YellowBridge Chinese Language & Culture
Chinese Language Center

Chinese Literature Classic Chinese Erotica: Fiction

While most Westerners seem to have heard of the "Kama Sutra", few are aware of the Chinese tradition of erotic literature. Westerners often see Asians as being demure or even downright asexual. You would have thought that 1.2 billion Chinese souls would have been enough proof to the contrary.

Erotica was present in the form of fiction (both full-length novels and short stories) and poetry, erotic art in the form of very practical "pillow books", and taoist treatises on effective sexual techniques for "maximizing life energies". Unfortunately, ancient foot fetishists also invented the painful practice of footbinding in pursuit of the tiny "lotus" feet.

Erotic Novels and Short Stories

The best known erotic novel, by far, is the "The Golden Lotus", which Pearl S. Buck called "China's greatest novel of physical love". However, the classical Chinese erotic novels should not be confused with pornography. If one removed the sexually explicit passages of "The Golden Lotus", we would still have a great novel of manners, one of whose hallmark attributes is the level of detail that the author infused on the novel. Thus when the novel tells about monetary transactions, we get to know the exact amount paid for items down to dollars and cents (or rather taels of silver and copper coins). Sexually explicit passages are simply part of the author's attention to detail. The other novels and short stories in this category have equally "redeeming" values. The novels and short stories of Li Yu happen to be one of the funniest in any category.

  Title Mini Review
The Golden Lotus
Written by Lanling XiaoxiaoSheng
Translated by Clement Egerton
Tuttle Classics, 2011
Rating: ★★★★

The best known Chinese erotic novel is based on a major expansion of a side story of the Water Margin. The story is about Hsi-meng Ching, a rich man with four wives who sets out to acquire wives number 5 and 6. This book was often banned in China for being too sexually explicit. Westerners were not free from self-censorship, though. When Clement Egerton's first published his translation, he rendered all the sexual passages in Latin. Fortunately, the whole work is now available in English. The newer and better translation is by David Tod Roy.
The Plum in the Golden Vase

Translated by David Tod Roy
The Fountainhead of Chinese Erotica: The Lord of Perfect Satisfaction
Translated by Charles E. Stone
University of Hawaii Press, 2003
271 pages
This short novel tells the story of infamous Tang Empress Wu Zetian, the only Chinese empress to actually rule China on her own. (Other empresses ruled but ostensibly only as regents to a child emperor.) The novel was famous for being the first one to depict sexuality in a very graphic manner, thus serving as the prototype for all the ones that followed.
The Carnal Prayer Mat

Written by Li Yu in 1657
Translated by Patrick Hanan
University of Hawaii Press, 1996
336 pages
Rating: ★★★★★

This masterpiece is an erotic satire disguised as a moralistic tale. The story is about a scholar who wants to become a monk but not before he has married the prettiest girl around. Wanting to seduce a beautiful woman who happens to be married to a well-endowed stud, he resorts to extreme measures to be competitive. He undergoes surgery to replace his penis with that of a dog, an amazing plot turn considering that the story was written in the 17th century, long before plastic surgery was invented. The story is sexy, imaginative, takes many unexpected turns and, best of all, is outrageously funny. Each chapter ends with a short critique presumably written by a third-party reviewer but quite likely were written by the author himself to add even more to the humor. The Sex and Zen movie was loosely based on the book.
A Tower for the Summer Heat
Written by Li Yu, 1657
Translated by Patrick Hanan
Columbia University Press, 1998
256 pages
Rating: ★★★★★

A translation of half the stories of Shi'er Lou, a book of short stories by the author of The Carnal Prayer Mat. The translation takes its title from the first story, in which a scholar uses a new technology from the West, a telescope, to spy on his neighbors. With his new found knowledge he proceeds to woo the girl and convince the girl's father of that the marriage is predestined. The other stories are equally unconventional and fun.
Chinese Ghost Stories for Adults: Sex, Love, and Murder between Spirits and Mortals
Written by Pu Sung-Ling (1640-1715)
Translated by Tom Ma
Barricade Books, 2000
214 pages
This is a translation of selected stories from the Liao Tsai Chih Yi, a classic from 18th century containing over 400 short stories Pu Sung-Ling is China's master storyteller whose stories, usually full of supernatural beings and events, reveal a Taoist nonconformist attitude in the midst of Confucian society.