HONG KONG – I went to a Catholic middle school and spent my adolescence in an environment of sexual repression. I was fortunately aware of my body, and I heard my inner voice, which cried: sex is an ever-present matter. 

In college, I encountered philosophy and read Nietzsche, as well as the writings of other existentialists and their peers. I never did read the Taoist classics, yet I later discovered that we – the Taoists and I, that is – walked hand-in-hand along the same path. How peculiar that one could unwittingly become a Taoist or at least a Taoist sympathizer without being familiar with Taoist texts. 

The Collection of C.T. Loo, Paris. Love Games in a Flowering Garden (detail) from Gardens of Pleasure series, late 17th century, ink and colour on silk, set of 8.

Dutch painter and art collector Ferdinand M. Bertholet, who does not understand the Chinese language, is also a stranger to Taoism. Yet when he encountered a stack of Ming and Qing dynasty erotic works ranging from the 17th to 19th century, created by artists of the Imperial Court from C.T. Loo, he studied and pondered over them and came to see them align with certain Taoist and philosophical truths.  

Bertholet’s collection of Chinese erotic art has since been exhibited in numerous European art museums. The extraordinary technique of the Imperial Court artists aside, the importance of the collection lies in its display of Taoist, philosophical ideas. 

Rou Pu Tuan, 18th century. Ink and colour on paper, set of 11.

Many of the scenes portrayed in the drawings are set in gardens, a miniature version of the “great outdoors” for the Chinese, who enjoy infusing elements of nature – trees, flowers, stones, plants, and birds – into their small living spaces, a pursuit of harmonious coexistence with nature. Bertholet has named his collection Gardens of Pleasure, as most of the drawings depicting garden scenes of lovemaking. 

It naturally dawned on Bertholet, after looking over the drawings for some time, that the Taoists not only regarded lovemaking as a natural act, but that lovemaking was a way of responding to nature, its process simple and easy. He began to appreciate the Taoist life philosophy and its attitudes towards sex. 

Yanqin Yiqing, 18th century. Ink and colour on silk, set of 8.

The collection of scenes depicted in Gardens of Pleasure comes not from the imagination, nor are they exaggerated or bizarrely unorthodox – which is entirely different from Bertholet’s collection of Japanese erotic art. And between the two, Bertholet prefers Gardens of Pleasure for the Taoist truths that the ancient Chinese collection expresses, that the way to live lies in harmony with nature, health and longevity, as well as joyful lovemaking.

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Tags:Chinese Paintings – Modern, Chinese Paintings – Classical, Hong Kong, Collections, Exhibitions