Did Chinese Kiss?

Did Chinese Kiss?

In 1979, the Chinese magazine Popular Cinema landed in hot water after publishing a still from a British film showing a couple kissing. Although the “reform and opening-up” period had begun the previous year, public displays of intimacy were still taboo in China — a bourgeois affectation alien to the country. But the response to the image was overwhelmingly positive: Of the over 11,000 letters the magazine received, two-thirds were supportive, with readers arguing that an on-screen kiss would neither “poison the youth,” as one early critic claimed, nor harm Chinese society in general.

The back cover was saved, but the initial controversy reinforced stereotypes about Chinese prudishness that persist to this day. In “The History of the Kiss!” the Canada-based scholar Marcel Danesi writes that kissing “is not part of the courtship traditions of China or Japan.” This belief in the foreignness of kissing is ingrained even in China itself: A Chinese dictionary from the 1980s claimed that the term “kiss” in Chinese — jiewen — originated from the Japanese word seppun, which, in turn, was derived from the English word “kiss.”

It is this myth that Hu Wenhui, an independent scholar, attempts to debunk in his 2023 book, “A History of Kissing in China.” Hu argues that, far from being an import, words like jiewen were widely used by ancient Chinese, and are almost as old as Chinese literature itself.

According to Hu, the earliest credible Chinese records regarding kissing can be found in Mawangdui, an archaeological site in central China known for its Han dynasty tombs (202 BC – AD 220). Among the manuscripts unearthed there is a guide to sexual practices which includes a reference to a technique known as xu. Originally meaning “to exhale” or “spit saliva,” it can also be interpreted as “kissing” in the context of the manuscript.

Another Han-dynasty manuscript returned to China in 2009 offers clues about how couples kissed nearly 2,000 years ago. In one fictional passage, the author jokes about a woman’s unpleasant appearance and unrestrained behaviors while noting her fondness for kissing: “Her body is like a hedgehog with spines, yet she is an enthusiastic hugger; her breath is foul like a decaying rat, yet she is keen on clamping her husband’s moustache.”

The Han dynasty is the source of many enduring images of kissing in Chinees culture. Most of these come from decorative murals found in tombs and religious halls. Han artists struggled to apply the principles of perspective, but that didn’t stop them from visualizing kissing in creative ways. One mural represents two kissing people by having their mouths close to each other, connected by a tongue.

Despite these early records, mentions of kissing would remain a relative rarity in Chinese literature until the last millennium. That might be due to a lack of sources, but Hu believes that a real change took place: the secularization of both sex and literature. Prior to the Song dynasty (960-1279), sex and kissing were often mystified as an “art of the bedroom” and closely linked to Taoist practices. This tendency to mystify sexuality gradually lost its allure, however, freeing depictions of kissing from the pages of medical textbooks.

More significant was the secularization of literature. The expansion of urban life during the Song allowed new literary forms, including lyric poetry and novels, to thrive. By the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, writers knew how to entertain their readers with juicy, occasionally lurid details. In Pu Songling’s famous Qing-era collection of supernatural short stories, “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio,” a minor official surnamed Xu develops an attachment to a young woman. He forcibly kisses her, only to be informed that their relationship will go no further. When Xu approaches the woman again, this time with the intention of more than a kiss, a commotion erupts around them. It turns out that the woman is a fox spirit, and the pair are now surrounded by hunters of the supernatural. She escapes, and Xu never sees her again.

To describe the act of kissing, Pu brought together the characters for jie, meaning “contact,” and wen, or lips. Jiewen, far from being an imported term, would become one of the most commonly used words for kissing in modern Chinese. But jiewen is just one of many terms for kissing in Chinese literature: Lovers might qinzui — “touch mouths” — or zashe — “lick each other’s tongues.” Another creative expression, unique to Chinese, likens the act of kissing to “drawing lü” — a character made by copying the character for “mouth” twice. It’s a very literal interpretation of the phrase “mouth-to-mouth.”

But if kissing was so prevalent in traditional Chinese literature and art, why do so many modern Chinese still see it as a predominantly Western import?

The answer, according to Hu, lies not in the act, but its context. In pre-modern China, kissing was seen exclusively as a sexual act, one that should only be practiced in private. This stands in contrast to Western Europe, where kissing has a broader range of cultural meanings. It wasn’t until China’s rapid modernization in the early 20th century that young Chinese became comfortable with kissing in public, and even cherished it as a symbol of the freedom to choose their own partners.

Of course, this process was not always smooth, especially for women. The famed 20th century author Eileen Chang — a woman, unlike all the other authors mentioned in this piece — made a bleakly humorous contribution to China’s kissing canon in her novel “Little Reunions.” Of an unpleasant kiss experienced by the story’s heroine, Chang writes: “A square tip of tongue, dried to a cork-like texture from too much talking, suddenly extended into her lips. He sensed her disgust at once and smiled as he let go.”

(Header image: Details of a painting by Qing painter Yin Qi. From the collection of the Boston Museum)

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