Love. Literature on free love in the Tang dynasty (618-907) was incomparable in terms of its quantity to that published during other times in the imperial period of China. In addition to many poems, there were several popular novels on the subject, such as the “Story of Ying Ying,” about a lady of upper-class origin who engaged in a romantic and premarital affair with a poor man name Zhang Zhen, and the “Story of Fei Yan,” which praised the courage of a young woman who fought for the right to love the man she chose. Fei Yan, a concubine of a rich man, had an affair with that young man. The story ends tragically with Fei Yan committing suicide rather than surrendering to social pressure. Tang literature also touched boldly on human sexuality. Tian Di Yin YangDaJiao Huan (A Happy Inter-course Between Yin and Yang on Heaven and Earth) was probably the most graphic story written in prose; it included a detailed description of genital organs, sexual intercourse, and orgasm.
Medical Care. Sex health care constituted an important part of Tang medical literature. The most important book was Qian Jing Fang Yao (A Thousand Valued Prescriptions) by Sun Shi Mao. Drawing from the doctrines of Daoism and imported Indian Buddhism, Qian Jing Fang Yao associated sex life with health care, proposing proper sexual habits and skills for both men and women, especially for men. According to the book, a proper sex life was essential for the good health and longevity of men. It even stipulated the proper place, time, position, and duration that a man should have while engaging in sexual intercourse with a woman, because all these factors were believed to be important to keeping his Qi (energy) in good balance. Sun Shi Mao even suggested that men who were older than forty years should refrain from sex because this period was when a man’s Qi was in decline and uncontrolled sex escalated its downhill trajectory. In another book, Yu Fang Mi Jue (Secrets of Sex Life), Zhang Ding Zhi proposed that a proper sex life could also help prevent and even cure a variety of illnesses caused by improper intercourse.
Freedom. During the Tang period, women enjoyed more freedom in social life. They were not only allowed to play folk sports similar to present-day polo and soccer but could also hunt together with men. Women’s voluntary social clubs or societies also thrived; members attended regular meetings and gave mutual assistance. This social phenomenon indicates that the strict family doctrines of the Confucians were no longer a dominant force in every sector of society and that women were able to enjoy some life of their own outside the family circle.
Beautification. Women in the Tang era were more liberal in dress, hairstyles, and facial makeup compared to women during the Song (960-1279), Yuan (1279-1368), and Ming (1368-1644) periods. They were depicted in colorful, light, and sexy clothes in the classic paintings of the Tang period. Women were allowed to pursue beauty in a variety of ways, including using seventeen popular fashions of lip beautification. They freely expressed their physical charms and femininity. Fairly large numbers of women, presumably for the first time, earned a living by working as singers, dancers, and performers in large cities. Women often made public appearances outside the “inner chambers” and attended various festivities along with men. According to historical documentation, “Unseemly abuse (of the authorities) was received as rare fun and common obscenity as wit. The inmates of the inner and outer chambers (i.e.,
women and men) looked on together and did not remain separated from one another.”
Homosexual Societies. Homosexuality was tolerated in Tang society for females and males. Xiang Huo Xiong Di (Brothers of Burning Joss-Stick) and Han Lu Ting Xiong (Heroes of Dry Land) were two popular societies for male homosexuals. Together with female prostitutes, male prostitutes thrived in the Tang capital, Chang’an, and they were seen openly in the imperial court as well as in the streets.
Song Women. The Song dynasty was more repressive on both men and women, particularly the latter. The concept of womanly virtues was pushed to the extreme. Whereas women in the Tang dynasty were relatively free to divorce or remarry, women in the Song period lost such freedoms; remarried women were considered sinful and immoral. It thus came as no surprise that princesses in the Song imperial courts, except one in an early period, did not seek remarriage, a sharp contrast to the Tang imperial courts. There were many other customary rules that restricted women’s freedom and secluded them from the public. For example, women were not allowed to sit with male relatives at the same table during family feasts at ceremonial celebrations. In other cases a married woman was not allowed to sit with her father-in-law or brothers-in-law at meals. Women, whether married or unmarried, were advised to shun public life, such as visits to temples and attendance at festivals. They were also discouraged from socializing with individuals considered to be of bad moral influence—such as female fortune-tellers, nuns, matchmakers, sorceresses, midwives, and remarried women—who were likely to spread indecent gossip so as to be harmful to family harmony.
R. H. van Gaelic, Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period: With an Essay on Chinese Sex Life from the Han to the Ch’ing dynasty, B.C. 206-A.D. 1644, translated by Yang Quan as MiXi Tu Kao: Fu Lun Han Dai Zhi Qing Dai Di Zhongguo Xing Sheng Huo, Gong Yuan Qian 206 Man —Kung Yuan 1644 Nien (Guangdong, China: Guangdong People’s Press, 1992).
Paul Rakita Goldin, The Culture of Sex in Ancient China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002).
Ta-lin Liu, Chung-kuo Ku Tai Using Wen Hua, translated as The Sex Culture of China (Ningxia, China: Ningxia People’s Press, 1994).