Until Recently, There Were No Naked Women in China!

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A Brief History

Well, not exactly… But it probably seemed so!  Since the days of Confucious, nudity, even in art, has been viewed by the Chinese as immoral and was strictly prohibited.  This stance was so extreme that doctors could not look upon the naked bodies of their female patients to help treat them (more on this later).

Digging Deeper

For her series on instances of female nudity that were socially, culturally or historically significant, the author wanted to include examples from the Far East so that her lists would be more inclusive.  In the midst of her research, she discovered that there are very few to almost no women famous for being nude, as bearing skin in countries like China and India was frowned upon for centuries. 

In China, nudity in art was only first introduced at the beginning of the 20th century when Liu Haisu, a renowned Chinese painter, held a nude-model drawing course at a Shanghai art school in 1917.  As could be expected, the course generated public uproar and controversy. 


One horrific event that demonstrates the great aversion and shame that the Chinese felt for nudity around this time was the beating of a nude model by her father after she had posed for the first Chinese artistic nude photograph by Lang Jingshan in 1928. 

first chinese nude photo

In the meantime, let us get back to the topic of Chinese doctors.  As it was considered improper for a male doctor to be examining a naked female patient, doctors often used small, hand-sized, ivory sculptures of nude women as diagnostic tools.  On the figurine known as a “Doctor’s Lady,” a woman could point to the body parts she was experiencing pain.

chinese medicine sculpture 6 - croppedchinese medicine sculpture 2 - cropped

chinese medicine sculpture 10 - croppedchinese medicine sculpture 7 - cropped

One such figurine was even featured on an episode of the popular A&E’s series Storage Wars.  In the episode “Smoke ’em if you find ’em,” in an abandoned storage locker he had just purchased, hobby treasure-seeker Barry finds an ivory sculpture of a naked Asian women who appears to be reclining.  He then takes it to the Moses Yu Acupuncture Clinic in Los Angeles, California to have it appraised.  To his great surprise, he is told that it is worth $1,000!  That price, however, still did not compensate for the price of the unit.  Many such white figurines are currently being made and marketed to tourists.  The test for authenticity is whether or not the figurine is made from real ivory.

Nowadays, even with the advent of the internet, nudity is still not viewed lightly in China, and sexually-explicit content and nudity on websites is censored.  Nevertheless, some Chinese women manage to become internet sensations before the government cracks down on the sites.  Between 2007 and 2009, one of the most searched for names on the Chinese search engine Baidu was Zhang Xiaoyu, often called “China’s first nude model.”  She became famous for her soft-core erotic modeling. 

To give you an idea of just how shocking nudity is in China, it became national news in 2010 when it was discovered that a college student was paying her way through college by modeling nude.  Now compare this situation to the many American women who put themselves through school by stripping or pole dancing.  In the wake of the scandal, the student, who goes by Su Zizi but whose real name is Wang Yanyun, held an art exhibition on campus in which she gave interviews to the media completely naked as part of an art project. 

chinesecollege girl

And artists still face difficulties.  In 2009, for example, the artist Li Zhuangping painted a series of oil paintings of his daughter Li Qin in the nude.  The scrutiny they suffer can perhaps in this case even be understood by Westerners, as the collaboration gives the appearance that the moral boundaries of what is appropriate between father and daughter might have been crossed to some extent; even in the “tolerant” and progressive West, not many women want their fathers to see them, let alone paint them, in the buff.

father-daughter nude picture china

For another Chinese woman who has become famous in China for appearing naked, please stick around for the fifth installment in the History and Headlines series on women whose nudity had a social, cultural or historical significance to be published in the second half of November 2014.   

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About Author

Beth Michaels

Beth Michaels attended a private college in Northeast Ohio from which she earned a Bachelor’s degree in German with a minor in French. From there she moved to Germany where she attended the University of Heidelberg for two years. Additional schooling earned her certifications as a foreign language correspondent and state-certified translator. In her professional career, Beth worked for a leading German manufacturer of ophthalmological medical instruments and devices as a quality representative, regulatory affairs manager and internal auditor.