Li Yinhe on Nudity in Art and Society

The following post is a translation of this blog post written by China’s foremost sexologist, Li Yinhe.

An important note. In the piece, Li Yinhe uses the term 性 repeatedly. I’ve translated it as “sex”, but this doesn’t necessarily mean “sexual intercourse” so much as it means the more general nature of physical sexes, the differences between men and women, it. Of course, it can also just mean sexual intercourse, but in some places here Li Yinhe is talking about more than that.

Yang Linchuan


I really admire Yang Linchuan’s activities; he’s a courageous and knowledgeable artist who has truly become a model for the modern Chinese man.

From Liu Haisu‘s nude sketches at the Shanghai school of Fine Arts starting in 1914 and up through the collected nude works of Tang Jiali a few years ago, the issue of nude models in art has been rattling around China for 96 years–now it’s a new century and we still haven’t figured it out! This issue even bothered Chairman Mao enough to write memos on it twice (1965 and 1967). In 1983 a group od art students were arrested for spreading [works with nudity] around, and in 1986 a nude model who went home to the countryside to visit relatives was driven mad by the townspeople there. Even the beautiful and pure Yang Jiali, living in the twenty-first century, is often driven to tears.

What is so terrible about the human body? Is it really that ugly, dirty, and obscene? Why can’t bodies be beautiful? The old saying goes: when looking at the same thing, the benevolent see benevolence, the wise see wisdom. We ought to add a like: the perverted see perversion. Looking at an aesthetically pleasing piece of body art taken by an expert photographer, most people see beauty. But people with darkness in their hearts can’t see the beauty, all they see is obscenity. This makes them shy, which makes them suspicious, which makes them angry. This doesn’t mean the work itself is flawed, it shows that the viewer is flawed, and even that their mentality is gloomy, vulgar, distorted, and perverted.

Chinese culture over the past thousand years, and especially over the past few hundred, is truly distorted, perverted, and stupid when it comes to anything involving sex. After 1840, ancient China’s strengths began to weaken in all areas when compared to the West, and a poor, weak, and suffering country came into the light of the world stage. In what was once a country with a glorious five thousand years of history, people were suddenly suffering, poor, and upset. Life is short; living life in a country like that was painful. In such a society, the beauty of the human body and sex were luxuries. Beauty was not something people demanded, and they didn’t pay attention to whether or not they had the happiness that beauty and sex can bring.

I was once touched greatly by an event, something that happened at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. An ordinary Chinese scholar got a pass to visit the US. His trip was set to cover only the eastern US, but as it was widely known within China that Las Vegas was widely known as a city of gambling and sex shows, he took out a sum of money entirely disproportionate to his meager salary and took the long trip just to see a performance. This just shows how the beauty of the body and of sex suppressed to such a degree in China, so much so that people would think doing something as absurd as this was worth it. From this, I could feel just how pathetic and suppressed Chinese people were, going to the other side of the earth and paying huge sums of money just to satisfy the natural desires of our sensory organs. Yang Linchuan was just an accidental model who naturally fell into the position of using his body in the place of a model’s. But his showing this much respect for his artists’ work didn’t attract praise, instead it caused a great uproar. Does China actually want art or not? Does it want to enjoy sensory pleasures? Why is it that something that’s enjoy by cultured people all over the world encounter such abnormal restraint in China? Must Chinese people always live this pitifully?

Chinese people have always believed that food and drink and the desires of men and women are fundamental. Chinese people who’ve resolved the issue of food and drink and satisfied their sexual desires will be happy. Satisfying the eyes, ears, tongue, nose, body and other sense organs will go a step further towards spiritual happiness. Chinese people can abandon the sickness that’s plagued us the past hundred-odd years, and use health and happiness as the basis for a new emergence into the world. The Yang Linchuan incident makes me feel pessimistic about this, but I still have a basically optimistic view about the Chinese people’s chances to be happy in the future. I think that most people in China see this stuff the same way that I do, but that’s just my optimistic outlook.


One wonders what Li Yinhe thinks of the fact that some pornographic websites are now unblocked in China. Given that Yang Linchuan posed nude only last week, perhaps this is another case of one step forward, one step back when it comes to opening up Chinese culture. My own views on pornography are public, of course, but even if you don’t agree, China’s odd occasional aversion to nude models in art is a bit more difficult to explain.

At least, most of the time. Sometimes, it’s pretty understandable.

0 thoughts on “Li Yinhe on Nudity in Art and Society”

  1. Regardless of your view on porn and nudity in art, I have to ask this question…If nude art allows us to enjoy “sensory pleasures”, then what is the difference between pornography and nude art? Can you honestly support one and not the other? Some people support both or oppose both, and I applaud them for their honesty. But if you support one and not the other, how are you drawing the line between what is appropriate and what is not? And are you making that determination in an honest fashion?

    A second question I would have to ask, if you support nude art: If your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend wanted to pose as a nude model for art that would be publicly displayed, would you have a problem with that? Would you have a problem with your friends and family seeing that? Any ambiguity on this question begs for an honest re-examination of your views.


  2. @ Crystal: It isn’t art photography. This is a news photograph of what happened. I don’t think any of the “art” that came out of that class has been published. But even if this was one of the art photographs, do you really think I’m going to post a picture of a naked person on this site. As much as some of the stuff we translate might make it seem otherwise, I actually don’t want to get blocked…

    @ David: “Sensory pleasures” isn’t just a nice way of saying “masturbation”. It is, in fact, possible to look at people’s bodies (and other pieces of art) and get pleasure out of that that isn’t sexual but would be described as “sensory pleasure,” at least by Li Yinhe, who is including in that category anything that’s ‘pleasing to the eye,’ more or less. As for where to draw the line between porn and art, it’s hard to define, but how many photographs or movies have you seen where you really had to think about whether it was porn or not? It’s actually a pretty natural distinction in practice. I would submit the difference lies in what the piece is meant to do. Is it meant to arouse and stimulate sexually, or does it use sex as a tool to get at something deeper about life (or whatever)? Hence, a film like Short Bus is art, even though it’s also pornographic, but [Insert obvious porno name here] is porn.

    As for the second question, no, I wouldn’t mind that. In fact, one of my previous girlfriends did do that, and it was great. But your assertion that “any ambiguity on this question begs for an honest re-examination of your views” is, I think, misguided. Do you mean to suggest that anything we might be embarrassed to show to our parents, friends, etc., isn’t art? Whether or not something is inherently artistic and how one’s family and friends will perceive it are two very different things, because unlike a regular viewer, family/friends bring their knowledge of you to the piece and thus don’t experience it the way a regular viewer would, plus, you have to face them afterwards. Whether it’s got nudity or not, some art is intended to shock, appall, or otherwise elicit some kind of negative reaction. Such art can be powerful; can we really suggest that it isn’t art just because the artist would prefer not to show it to his mother?

    If art had to pass the test of being approved by the artists’ family and friends, there would be no progress whatsoever, since most if not all innovation is characterized as perversion and degradation of the old styles before it is finally accepted as a new and legitimate form by the general populace.

    Moreover, whether or not one would approve of their loved ones posing for nude art doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the question you’re trying to ask. For example, I might oppose my girlfriend posing for art nude because I am afraid she will be mocked by viewers because of a scar on her breast, and I know her well enough to know that hearing such comments will make her feel badly. This is one hypothetical situation, but there are many more I could come up with where one could oppose a particular person doing nude art legitimately without having that opposition compromise their support for nude art in general.


  3. Li Yinhe is making sweeping generalizations. It’s clear from Internet postings that many people, especially the youngsters, couldn’t care less or think it’s cool.

    The Chinese attitude toward sex has already dramatically changed since the 1980s for the better. And given the never-ending stream of scandals involving the post-90s generation being promiscuous and flaunting their sexuality in public and online, there’s no reason to be pessimistic in terms of sexual liberation.


  4. “In 1983 a group of art students were arrested for spreading”

    Given the subject… if that was deliberate, you are The World’s Greatest Translator. If not, you are accidentally The World’s Greatest Translator.


  5. “中国人一向笃信” doesnt this mean: “we chinese had always had a belief that”, euqals to “中国人一直深信”,,,i dont know if it is my bad english that misunderstood “A sincere letter to the Chinese people: ” or what else


  6. There’s a book about the subject of (the absence) of nude paintings in traditional Chinese art, Le Nu impossible, by François Jullien (The Impossible Nude: Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics, The University of Chicago Press, 2007).


  7. I think its all a matter of appreciation and deep understanding of the concept behind nudity in art. Expression of thoughts are basically the foundation of art and the result of its acceptance among the viewers are becoming more essential than the purpose of its creation.


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