China as role model

I have just heard about a fascinating book on the effect of China on England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is by Chi-ming Yang and is entitled Performing China: Virtue, Commerce, and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century England, 1660-1760. It is due to be published at the beginning of October 2011 but can be pre-ordered.

Soho tapestry, c. 1700, showing elements of 'Chinese' landscape and architecture copied from European illustrated books about China of the period, at Nunnington Hall, North Yorkshire.

In this book Yang reminds us that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries China was admired in Europe as a great empire, a model of strength and virtue. The effect of imported Chinese goods on European material culture has been well documented, but here Yang investigates how Chinese culture influenced English ideas about virtue.

A book of related interest, which I have also only just heard about, is Yu Liu’s Seeds of a Different Eden: Chinese Gardening Ideas and a New English Aesthetic Ideal (2008).

The Chinese House at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, originally erected in a pond there in the late 1730s.

Liu describes how Chinese conceptions of nature and gardening affected the development of the English landscape garden. He also suggests that these ideas went on to influence other areas of European literature, art and philosophy.

Chinese gouache showing elegant company in a garden, made for export to Europe in the eighteenth century, at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire.

I have previously explored similar ideas on this blog – although in much less scholarly fashion! – about what ‘China’ meant to the English in the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. See for instance this post about Confucius as a ‘British hero’, and other posts in the ‘Chinoiserie’ category.

6 Responses to “China as role model”

  1. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    It’s interesting to see the words “Virtue” and “Commerce” side by side in Chi-ming Yang’s subtitle. My great-grandfather owned a watchmaking company in Switzerland, in the late 1800s. The enameled cases were made in China, and I remember hearing my grandmother say that in all the years my great-grandfather did business with the Chinese, there was no written contract, and apparently, no need for one.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mark, what a striking example of a business relationship based on trust, especially at a time when many westerners had lost their earlier admiration for the Chinese.

    One of the things Europeans admired about China in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was what they saw as its more harmonious, better-ordered society. This was partly wishful thinking, of course, but as a result ‘chinoiserie’ – European pseudo-Chinese decoration – sometimes had a moral and inspirational edge to it.

  3. style court Says:

    Emile —

    Appreciate the heads-up. These sound fascinating, and of course your previous posts have stimulated a lot of thought on East-West connections. Isn’t the Performing China cover striking? I did a double-take. Reminds me of the V & A’s short video Art, Design & Empire.

  4. Parnassus Says:

    I am looking forward to this book, but will be on my guard against over-interpretation. It is easy to adopt the decorative iconography of a place without subscribing to the underlying morality, kind of like the old definition of a housing development as a place where they cut down the trees and then name the streets after them.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Isn’t that costume amazing? I am trying to find out who she was and what she is dressed up as.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, I agree with you that we have to be very careful about analysing (and not over-interpreting) phenomena like chinoiserie. I think the question should always be: ‘What did it mean to them, in that period?’

    But equally sometimes the way people misinterpreted other cultures in the past can be very interesting, as it tells you something about the prevailing world view then. People projected their needs and dreams onto distant countries like China, and that can be very revealing.

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