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The Significance of Robert van Gulik’s Work on Ancient Sexual Life: A Material Culture Perspective

Robert Van Gulik, Sexual Life in Ancient China: A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society from ca. 1500 B.C. till 1644 A.D. (book cover). Leiden: Brill, 1961.

Robert van Gulik dreamed of being a traditional Chinese scholar-official. To achieve his dream, he developed wide-ranging interests and sinological knowledge, which included sexual life in traditional China. In the first half of the twentieth century, he published two works: Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Dynasty and Sexual Life in Ancient China. Few people have noticed Van Gulik’s fetishistic tendencies in this research. By using erotic color prints, Van Gulik offers us a glimpse of pre-modern Chinese sexual culture. Van Gulik pays a great deal of attention to material objects, such as sex toys, sex medicines, underclothes, bedding and sex aides. He explores the ways in which these objects all serve as metaphors for sexual activities and sexual organs. The significance of Van Gulik’s two books, therefore, lies in this placement of material culture within the history of sexuality, creating a perfect example of the new cultural history. He leaves the great questions of history and philosophy to one side, and focuses on the material culture of every-day life. His book provides his Western reader with an insight into Chinese sexual culture, erotic arts and lute culture. This may well explain why he has a higher reputation in China than in his motherland. The Dutch Sinologist Wilt Idema referred to this as the “Van Gulik phenomenon”, which might not have existed without Van Gulik’s dream of becoming a Chinese scholar-official.

Shi Ye is a tenured professor in the Humanities College at Shanghai Normal University. Shi Ye’s main research interests lie in the field of Sino-Western cultural exchange, and Classical Chinese novels and dramas. In the past ten years, she has published four books and more than fifty academic articles. She has also been awarded ten external grants from such prestigious bodies as the National Social Sciences Fund, the Social Sciences Fund of Chinese Ministry of Education and the Shanghai Government Social Sciences Fund. More recently, her research has expanded to intercultural studies. She was a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford in 2015 and the University of Leiden in 2011.