I have just finished reading Chi-Ming Yang’s Performing China: Virtue, Commerce and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century England. I found this book particularly interesting in that it presents the British cultural engagement with China in the 18th century as a kind of dialectic, a see-sawing between admiration and rejection.
In an age when Europe was being transformed by the effects of international trade, China presented an intriguing example of an empire that had somehow managed to combine ancient virtue with modern commerce.
Chinese goods like porcelain, lacquer and silk, which were being imported into Europe in increasing numbers, were both valuable commodities and symbols of an ancient civilisation, both advanced products to be emulated emulated and corrupting luxuries to be distrusted.
The ambivalence towards Chinese culture was also evident in Arthur Murphy’s play The Orphan of China, a tragedy about conflicting familial and patriotic loyalties which had a long run on the London stage between 1759 and 1767.
One of the reasons for the popularity of the Orphan, in Yang’s analysis, seems to have been its representation of Chinese virtue as recognisably admirable but simultaneously exotically excessive. It provided a useful template against which the British could measure their own, more objectified and individualistic sense of virtue.
I would tend to agree with Yang that this ambivalence or dialectic is a constant in the history of our engagement with China and is still relevant today.
More about the portrait of Mrs Yates as Mandane can be found on the Tate website, and a brief discussion of the portrait of the children in Asian clothing is on the site of the Global History and Culture Centre, University of Warwick.