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The East and West of Sex and Desire

Sexual myths and misconceptions in the ancient texts of Greece and China


If you’re a reader of trashy magazines, chances are you already know about Sting’s mastery of tantric sex. Impressive though this sounds, we feel that he, Madonna, and other sexual gurus could make themselves more accessible to western fans by drawing on their own traditions. These, we think, have just as much to offer as their eastern counterparts, as becomes apparent through a comparison of sexual ‘science’ in China and the West? So, here we’ve placed medical and Taoist texts from early Chinese history up against the work of ancient Greeks, focusing on the issues most pertinent to modern readers; and leaving you to decide: Who would you consult before your wedding night?


Health and Fluids: The Chinese Texts 

Doctors of both east and west loved fluids—particularly sperm. In ancient China, jing, a rarified form of qi, was usually construed as sperm in men, and as vaginal fluid in women. Jing was very important indeed. Taoist and early Chinese doctors believed that without it, both sexes would wilt and die. But the main difference, most thought, was that women came away from sex with a full complement of jing, while men lost their vital essence through ejaculation. Consequently, men were advised to keep their fluids to themselves, quite literally: For example, the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Cannon, one of the founding texts of Chinese medicine warns against ‘’entering the bed chamber in a drunken state and exhausting the jing through desire,’’ and recommends instead that men withhold their sperm in a cool and calculated manner.

This was easier said than done, so practitioners devised a treasure trove of sexual techniques to help the poor men out. Douglas Wile in his introduction to The Art of the Bed Chamber, gives a summary of these: ‘’mental imaging, breath-control, perennial compression,’’ and, best of all in our opinion, ‘’teeth gnashing’’ (which has the added benefit, since this must look terrifying, of ensuring your partner will never sleep with you again.) Through these techniques, the man would hopefully succeed in ‘’returning the jing to nourish the brain’’ huan jing bu nao, advancing the first and third—if not the second—parts of the modern adage, “young, dumb, and full of cum”.

According to Wile, although some texts also recognized that sex could improve a women’s health, women who sought to augment their jing through intercourse with men were usually portrayed, in cautionary legends, as evil fox demons, supernatural entities who seduced young and virile men, then sucked away their life-force. As such, Wile shows that men were ordinarily advised to keep the secrets of their arts from their female, sexual partners, for fear that women would use these skills against them.


Health and Fluids: The Greek Texts

The early Greeks were also quite preoccupied with sperm, which they believed to be produced by men and women. Hence Aristotle’s claim in his History of Animals: “The female also projects her semen into the uteri, where the man also emits his…There is a tube enclosed in the body like the penis of the male..’’However, not all sperm was equal. That of women was, according to Aristotle and the major Greek physicians, Hippocrates (406-370 B.C.E), the father of modern medicine, and Galen B.C.E 129-216, a pale imitation of the man’s: Here’s Aristotle once again, quoted in The Sex of Man in Premodern Europe by Patricia Simmons: “the female is as it were a deformed male, and the menstrual discharge is semen, though in an impure condition i.e. it lacks…the principle of soul.”

Men’s sperm on the other hand, had plenty of spiritual, life-giving power. It was therefore worth conserving and, while western doctors never went so far as those in China, they too strictly prescribed moderation in the bedroom.  As in the east,  masturbation among men was out of the question, owning to its wasteful expenditure of manly essence. As Patricia Simmons points out, male sperm was even believed to improve a woman’s health, compensating for her natural coldness, and humeral imbalances with extra heat from the man—the “hotter” of the two sexes, according to the Greeks.


Women and Desire: The Chinese Texts



In China, practitioners of sexual arts were devoted to the female orgasm, though not, it seems for entirely selfless reasons. Taoists believed that women were required to climax in order for men to absorb their jing, which became available when the woman comes. Hence, they wrote lengthy manuals of sexual techniques, including detailed notes on each stage of female pleasure, or the ”five signs”.  Medical researches Joanna B. Korda and colleagues remark approvingly that 4th century Taoist texts were the first to describe female ejaculation, the reality of which remains controversial among doctors to this day. In the Taoist texts, however, even this—the ”moon flower” as it’s called here—is construed as a potential source of male enhancement, and a route to immortality for men, and men alone.

Medical and Taoists texts also made another crucial error: they, like their western counterparts, assumed that while foreplay was essential for erotic preparation, the female orgasm could only be produced through penetration. Tragic.


Women and Desire: The Greek Texts 

On the other side of the globe, men were even less enlightened on this topic. Here, Simmons shows that an ‘’eager reception of male semen,’’ was seen as the source of female pleasure, and that, in both sexes, desire was thought to result from accumulated fluids. As Simmons points out, the early Greek physician Galen, always the romantic, recommended that women, and especially widows purge their excess semen with a midwife’s helping hand; advice that doctors continued to dispense right through the Renaissance. Humeral imbalances and excess desire were—surprise surprise—viewed as dangerous to women’s health. In fact, the made-up women’s illness, hysteria—whose main symptom was a show of sexual desire—began with the Greeks.

So—what’s it to be? Full on abstention from ejaculation, but a greater prowess in the bedroom, or less demanding moderation, but near total ignorance of female pleasure? Jing sucking fox-demon, or mutilated cauldron of limpid female sperm? As so often in historical affairs, women face a tricky, some would say impossible, decision.


Want more comparisons of Chinese and western thought? Check out Bloodletters in the East and West

Cover image from kongfz.com

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