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History of Sex Images in Chinese Art

Throughout most of China's long history, the pictorial display of human sexual activity was rarely openly displayed.

Nevertheless, there are pictures depicting men and women engaged in sexual acts on stone carvings dating from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), and the theme was also fairly popular on the bronze mirrors of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

The graphic depiction of the sex act did not start to appear on Chinese coins and charms until the early Tang and it then continued through the Song (960-1279 AD) and following dynasties.

Meaning of "Wind, Flowers, Snow, Moon"

As mentioned above, one of the most common inscriptions found on these love charms is feng hua xue yue (风花雪月) which literally means "wind, flowers, snow and moon".  The expression is probably intentionally obscure and open to interpretation.  This four character expression is generally used to describe a gay and lively place, or something that is frivolous or trivial.

However, the most plausible explanation for the use of this expression is that each of the words (wind, flowers, snow, moon) may represent a Chinese goddess.

For example, there is a well-know four-volume Chinese erotic novel from the late Ming dynasty (ca. 1640 AD) entitled Su E Pian (素娥篇).  The story describes the romantic adventures of Wu San Si (武三思) and a beautiful concubine by the name of Su E (
素 娥).  Su E is sometimes referred to as the "Lady of the Moon".  The couple is inspired to make love in a variety of natural settings using forty-three different sexual positions.  Illustrated wood engravings accompany the text.

The inscription may also be referring to the "Seven Fairy Maidens" (qi xian nu 七仙女).  For example, there is the famous Han Dynasty story of Dong Yong who sold himself into bondage as an indentured servant so that he could earn enough money to properly bury his father.  Dong Yong met a pretty women who miraculously helped him repay his debt in a very short time and thus freed him from servitude.  The "pretty women" was in fact the youngest daughter, and one of the Seven Fairy Maidens, of the legendary Jade Emperor.  For a more on this and to see a charm related to the story please see Confucian Charms.

There are other inscriptions sometimes seen on wedding coins of this type such as feng hua yi ren (风花宜人) which translates as "wind and flowers delight men".  It is also interesting to note that, in ancient times, yi ren (宜 人) was a title given to the wives of officials of the fifth degree.  I am unsure if there is any hidden meaning in this context.

One other inscription that is occasionally seen on Chinese erotic coins is shown on the charm at the left.  This charm actually has two inscriptions.

The first inscription, written in large characters (top, bottom, right, left), is the familiar
feng hua xue yue (风花雪月) meaning "wind, flowers, snow and moon".

The second inscription is written in smaller seal script characters and is read in a different order.  Beginning at the upper right corner of the square hole and reading counterclockwise, the inscription is
ming huang yu ying (明皇御影) which translates as "Emperor Ming imperial shadow".

The ming huang (
明皇), in this case, refers to Emperor Xuanzong (685-762 AD), also known as Emperor Ming, of the Tang Dynasty.  Emperor Xuanzong's concubine Yang Guifei (杨贵妃) was considered one of the Four Beauties of ancient China.

Dragon and Phoenix Symbols

The most prominent of all Chinese marriage symbols is the pairing of a dragon (long 龙) and a phoenix (feng 凤) which represents love and a happy marriage.

The dragon is the preeminent male or yang (阳) symbol and represents strength and the warmth of the sun.

The phoenix, as you might expect, is the ultimate female or yin (阴) symbol.

The inscription on this old charm is long feng cheng xiang (龙凤呈样) which is a common expression used to congratulate newlyweds on their marriage.

Long feng cheng xiang can be variously translated as "the dragon and phoenix become a good omen", "prosperity brought by the dragon and phoenix", and "may you have excellent good fortune".

The reverse side of the charm depicts a dragon on the right and a phoenix on the left.

This charm has a diameter of 30 mm and a weight of 5.4 grams.

The dragon and phoenix symbols are very frequently seen on Chinese marriage charms and several other examples are displayed below.