Valuable Book gives Rare Insight into Eroticism in the Ming Dynasty Period

A valuable book is gifted to the University of Bonn, after 70 years

Handing over the book - (from left) Ralph Kauz,   Thomas van Gulik and Aarnout H
Handing over the book - (from left) Ralph Kauz, Thomas van Gulik and Aarnout Helb. © Photo: Barbara Frommann/Uni Bonn all images in original size .
The University of Bonn was recently gifted an extraordinary book, the donation of which had been promised 70 years ago by the since deceased Dutch ambassador and sinologist Robert van Gulik. The work is a volume titled "Erotic colour prints of the Ming Period: with an essay on Chinese sex life from the Han to the Ch’ing dynasty, B.C. 206 - A.D. 1644". The work was printed in Tokyo in 1951 in a limited edition of only 50 copies. The ambassador’s son, Prof. Thomas van Gulik, presented the book to Ralph Kauz of the University of Bonn Department of Oriental and Asian Studies in a special ceremony.

The pertinent question: why did it take all of seventy years for the University to receive the promised volume? Aarnout Helb had been given the book by his father Henri Arnold Helb, who had served as Dutch ambassador in New Delhi and Moscow, among other things. The book had been sent to the latter by the author, Robert van Gulik. Henri Arnold Helb and Robert van Gulik got to know each other in the late 1940s when they were both working for the embassy in Washington, D.C. Henri Arnold Helb was Chargé d’Affaires in Bonn from 1950 to 1953. Robert van Gulik had sent him a copy of "Erotic Color Prints of the Ming Period" by diplomatic mail service at some point during those years-without stating the University of Bonn as the destination.

It is surmised that as a diplomat, Helb was loath to be associated with the book due to the explicit nature of its content, thus it remained in the possession of the Helb family until last year when the two men’s sons, Aarnout Helb and Thomas van Gulik, happened to meet each other, by a chance occurrence. As they talked, it emerged that Robert van Gulik’s intent was to donate the book to the University of Bonn, and this led to the book arriving at its destination after seventy long years. At the handover ceremony, Thomas van Gulik said: "It is a moment to be remembered, Aarnout Helb and I being able to present ECPMP No. 31 to your department as a gift, after the passage of seventy years. The pieces of this puzzle have fallen into place at long last!"

An absolute rarity

The book is an absolute rarity, as a mere fifty copies were printed of "Erotic Color Prints of the Ming Period", which were distributed as a gift to various universities and museums. The work is a historical look at erotic prints and their private usage during the Ming Dynasty era (1368-1644), shedding a certain philosophical light on the role of erotic prints within Chinese society. Van Gulik had acquired the printing blocks for a Ming-era erotic album in 1949 and sought to acquire additional ones from various collectors to then select the most striking images and provide commentary on these.

The book is economically valuable and of academic significance. It was a deliberate decision to limit the print run to 50 copies because these were intended for distribution to a small group of professionals, enabling access to the erotic colour prints for historical research purposes. Professor Kauz explains: "Societal mores were strict at that time and explicit erotic material was banned, so these works were only made available to a select group of collectors. The title of the book suggests ’adult content’, but the content is in fact of considerable scholarly value. Van Gulik places the erotic images within an academic-historical context in his commentary."

Sexuality in late-Ming society

For University of Bonn researchers, the work’s scholarly value is of course of primary importance, says Professor Kauz: "The donated volume represents a significant contribution in the field of Sinology, as it yields unique insights into sexuality during the late period of the Ming Dynasty. Prior to the book’s publication, the erotic illustrations were only accessible to a small group of collectors. The donation to the University of Bonn will afford art historians, sinologists and sexuality researchers valuable insights into this historical period."

Due to the rarity and fragility of the book, it’s accessibility for research purposes will be limited. Sinology scholars whose work concerns sexuality and art historians are invited to use the book for their professional research. According to Prof. Kauz, Bonn University and State Library is planning to purchase a digital version of the book to enable other interested parties to view the work.

Ralph Kauz
Department of Oriental and Asian Studies, University of Bonn
228 73-5731 or -8429