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The Great Exhibition and London's Chinese Junk

Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace became a showcase for a British interpretation of Chinese culture

If the 21st Century belongs to China, as many believe, what will it mean for Britain's relationship with this emerging superpower. In a series of four essays, cultural writer Patrick Wright looks at China's historical relationship with the UK. He starts by looking at Britain's patronising view in the 19th Century.

What perspectives do the British bring to bear when they think of China? And how much of that distant land, once known as legendary Cathay, do they actually see, beyond their own prejudices and wishful predilections? In these Essays, I'm going to be reflecting on the Anglo-Chinese encounter and considering examples spread over a hundred years of history. In the next talk, I'll be examining the oriental fictions - and not only those featuring the notorious "devil doctor" Fu Manchu - that were created around the small Chinese settlement that grew up around the docks in East London. After that, I'll discuss the case of Chiang Yee, who arrived in England from China in 1933, adopted the pen-name "The Silent Traveller" and became famous for painting the British scene in the Chinese brush-and-ink style. I'll end with the British travellers who visited Mao's Peoples' Republic for the fifth anniversary of the "Liberation" in 1954, and who found themselves oddly reminded of the Diggers and Levellers of England's 17th Century revolution.

Patrick Wright's series of essays, entitled English Takeaway: Reflections On The Anglo-Chinese Encounter, is broadcast on Radio 3 at 2300 BST from Mon 16 to Thu 19 on Radio 3
Or listen to them by going to the Radio 3 website

My first case, though, is also my earliest. It dates from 1851, when many thousands came to London to visit the Great Exhibition, which had opened in Hyde Park at the beginning of May. This prodigious display of the industrial and scientific dynamism of the British Empire was staged in Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, that astonishing structure of glass and cast iron. The ceremonial opening was enthusiastically reported in Punch magazine.

Noting the silence of the "croakers and detractors" who'd so loudly prejudged the Crystal Palace to be unsafe and nothing more than a glass sparrow trap, "Mr Punch" watched the arrival of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with a patriotic smile. He was gratified to see the Royal party walking about informally among 25,000 people of all social ranks. Indeed, he hailed the sight as "the result of our constitutional monarchy, and which all the despotism and republicanism of the world cannot obtain elsewhere." It was, he thought, "a magnificent lesson for foreigners - and especially for the Prussian princes, who cannot stir about without an armed escort - to see how securely and confidently a young female Sovereign and her family could walk in the closest possible contact, near enough to be touched by almost anyone..."

Backward belief

Yet this wasn't the only contrast with foreigners that came to mind. At the end of the opening ceremony, a Chinese man in full Mandarin regalia stepped out of the crowd - "carried away, or rather pushed forward," as Mr Punch reckoned, "by his enthusiasm." This unlikely fellow approached Queen Victoria and performed an "elaborate salaam, consisting of a sudden act of prostration on his face." Here, in Hyde Park, was the kow-tow, a gesture that had already loomed large in Anglo-Chinese relations. The very first British mission to China, which took place in 1793, is said to have failed at least partly because George III's envoy, Lord Macartney, simply refused to prostrate himself before the Emperor Qianlong. Imperial Chinese protocol demanded that he touch the ground with his forehead no less than nine times in the manner expected of ambassadors from vassal states, and he would have none of it. By 1851, the kow-tow was well known in Britain as "the quintessential Chinese act", thanks not least to the accounts of Protestant missionaries inclined to construe the Chinese as "a people desperate for something to bow to". Certainly, Mr Punch enjoyed the sight of that Chinese man bowing and scraping before Queen Victoria. He joked that this kow-towing must also be "the cause of the general flatness of feature and particular squareness of nose of that flowery people, who, from their countenance, appear to have been sown broad-cast over a large tract of that country."

In the 19th Century, though, China would also be imagined as a place that was exotic primarily in its backwardness
Patrick Wright
> This was by no means the first time that China had been viewed as a distant land of "otherness" and contrasts. From the early days of contact, Europeans had gazed into China's shimmering surface and seen their own prejudices and fantasies reflected back at them. In the 18th Century, China's imagined otherness had served as a positive inspiration to many European thinkers. Voltaire studied the reports of Jesuit missionaries and concluded, for a time at least, that Confucian China was a model society of reason, enlightenment and universal values.

In the 19th Century, though, China would also be imagined as a place that was exotic primarily in its backwardness. Written in the 1820s, Charles Lamb's famous Dissertation on Roast Pig, suggested that the origin of roast pork lay in an accident suffered by a Chinese swine-herd. This simple fellow was said to have come home one day to find that his careless son had burned down the house, incinerating a sow and her newly farrowed litter in the process. It seemed an utter disaster, until he touched one of the scorched and sizzling pigs and then licked his finger to relieve the pain. Word of his discovery quickly spread, and China was soon filled with people burning down their houses in order that they too might sample the pleasures of roast suckling pig.

High-brow mockery

Nineteenth century philosophers indulged in comparable manoeuvres as they tried to fit China into the Western idea of history. Described in The Philosophy of Right published in 1820, Hegel's Oriental Realm was conceived as a theocratic order in which the individual personality has no existence, where the external world is "God's ornament" and "the history of the actual is poetry". In this largely prehistoric state, wrote Hegel, "nothing is fixed, and what is stable is fossilized... Its inner calm is merely the calm of non-political life and immersion in feebleness and exhaustion." This idea would later be taken up by Marx and Engels, and developed into a particular concept of the "Asiatic mode of production", defined as a despotic order, in which tributes and surplus labour are extracted from the population by a theocratic ruling caste, and which comes before the emergence of class society as the West has known it.

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens contrasted Britain's vast and vaunting suspension bridges with the dainty little pagodas and footbridges of the kind figured on Chinese porcelain - it was a merciless comparison
Patrick Wright on Charles Dickens (above)

If the mockery of China had become harsher by the time of the Great Exhibition this was, surely, on account of wider tensions. The first Opium War had ended in 1842, some nine years earlier, but the ongoing British attempt to force China open to trade was by no means completed.

Charles Dickens was among the writers who contrasted the innovative grandeur displayed in Paxton's Crystal Palace with the backwardness of the Chinese "Celestial Empire". England and China, he wrote, were the "two countries that displayed the greatest degree of progress and the least... England, maintaining commercial intercourse with the whole world; China, shutting itself up, as far as possible, within itself." He suggested that "the True Tory spirit would have made a China of England, if it could," adding that the likely result could be examined in a little "Chinese exhibition" that happened to coincide with the Great one. Part of this was to be found at a "Chinese Gallery" in Hyde Park Place, where visitors could inspect a Chinese Lady. Exhibited as "a lady of quality" from Canton, she sat there singing - Mr Punch judged the result "as perfect as Chinese singing can be" - and showing her feet, which had been bound in childhood and reduced to "lotus" flowers a mere two-and-a-half inches long.

Dickens, together with his co-writer RH Horne, contrasted Britain's massive steam locomotives and industrial machines with the tinkling teacups, medicine roots, rice paper and joss sticks of the "flowery Empire". He extolled the huge and thunderous printing presses that produced The Times every morning - contrasting them with the rudimentary and antiquated apparatus displayed at the Chinese Gallery, which boasted of being able to produce two or even three thousand copies a day. He contrasted Britain's vast and vaunting suspension bridges with the dainty little pagodas and footbridges of the kind figured on Chinese porcelain. It was a merciless comparison, as Dickens leaves no doubt:

Junk culture

"Consider the materials employed at the great Teacup Works of Kiang-tiht-Chin (or Tight-Chin), the 'bedaubing powder, ready mixed', and the 'bedaubing material:' - pith of stick, to make rice-paper; medicine-roots, hempseed, vegetable paints, varnishes, dyes, raw silk, oils, white and yellow arsenic, saffron, camphor, green tea dyes, etcetera. Consider the greatness of the English results, and the extraordinary littleness of the Chinese. Go from the silk-weaving and cotton-spinning of us outer barbarians, to the laboriously carved ivory balls of the flowery Empire, ball within ball and circle within circle, which have made no advance and been of no earthly use for thousands of years. Well may the three Chinese divinities of the Past, the Present, and the Future be represented with the same heavy face. Well may the dull immoveable, respectable triad sit so amicably, side by side, in a glory of yellow jaundice, with a strong family likeness among them! As the Past was, so the Present is, and so the Future shall be, saith the Emperor. And all the Mandarins prostrate themselves, and cry Amen."

The Chinese junk Keying became a tourist attraction in 19th Century London
Dickens found another symbol of Chinese backwardness in the Keying. This was a Chinese junk, 160ft-long and made of teakwood, that a band of enterprising Britons had managed to acquire in Hong Kong and then sail around the Cape of Good Hope with a mixed, and increasingly irreconcilable, crew of 30 Chinese and 12 English. Having paused at St Helena, they set sail for England but were blown off course and ended up visiting New York and Boston first. Since finally arriving in London in 1848, the Keying had been moored in the Thames at Blackwall, where it rapidly became established as one of the most popular visitor attractions in London. Like the Chinese Exhibition, it provided ample illustration of Dickens' idea of China as a static land devoted to "Stoppage" as opposed to "Progress".

Compared with the "stupendous" naval anchors displayed in the outer part of the Great Exhibition, the Chinese junk seemed to Dickens a "ridiculous abortion": more like "a China pen-tray" than "a ship of any kind". The Keying was nothing but a "floating toyshop", the risible invention of a stagnant country where "the best that seamanship can do for a ship is to paint two immense eyes on her bows, in order that she may see her way... and to hang out bits of red rag in stormy weather to mollify the wrath of the ocean." Here, as Dickens had concluded, was "the doctrine of finality beautifully worked out, and shut up in a corner of a dock near the Whitebait-house at Blackwall, for the edification of men. Thousands of years have passed away, since the first Chinese junk was constructed on this model; and the last Chinese junk that was ever launched was none the better for that waste and desert of time."

'Morbidly static land'

Dickens's view of China as a land of "stoppage" would soon be shared with Victor Hugo, the French novelist and social campaigner. In 1860, Hugo would fiercely condemned the Anglo-French destruction of the Old Summer Palace outside Peking at the end of the Second Opium War. Yet in his 1869 novel The Man who Laughs, he too went on to evoke China as a morbidly static land in which every innovation was killed off on conception. "The Chinese," he wrote, "have been beforehand with us in all our inventions-printing, artillery, aerostation - [that's to say, ballooning] - chloroform." And yet "the discovery which in Europe at once takes life and birth, and becomes a prodigy and a wonder, remains a chrysalis in China, and is preserved in a deathlike state." China, declared Hugo, is 'a museum of embryos.' He then invented a variation of the Chinese practice of foot-binding in which the so-called "flowery people" of 1851 appear to be converted entirely into vegetables:

"In China, from time immemorial, they have possessed a certain refinement of industry and art. It is the art of moulding a living man. They take a child, two or three years old, put him in a porcelain vase, more or less grotesque, which is made without top or bottom, to allow egress for the head and feet. During the day the vase is set upright, and at night is laid down to allow the child to sleep. Thus the child thickens without growing taller, filling up with his compressed flesh and distorted bones the relief's in the vase. This development in a bottle continues many years. After a certain time it becomes irreparable. When they consider that this is accomplished, and the monster made, they break the vase. The child comes out-and, behold, there is a man in the shape of a mug!"

There too, we might add as the smile fades, was the West's long-lasting and persistent habit of imagining China as its own polar opposite.

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