I’m not sure I should write this piece; after all, my mother is still alive (93), and can still read. But what the hell.
Porn. It lurks and smirks on the Internet, like the guy who used to sell those dirty little 8-pagers at the edge of the playground; or like Louie, the manager for my high school football team, who had all the smutty passages to Peyton Place underlined; or the cop who used to come into the auto garage where I worked as a teenager, selling glossy 8 x 10s of his naked wife.
That’s the way I grew up, getting some of my information about sex, and the filthy and fantastic side of it from the local porn entrepreneurs of the 1950s. I didn’t purchase the stuff, just took in the sneak peeks in the sales offers made in shadowy corners that made it all the more enticing. It seemed dirty, wrong and, in those days, “sinful,” which were of course, its thrill, its attraction, its lurid allure.
I didn’t get hooked and don’t remember ever having a copy of Playboy under my mattress (anyway, my mother changed the sheets); but in retrospect, I rather liked getting my (unclinical) sex education that way, along with some in-the-back-seat-at-the-drive-in empiricism. I don’t want to get nostalgic about it, or become an apologist for pornographers, but the amalgam of innocence, ignorance and good ole concupiscence seemed not to result in any unhealthy or unseemly effects (no emails please). Most people will admit that the best part about sex is the “discovery phase,” after which great effort is expended finding or imagining new things to discover (or, for some, new partners to discover it with).
A friend of mine liked to tell the joke about a guy who cajoled his wife to going with him to a adult movie theater where they were screening over and over the same porn film. She sat there patiently until finally saying to him, wearily, “can we go, this is the position where we came in . . .”. And that is the point: the concern about porn is that there is a point (and it’s earlier than expected) where “it’s the position [you] came in on.” So Porn, is an industry—and it is a big one—that strains and stretches the parameters of bad taste and human sexual permutation in its endless marginal search for novelty.
I suppose—and the book I am about to review supports it—that this has always been the way with porn, that the “little something extra” of titillation that purports to offer novelty and fantasy, the sine qua non of arousal is what its fundamentally about. (See, it is possible to write about sex like you mother is going to read it, or like you are describing how to change faucet washers—unless you are one of those people who find bathroom plumbing arousing. But let’s not go there.) I mention this because porn is, as Justice Stewart (I believe) said, something one knows “when [they] see it.” He was right; for some people that can be how their vegetables are arranged on their plate, or even the yin/yang symbol that prominently adorns a book jacket.
Eric Chou’s book subtitled “Love, Sex, and the Chinese,” is not porn, although I must confess that my motivations for reading might not have been purely academic (Hey! there’s always something new to learn!) I did pick up a couple of good ideas in the recipe section on aphrodisiacs, and there is that recommendation on page 145 called “Shooting the Arrow While Galloping” that I am not going to describe because, as I said, my mother can still read. Suffice it to say that it is Number 29 if you are counting what you came in on. I don’t recommend trying this one at home—or anywhere!
Chou reminds us that the Chinese have had a continuous civilization for over 5000 years—so they must have come in “on the same position” a good number of times. But those of us who have read accounts of the adventures of Marco Polo (check out Gary Jenning’s Journeyer, for example) know that there were a few things the Chinese could still teach even the Italians. In fact, Chou begins with Emperor Qin Shi Huang Ti, and that’s nearly 4000 years before Polo got there. As one might expect, emperors and other autocrats throughout history have arrogated to themselves sexual privileges not available to the rest of us.* For a few chapters there are likely to be a few positions you never came in on. There is a good bit of exaggeration in the accounts, but the quaint thing is the (still extant) Chinese penchant for indirection. Maybe phrases like “sharing the peach,” or “cutting the sleeve” can turn on a Chinese, but they are like reading baseball scores to a Westerner.
A civilization that has been around as long as China’s will have pretty much covered every dimension of human sexuality. And with perhaps the exception of coming up with some decent romantic music they have. Chou’s boom tries to cover, even if in cursory fashion on some topics, all of it, from ideal feminine types, to prostitution, pornography and the relationship of sex to food. Not that they always got it right, or did it well. He covers a bunch of stupid notions about when to have sex and whether the phase of the moon or what you ate for dinner will produce a child who is a moron or will have pimples. They are also, by those repeated in this book, lousy at dirty jokes, a which one keeps saying, “OK, s what’s the punch line?”
The Chinese are, as we know, obsessed with food; not just with eating all the time, but eating almost anything because they have some goofy ideas about the direct relationship between certain foods and their effect on the human body (a lot of rhino horns and tiger penises have been sacrificed on this altar of such nonsense). I think that a quotation will suffice here:“However, a simper way to cure frigidity seems to depend on whether one can catch the right kind of bats. According to Pei Fu Lu (Notes on the North Door) . . . a kind of ‘red bat can be found resting in pairs amid the red flowers of banana trees. When you catch one of a pair,’ the note goes on, ‘the other will follow you about. The natives kill these red bats, dry them in the sun and then grind them into powder. Use a very small amount of powder in a woman externally. The effect is immediate.’” After which, one supposes, it’s back to searching for a new partner on qiHarmony.com.
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 11.14.2009)
*This applies as well to China’s most recent emperor, Mao Zedong. His doctor, Dr. Li Zhisui, The Private life of Chairman Mao (1994), was in the position to report on the Great Helmsman’s predilection for pretty young girls since he had to boost the Chairman’s equipment with injections of various concoctions. And don’t go getting the idea that the Chinese are the champions of Asian kinkiness. That title probably goes to the Japanese. See Nicholas Bornoff,Pink Samurai: Love, marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan (1991).