My newest ILL book is Jessica Leo’s Sex in the Yellow Emperor’s Basic Questions (2011). I haven’t gotten past the foreword (written by Dennis Schilling of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich), but it gives what feels like a good overview of what I can expect from Leo’s book. Leo’s book looks at sexuality through the lens of medical texts rather than erotic literature.
Leo’s book is primarily concerned with the 1st century BCE-1st century CE text, Suwen (素問, Basic Questions), which is dedicated to the Yellow Emperor. The text is considered part of Chinese medical canonical thought, and was annotated and amended over the course of 500 years.
The Suwen connects human physiology with natural forms and structures, using the same word (mai) used for river systems as for circulatory systems. This is indicative of the larger framework that guided Chinese thought: “[the] human being as a par of nature means that, by means of intelligence, humanity is capable of co-operating with the productive cycle of heaven and earth” (x).
Schilling also mentions Stephen Owen’s “Reproduction in the Shijing (Classics of Poetry)” and how human fertility and reproduction were presented there as being aligned with agricultural cycles of sowing and harvesting. More pearl-growing for me!
Understanding Chinese views of human sexuality shine a much brighter light on pregnancy and obstetrics, as well as Chinese culture. For example, because sexuality and reproduction were seen as life-sustaining forces, the separation of the sexes in Chinese society was not a way to diminish sexuality but rather used to “control and guide human sexual behavior in certain ways believed to be consistent with the dualistic scheme of nature” (x).
The physical body was seen as an ancestral gift, and fertility an extension of that. There was a “deep concern” (ix) exhibited in Chinese literature for childbearing and fertility, as it was a way to honor one’s family and clan by continuing the ancestral line.
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