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When West Met East

July 2024
5min read

A Picture Portfolio

The first American ship to visit China was the Empress of China , which landed there in 1785; the Empress , anchored at Whampoa Reach, is one of the ships shown above on a fan brought back by her captain, John Green. From this date to the end of the nineteenth century, every American ship that returned from China was laden with cargoes of exotic Oriental commodities, especially teas and silks, the staples of the trade. Among the items most prized by the men who had lived and traded in the Orient were pictures and drawings of China and the Chinese. The alien and seemingly curious culture intrigued the Westerner, and hundreds of thousands of paintings and water colors of every phase of Chinese life, executed by Chinese artists who had learned to paint in the Western style, were brought to America. Views of Chinese figures and landscapes were painted on everything from fans to porcelains to meet the tremendous demand. The port views were the picture post cards of the day and accurately showed the families at home where their trader relatives had travelled and lived. Although many of the pictures reveal a distant and long-faded culture, some of the same street trades and occupations that were painted for the Americans in the nineteenth century can still be seen in Hong Kong and Macao. Today we look to our renewed contact with China with much the same fascination our ancestors felt almost two hundred years ago.


For foreign vessels the long trip to Canton ended when they dropped anchor at Whampoa, ten miles below the city. Supercargoes and captains then took small boats up to the Hongs, or trade warehouses. On the way they saw evidence of the enterprise of Salem, Massachusetts, in the schooners and storage hulks of Thomas Hunt’s chandlery. Salem also provided a lively challenger of Chinese custom in the person of Harriet Low. Western women were banned from Canton, but Miss Low was unusually curious and resourceful. In 1832 she disguised herself as a boy and went up to the Hongs— a breach that, when discovered, temporarily set back Western trade. Harriet’s portrait (above) was painted by the English artist George Chinnery, who had come to Macao in 1825 in flight from an inconvenient wife and creditors. He found the “no women in Canton” rule a blessing and hastily moved there when the wife followed him to China. (One of Chinnery’s pupils, Lam Qua, became proficient enough in Western-style painting to exhibit at London’s Royal Academy.) But Canton’s days as a place where foreign men were exiled or protected from their women were numbered in 1832. By the 1850'$ Occidental ladies were freely visiting the once-banned area, seeing the sights, and, like the young mother opposite, enjoying the luxurious residences owned by the thriving Hong merchants.


Until the opening of the treaty ports in 1842, Westerners were required to live and trade in a small area outside the city of Canton, a location they found highly frustrating with its severe restrictions. At the end, of the business season they returned to Portuguese-owned Macao. The houses built later by the Americans in Hong Kong and Shanghai, however, were lavish and comfortable and possessed all the advantages of Western and Oriental culture combined. Although ordinary Chinese architecture was not highly picturesque, construction was sound.


American traders in Canton haunted the streets and alleys where the shops were located, in search of curiosities to bring home or send to relatives, friends, and clients in the United States. To these Yankees, such thoroughfares as Old and New China streets were full of vitality and of astonishing sights. Craftsmen and vendors hawked their goods in the open; entertainers performed acrobatic feats and sang, played, danced, or mimed for whatever they could pick up. More fascinating still was the practice in the Chinese judicial system of torturing and executing malefactors in public. Lacking the power of the modern tourist to record such scenes with the camera, the traders flocked to artists to purchase or commission water colors of the local sights or of the Hongs, or even portraits of themselves as seen by Chinese painters.


The ceremonial richness of Chinese domestic, social, and business life was well represented in series of water colors depicting entertainment, household interiors, manufacturing, boating, parades, presentations, and music making. These, painted on English paper or on Chinese pith paper, were usually bound in sets and avidly purchased by Americans; occasionally other materials would be used for special subjects like the mandarin portraits above, painted on glass. One Chinese decorative art that became familiar to Americans was formal gardening. Rich Hong merchants like Houqua were proud to invite the Yankees to see their horticultural splendors in parks and terraces on the island of Honam, across the river from Canton, where acres of carefully attended gardens were embellished with pavilions, ponds, bridges, and gazebos. Typically, everything was hidden behind walls, a treatment that extended also to most private homes, whose grounds, however beautiful, were not open to the public gaze. The love of formal gardens made horticulture one of the better-paid occupations.


The sets of water colors most desired by Americans were those depicting the production and sale of the great staples of the trade with China—tea, porcelain, and silk. Each set had one or two dozen paintings, and sometimes two or more sets were bound together to furnish a record of economic history unique in attractiveness. Silk culture in China was possibly four thousand years old in the iSoo’s. It began with the nurture of silkworms on mulberry trees, like those in the middle picture, opposite page. After the worms had spun their cocoons, the delicate fibers were extracted, twisted together, dyed, and hung out to dry (bottom). Later they were woven into fabrics whose glossy beauty was so valued that numerous European countries tried hard to encourage local silk industries. But Chinese silk remained highly prized, and although China kept much of its raw silk for the home market, certain silk merchants, like Eshing (top), became rich in the trade—and so did some Americans.

Rice, though a humbler crop and hardly important to American traders, was far more vital in the entire Asian economy. Probably domesticated in India long before Buddha, it is still the staple food of half the world’s population. Most rice in China was of the kind grown in marshy, flooded lands. (Northern Chinese, however, use wheat as their basic grain.) On trips around Canton, traders saw rice fields like those above and at right, tended by patient coolies and muddy water buffaloes.

Americans in the China trade were well aware of the fact that Chinese porcelain was considered the world’s finest—and not surprisingly, for the art of its manufacture had flourished for hundreds of years. Early in the nineteenth century shipments of dishes, bowls, jars, vases, tiles, and figurines began to make up a substantial part of the trade, and American housewives grew used to referring to their dinnerware as “china.” Porcelain shops near the Hongs, like the one above- whose sign promises the best porcelains from Kiangsi province—were full of bargain-hunting foreigners, just as similar shops in Hong Kong are today. Customers could have decorations made to order by Chinese artists who sometimes showed a charming lack of realism. On the vase opposite, custom-finished for a patriotic Yankee buyer with a scene of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the members of the Continental Congress have a remarkably Oriental appearance.



The commodity most eagerly sought by the Western merchant was tea, and it was for this Oriental luxury that traders risked lives, money, and vessels in the hope of amassing large fortunes. Chinese merchants grew wealthy in the same business: one of the best known, best liked, and richest was Houqua, whose portrait (opposite) was painted by the celebrated Chinese artist Lam Qua. His trademark, or chop, which appeared on the tea he sold, is shown above. The tea label to the right is from one of the large tea companies toward the end of the nineteenth century. The Hong area of Canton as it looked in 1855 is seen in the water color below, executed by Lam Qua’s younger brother Tingqua; the key in the right margin identifies the companies in each of the buildings, including such American firms as Lindsay and Company, Heard and Company, Wetmore and Company, and the best known, Russell and Company. The writing is probably that of John Forbes, member of a distinguished American family of China traders.

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