Blog post

A souvenir from China

Chinese export paintings: testimonies of global trade

Julien Ménabréaz (Photoconsortium)

When travelling abroad you might buy some local gifts for your relatives, friends and yourself. But did you know that Chinese craftsmen produced a special kind of souvenir for Westerners over two centuries ago?

In the 18th century, the Chinese empire was an isolationist, closed-off country. Only the port of Canton (Guangzhou), on the south coast, was open to foreign merchants. There, the Western trade companies from France, England, the Netherlands and Sweden bought goods like silk, porcelain and tea.

Isolated from the continent, Western merchants had to live and conduct their business only in the area of the port of Canton, on an island called the 13 Factories. This place was the only « window » for merchants to get a view of China. Luckily, they could also virtually visit China through a particular type of art, known as the Chinese export paintings or Chinese pith paintings.

The mass-produced paintings were exclusively made for foreigners. Most of them were brushed on pith paper: a cheap, spongy material made with the earth of a shrub native from southern China. Because of the nature of the paper, the paintings were very fragile.

Most of these paintings were made by a team in a studio. Painters used watercolour or gouache (oil paintings were less common), producing vividly colourful impressions of China. Another technique used was glass reverse painting, showing Chinese or sometimes European subjects. Glass reverse painting is a delicate and difficult art, which consists of applying paint to a piece of glass. To see the painting in its full glory, the glass needs to be reversed.

Because these export paintings were generally made by craftsmen and not artists, they weren’t considered to be an art form by the Chinese, unlike calligraphy or ink paintings. This may be the cause for it taking such a long time before Chinese export paintings became a serious object of historical and artistic study.

Trade in Chinese export paintings proved very lucrative, as they were cheap to produce and easy to transport. Sold alone or in an album, the range of subjects went from flowers, animals and landscapes, to scenes of daily life and processes of manufacturing products like tea or silk. These depictions gave foreigners a taste of China and answered to the European taste for exoticism.

Having a painting from a Chinese studio became very fashionable in Europe. Some studios and their owners - such as Tingua, Youqua, Sunqua and Puqua - became famous. Western newspapers advertised where to find the best painters. In the 19th century, after the two opium wars, more ports in cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong opened to foreign merchants and new painting studios opened there as well. You could even find Chinese export painting studios in neighbouring Asian countries and colonial establishments like Manilla, Batavia (today’s Jakarta), Surat or Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka).

With the development of photography, Chinese export painting became less popular. Some manufacturers followed the market and opened what would become the first Chinese photograph studios. Others started copying photographed portraits to paintings.

Some of the export paintings that ended up in Europe today form a magnificent testimony of the exchange between and mutual perceptions of Europe and China. They're also a fitting illustration of the history of global trade, more than a century before the start of post-industrial globalisation.

This blog post is a part of the PAGODE project, which explores Chinese cultural heritage in Europe.