A Taste for China

9780199950980

There has recently been a spate of books examining the west’s historical fascination with east Asia through the lens of literature and the history of ideas. I have previously featured Chi-Ming Yang’s Performing China and Yu Liu’s Seeds of a Different Eden.

Pieter van Roestraten (1629–1700), Teapot, Ginger Jar and Slave Candlestick, c. 1695. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pieter van Roestraten (1629–1700), Teapot, Ginger Jar and Slave Candlestick, c. 1695. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A new book by Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins, entitled A Taste for China: English Subjectivity and the Prehistory of Orientalism, once again approaches the subject by way of literary history. But at the same time it also sheds new light on a question that has long puzzled me: why were China and Chinese things so highly regarded in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe?

Chinese porcelain teapot, Zhangzhou ware, c. 1650-1670 with European silver-gilt mounts, c. 1660-1680, at Ham House (inv. no. 1139006). ©NTPL/Bill Batten

Chinese porcelain teapot, Zhangzhou ware, c. 1650-1670 with European silver-gilt mounts, c. 1660-1680, at Ham House (inv. no. 1139006). ©NTPL/Bill Batten

One of Zuroski Jenkins’s answers revolves around the theory of perception formulated by John Locke (1632-1704). According to Locke the mind is an empty receptacle which is gradually filled by external impressions and perceptions. In this view sophistication equals importation: the mind of a person of taste is like a collector’s cabinet, filled with wondrous things from across the globe.

This seems to explain why seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Europeans seemed to be so keen on collecting objects from cultures they barely understood, and to create decorative schemes that combined eastern and western styles without any sense of incongruity.

Pieter van Roestraten (1629–1700), Still Life with Silver Wine Decanter, Tulip, Yixing Teapot and Globe, c. 1690. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pieter van Roestraten (1629–1700), Still Life with Silver Wine Decanter, Tulip, Yixing Teapot and Globe, c. 1690. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Zuroski Jenkins also argues that in the course of the eighteenth century there occurred a shift from this cosmopolitan idea of taste to a more polarised opposition between the self and the other, which increasingly defined China as something that stood in contrast to the British sense of identity.

These are just a few snippets from Zuroski Jenkins’s complex book, which I now want to reread to savour her analysis more fully. But it confirms my hunch that ‘China’ in 1700 and ‘China’ in 1800 were two radically different things.

6 Responses to “A Taste for China”

  1. cinziarobbiano Says:

    beautiful!!!

  2. zugenia Says:

    Reblogged this on angels in machines and commented:
    Some nice coverage of my book! I really like this blog.

  3. François-Marc Chaballier Says:

    A new exhibition has just been announced by the Château de Versailles on “China at Versailles”.
    Here is a link (in English): http://en.chateauversailles.fr/news-/events/exhibitions/china-at-versailles.
    It will no doubt be interesting to compare English and French subjectivities towards China.
    Thank you for your fascinating blog.
    François-Marc Chaballier

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    François-Marc, thank you very much, I wasn’t aware of that exhibition. As you say it is really interesting to compare French and English responses to China. I just spotted on the exhibition website a chinoiserie pavilion made for Queen Marie-Antoinette in 1776, and I wonder whether it might have inspired the Chinese dairy at Woburn Abbey (1789) – the architect of the Chinese dairy, Henry Holland, may have seen both Marie-Antoinette’s chinoiserie pavilion and some of the Queen’s ‘play’ dairies, and may then have combined the two concepts at Woburn…? So thank you for giving me that idea to follow up :)

  5. zugenia Says:

    Jennifer Milam has an article on Catherine the Great’s use of chinoiserie design in her gardens — might be interesting to throw Russia into the comparison as well!

    http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/ecf/vol25/iss1/6/

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Eugenia, thanks very much for that reference. Indeed it is very instructive to look at chinoiserie from a Russian imperial perspective. And this also touches on the fascinating issues around the use of chinoiserie in gardens and parks. Among the gardens now looked after by the National Trust, Shugborough, Stourhead and Stowe are especially interesting in that regard.

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