Blog post


When China was "à la mode" in the West

Julien Ménabréaz (Photoconsortium)

Nowadays, things made in China seem to be everywhere, from Christmas decorations to clothes and electronics. But did you know that Chinese products have been on Western markets for centuries?

From the 17th to the 18th century, Europe had a fascination for goods coming from China. This passion for Asia gave birth to an aesthetic style dubbed Chinoiserie.

Since the Antiquity, goods from the Far East had arrived on European markets. These products came from a mysterious country called Serica, the land of silk. Even if people didn’t really know where this country was located, products from the East were synonymous with luxury and mystery.

In the 16th century, merchant ships from Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and later from England and France sailed the Spice Routes and brought goods like silk, porcelain and lacquerwork back to Europe. Westerners were amazed by the quality and beauty of these objects, which would go on to have a great impact on the aesthetics and techniques of European art. Soon a real passion for "exotic" items from the « East Indies » (the distinction between India, China, and Japan was not always clear to the West), began.

Because of the long journey these pieces took to Europe, they were generally very rare and expensive. Owning a blue and white Chinese vase was a sign of prestige and wealth. Only rich bourgeois and nobility could buy them. European goldsmiths adorned Chinese porcelain with elaborate gold pieces and Dutch painters loved to represent Chinese vases in their nature-morte paintings.

These became the nucleus of famous collections, and in some cases remain masterpieces in museums still today. Castles and palaces had their own "Chinese room" with wallpaper depicting landscapes of China to adequately frame lavish collections of porcelain and lacquer furniture. The most famous collector was Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. He even exchanged soldiers for Chinese porcelain with the King of Prussia to enlarge his collection.

Western merchants started sending models of vases and furniture to Asia for copying, answering to European tastes. In this way, European patterns were incorporated into the decorations of Chinese-made art handicrafts.

To address the problem of the cost of import, Europeans tried to produce porcelain themselves, but the challenge was daunting. They had to find the formula that had taken Asia centuries to develop and had been kept secret. After a lot of research and failures, the first factory was established in 1710 in Meissen, Saxony, to the great pleasure of the Elector. It marks the birth of the porcelain industry in Europe. France followed, then England and the rest of Europe joined in. The same evolution can be seen in the production of lacquer work.

European artists and craftsmen were enchanted by patterns of Chinese landscapes, birds, flowers and people. They copied them to create the Chinoiseries style, a unique mix between Asian and Western styles. Europeans, however, often didn’t understand the meaning of Asian motifs. Flowers often symbolized seasons:the lotus stands for summer and the chrysanthemum for autumn. pomegranates mean fecundity and peaches stand for longevity. Animals also could have a meaning: a pair of ducks signify marital bliss, and bats bring good luck.

Chinese influences also permeated architecture. Those who could afford it wanted Chinese pavilions, bridges and pagodas for their gardens. Empress Catherine II of Russia even had a whole Chinese village at her palace of Tsarskoe Selo.

Trends are never meant to last, and Chinoiserie soon faced competition from other artistic currents. Wealthy people, however, continued to buy and show off their blue and white vases and lacquer desk collections. Asia continued to influence European creations too, such as Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot from 1926 or haute-couture and perfume creations from designers such as Yves Saint Laurent.

The Chinoiserie style is an extraordinary example of how art and techniques from different cultures can merge and mix. So, the next time you use your grandma’s precious porcelain, remember the journey it took from its faraway roots all the way to her cupboard.

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