The Narrow World of the Artists of China’s Early Modern Canton Trade System


“New China Street in Canton,” 1836–1837, by Lauvergne; lithograph by Bichebois: New China Street: the drawing emphasizes the narrowness of the street filled with large crowds of people. The typical Chinese shops have showrooms on the ground floor and family quarters in the overhanging second story, covered with lattice shades. / National Library of Australia

The new vistas of China available after the development of the East India trade attracted many Chinese and foreign artists.


By Dr. Peter C. Perdue
Professor of History
Yale University


John Webber (1750–1793) accompanied Captain Cook on his third voyage to the South Seas and visited Macau in 1779, publishing his book Views in the South Seas in 1780. Thomas Daniell (1749–1840) and his nephew William Daniell (1769–1837) were the first professional English artists to visit Asia. They left for Bengal with the permission of the East India Company in 1784 to produce engravings, they made sketches in Whampoa in 1785, and then went to India, returning to China with a famous British mission headed by Lord Macartney in 1793. These travels provided the background for six volumes entitled Oriental Scenery, published in England from 1795 to 1815. William Daniell, a painter at the Royal Academy, also transferred his uncle’s sketches and engravings into oil. William Alexander (1767–1816) traveled as a draftsman with Macartney’s embassy and established the dominant image of China in England after his return. George Chinnery (1774–1852) sought out more authentic scenes. He left England in 1802 at the age of 28 and spent 23 years in India and 27 years in China. Chinnery moved to Macau in 1825, specializing in views of the community’s daily life. His style greatly influenced the Chinese artists who depicted the Canton trade system for the foreign export market.

The Chinese export artists were not part of the mainstream of the Chinese artistic tradition. Instead of looking for acclaim in the literati circles who appreciated classical landscapes, birds, and flowers, or working for court-sponsored projects producing portraits of the nobility, they worked on commission for the foreign community and the merchants of Canton. They quickly learned techniques of Western oil painting either by copying the British artists or adapting skills learned from the Chinese tradition. The best known is Spoilum, active between 1774 and 1805, who produced a great variety of paintings on glass and canvas, including portraits, scenes of the port, and landscapes. Others, like Sunqua, (active from 1830 to 1870), specialized mainly in ship paintings on canvas and in watercolor. Tinqua (Guan Lianchang, active from the 1840s to the 1870s) did many watercolors in his studio of birds, flowers, and insects, and the trading ports and interiors. Lam Qua, who studied with Chinnery, produced some of the most famous portraits of hong merchants and Chinese officials. He also worked with the medical missionary, Peter Parker, to paint an extraordinary series of over 100 portraits of Chinese suffering from different kinds of tumors, in order to document Parker’s cases.

George Chinnery, self-portrait, 1850 – Unlike foreign artists whose impressions of China were based on brief visits, the English artist George Chinnery moved to Macau in 1825 from Calcutta, where he had operated a successful portrait studio but had fallen deeply into debt. Chinnery’s artwork had a great influence on Chinese artists producing for the export market. He remained in the Pearl River area until his death in 1852, leaving a legacy of portraits and landscapes depicting Macau, Canton, and Hong Kong from the Canton trade period. / Peabody Essex Museum

Both groups of artists responded to the demands of their audience for colorful views of the trading community. In general, both Chinese and Western artists produced only for the foreign community and their renderings were highly selective. Except for some of the hong merchants, the Chinese themselves were not interested in pictures either of commerce or of foreigners. Their artworks contrast greatly with the pictures produced by the Japanese after Perry’s expedition in 1854. For the Japanese, the arrival of Perry’s steamships was a vital challenge to a society that had almost entirely closed off its access to the Western world for two centuries. The Perry visit generated immense curiosity, fear, and attraction as the Japanese publicly debated their response to this open challenge to their policy.

The Chinese, by contrast, had never permanently cut off foreign trade, and the foreigners arriving in the 18th century did not challenge the customary ways of doing business with the outside world. The court elite, intellectuals, and officials knew about Westerners like the Jesuits, who offered a peculiar, somewhat valuable philosophical perspective along with useful techniques for calendrical calculations, geometry, and geography. They also knew that the merchants coming to China had few common intellectual interests with them and were only interested in trade. They had traded with Arabs, Indians, Malays, Russians, and Central Eurasians for centuries. In their eyes, Westerners were one of hundreds of exotic peoples who came to pay tribute to the glories of Chinese culture.

These multitudes of foreigners had useful, exotic local products to offer, and deserved munificent gifts in return. But the giant empire of China in 1800, as the Qianlong emperor boasted, in fact did have nearly all the products it needed within its own borders. It could feed itself, defend itself, and prosper without depending heavily on the outside world. The empire lacked, however, two key commodities: silver and horses. Horses, crucial for military campaigns, had to come from the pastoral nomads of Mongolia and Central Eurasia. The Qing solved this problem by conquering the Mongols in the 18th century and by purchasing large numbers of horses from the Kazakhs. After the mid 18th century, silver, the essential driver of the Chinese commercial economy, was the only scarce major article of trade in China. This was the one key product Westerners could offer, in exchange for tea, silk, and porcelain.

From the Chinese perspective, the Canton trade needed careful regulation, but careful management could ensure a steady, profitable relationship for both sides. No radical disturbance of the existing tributary system was needed. This complacent, optimistic view—a result of the great victories of the expanding empire in the 18th century—served both sides well until the early 19th century, when it became clear that the Westerners were in fact a much greater threat. Then the system collapsed under its own weight, but for over one hundred years it created mutually beneficial commercial, artistic, and cultural relations between China and the West.

Lam Qua, self-portrait, late 1840s – Guan Qiaochang (1802–c.1860)— known to Westerners as Lam Qua— was the grandson of perhaps the most famous Canton artist, Spoilum, and the son of Lamqua (the same name spelled differently). He took over the family’s studio, producing a prodigious number of paintings tailored to the export market. Museums and foreign collectors eagerly purchased his family’s works. His brother, Tinqua, refined their mass-production oil painting techniques but also specialized in watercolor. These artists defined the image of China in the West before the 1840s. / Peabody Essex Museum

The Westerners found in China a vast, colorful, exotic landscape filled with commercial products, bustling ports, and a large population. There was much they could not see, restricted as they were to the Canton region. They saw little of rural China and only a small part of the official architecture that defined the imperial bureaucracy. They could find some evidence of poverty in the small streets next to the factories, where beggars, prostitutes, criminals, and refugees collected, but in general they were isolated from the experience of the large majority of the Chinese population. Tantalizing hints of Chinese popular customs reached them in observations of festivals, temples, funerals, and religious processions, but they seldom saw Chinese home life, particularly the lives of women and children. They could see public executions in the square at Canton, but they could not see the routine operations of an official’s headquarters. Very few foreigners knew Chinese, written or spoken, so they could not read official proclamations or talk to Chinese in their native language.

After the mid 19th century, the production of imagery by both Chinese and foreigners expanded greatly beyond that of the Canton export trade. By winning the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1860s, foreigners forced access to the interior of China. The introduction of photography allowed much more varied views of Chinese people and landscapes, and the Chinese themselves reacted to the new foreign presence with cartoons, woodblock prints, and posters.


Originally published by Visualizing Cultures, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.

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