The British encounter

The British encounter
When two empires meet
Talks / Lecture

Photo of Benjamin Penny
Recording date: 
18 February 2016

Benjamin Penny, Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU, discusses how two cultures met on the southern coast of China and how the encounter had a profound effect half a world away.


Transcript for The British Encounter the Celestial Empire

Speakers: Guy Hansen (G), Dr Benjamin Penny (B)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 18/02/16

G:           Good evening, everybody. Hello, my name is Guy Hansen, I’m the Director of Exhibitions here at the National Library of Australia. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this we are now privileged to call home.

Tonight is the third in a series of lectures we’re presenting in partnership with the Australian National University’s Centre on China in the World as part of our public programs for the Celestial Empire: Life in China exhibition which we’re currently holding upstairs on the ground level. The Centre on China in the World at ANU is just one of a number of partners who’ve helped make this exhibition possible. It’s been an extraordinary collaboration obviously between two great libraries, the National Library of Australia and the National Library of China and also a number of commercial partners and individual donors.                                  

First and foremost I would like to thank the National Library of China for sharing its extraordinary collection with us and with all of you. I hope you will take the opportunity to visit the exhibition this evening which will be on until 8:00 and I hope some of you have already seen it. I’d also like to thank our sponsors Shell in Australia, Seven Network, Wanda One, Optus Singtel, Huawei, Cathay Pacific and TFE Hotels for their generosity. Funding for this exhibition was also made available through the Commonwealth Government’s National Collecting Institutions Touring Outreach Program, also by the Australia China Council and the ACT Government.

Our speaker tonight is the Director of the Centre on China in the World, Associate Professor Benjamin Penny. Ben, with his early support for this exhibition and expert advice, played a major role in making this exhibition happen. I’d particularly like to thank Ben for his generosity in lending us the services of Nathan Woolley to come over and curate the exhibition. I really can’t emphasise too much how important the input of the team at the China in the World Centre was to making this exhibition happen. It was really only with their advice and help that we were able to ensure that Celestial Empire is not only a beautiful exhibition but is also one rich in scholarship so thank you very much, Ben.

Ben of course is very well credentialed to talk to us about China tonight. In addition to being Director of the Centre he’s also editor of East Asian History, an innovative e-journal freely available online. He’s published works on Daoism in medieval China and on the interpretation of Chinese religions by westerners in the 19th century. In 2001, he was a Harold White Fellow here at the Library focusing on spiritual movements in modern and contemporary China. More recently he’s turned his attention to Shanghai and the treaty ports in the 19th century.

Tonight Ben is going to talk to us about the meeting of two cultures on the southern coast of China and how the encounter had a profound effect halfway around the world. Please welcome Dr Benjamin Penny.


B:            Well thank you, Guy, for that overly generous introduction. I’m hoping that some of you have seen the exhibition already ... if not it’s a wonderful exhibition and it’s nothing to do with me, really, it’s all Dr Nathan Woolley’s fault so that’s ... you can blame him. But I’d like to take as my goal tonight putting into context one item in that exhibition. Now it’s something that ... it’s such a rich exhibition that even those of you who’ve been once or twice may have passed by a little quickly. The object that I’m interested in is this print that I’ve got here. It’s in a book and it’s in the far end of the exhibition in the section called Looking In and I’ll get to it in a minute. This comes from a book published in 1843 called China Illustrated and I’ll be spending perhaps the second half of my lecture talking about that book. But to put it into context I have to take you back to 1757.

In 1757 a system of trade was established in southern China in the city of Canton or to be more precise just outside the city of Canton. At that time all foreign trade with China had to take place in this little enclave that was on the Pearl River but just outside the city walls of the city of Canton. Now trade at the time was managed under a monopoly of a small group of Chinese merchants who’d been given that role by the Qing court and this trading system involved a fixed pricing system, a levying of taxes in a fairly arbitrary way, purchasing goods on behalf of the foreign traders and so on and the traders themselves, the foreign traders, British, Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish, Americans could only actually be in residence in Canton, in this area in Canton, for the summer months. They had to remove themselves after the summer and back and live in Macau. This was not as you can imagine very acceptable for the grasping foreign traders but where they lived in ... just outside Canton was known as the 13 factories, the factories being kinds of warehouses and here is a picture of them, this is a little later than 1757 when I’m talking about but you can see some of the national flags listed there. This is a rather ro ... more romantic version of the same thing. And if you really want to know what was happening here’s actually a plan of them and you can see the Danish, the Spanish, the French, the American and so forth.

So the trading situation at the time was such that there was an enormous appetite in Britain for Chinese goods. The three most important but by no means all of them were tea, porcelain and silk and those three commodities went in great amounts to Britain. They had to be bought using silver and in fact the appetite for these goods was so great that it was creating economic problems in Britain for the lack of silver because it was all going to China.

Now at the same time as the 13 factories were established in Canton the British trade was under the aegis of the East India Company. The East India Company were based in Calcutta and had a monopoly on the Bengal opium market, they grew, sold, auctioned and traded in opium. And it was discovered that this was a lucrative way of counteracting the flood of silver out of Britain because they could demand that the opium was bought using the silver in China. So it was exported from the opium fields of India to Canton where it was traded illicitly. It’s important to know this was not an official trade at this stage, it was traded into Macao and from there it was taken up the coast by various ships that traded offshore typically with Chinese people who then took it onshore and sold it across the empire.

So as I say the trading system was not pleasing to most of the foreign traders, it was rather restrictive and they felt that it wasn’t suitable for their purposes so they applied pressure to the British Government to try to ease the trading circumstances. This eventuated in 1793 in the establishment or the sending of an embassy to China under the leadership of Lord Macartney who’s the chap on the left, Earl Macartney, he had a ... he was a ... in the Irish system of honours, interestingly. So the goals for the Macartney embassy were to ... essentially were trade-based, they wanted to open new ports to trade, not just Canton, they wanted a permanent embassy in the capital, Peking, they wanted a loosening of trade restrictions in general and they wanted the Chinese to give them what they called a small island off the coast of China. The island that they had in mind was not the island they eventually got, namely Hong Kong, it was much further up the coast, off the coast of Ningbo in ... near a set of islands, the most important one of which is called Zhoushan. For those of you who have interest in Buddhism, it’s near where the Buddhist holy mountain of Putuo Shan is but it’s up there, they wanted an island up there.

So accompanying Macartney was the gentleman on the right, George Staunton. There were in fact two George Stauntons on the embassy, this one and his 12 year old son who had been learning a little Chinese in Britain with one of the other more senior members of the embassy and he was therefore appointed as page to Lord Macartney. They had problems with language, the Macartney embassy did, and they knew that they did because Chinese wasn’t widely spoken in Britain at the time as you can imagine so what they did, they took four Chinese priests with them, Catholic priests. Roman Catholics had been in China since the late 16th century and in Naples there had been established a Chinese college for the training of Chinese priests so they found a couple of priests of the Chinese college who would come with them as interpreters and they also picked up another couple who just wanted to return home.

As it turned out only one of them stayed beyond arrival in Macau. The other difficulty was of course they didn’t speak English, they spoke Latin, being Catholic priests, so the interpretation process was rather difficult between Chinese to Latin but fortunately these gentlemen were classically educated as they were at the time so they communicated in Latin. It must have been a somewhat bizarre experience, I think.

One of the great proponents of the expedition was Joseph Banks and this was for botanical reasons. He was interested in all kinds of botanical collecting as we know from the Australian experience and he was particularly interested in tea so he got attached of the embassy two botanists who were told to collect as many botanical specimens as they could but in particular tea plants. Also on the expedition was a whole raft of gifts for the Chinese emperor. Most of these were manufactured goods, various machines and so forth but it included a working planetarium that was taken apart, put on the ship and when they got to Peking it took them 18 days to actually put back together again. They also took a German band because you need a German band when you’re at sea, I suppose, and it’s ... must have been terribly impressive for the emperor. I honestly don’t know.

So the embassy made its way to China and ... by sea obviously and arrived in Macau and then they proceeded up the coast to Zhoushan, which is where they wanted to have an island and to the port of Tianjin, which is still the modern port for Peking. Then they went overland to Peking but the emperor wasn’t in residence and as you know in the Qing empire the emperors were not Chinese, they were Manchu, and he had gone to one of their holiday residences which was northeast of Peking in a city that’s now known as Chengde but at the time in western texts, and they made an approximation of the Manchu name, Jehol. That’s where the emperor was at the time and then they returned overland and got themselves back to Canton.

One of the most amazing things about it ... there were various draftsmen and artists on the trip ... this is by a man whose name was Parish and as they were getting to Jehol they had to cross the Great Wall and he took time out to make a plan of it which as you can see is pretty remarkable thing, actually. When they got there they had an audience with the emperor. This is a sketch from the time and you can see here, that there says Sir George Staunton. It’s not easy to make this out but that’s Staunton there, Staunton the elder, and that’s Staunton the younger who was 12 at the time. Here is Lord Macartney and as you can see in this picture he is sitting with ... on one knee with one leg there and here’s his hand and so on and here’s his head and here’s the emperor. They give a key to the various people who were in the picture which is rather cool but this pose that Macartney is in was rather problematic at the time and has been a point of discussion ever since.

The thing is that when somebody typically met a Chinese emperor they acknowledged his greatness and his centrality in the ... all under heaven ... by making what was called a ketou. In English it’s come down to us as kowtow, to kowtow to somebody, right? And this was where you got down on your hands and knees and then you touched your forehead to the ground. Macartney, it is said, objected to this because that would indicate that he was offering greater obeisance to the Chinese emperor than he ever would to his king. When he met the king he was in this pose. And there was a lot of negotiation backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards about how he would meet the emperor and what kind of stance he would take and so on and so forth. Macartney insisted that he do this because he saw ... even though he obviously thought the British empire was the greatest thing in the world he wanted to have the relationship on the basis of equal nations in a kind of western sense rather than a subservient nation coming to the Chinese emperor which was the more typical system under what was the called the Chinese tribute system. It’s how foreign countries had been to China for centuries before that.

So the gifts that were brought therefore are also part of the same slightly difficult question. The gifts as far as the British were concerned were gifts from one sovereign nation to another sovereign nation but from the Chinese point of view they were tribute in the traditional sense. So there was this mismatch of ideas about the nature of relationships between states.

Now I point out the ketou and the kneeling on one knee business because we’re still not sure whether this is accurate or not. Macartney always maintained that he did not kowtow to the emperor but as I’ll tell you in a minute a subsequent embassy in 1816, a British embassy refused to kowtow in the negotiations and never met the emperor, they just didn’t allow him ... didn’t allow that ambassador to get anywhere if he didn’t kowtow, it was a kind of point of no return. We also know that two years after Macartney a Dutch embassy went and the Dutch were quite happy to kowtow and they had a very good time so there is still some discussion about whether Macartney did or did not kowtow, we will never know but it’s an interesting kind of thing to ponder.

Lots of books came out of this exhibition, beautiful ... George Staunton who I showed you before was given the task of writing it up and there's four magnificent volumes which this Library has sets of, of course, very expensive at the time, very prestige things and some other books that came out but again they weren’t for the common person so although there was a lot of information that came out of the Macartney embassy it wasn’t widely disseminated. The Macartney embassy though did have a lot of popular resonance. This is a cartoon by James Gilray, the famous, scabrous, very funny caricaturist of the time and you can see here, here’s Macartney here and the Qianlong emperor here. Gilray amongst others ... Gilray was a somewhat revolutionary chap and didn’t think much of George III and in some of his other caricatures George III is pictured as the emperor Qianlong and there’s a kind of mix-up between the two because at the time the Chinese emperor was thought of as being the great enlightened monarch of the world whereas George III was to these people’s minds absolutely dreadful.

So moving on, 1793 the Macartney embassy, and 1807 really marks the next major date in British Chinese relations. But it’s not diplomatic, this is religious and 1807 marks the date when this man, Robert Morrison, the one on the right at the bottom, arrive in China. He was a missionary sent by the newly established London Missionary Society, he was a Protestant obviously but he wasn’t the first missionary in China. Catholics as I say had been there since the 1580s, the first is the famous Matteo Ricci and from the 1580s up until the 19th century it was firstly mostly Jesuits and then the Catholic mission was taken over by the Paris Foreign Mission Society. But as I say Macartney arrives in ... oh sorry, not Macartney, Morrison arrives in Macau in 1807, has a dreadful time actually for a couple of years because nobody wants to employ him but eventually he gets appointed in 1809 as a translator for the East India Company.

He’s not known for that, what he’s known for is being one of the great scholars of China and Chinese language of the time. He produced this which is not a very good picture of the title page but nonetheless, the dictionary of the Chinese language. It was the first major dictionary of Chinese into English, it took him 18 years to do. He also completed the first translation of the Bible into Chinese ... from English into Chinese, the first complete Bible translation, that took him 16 years. He also produced the first grammars of Chinese and many other scholarly works but he wasn’t just a you know a scholar in an attic, he also basically set up the foundations for the Protestant missionary enterprise in China. He had in fact previously been in a thing called the Anglo Chinese College that was established in Melaka on the Strait settlements in Malaysia, and also colleagues had been in Batavia, modern Jakarta, where they had been as the term was at the time waiting for China, waiting for China to open to try to, you know China was the great prize for missionaries and they worked amongst the Chinese communities in Melaka and in Batavia to get ready and Morrison had been in Melaka.

He did have an impact on diplomatic history because this next embassy I’m going to speak about, the Amherst embassy, he was in fact appointed as a translator and interpreter. He dies in 1834, that’s his tombstone there in Macau and he’s buried in ... if you ever go to Macau I thoroughly recommend visiting here, the small Protestant chapel. A very, very beautiful place and a very interesting graveyard behind which includes Morrison’s grave, his wife, one of his children, many other interesting folk.

So come 1816 this chap, Lord Amherst, as you can see he’s Lord Amherst etc, etc is appointed to do another expedition to China, another embassy by the British Government for much the same reasons as Morr ... as Macartney. It’s ... along with Morrison as an interpreter one of the other major people on the trip was George Staunton, the younger, the 12 year old boy who’d been ... who’d met Qianlong before. I didn’t say before but Qianlong was actually ... he was a ... one of the only people who could speak Chinese and he actually had a conversation with the Qianlong emperor as a 12 year old which apparently charmed the Qianlong emperor and gave him a gift which is very nice. But Staunton, the younger, stayed in Canton and Macau for some years and then was appointed interpreter along with Morrison on this embassy so you can see that there’s a quantum leap in knowledge about the place and the language and what Chinese people were about between 1793 and 1817.

They made their way up the coast in the same way that Macartney had done and they started ... they arrived in Tianjin and then they moved their way to Peking which is not that far overland and along the way there were negotiations about how the meeting would take place and what rituals would be honoured and how the emperor would be met and all of that kind of stuff. As I say the refusal of the Amherst ... of Amherst to consider kowtowing meant that the Chinese just said go home so they didn’t meet the emperor, they didn’t do anything they intended to do and they were given you know they were hurriedly told to depart. Nonetheless they made the same way as Macartney, they went there by ship up the coast and then they came inland down the Grand Canal and made their way overland. And again it was diplomatically a failure but like Macartney it produced an awful lot of information about China that was otherwise unknown.

So we’re in 1817 and then the next thing I want to talk about which is getting up to the end of where I will speak about in this whistle-stop tour of Chinese British interactions of this period is the first opium war. Now I have to go back a bit to tell you a bit more about opium and the opium trade. British sales of opium began in 1781 and between 18 ... and gradually increased. Between 1821 and 1837 sales increased fivefold. By 1838 the British were selling 1400 tons of opium per year to the Chinese. This was a big trade. What had started off as an attempt to redress a balance in silver exchange ended up making the Chinese in deficit for silver in the opposite direction because of the huge amount of opium that was being sold. It was being sold under the aegis of the East India Company as I said, but in 1834 they lose their monopoly, the British Government says you don’t have a monopoly on China trade anymore and what happens is that a lot of private traders come in and in fact the selling of opium goes up even further because there’s money to be made.

Now the Chinese are not stupid, of course, and they see the damage that opium is doing and in 1839 the emperor instructs one of the officials in Canton, a man by the name of Lin Xexu to destroy the opium trade. What does he do? He closes navigation on the Pearl River up to Canton, he seizes opium from the thirteen factories and he also goes offshore ... his people go offshore, he sends people offshore to see ships in ... that are actually in international waters and seize the opium off those ships, destroys them. The British of course are not very pleased about this because this is worth an awful lot of money. As a result trying to negotiate this through British Government officials convince opium traders that they should in fact hand over some of their opium and the British Government would pay them compensation. They gave up more than 20,000 chests and 200 sacks of opium doing this and they were all burned on the shore of the Pearl River in Canton. This of course leads to tension and I won’t go through all the bits and pieces but suffice to say it ends in war and the British win decisively, you can see here Chinese war junks being destroyed ... essentially this is a technological superiority thing, the British navy was just a whole lot more powerful, a whole lot better armed, the Chinese weren’t used to actually having naval battles against modern ... at that time modern western navies. And in 1842 we get the signing of the Treaty of Nanking. This is what the Treaty actually looks like, the Treaty itself.

The Treaty of Nanking opened what were called five treaty ports, that is, Canton, Amoy, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai and this is really, 1843, the first foreigners end up living in Shanghai and this marks the beginning actually of Shanghai as a major world city. The first foreigners who went there, harking back to Morrison, were the Consul, the person who’d been appointed Consul and he was accompanied by two London Missionary Society missionaries, they were the first people in Shanghai in 1843 to establish the foreign settlement there.

So the Treaty of Nanking opens five treaty ports. Hong Kong is ceded in perpetuity so they didn’t get their island further up the coast at Zhoushan, they got Hong Kong island instead. They got paid compensation for all of the opium that had been destroyed and they had to pay war reparations so it’s a fairly appalling settlement, really. I'm not going to go any further but I’m just going to note that this was not the end of military battles over opium. Between 1858 and 1860 there happened ... what was called the second opium war and the second opium war led to more ports being opened, more access to the country and so forth and then as the 19th century progresses the rights of westerners to have residence in China, certain parts of land were ceded to the foreign powers and so forth and this goes on throughout the 19th century.

But that’s where I want to leave it for the moment and just pause and think about the information that was coming to Britain about China by this stage. So going back again to the Jesuits one of the major works, very, very influential works in Britain and indeed across Europe at the time was a book by a Jesuit priest by the name of Du Halde. It appears in English in 1738 just a few years after it was published in French, under the title The General History of China. This becomes probably the single most influential book on China until the one I’m going to tell you about later. We also get publications out of Macartney’s embassy as I say, the Dutch embassy of 1795 produces material, very interesting material, Amherst’s embassy, 1816 and ’17 and of course all through this time there’s works being produced by scholars based in and around Canton and Macau so the works of Morrison but also the works of people like John Francis Davis and many others who were working at the time.

So let me come now back to here, this is where we started and this is an illustration from a work in the exhibition and that work is called China Illustrated and it comes from 1843 and it’s published in London. China Illustrated is a very interesting work and I’m going to make the claim that after Du Halde it is the single most influential work on China in Britain. It was published in 1843, it was a so-called part publication, that is you got ... it’s like those things they advertise on television now, you know? Buy part one at your newsagent for $3 now and another one will come out in you know two weeks, another one in two weeks, another one in two weeks and eventually you’ll get the full set and know how to sew or something, whatever it is. This was in four parts with 32 engravings in each part. It was republished in 1858 under a slightly different name, The Chinese Empire Illustrated. Again it’s seven parts with the same engravings and a few more added ... I won’t go into the details but I will note one thing, I think there is no coincidence that the two editions of China Illustrated happen in 1843 and 1858. 1843 is the date of the Treaty of Nanking after the First Opium War, 1858 is in the middle of the Second Opium War but happens after another major victory and another major treaty. In other words these books are somehow implicated with military victories over China. There’s a certain pride or something in England, curiosity, that leads to the publication of these books full of scenes of China that have never been seen before. I’ll leave you to ponder on the motivation for that.

So the guy who did the engravings for this, and the engraver is actually much better known than the man who wrote the words but we’ll get to him too. So this is the page that’s open in the exhibition, showroom of lantern merchant at Peking. This is the frontispiece of the first of the four volumes, this is the title page as you can see. In a series of views displaying the scenery, architecture and social habits of that ancient empire drawn from original and authentic sketches by Thomas Allom, Esquire with historical and descriptive notices by the Reverend G. N. Wright, M.A., Volume 1. Oops, sorry, just go back a bit. Published by Fisher, Son and Company and we’ll get to them later.

Allom, this gentleman, is actually as much known as an architect as he is as a topographical illustrator but he is very well known as a topographical illustrator. He travelled extensively through Europe and the near East but he never went to China, he never went anywhere near China. His biography, which is written by his great-great-granddaughter, I think, something like that, notes that to do his book on China Illustrated he really only had to walk 200 yards from his home to the British Museum. His architectural work ... this is one of his notable works, St Peter’s, Notting Hill, as you can see 1855–57 in the classical style, a rather beautiful building. Its interior I think is just lovely but he was quite something, Allom. You can see here though that the work on China was by no means the only thing that he did, he was a jobbing illustrator let us say and you can see that his illustrative career starts in 1832 when he is all of 28 and it ends in ... well that’s the last one I could find, it was ’58. I think it’s because towards the end of his career he became much better known as an architect. He in fact was one of the people who founded the organisation that became RIBA, the Royal Institute of British Architects. But you can see that he’s doing illustrated works on northern England, on the midlands, on Constantinople, on France, the castles and abbeys of England and Scotland then we get to China in 1843 and then costume in Turkey and Italy, Constantinople again, Surrey, Syria, the holy land, and, as you might know, the British Switzerland, which is the lake district. I wondered where the British Switzerland was for a while until I noticed the subtitle.

George Newenham Wright, who wrote the words, such as they are, was an Irishman who was an Anglican clergyman who lived in London. We don’t know much about Wright, he was ... we don’t even know exactly when he was born, it’s probably about 1794. He was a teacher of classics privately as well as later a schoolmaster but he was ... as Allom was a kind of jobbing illustrator, Wright was a jobbing writer and you can see here, this is some of his works only, Latin, Greek and so on. He also does biography, William IV, Louis Philippe, ex-king of the French and various others, Duke of Wellington, but this is his works on guides and similar illustrated works and you can see how small the type ended up on PowerPoint because there are just so many of them. And he starts in 1821 as you can see and the last I can find is 1864 in a historical guide to Bath but being Irish he of course was interested in Dublin, Killarney, the north coast of Antrim, Wicklow, Ireland then he moves to north Wales, more Ireland, Scotland and the Waverley novels, France Illustrated is the work ... the first one he does with Thomas Allom, the Mediterranean, Rhine, Italy and Greece, China Illustrated with Allom and then he goes to Lancashire and all the rest down to Bath. So again you can see that these books are produced by people who don’t actually know much about China at all, they never went close to China. Allom was ... sorry, Wright was the kind of guy that you got to write stuff because you needed someone you knew who would churn out the words and everybody knew that these China Illustrated and other books like it that you can see up here were actually ... people wanted the pictures to a large extent, the words were just to fill it up.

Now let’s get back to our picture and see what Allom ... see what Wright actually wrote about it. So I’m not going to read you the whole thing, in fact I’m not going to read you very much of it at all but when you look at his ... he’s got about two and a half pages of text about this picture. None of it actually refers to the picture itself, let us say, it’s actually about the topic of lanterns in China and I’ve managed to track down three of the things that he cribbed and when I say cribbed I really mean cribbed. He used the 1842 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on lanterns. That’s that year. He uses a thing called the Popular Encyclopaedia from 1836. He uses some material from the Amherst embassy because there’s anecdotes about Amherst on lanterns, there are two places where Amherst and lanterns come together. I haven’t been able to find where they come from and arguably the world’s greatest scholar on the Amherst embassy, I asked for some help and she didn’t know where they came from either so there’s some other Amherst source that we don’t know about. But one of the things that he says about lanterns I shall read because it’s kind of cute.

He says in one of the cases of the Chinese exhibition held for some years at Hyde Park Corner was a superb lantern used in China on occasions of state which the curator ... that is, of this exhibition ... describes as follows. It is 10 feet in height and four in diameter at both extremities. The frame is richly carved in gilt and covered with crimson and white silk, adorned with the most costly and beautiful embroidery. The tassels and beadwork that suspend from the bottom and from the projecting portion of each corner in the upper part are in keeping with the rest. There are no less than 258 crimson silk tassels, pendants from various parts. In short the national lantern is as magnificent as carving, gilding, silks, embroidery and beadwork can make it.

That comes from a text he is quoting, a man called W. B. Langdon from a book called Ten Thousand Chinese Things which is a catalogue of this exhibition in Hyde Park Corner, which actually was originally an exhibition in America collected by a man called Nathaniel Dunn, but we won’t go there. But I suspect that is the lantern he is describing. This is an image that comes from Ten Thousand Chinese Things, it’s the only lantern that’s illustrated in that book. And you can see it kind of looks like what he might have said, it’s got the wonderful wood carving, the embroidery, the silk and so forth. It’s got lots of tassels, I’m not sure if it’s 200 and whatever it was but there we are. So you can see that writers just put together little bits and pieces of stuff to create some writing to go with the picture.

Allom’s work was very, very popular and within what, a year and a half? It was translated into German as you can see, Italian, and Spanish at least, I haven’t tracked any ... these are just the ones I’ve seen so it’s spreading all over Europe very, very quickly. It was well reviewed ... this is from the Eclectic Review in 1843 where it’s listed, again with Fisher’s drawing room scrapbook, the juvenile scrapbook and this one. Note Fisher again, this is the publisher so these are three works by the publisher, Fisher, and in it it says as you can see hitherto the Chinese people have been unknown to Europe but it’s not too much to say that Mr Allom’s drawings will do more to familiarise us with the scenery of the country, the peculiar sites etc, etc. Very positive and it goes on much, much longer than that but it’s all very positive. Interestingly the article immediately before it is a narrative of visit to the Australian colonies which I thought was kind of cute.

It was also reviewed in the Monthly Review and again Mr Fisher has never published a more splendid work than this, nor one so opportune and anxiously required. It has been remarked with unquestionable justice that China is the most wonderful country and the Chinese the most wonderful people in the world yet how little has hitherto been accurately ascertained with regard to either. So we're getting ... you’re getting the flavour, right?

I want to move now to look at some of the pictures themselves so I’ve said that Allom never went to China so how did he know what he was drawing? Well as his great-great-granddaughter says he went over the road to the British Museum and we know ... he sometimes gives sources, not by any means all of them, there are 132 odd engravings in book but he gives sources for some. Three mentioned are actually ... well two are military officers, artists that are attached to the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy, there’s a man who is the nephew of the rather well known Hong Kong artist, George Chinnery, his name’s not Chinnery but he’s related to him. He says that one of them is from a drawing in possession for Sir George Staunton but ... so that’s the second George Staunton, the little boy who grew up ... one of them comes from the painting in the possession of the East India Company but there are two sets of work that he relies on rather a lot, one is a work by a French author, Auguste Borget, translated into English, early, called Sketches of China and the Chinese and one is a set of watercolours produced by a man called William Alexander, who was one of the artists on the Macartney embassy of 1793, and as an example I just want to show you a few of these things. So this comes from Allom’s book, The Poo-ta-la or Great Temple near Jehol in Tartary.

This is where they met ... the Macartney embassy met the emperor and it’s now the city known as Chengdu, but this is the Poo-ta-la, but it’s not the Poo-ta-la in Lhasa in Tibet. The Qing emperors were Tibetan Buddhists and acknowledged the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism in general, so he had a reproduction Poo-ta-la made in Chengdu, you can see it today. It’s about one-third the size of the real thing but it’s still there. So this is Allom’s engraving and this is where he got it from. This is an engraving after William Alexander, we don’t ... as far as I’m aware we don’t have the original Alexander work but you can see it’s obviously the same thing but if I point you to the foreground here and look at the foreground here Allom has changed it completely and added some interest in the front but he’s also taken away that little pagoda and I’m not entirely sure why. We see it again on this one, Temple of the Bonzes at Quang Yen rock. Bonze was the early 19th century word, and later, for a Buddhist priest, so the actual temple we speak of is just in there. This is in Guangdong province somewhere, I’m not sure where and this is the Alexander that it comes from. You can see that it’s obviously the same thing, look at the shape of the rock but again Allom has added these kind of boats and so forth from the original Alexander.

I think with further research, which I haven’t done yet, I’ll be able to find where he got the boats from because Alexander did do studies of boats, just boats that he saw ‘cause he was a naval illustrator, right? So he was very interested in boats and I suspect you can find the exact source of this vessel and these other vessels there. This one is slightly different, this one is the bamboo aqueduct at Hong Kong ... you can see the aqueduct there ... and it comes not from the Alexander work but from Borget’s Sketches of China and the Chinese, which is here which manages to look like something that isn’t quite China. I’m not quite sure what it looks like but it’s rather kind of French bucolic or something. But you can see here, he’s added you know all these people and the water buffaloes and all that stuff whereas the Allum is somewhat sparser but it’s certainly different. So Allom was clearly using these things and then adjusting them but not adjusting them with any knowledge of what he was actually looking at.

So I’d just like to ponder a bit about this book, this book, China Illustrated, and why I think it’s so important and where it stands in kind of bookmaking actually in the 19th century in Britain. In about 1820 a new method of making engravings became popular in London and this is to make a steel engraving. Prior to the 1820 ... early 1820s, engravings were made on copper. It’s obviously a lot easier to make an engraving on copper because it’s so soft, steel’s kind of a hard material to work with but the very softness of copper makes it wear out rather quickly. With a copperplate engraving you can make ... apparently I’m told ... between two and 500 impressions before you can’t use it anymore, before it wears out. A steel engraving on the other hand you can do 25,000 before it wears out. This is a sea change in how you can make books. This led to a boon in illustrated books of which China Illustrated is just one. It happens ... what, it’s 1843, 20 years after this kind of process really gets going and as you might remember the books that I was pointing to that Allom was making and that Wright was writing for occur after the introduction of steel engraving.

Now why? Well steel engraving makes an illustrated book so much cheaper, it becomes an industrial process father than an artisanal process if you will. This period has been ... this process has been called by a scholar of book history, James Raven, as the industrialisation of print which I think is a kind of rather good description of what it’s like. So this boom in illustrated books at the time leads to things like annuals and gift books and this kind of travel book. Now you might remember in the Eclectic Review of Allom, there was also a children’s annual scrapbook and another scrapbook so these are the kind of precursors of the kind of things that I got as a kid you know the look and learn annual and the you know the ... these kind of annuals that kids get. Allom himself, fortunately for me, actually spoke about this and he said the ease with which the impressions were multiplied from steel plates to an almost unlimited degree enabled the publishers to reduce the cost within the means of classes hitherto deemed incapable of appreciating the fine arts. This, and the perfection to which engraving has been brought, rendered their success complete. Some hundreds of thousands changed hands by this means and now they are found in every quarter of the globe.

So if we look at the books that were produced out of the Macartney embassy or even out of the Amherst embassy these were expensive items, they were handmade items, they were prestige items whereas just a few decades later these kind of books are mass produced. And we know a little bit about quite how they got into all corners of the globe and this is a rather interesting story. Fisher and Son, the publisher that I pointed out earlier, begins publishing topographical works with illustrations using steel engraving in about 1828, ’29 and this is what was part of what we call part or serial or numbers publishing. Like I was saying, you know you get first part, second part, third part and so forth. It’s a lot cheaper, you can do much larger print runs but what Fisher and Company did which was really revolutionary at the time, they avoided the normal networks of booksellers. They established their own depots in ... and distribution points all across England, Ireland and indeed in the States so I will just give you a list. London, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Plymouth, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, Belfast, Oxford, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Whitehaven, Kendal, Newcastle and The Potteries, Shrewsbury, Portsea, Norwich, Lynne, Canterbury, Rochester, Ipswich, Rye and New York, Philadelphia and Boston.

What would happen is that these distribution points were kind of independent distributors who would employ door-to-door salespeople so that Messrs Fisher and Son would send a great wadge of their publications to each of these distribution points and then they would be sold door to door. They could be sold door to door because they were much cheaper, right? Than books had used to be and they were made offers so it was you know hello madam, are you interested in China Illustrated? If you wish to subscribe to the four volumes I’ll give you the first one free. It was this kind of thing that was doing it so this is ... this accounts for the extraordinary distribution of this work throughout the UK and America. It’s one of the books that you actually can find in book catalogues. If you’re looking for a copy of Staunton’s work on Macartney’s embassy it’s very, very rare and astronomically priced. Allom is ... if you’re rich it’s affordable and there’s still plenty of copies around and indeed printmakers ... oh sorry, not printmakers, print dealers have taken with alacrity to Allom because they buy a copy and cut all the prints out and sell them as individual prints. And you can see those almost everywhere you look.

So I’m just going to conclude with a few thoughts. First of all most British people of this period never went near China obviously and indeed would rarely if ever have met a Chinese person, there weren’t that many Chinese in Britain at the time. China for them was actually a textual phenomenon. It’s a phenomenon from books and magazines and so forth, newspapers. Despite the publication of lots of works about China before the advent of steel engraving they were not only prestige items but they were sparsely illustrated so most people didn’t have any idea of what China looked like. So I hope that I’ve shown you tonight that this book, China Illustrated, from which the item in the exhibition comes changed all of that and that’s why I think this is one of the most influential works on China in the 19th century.

So to go back to my title, ‘When Empires Met,’ I’m going to rephrase it slightly and ask the question, where did these two empires meet? Where did the British Empire meet the Qing empire? Well they met in Macau, they met in the 13 factories outside Canton, they met in the treaty ports after 1843, but also I would argue, and probably most importantly, in the British Museum and quite possibly in this room, the Princeton Drawings Room, where a lot of the material that Allom used is still housed. So, thank you very much.

[End of recording]

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