It is easy to see how British and Chinese history came to be so intertwined.

It was marked by trade milestones like Lord McCartney’s visit to the Qianlong Emperor, followed by less savory incidents like the Opium Wars and culminating in the colonial development of Hong Kong. Economic and political legacies remain: Hong Kong will surpass London, its former mother-city, as the world’s financial center by 2016. The post-Manchu narrative of national humiliation at the hands of the “Eight Nation Alliance”, of which Britain was a member, still fuels nationalist sentiments in China.

Its modern history is many things, but one of them is most certainly the embrace and transformation of Anglo-Germanic ideas that Karl Marx penned during his residence in London. Communist China’s hybrid fusion of private capitalism and socialist state power is a constant reminder of the two philosophies that similarly defined Britain’s politics and self-understanding. While it is now China’s current dominance that weighs heavily on contemporary Britain, it is convenient to forget about more delicate faces to this exchange of money, culture, ideas, and people.

…a genuine Western attempt to express artists’ fascination…

Chinoiserie, no matter how incorrectly they depicted cultures east of Old Europe, was a genuine Western attempt to express artists’ fascination with said cultures. The same goes for the famille rose range of Chinese ceramics, which are European in theme without losing their Chinese aesthetic. The British Museum houses a small collection of these “Occidentalist” (as opposed to Orientalist) wonders, which were introduced during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661 – 1722), Qianlong’s illustrious grandfather.

It is easy to underestimate the extent to which Chinese emperors were actually open to foreign culture and art. Famous for hosting Jesuit missionaries and astronomers, Kangxi was famous for commissioning his artists to make ceramic with palettes of enamel colors overlaid on other overglaze hues.

…distinctly European influence…

Different from famille verte (which is also known as the “Five Colors of Kangxi” or kangxi wucai) and famille noire, the subdivision of famille rose, known in Chinese as fencai or ruancai (“soft colors”), had distinctly European influence. This was indicated by its later Chinese name: yangcai, or “foreign colors”.

Utilizing shades of pink, vermillion, and purple, production began sometime in the early 1700’s, was perfected during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723 – 35), and remained popular until the late 19th century. Perhaps the most explicitly European-themed famille rose exhibit is the teacup and saucer that were made for the Dutch East India Company. Complete with the twin lions, the Dutch Republic’s coat of arms, and the VOC motto, the design was replicated ingeniously by referring a 1728 silver coin struck by the Dutch, who developed their currency while trading and conquering their way through Southeast Asia.

…the economic, pop cultural, and geopolitical realms…

And what of the Latin dictum that could have just as easily characterized Chinese identity as European expansion and empire building? It was perfectly replicated onto the rose design: concordia res parvae crescunt. “Small things grow great in unity.”

For all of the cynicism and low blows that dominated Sino-British relations after the Qianlong Emperor’s death and which continues today in the economic, pop cultural, and geopolitical realms, the famille rose range of ceramic was China’s honest answer to Westerners who sought to replicate the Middle Kingdom’s culture and beauty for their countrymen to enjoy.

…a British aesthetic…

It is a pity that cultural poverty is rife in today’s China, because while its state-run enterprises are ravenously buying up Britain’s businesses and trademarks, Chinese artists have yet to adopt a British aesthetic and beautify it as well as the Qing Empire did when it adopted “foreign colors”.

I suppose Bosideng’s store for luxury, British-tailored menswear on South Molton Street is as close as it gets.                                                                                                                                                        

 

About The Author

A journalist of religion, Raymond is the editor of Buddhistdoor International. He divides his time between London and Hong Kong and can be reached at raymond@buddhistdoor.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.