the intimacy equation is problematic but in fact, it fits the framework of the

traditional understanding of the uniformity of sexual response elicited from sex. In other words,

although the female’s own desires may be uncultivated or docile, this will not prevent her from

experiencing pleasure and secreting vital essence. The male desire, then, is not contingent on the

female’s reciprocation of his arousal because pleasure is the inevitable outcome of sex. The

young, naïve female who is too innocent to hold her own desires is, then, a perfect candidate for

sexual union with the savvier, more experienced male subject. He can still elicit a powerful

sexual response from the female body during intercourse, thus replenishing himself with vital

Li Yu, The Carnal Prayer Mat, 83.
Ibid 40-41, 51.
fluid, and yet his own essence is not coveted. Union with a younger, passive, inexperienced

lover is desirable because it is a more even playing field, and thus a safer endeavor to undertake.

Women’s best efforts to make themselves beautiful with makeup and other modifications

of their appearance are futile. The discerning male eye is weary of this trick, and unappreciative.

Vesperus voices the complaint that “[he’s] been to many cities and towns, but all the women I’ve

seen have been larded with makeup to hide their dark complexions…I’ve not met a natural

beauty.”17 Similarly, Xu Wei complains that women’s objectionable features include hiding the

truth with powder and rouge and employing artifice by binding their feet and piercing their ears.

For Xu Wei, his displeasure with the unnatural appearance of all women is enough to turn him

toward a preference for “the Southern Mode,” and declare that “there’s absolutely no artifice

about [a pretty boy]; he’s natural from head to toe.”18 More than a criticism of the unnatural, this

trope within the literature is a response to a fear of the unknown or uncertain. What makeup and

artifice represent in the context of the stories is yet another advantage woman can gain over man;

that of deception. Outward physical markers are most readily observable to the male gaze, and

he thus relies on them to accurately select a female partner to engage in sexual intercourse.

Because of the consequences of ‘bad’ sex and the danger of spending one’s essence, selection of

the partner is crucial to success. If a woman can hide her appearance, she can in effect trick the

man into a disadvantageous union which is potentially harmful. The man’s inability to conceal

his own sexual power, because it is embodied in the width and length of his penis which is

ultimately revealed during sex and (except in rare cases of surgery, etc.) unalterable, also

contributes to this anxiety about the ‘covering up’ of appearances. A truly beautiful woman,

then, is one who is naturally and more importantly easily recognized as such, because of the

Li Yu, The Carnal Prayer Mat, 67.
Li Yu, A Male Mencius’s Mother, 103.
comfort the male desirer gains from seeing her ‘true’ form and making an informed decision

about his sex life.

Explorations of the desirable female within traditional Chinese literary culture remain

incomplete without the alternative perspective represented. In other words, examining the

undesirable and the unattractive can also shed light on the kind of inherent qualities that men

would value in a female lover. Perhaps one the most complex female figures that emerges from

the sources is the character Empress Wu in The Fountainhead of Chinese Erotica: The Lord of

Perfect Satisfaction (Ruyijun zhuan). Empress Wu is introduced as a negative character, whose

inwardly lascivious nature is matched only by her outward ruthlessness. Also, she is a slanderer,

and a false accuser of disloyalty who abuses power and those that serve her. The Empress is

marked as sexually dangerous because, as a woman, she gives “free reign to her desires and

indulged in lechery.”19 Empress Wu embodies the greatest fears of the desiring male subject in

the traditional Chinese context; she is sexually potent, experiences, desirous, and violent.

To make matters worse, she kills her sexual partners when she is done with them, either

directly through sex by exhausting their vital essence and life energy, as is the case with Nanqiu

whose bone marrow depletes, or by other means like when she has Huaiyi bludgeoned to death.20

Ironically, Empress Wu is exceptionally beautiful and even looks exquisitely young for her age

because of her sexual cultivation. Although she is beautiful, she remains undesirable in the eye

of the reader, because of the way her personality is constructed. She is also impossible to satisfy,

except in the case of the Lord of Perfect Satisfaction, who possesses a legendarily sized member,

and can thus overpower her feminine hypersexuality. Empress Wu’s character is a warning

against the danger of the over-sexed, potent female and reminds men of their disadvantage in the

Stone, Charles R. The Fountainhead of Chinese Erotica: The Lord of Perfect Satisfaction (Ruyijun Zhuan).
Honolulu: University of Hawai'i, 2003. Pp 138.
Ibid 139, 140
bedroom. Furthermore, she serves as a good example of how beauty is only skin deep, and is not

necessarily desirable unless accompanied by the right kinds of inner qualities.

At the end of his narrative in The Carnal Prayer Mat, Li Yu- who claims to ‘mock

everything’ through his text- pokes fun at the way traditional representations of women,

including his own, have constructed their sex appeal and beauty. He does this by drawing a

distinction between “good-looking women” and women with “practical usefulness.”21 Practical

usefulness in this case, of course, means good for sex and good-looking means prevailing tastes

for the outward appearance of women. He problematizes the relationship between the two

attributes by presenting them as a dichotomy, stating outright that “good looks and practical

usefulness are mutually exclusive.”22 The attributes of a good looking woman are that she is thin,

short, and weak while a woman of practical use is fat, tall, and robust. Certainly Li Yu must

have his own text in mind in this satirical moment, because Vesperus’ sexual conquest has been

made up entirely of women who would, according to this framework, be beautiful but useless at


In addition to making a distinction between sex appeal and beauty (which we have seen

elsewhere) Li Yu is useful because he reminds the reader that the representations of the desired

female subject are in fact merely that; representations. Li Yu seems to be directly addressing the

tension between what men fantasize about and hope for in their idealized sexual partners and

what women are actually like in all of their complexity and imperfection. Rudolf Pfister Basil

comments that sexual cultivation texts the deal with a body, but “by body I mean here the

integrated view on the human body, male or female, mostly in lived experience… thereby

Li Yu, The Carnal Prayer Mat, 253-254.
Ibid 254
including mental states.”23 Sexual attraction and powerful desires function best at the

intersection of what the mind wants and what the body needs. These two components of what

constitutes a sexy, desirable female body are not always in agreement with each other, as Li Yu

cleverly points out. However, says Li Yu, because “sexual enjoyment is entirely dependent on

your peace of mind; it cannot survive if you feel nervous” sex appeal in traditional Chinese

Literature is rooted in attracting the male gaze to a partner that is ‘safe’, i.e. one that him feel

secure during the sexual performance which is, by all accounts, an anxiety-producing act.

Basel, Rudolf Pfister. "The Production of Special Mental States Within the Framework of Sexual Body Techniques,
Works Cited

Basel, Rudolf Pfister. "The Production of Special Mental States Within the Framework of Sexual

Body Techniques -- As Seen in the Mawangundui Medical Corpus." Love, Hatred, And

Other Passions. Ed. Poalo Santangelo and Donatella Guida. Boston: Leiden, 2006. Print.

Harper, Donald. "The Sexual Arts of Ancient China as Described in a Manuscript of the Second

Century B.C." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 47.2 (1987): 539-93. JSTOR. Web.

Li, Yu. "A Male Menciu's Mother Raises Her Son Properly by Moving House Three Times." Silent

Operas (Wusheng Xi). Trans. Patrick Hanan. Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1990. 99-

134. Print.

Li, Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Trans. Patrick Hanan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1990. Print.

Stone, Charles R. The Fountainhead of Chinese Erotica: The Lord of Perfect Satisfaction (Ruyijun

Zhuan). Honolulu: University of Hawai'i, 2003. Print.

Van Gulik, R.H. Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period. Boston: Leiden, 2004. Print.

Wile, Douglas. Art of the Bedchamber: The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics including Women's Solo

Meditation Texts. Albany: State University of New York, 1992. Print.