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Chinoiserie in 18th C. Europe

YE TINGFANG | 2019-04-04 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

"The Chinese Garden" ("Le Jardin Chinois") (1742, Museum of Fine Arts, Besancon) by Francois Boucher, is a notable example of Chinoiserie in 18th-century Europe. Photo: FILE

In 18th-century Europe, reaction to Chinese literature and art lagged behind philosophy, mainly because most of the missionaries to China were not literati or artists. Chinese literature didn’t reach Europe until the mid-18th century, when James Wilkinson, a British merchant living in Guangzhou for several years, translated a collection of Chinese novels, operas, proverbs and poems into English and Portuguese. This collection was published by Thomas Percy in 1719. Thirteen years later, Joseph de Prémare (1666–1736), a French missionary, translated the famous Chinese play of the Yuan Dynasty, The Orphan of Zhao, into French. It was then published in Father Du Halde’s Description Géographique, Historique, Chronologique, Politique et Physique de l’Empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie Chinois the next year. Soon, the English, German and Russian translations of the novel emerged.

The Orphan of Zhao
In 1755, Voltaire adapted The Orphan of Zhao for the tragedy L’Orphelin de la Chine performed in France. The Orphan of Zhao is derived from a historical event recorded in the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) by Sima Qian. It is about familial revenge in the State of Jin during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE), in which a man named Cheng Ying suffered a lot, even sacrificing his own son, to protect his friend’s son, the only survivor of the massacre of the Zhao family. Voltaire reworked the structure of The Orphan of Zhao and changed the play’s setting to the period of the Mongol conquest of the Southern Song Dynasty. In the L’Orphelin de la Chine, moved by Cheng Ying’s suffering and endurance, Genghis Khan (1162–1227) wakes up from passions of war and becomes a ruler of kindness and compassion. Voltaire pioneered Chinese literature’s journey to the West.


The Orphan of Zhao was also the first Chinese work to impress German writers. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) regarded it “very remarkable.” When he came up with his theory of world literature between the years 1827 and 1830, it was natural for him to take a closer look at this old country in the East. As he became acquainted with more Chinese works, he learned more about this country and its people.

In a conversation between Goethe and his personal secretary Johann Peter Eckermann, Goethe said, “the Chinamen think, act, and feel almost exactly like us.” He goes on to explain the similarities and differences he finds between the “us” he refers to and the Chinese writing and culture it represents—“We soon find that we are perfectly like them [the Chinese], except that all they do is more clear, pure, and decorous than with us.” He draws connections between the Chinese texts he has read and western texts— “With them all is orderly, citizen-like, without great passion or poetic flight, and there is a strong resemblance to my Hermann and Dorothea, as well as to the English novels of Samuel Richardson.” Though Goethe knew that the Chinese works he had read were not “one of their best,” he declared, “The Chinese have thousands of them, and when our forefathers were still living in the woods.” Goethe praised the Chinese for being “moral and proper,” and he concluded, “It is by this severe moderation in everything that the Chinese empire has sustained itself for thousands of years, and will endure hereafter.” In Goethe’s later years, he composed a collection of poems based on the themes of some Chinese poems and named it the Chinese-German Book of Hours and Seasons.


Rococo and “Chinoiserie”
When the prevalence of Rococo decorated 18th-century Continental Europe with motifs and scrollwork, a new consumers’ demand emerged—the desire for the exotic. Two centuries’ accumulation of information and sentiment prepared Europe for the reception of the Chinese aesthetic.

Chinese art was introduced to Europe in the early 18th century, catching the attentions of artists from France, Italy and Britain. Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) and Francois Boucher (1703–1770), whose works are regarded as the perfect expression of French taste in the Rococo period, were interested in Chinese art. Their paintings are characterized by bucolic and idyllic charm, coinciding with the genre of Chinese ink and wash painting, less severe and more naturalistic than the classic European genre. Traditional Chinese garden designing became a popular theme in Europe. It was common to find a wooden Chinese tower, bridge, or moon gate among a series of winding wooded paths there, such as the pavilion located in Schloss Pillnitz in the German state of Saxony, with a focus on the Chinese style. The Chinese House in Potsdam and the Chinese pagoda in Munich represent a European interpretation of Chinese gardens.

The rise in trade with China brought Europe a large number of oriental art works and subjects for daily use, the style of which was related to the Rococo style, as both styles were characterized by exuberant decoration, asymmetry and a stylized nature. A new French word was invented through the popularity of the Chinese style, “Chinoiserie,” focusing on subjects that were typical of Chinese culture. Chinoiserie symbolized the Europeans’ imitation and fascination of Chinese artistic traditions, especially the European obsession with porcelain. Louis XV once ordered to melt all the silver tableware for more important matters and use porcelain instead. Upperclass and wealthy merchants were consumed by a passion to collect and use Asian porcelain. Imported porcelain from China was expensive and was perceived as a tangible sign of prestige and taste. In 1604, the Dutch seized a Portuguese carrack and looted all the Chinese export porcelain on board. The Dutch pirates renamed these porcelain items and shipped them back to their homeland for auction. On hearing the news, both Henri IV of France and James I of England sent people to purchase the porcelain. Louis XIV of France even ordered the Prime Minister to set up a Chinese corporation to order porcelain ware direct from the manufacturers in Guangdong Province of China. Undoubtedly, the “porcelain fever” played a significant role in booming European trade, especially in Holland and Britain. Between 1602 and 1682, the Dutch East India Company introduced more than 16 million pieces of Chinese porcelain ware. The popularity of tea and coffee also helped expend the consumption of porcelain from the upper class to common families.

During this era some Chinese items for daily use also gained popularity in Europe. Early in 1700, Louis XIV held a gala in his palace to celebrate the arrival of the new century. He entered the hall in Chinese costume, sitting in a palanquin carried by eight men. The Chinese palanquin was usually shouldered by bearers. After being introduced to Europe, the Europeans preferred to carry it by hand. Rigid feather fans, the fashion of the 16th century, gradually fell out of favor as Chinese folding fans gained dominance in Europe, especially the ones made of silk. Chinese elements were often seen in Europeans’ make-up and dress. Maria Theresa (1717–1780), the female sovereign of Austria, once played a Chinese woman in an opera. There were some people imitating the Chinese by having peacocks and golden fish as pets. It is said that Louis XIV’s Prime Minister Mazarin filled his house with numerous items of Chinese craftwork and other Chinese luxury items. Under the influence of Chinese culture and art, it was not surprising to find that many of the European palaces were equipped with Chinese-style rooms or buildings.


The ebbing tide
The Europeans’ enthusiasm for Chinese culture ebbed in the late 18th century when their aim of opening trade opportunities with China was frustrated by the Chinese rulers. The spread of colonial empires and their increasing desire for the global market were revealed as aggressiveness towards other countries, which was unacceptable for the Chinese rulers.

The contemporary trend of thought in Europe also added oil as a reason for a negative attitude towards China. Since the late 18th century, most of the Westerners travelling to China were of the emerging mercantile class. They showed no interest in the traditional philosophy of the old country, and didn’t accept the cultural differences between East and West. Therefore, most of their writings about China were critical. Furthermore, multiple strains of thought arose in the late-18th and early-19th centuries in opposition to the 18th-century Enlightenment. People of the Counter-Enlightenment disliked Rococo and associated it with China. They criticized the followers of the Enlightenment for their admiration of Chinese elements and thus were attracted to negative news about China. Eventually, the Europeans’ 100-year favor for Chinese culture declined.

This article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Ye Tingfang is a research fellow from the Institute of Foreign Literature under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.