Wile's "Art of the Bedchamber" - Chinese Sexology

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"Seizing Immortality from the Jaws of Impermanence"

Taoist lovemakingArt of the Bedchamber, by Douglas Wile, State University of New York Press (1992) is a scholarly anthology of ancient Chinese sexology texts. While the texts themselves make for interesting reading, Douglas Wile's masterful analysis of the changing Chinese views on the purpose of sex and the deteriorating role of women over the centuries is especially enlightening.

As he notes, the tao of man and woman achieving immortality together gradually eroded. The nadir was the belief that one partner could "steal" her/his partner's prized ching by inducing the other's orgasm while refraining oneself. (The Chinese recognized that orgasm is draining, even for women, and they imagined that if one partner were losing, the other must have been gaining.) Women's solo practiceInterestingly, the counsel to avoid orgasm remains uncompromised in the texts describing solo practices for both men and women (and Bedchamber includes translations of the women’s practices).

Wile's commentaries comparing Chinese and Western thought were especially impressive. Here are some excerpts:

Alan Watt's perfect orgasm, "the bursting in upon us of peace," from the point of view of Chinese sexual practices is what the Roman historian called "creating a desert and calling it peace." From the Chinese perspective, relaxation should not be achieved at the price of depletion: relaxation is achieved by relaxing. The function of sex is to send a charge of bioenergetic ching electricity through a conductor whose resistance has been lowered by relaxation. The Chinese have made an art, a yoga, a ritual, a therapy, and a meditation of sex. Watts, and the West in general, have left all of these possibilities completely out of the discussion....

Watts seemingly has not considered that a bit of art or yoga may actually enhance Wile's Art of the Bedchamberthe interpersonal goals he has in mind, that without art and a mastery of internal energy, spontaneity may be only the spasm of a few seconds, and that the anticipated human communion may become an exercise in frustration.... In China, the medical emphasis on ching conservation led to an epicurean esthetic that maximizes pleasure by moderating the price - truly a strategy for "having one's cake and eating it too."...

Chinese sexual practices attempt to seize the prize of immortality from the jaws of impermanence, to separate the desire for "release" from the experience of loss and transform the orgasm into rebirth.... This is an esthetic of happy endings rather than climax and catharsis, of long volleys rather than smash and point, of riding the swells and avoiding the breaking waves.… These techniques may contribute greatly to the forging of a truly egalitarian sexual covenant, offering as they do enhanced sensitivity and control and providing a greatly enriched vocabulary for sexual communication.

Wile also compares the Chinese mindset with those of Freud and Reich:

Adolescent passionTo some Freudians, then, the Chinese male may look "orally arrested," but it is worth remembering that to many Chinese, the Western male looks hopelessly addicted to the adolescent thrill of genital orgasm. It is a two-way street.

Reich’s theory of "sexual energy" and "orgone" in many ways answers to the Chinese concepts of ching and ch’i. Taoist meditation, yoga, and sexual practices are aimed at breaking down what Reich called "muscular armour." Reich’s opposition to monogamy, of course, sets well with the Chinese custom of polygamy and the insistence in sexual practice on multiple partners. Both Reich and the Chinese share a common fear of sexual repression and belief in the importance of sexual contact for maintaining psychological health. However, Reich’s vision of social revolution through sexual liberation and China’s pursuit of health and immortality through sexual yoga diverge in the interpretation of orgasm.

For Reich, the function of orgasm is to discharge sexual tension, and full orgasmic potency is characterized by "involuntary muscular contractions" Chinese couple dancingand "the clouding of consciousness." The feeling of pleasure is derived from the decline in tension and the return to equilibrium. This to the Chinese makes a narcotic of sex. For them, contact and arousal are the most fundamental biological needs, not orgasm. The energy discharged during sex should not be drained from the body, but shared with the organism as a whole, and particularly the brain. This results in a state of spiritual illumination (shen-ming), which may be said to be diametrically opposed to Reich’s "clouding of consciousness." The spiritual "irrigation" experienced by the Chinese sexual yogis is a far cry from the Western waters of oblivion.

Wile isolates ten precepts of Chinese sexology:

  • Chinese artworkEnergy is lost through ejaculation. "Ejaculation brings enervation not relaxation, homeostatic holocaust not emotional catharsis."
  • The activation of sexual energy (ching) floods the entire system with positive vital energy (ch’i). "These positive effects are immediately negated, however, if the energy elevated through sexual play is lost through [orgasm]."
  • Sexual potency declines with age. Some "believed that it is not age that causes sexual decline, but rather sexual mismanagement that causes aging."
  • Ejaculation, although depleting physical reserves, has the opposite effect on sexual desire. "After an immediate postcoital letdown, there is a rapid psychological rebound and an intensification of erotic interest [and wet dreams]." This suggests a cure for sexual addiction: "When the ching is full one is free of lustful thoughts."
  • Sexual energy can be transferred between lovers, enabling men or women to "steal" ching from each other. One can steal more from new partners than from constant intercourse with one partner. Chi symbol"Women are depleted significantly by orgasm and menses, but intolerably by childbirth…." [Perhaps the supposed benefit from changing partners wouldn't exist if women were making love without orgasm and not for procreation. The women's solo practices suggest that even menses can be overcome by careful management of life force energy.]
  • The period from infancy to puberty is characterized by abundant energy, and no leakage of semen or menses (as well as the absence of sexual desire). This is wholeness.
  • Abstinence from intercourse, voluntary or enforced, produces both psychological and physiological aberrations. "By abstaining from intercourse the spirit has no opportunity for expansiveness, and yin and yang are blocked and cut off from one another."
  • Man’s arousal time is faster than woman’s, but even he should warm up slowly. "Only with full arousal is the semen secure."
  • Mingling of sexual essences has the power to create new life. "If the ching goes forth, it creates new life, but if it is retained, it gives life to one’s own body," until finally reaching Taoist Lovemakingin the sexual alchemists the spiritual parthenogenesis of what [one text] calls "forming the holy fetus."
  • "Careful regulation of sexual energy is the foundation of conjugal harmony." Through exercising self-control and calming the passion, love actually increases, and one remains interested in one's lover.

The concept of "returning the ching to nourish the brain" is the centerpiece of Chinese sexual practice according to Wile. I suspect this is another language to describe the phenomenon we have noticed. Brain chemistry seems to improve when one avoids the highs and lows of conventional orgasm while consciously nurturing each other during lovemaking. This provides a sense of wholeness and satisfaction.

Early on, the Chinese taught that the path to mutual immortality for men and women is through a "combination of deep penetration, low arousal, and tan-t’ien visualizations." The goal of the visualizations was to draw the energy from the energy center just below the navel up through the heart into the crown center. In this way, the combination of male and female energy forms a life-giving elixir, and eventually the "holy fetus." Taoist Yin/Yang symbol

Sadly, the Chinese, like the Tibetan Buddhists to the southwest, departed from this shared goal in favor of the selfishness of men using women’s sexual response for their own ends. Perhaps the resulting karmic dance - as we exchange roles lifetime after lifetime - has caught us in a downward spiral for a long time.

Let's hope that the time has come to put yin and yang together again and restore the practice of mutual sexual/loving cultivation for the highest possible ends.