A pillow book painting from 19th century China

A pillow book painting from 19th century China

I’ve been curious about pillow books for a long time, and thought writing a blog post about them would be a great excuse for doing some research. I’ll start with the same caveat as in my last post: I’m not a historian or an expert of any kind. Research is a hobby (yeah, I’m a geek). All of what I write in this post is information I’ve found via the internet, and while I try to make sure my sources are solid, I make no guarantees.

So what are pillow books? There are a couple of different kinds. Some are basically journals that were kept by the bedside for writing down your thoughts. (The most well-known example of this is The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a lady in the late tenth century Japanese Imperial Court.) I’m not going to talk about that type. I’m much more interested in the sex manual pillow books. These were beautiful works of art designed to teach newlyweds the pleasures of the bedroom.

Painting from a 19th century China pillow book

Painting from a 19th century China pillow book

The origins of the pillow book go back to ancient China. In the third century BC, philosopher Ko Tze wrote that “food and sex are life’s most natural appetites.” According to the Dynastic History of Later Han, “The arts of the bedroom constitute the climax of human emotions and encompass the totality of the Tao.” What a lovely way of looking at sex, don’t you think? I like the idea that being good in bed is part of being spiritually healthy. And that’s what pillow books were about: creating spiritual balance and a strong relationship through sex.

In China, pillow books were instruction manuals included in a bride and groom’s wedding trousseau. Their purpose was to both instruct and arouse. This poem in particular reveals a lot about how they were used and how sexuality was honored:

Painting from a Chinese Pillow Book, date unknown.

Painting from a Chinese Pillow Book, date unknown.

I have swept clean the pillow and the bedmat,
And have fitted the burner with rare incense.
Let us now lock the double door with the golden lock,
And light the lamp to fill our room with brilliance.
I shed my robes and remove my paint and powder,
And roll out the picture scroll by the pillow.
The Plain Girl I shall take as my instructress,
So that we may practice all the variegated postures,
Those that an ordinary husband has but rarely seen,
Such as taught by Tien-Lao to the Yellow Emperor.

(Excerpt of a poem by Che Heng (AD 78-139)

As you can see from the poem, pillow “books” were originally scrolls. Over time, they developed into books, usually containing 12 panels of illustrations. They spread from China to other parts of the orient, including India, Nepal, and Japan. Along with the paintings they included love poems, quotations from erotic texts and novels, and sometimes teachings from esoteric traditions of sexual energies. The young couple would look through the book together and learn how to pleasure each other in a loving, intimate way.

Painting from a Japanese Shunga Pillow Book, date unknown

Painting from a Japanese Shunga Pillow Book, date unknown

Let me emphasize that while pillow books contained very explicit images, they were not pornography. There is more to them than just variations of sexual positions. The settings are all detailed, and usually include gardens or some reference to nature. The clothing depicted is beautiful, with flowing lines and fine fabrics. The images are layered with the ideals of feminine beauty, spiritual meaning, court customs, humor, tenderness, and sensuality. One thing I find interesting is that the male and female bodies are quite similar, with soft curves for both rather than the modern dichotomy of males being hard and angular. In fact, in some of the images I wouldn’t know for sure which was which if it weren’t for the sexual organs displayed. It’s a great example of how the standards of sexiness can differ between one culture and the next.

Painting from a Japanese Shunga Pillow Book, date unknown

Painting from a Japanese Shunga Pillow Book, date unknown

In Japan, pillow books are associated with erotic paintings known as Shunga. I had trouble finding reliable sources on this. Some say Shunga sprang from pillow books, while others say it’s the other way around, and some seem to suggest that they’re not directly related. According to Wikipedia, Shunga began in the Heian Period (794-1185 AD), and was supposedly inspired either by Chinese medical illustrations or by Chinese pillow books. (I rather hope it was the latter.) Some sources claim that Japanese pillow books were originally geisha sexual instruction manuals which eventually spread into the mainstream as teaching aids for young brides. It’s funny that the information on these is so confusing, because the Japanese version of pillow books is supposedly much more well-known than its predecessor in China. Or maybe that’s why—the more popular something is, the more misinformation you’re bound to find about it.

Japanese Shunga Pillow Book, sex manual, erotica

Painting from a Japanese Shunga Pillow Book, date unknown

I love the idea of pillow books. In our modern western culture, sex is talked about more openly, but often in a pornographic, disrespectful way. Either that or in a romanticized manner, like in romance novels. There’s nothing wrong with either of those, but do they foster intimacy between couples? Pillow books were a means of mutual exploration, a way to initiate and ease communication. How cool would it be to have something like that today? Especially for people who are ready to lose their virginity, but have no idea what they’re doing? I always wonder how people manage on their wedding night when both of them are virgins. A pillow book would be an excellent tool in that situation.

Cover of a Japanese Shunga Pillow Book, date unknown

Cover of a Japanese Shunga Pillow Book, date unknown

It would be interesting to start a new tradition of pillow books. I certainly could have used one back when I was first trying to figure out the whole sex thing. Something that gave accurate information, conveyed both the pleasure and the intimacy in a sensual way, eased the embarrassment, encouraged communication, and at the same time was a turn-on. If any of you artists out there want to give it a shot, let me know! I’d love to collaborate.

Advertisements