Decorative, Inventory, New acquisitions, Small, perfectly formed

An ivory Chinese erotic figure


A Chinese carved ivory naked female figure. Often referred to as ‘doctors’ figures, this view of the use of the object is now generally regarded as spurious (see below the discussion of the matter as published by This one is thought to be either 18th or 19th century.

Length 16cm.

£2,950 sterling


Doctor’s model or erotic figure? the Chinese naked lady conundrum

A similar figure was offered for sale at TEFAF in Maastricht in 2015 and was the subject of an article on

‘One small item offered for sale by London-based dealer Ben Janssens grabbed our attention almost immediately. The Ivory Erotic Figure of a Lady is a particularly exquisite figure of a reclining, naked Chinese lady: the sort of figure usually described in auctioneers’ catalogues as a ‘doctor’s lady’. They were supposedly used by Chinese doctors prevented by etiquette from touching or viewing the naked bodies of their patients. The patient-doctor relationship could be sanitised by the use of such models for pointing out areas of discomfort.

‘However, in a scholarly text attached to the catalogue details of the piece, the ‘doctor’s lady’ concept appears to be discounted. The careful placement of the lady’s left hand between her legs is simply an erotic device, apparently.

‘Ben Janssens suggests, ‘The precise function of these figures has been widely debated by historians, leading one to the conclusion that they were likely to be crafted as erotic toys (see F M Bertholet Concubines and Courtesans: Women in Chinese Erotic Art, Brussels, 2010). It has been recorded by the Ming scholar Shen De-Fu (1578-1642) that ivory carvers ‘made small figures of pairs in sexual congress which were of the highest artistic quality’. The present example is especially interesting with a towering hairstyle indicating a high courtly rank, and the uppermost point of the hair knot with a small ruyi symbolising longevity. An erotic figure of a reclining nude lady in a similar pose but with somewhat rougher carving, dated earlier to the Ming dynasty, is in the Irving Collection.

‘Two other closely comparable reclining nude ladies, similar in pose and dated  to the Shunzi (1643-1661) and Kangxi (1662-1722) periods of the Qing dynasty are in the Muwen tang collection.’

‘This relatively new assessment of the role of such figures may not, however, represent the whole story. We know that the earliest use of the ladies dates back to the Ming Dynasty in the 1300s and they were still being used as recently as 100 years ago.  It is often suggested that doctors would use a carved wooden stick with a carved ivory hand on the end that was positioned as if pointing.  That way the physician wouldn’t have any physical contact even with the small figure, taking the modesty factor even further.  These pointers do crop up from time to time but are quite rare today. Their existence might suggest that such figures had multiple uses. Indeed, the purporting of them to be  ‘doctor’s ladies’ might have conveniently disguised ownership for more carnal use . . .

‘This figure for sale [at TEFAF Maastricht in 2015] has come from a private collection in Germany. It is available at 14,000 (Euros) from Ben Janssens


Decorative Inventory New acquisitions Small, perfectly formed