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Historicizing Great Bliss: Erotica in Tang China (618–907)
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Sexual union, by design, is the commencement of human society and the beginning of nature. The intercourse of Heaven and Earth balances the universe; intercourse of a man and a woman results in the proper order of yin and yang. This is why Confucius declared the greatness of marriage and why the ancient poet composed the masterpiece “Zhongsi” (“Locusts”).1 These are all rooted in sexual union, if one explores the fundamentals thoroughly. I thus visualize the desires of men and women, depicting both the beautiful and the unpleasant encounters. I formulate patterns in accordance with their feelings and discern purposes from various settings. Sordid trysts and twisted signals are included, and nothing is left unaccounted for. I supply pronunciation and annotation to puzzling words and bizarre names; I cover the human life from infancy until death. Although some passages might be seen as obscene, they nevertheless present the marvelous delight of such union. For of all the joys humanity has, nothing surpasses this. Therefore, I titled this piece “Poetic Essay of the Great Bliss.”

“Poetic Essay of the Great Bliss” was authored by Bai Xingjian (776–826), a high-ranking court official in the Tang dynasty. As the above preface promises, the essay, with the full title “Tiandi yinyang jiaohuan dale fu” (“Poetic Essay on Great Bliss of the Sexual Union of Heaven and Earth and Yin and Yang,” hereafter cited as “Great Bliss”), depicts sexual acts committed in various settings by persons involved in various relationships. The graphic details must have astounded post-Tang readers so much that the text disappeared after the Tang. It was unknown to Chinese readers until its discovery among the Dunhuang manuscripts in 1908 by French explorer Paul Pelliot (1878–1945) and publication by Ye Dehui (1864–1927) in 1914.2

“Great Bliss,” however, was not the only lost text of Tang erotica. About a century before Bai’s time, another eminent Tang official and examination graduate, Zhang Zhuo (660–740), authored the first Chinese novelette, You xianku (Merrymaking in a Transcendent Dwelling, hereafter cited as Merrymaking), which entices readers with its tale of a sexual encounter between an official and a mystical widow. As with “Great Bliss,” Merrymaking was not recorded in any post-Tang bibliographies in China, but it found a receptive audience in Japan and played an important role in the development of Japanese literature.3 Only in 1929 was the text reintroduced from Japan by publisher Chen Naiqian, who included it in his Gu yi xiaoshuo congkan (Collections of Lost Novels from Ancient Times).4 “Great Bliss” and Merrymaking signified the first wave of erotica in Chinese history.

As unique and important as the two texts are in the history of sexuality in China, much remains to be understood about them. Scholarship has concentrated mainly on approaching the texts from philological and textual perspectives, investigating their linguistic origin, authorship, editions, and rhetoric.5 To be sure, efforts have been made to place both works in the large context of the writings about sex and romantic love. For example, scholars have explored the connection between them and the tradition of fangzhongshu (arts of the bedchamber) in Daoist texts. Zhuo Yimou, for example, suggested that, just like Sun Simiao’s (581–682) Fangnei buyi (Benefits within the Chamber)6 and Zhang Ding’s Yufang mijue (Secret Instructions of the Jade Bedchamber),7 “Great Bliss” was representative of Tang sexual ideology.8 Meanwhile, Sumiyo Umekawa’s study of Merrymaking finds direct borrowings of Daoist sexological terms.9 Literary scholars, in contrast, have investigated the theme of romantic love and the fairy tale style of Merrymaking, but many have dismissed the labeling of both texts as works of erotica. Howard S. Levy, for example, has adamantly argued that in Merrymaking the sexual insinuations were intended merely to serve the theme of love, which was prominent not only in Merrymaking but also in other Tang chuanqi (vernacular literature).10 Similarly, recent research in the Chinese language has categorized the texts, especially Merrymaking, as romantic literature. Some argue that the story reflects Tang perceptions of ideal love, which includes not only physical attraction but also equal social status, talent, and refined dispositions;11 others...

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