You know those demure, apple-cheeked ladies in vintage advertisements (Yuefenpai) from Shanghai in the 1930s? Not so demure, as a matter of fact.
In the rapidly modernising China of the 1930s, the Yuefenpai or calendar posters came into being to market new and foreign products to Chinese consumers. Like all successful advertising, they touted the new and unfamiliar while referencing the old and familiar.
The layout of the early Yuefenpai was standard no matter the product advertised: the focus was always a young and smartly dressed model, the product itself almost beside the point. Typically, the model would cross her legs in the picture. A bouquet of flowers would figure prominently on or near her person. And she would be depicted within an enclosed space.
In fact, the layout of the early Yuefenpai drew heavily on traditional Chinese representations of a very particular sort of woman: namely, the courtesan or prostitute. The early Yuefenpai co-opted traditional erotic markers and applied them in a modern, consumerist context.1
In traditional painting, a viewer in the know could immediately tell the social status of a female subject by noting the pose in which the artist had painted her. A prostitute would typically be shown sitting with one leg raised or her right leg spread across her left knee. In this pose, the viewer could catch a glimpse of her tiny lotus feet, the né plus ultra of Chinese sexual practice. Louche postures and a seeming lack of control over one’s body signified a corresponding lack of control over one’s appetites. By similarly depicting the Yuefenpai woman in a cross-legged pose, the Yuefenpai was sending unambiguous signals about her sexual availability.
Additionally, one of the traditional terms for ladies of the night was “flower girls.” Could it be that the persistent presence of floral bouquets in the Yuefenpai was a literal reference to Shanghai’s “flowers?” Most likely, yes.
Finally, like the heroines of traditional Chinese love poetry, pining away for their lovers while shut up in boudoirs, isolated from all human contact, the early Yuefenpai woman was painted within deep interior spaces, shorn of social context, with the outside world seeming far away. The viewer had to visually penetrate her space, whereupon she was offered up as an erotic object for his consumption.
It was a break with tradition, however, for the Yuefenpai artists to paint women in a realistic style. Nonetheless, even here they must have been inspired by publicity photographs of courtesans, the first realistic depiction of women in modern times. The traditional preference for a fleshless female body, concealed under layers of fabric, gave way to the strong lines and visibly curvaceous form of modern/ western preference.
The sexual allure of the Yuefenpai ladies reflected the allure of the modern city and all its consumer delights. Poster after poster featured this cross-legged minx, promising he who would unlock the secrets within the key to the modern city itself.