Portrait of a Chinese Paradise

John Byron lived in Beijing from 1981 through to 1984 and during those four years he succeeded in accumulating a considerable collection of Chinese erotic art, most of which dated back to the second half of the Qing Dynasty, which had been overthrown in 1911.  After leaving Beijing he began an intensive investigation into the origins of this material, exploring Robert van Gulik's pioneering work on Chinese erotic art and culture, and also drawing on the Chinese books about erotica and prostitution that appeared in the 1920s and 1930s.  Following the Communist takeover in 1949, of course, the Chinese tradition of erotic art and culture was ruthlessly suppressed, and nothing was published on the subject until the 1990s.  The result of Byron's research into traditional Chinese erotic art and culture was Portrait of A Chinese Paradise, which was published by Quartet Books in London in 1987.

In this book, which was subtitled "Erotica and Sexual Customs of the Late Qing Dynasty", Byron detailed the way in which Chinese sexual practices in fact were far more liberal than both traditional and modern Chinese spokesmen suggested.  He explained how Confucianism served as a mask that conveyed the impression that Chinese society was governed by a deep sense of decorum, while in fact prostitution, polygamy and pederasty were regarded as quite normal forms of behaviour.  Byron also explored the connection between opium and erotica, for many of the venues that sold opium were in fact brothels, with prostitutes accompanying customers and fixing their pipes and watching over them as they fell into profound drug-induced trances.   While far from the complete study of the topic, --- the book was a mere 82 pages of text and 45 pages of colour illustrations --- Portrait of a Chinese Paradise succeeded in revealing an important and dynamic aspect of Chinese culture that had disappeared from sight during the Communist period.

Since the publication of Portrait Byron has continued to collect Chinese erotica and now has assembled several thousand items that illustrate this aspect of Chinese life, ranging from classical porcelain figurines and woodblock prints to DVDs and modern magazines celebrating the sensual dimension of life.  At the same time the rapidly expanding liberalization that has accompanied the process of economic reform has produced a rich array of Chinese studies on erotica and sexual customs, and Byron plans to do a further study of this subject, using it as a way to map the continuing evolution of China's relations with the outside world.

© John Byron - 2019