The classic works of erotica had been hidden away from the Chinese public for decades before they surfaced last month at the remote Xindu County museum. Drawn on brick panels for the tomb of a wealthy man during the Eastern Han (A.D. 23-220), they depict a menage a trois in an idyllic landscape dotted with mulberry trees and wild monkeys. It's not clear whether the two panels reflect scenes from the gentleman's daily life or his dreams for the afterlife, says Xindu museum deputy director Zhang Yuxin. Either way, says Zhang, the panels are a historically important record of ancient Taoist beliefs, including the notion "that having sex, especially in the wilderness, was a way to cultivate oneself and prolong one's life."
How tastes change. By the time the panels were excavated four to five decades ago, Chairman Mao had banned traditional erotica as pornography. During his Cultural Revolution the Red Guards burned such works in bonfires. The only reason the panels survived was that a peasant had used them in what the radicals saw as a more noble project: a pig sty. Recovered by sharp-eyed local officials in the 1980s, they have often been shown abroad, but never before in China. Art professor Liu Dalin of Shanghai University says they are among "the finest examples of China's rich erotic art," and a reflection of "very lively" sex lives during the Han period. The display in the hinterlands of Sichuan province hints at lingering official embarrassment. But thousands of tourists have trekked out to Xindu, suggesting a popular yearning for the good old days.