The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - BY HATTY LIU

“Con­ti­nen­tal Euro­pean style” may be the by­word in Chi­nese real es­tate th­ese days, but back in the 18th cen­tury, own­ing “Chi­nain­spired” ob­jects was the height of class in Euro­pean so­ci­ety. Find out what Eu­rope's ver­sion of China looked like and how this craze got its start.

When it comes to tak­ing stock of an era’s bad tastes, satirists are usu­ally right on the money. The “Con­ti­nen­tal Eu­rope wind” (欧陆风) style that has been blow­ing across China’s world of de­sign since at least the late 1990s—spawn­ing “copy­cat” ar­chi­tec­ture such as Shanghai’s “Dutch Town” and count­less bed­rooms gilded to obliv­ion—has been lam­pooned by the hip­per por­tions of the Chi­nese public as the “ba­sic ne­ces­sity of the tuhao,” crude nou­veau riche.

Jump­ing some cen­turies into the past, how­ever, and the ill Euro­pean wind starts to sound more like Eu­rope’s revenge for hav­ing once been in­flicted with what ob­servers at the time dubbed as a ma­nia for “splen­did de­for­mi­ties” from China in the 18th cen­tury. An English cler­gy­man named Joseph War­ton, writ­ing in The World journal in 1753, ac­cused the taste­less public of “[spend­ing] their lives and their for­tunes in col­lect­ing pieces, where nei­ther per­spec­tive, nor pro­por­tion, nor con­form­ity to na­ture, are thought of or ob­served.”

Eigh­teenth-cen­tury English writer Charles Lamb also poked fun at the China-in­spired kitsch—in­clud­ing lit­eral china—from his child­hood, on which land­scapes were drawn as a con­fused pot­pourri of “horses, trees, pago­das.” Other satirists of the pe­riod asked, one day soon, would Eng­land’s coun­try dairies and churches also come be­decked with dragons, bells, and ori­en­tal roofs?

Called “chinoiserie” (lit­er­ally “China stuff ” in French) by art his­to­ri­ans and “China wind” (中国风) in Chi­nese, the ma­nia for Chi­nese mo­tifs was a move­ment in the con­sumer cul­ture of mid-to-late 18th cen­tury Eu­rope. Tan­talized by ear­lier, semi-mythi­cized snip­pets of China from the tales of trav­el­ers such as Marco Polo, Euro­peans’ taste for the ex­otic found ful­fill­ment in this pe­riod through in­creased con­tact with the Qing Em­pire through court en­voys, such as the Je­suits, and mer­chants trad­ing in ports such as Can­ton and Por­tuguesec­on­trolled Ma­cau. Th­ese voy­agers brought back sto­ries and sketches of peo­ples, build­ings, and land­scapes that made up the ba­sic blue­print of how Eu­rope imag­ined the East.

Mean­while, the goods they traded be­came all the rage: fine teas, del­i­cate porce­lains, and lux­u­ri­ous silks, ad­mired for their in­tri­cate qual­ity

as much as the mys­tery be­hind their mak­ing.

By the mid­dle of the 18th cen­tury, it had be­come vogue for aris­to­cratic homes across Eu­rope to have a whole room out­fit­ted in “the Chi­nese style.” They var­ied a lit­tle re­gion­ally. Ital­ian no­bles, for in­stance, seemed to pre­fer Chi­nese-ify­ing their sa­lons with hang­ing silks and lac­quered wall pan­els de­pict­ing flow­ers and birds. The chinoiserie of the French and Ger­mans, on the other hand, was known for lac­quered fur­ni­ture pieces il­lus­trated with peo­ple and scenes from the East in a rain­bow of color and sump­tu­ous, ro­man­tic de­tail. The Ger­mans also had a brief af­fair with Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­tural styles, build­ing Chi­nese pavil­ions with curved roofs and fairy tale stat­ues in their palaces and pri­vate gar­dens. This was a ma­nia they shared with the English, who had the most sys­tem­atic treat­ment of chinoiserie of all.

The Kew Gar­dens on the out­skirts of Lon­don and the Chi­nese Room at Clay­don House, an 18th cen­tury manor house in Buck­ing­hamshire, re­main the two best sur­viv­ing ex­am­ples of English chinoiserie in (re­spec­tively) the out­door and in­door set­tings. The Kew Gar­den’s House of Con­fu­cius and fa­mous pagoda rep­re­sented its ar­chi­tect, Wil­liam Cham­bers, and English so­ci­ety’s ide­al­ized views of Chi­nese gar­den­ing prin­ci­ples. Seen as a deeply philo­soph­i­cal art, prac­ticed by gar­den­ers who are “also painters and philoso­phers, hav­ing a thor­ough knowl­edge of the hu­man mind, and of the arts by which its strong­est feel­ings are ex­cited,” Cham­bers wrote of Chi­nese gar­den­ing as a means to in­cite cre­ativ­ity and lib­er­ate the imag­i­na­tion of the gar­dener from the sti­fling sym­me­try de­manded by English land­scap­ing.

De­spite the myth that the Kew Gar­dens pagoda was a copy of Nan­jing’s Great Pagoda, Cham­bers’s de­signs were not based on an ex­ist­ing Chi­nese ob­ject; nonethe­less, hav­ing been to Can­ton, his ren­di­tions were more ac­cu­rate than the work of most of his con­tem­po­raries, who cre­ated en­tirely from stereo­type and imag­i­na­tion. Clay­don House’s de­sign­ers were of the lat­ter type: the Chi­nese room is dec­o­rated by an al­most over­abun­dance of scrolls, “ori­en­tal” faces, gilt phoenixes, china ves­sels hang­ing where no ves­sels have gone be­fore (such as above the door­way), and fi­nally a lat­tice­work wall pat­tern of a gleam­ing white fin­ish cer­tainly found nowhere in China it­self.

Th­ese el­e­ments added at­mos­phere to rooms that were solely used for en­joy­ing af­ter­noon tea, which had ce­mented it­self as a cus­tom among Bri­tish so­ci­ety dur­ing this same pe­riod as a re­sult of the same in­crease in over­seas trade. Tea was also the prod­uct al­most solely re­spon­si­ble for the rapid com­mer­cial­iza­tion of chinoiserie in Bri­tain in this pe­riod, whereas orig­i­nally they had been for­eign cu­rios and im­ports for the col­lec­tor’s mar­ket. It started with a demand for tea ta­bles and china, all of which had to have Chi­nese mo­tifs to re­flect the ex­otic ori­gin of this stylish ac­tiv­ity. It then spun off into cab­i­netry, wall­pa­per, salon fur­ni­ture, and what his­to­rian Su­san Hor­ton calls a vi­sion of a land that was “teem­ing with raw ma­te­ri­als wait­ing to be turned into cash.”

China it­self—what it looked like, the kind of art it was creat­ing in this pe­riod—nec­es­sar­ily faded to the back­ground of this move­ment. The his­tory and peo­ple of this vast em­pire func­tioned as a mere ob­ject, a re­mote ideal through which Euro­pean so­ci­eties ar­tic­u­lated their ex­pe­ri­ence of their new­found wealth and cos­mopoli­tanism.

Far from ap­prox­i­mat­ing staid Con­fu­cian ar­chi­tec­ture, or the wraith­like, sub­dued ink por­traits of Qing China, the scenes and mo­tifs of chinoiserie re­sem­bled Lewis Car­roll’s world in the look­ing glass more than any­thing else: as per Lamb’s recol­lec­tions, it was a world pop­u­lated by jolly man­darins in peaked hats, the “merry lit­tle Chi­nese waiter hold­ing an um­brella,” peo­ple who floated in mid-air and tum­bled and made ex­ag­ger­ated ges­tures in their poufy gowns. Iron­i­cally, th­ese il­lus­tra­tions, and the gilt phoenix heads and scrolls beloved by ori­en­tal­ists, are now mar­keted by dec­o­ra­tors in China as quin­tes­sen­tial Euro­pean mo­tifs of the Ro­coco pe­riod, an art move­ment that took place at round the same time with a sim­i­lar sto­ry­book style.

This is not to say that China didn’t make hay out of the chinoiserie fas­ci­na­tion. It got rich on porce­lain and tea ex­ports. Ad­di­tion­ally, the ob­jects for the most part took place abroad—ac­tu­ally start­ing the ca­reers of many big names in Euro­pean de­sign, such as Thomas Chip­pen­dale with his lat­tice cab­i­nets and Josiah Spode’s blue-and-white wil­low pat­tern plates—there was also a flour­ish­ing mar­ket in Chi­nese ports for crafts­men mak­ing chi­naware de­signs for Western tastes, though their ac­tual opin­ion on such tastes may be lost to his­tory.

More­over, as his­to­rian David Porter has noted, the pe­riod of this “China craze” was a rel­a­tively egal­i­tar­ian and peace­ful mo­ment in the tur­bu­lent his­tory of early mod­ern ex­plo­ration and cul­tural ex­change. There was an air of mythol­ogy but also gen­uine cu­rios­ity and de­sire to in­cor­po­rate what were be­lieved to be the best parts of an­other cul­ture. As the cult of chinoiserie waned in the fol­low­ing cen­tury, to be re­placed by other stereo­types of Chi­nese art ob­jects as cheap, morally de­gen­er­ate, and re­spon­si­ble for trade im­bal­ances, re­la­tions with China also en­tered the age of col­o­niza­tion, opium, and war.

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