The Victorian Vision of China and Japan

Victoria and Albert Museum

The myth of the exotic East has always been a potent one in the West, fuelling such images as Coleridge’s ‘stately pleasure domes’. By the time Victoria came to the throne in 1837, however, the romantic yearning to penetrate hidden worlds was being superseded by a desire to reach the apparently enormous, but hitherto untouched, markets of East Asia. With the ‘opening’ of China and Japan fantasies met with realities and new mythologies and stereotypes of the East were constructed.

British trade with China via the great southern port of Canton was well established by this time, but activities were severely restricted by the Chinese authorities. Tea was exported in enormous quantities, along with silk, lacquer and porcelain, but China showed no interest in buying goods from the West. Britain redressed this trade imbalance by selling two products from British India: raw cotton and opium.

The trade in opium was illegal, but extremely profitable. But the damage it did to the economy of his country and the health of its people was of grave concern to the Chinese emperor. In 1839 he sent an official to Canton who confiscated the opium and dumped it in the harbour. Britain retaliated to this attack on its property by sending in the warships. China was not prepared for a war with a western power and was easily defeated in the First Opium War. By the terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, China was forced to open various ports, including Shanghai, to foreign residence, trade and consular establishment.  It also had to cede Hong Kong, occupied in 1841, in perpetuity to the British. Treaties with other foreign powers soon followed and the number of foreigners on Chinese soil began to grow, with merchants in particular continually pressing for greater access to Chinese markets. Problems again erupted and by 1857 China and Britain were at war once more. Following the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin, negotiated by the Earl of Elgin, more ports were opened and, more significantly, Britain was granted the right of an ambassador in Peking.

After his success in China, Elgin went to negotiate another treaty, this time with Japan. At this time Japan was an even more mysterious country as it had maintained a closed-country policy since the 1640s. This national isolation was first breached in 1853 when an American naval squadron arrived off the coast of Japan, demanding that the country open its ports to foreign powers. Japan did not welcome the West with open arms, and in the early years of contact there were a number of attacks on foreigners. But the country was aware of what had happened in China and realised it had no chance against the forces of the West. So Elgin was able to negotiate a treaty without resort to arms.

Cushion cover, about 1800-20. Museum no. T.139-1917

Elgin then started for home, but had to turn back when conflict again erupted in China, when it became very apparent that the Chinese were not going to allow an ambassador in Peking. Elgin landed with British and French forces in August 1860 and marched on Peking. On the 5 October the troops arrived at the Summer Palace, a vast complex of buildings and parklands just outside Peking which served as a retreat for the emperor. The sight of all these riches was too much for the British and French troops and frantic looting took place.  On the 18 October 1860, Elgin received news that British and French soldiers who had been captured a few weeks earlier had been tortured and the majority of them killed. He decided to retaliate and ordered that the Summer Palace be torched. For two days the fire raged, the smoke clearly visible from Peking. The Chinese capitulated and the British and French were allowed to have an ambassador in Peking.

Felix Beato, ‘View of Eiyama’, about 1863-8. Museum no. PH.305-1918

The newly invented medium of photography played an important role in creating and disseminating an image of the East. To armchair travellers at home, photographs provided an wonderful way of viewing far away places such as China. The most famous photographer was John Thompson, who produced his monumental Illustrations of China and Its People in 1873. His landscape images and pictures of the Chinese peoples served to chart the progress of the British across China, and to help mark the distinctions between the barbarous East and the civilised West.

The western image of Japan was also partly formed through photography. Felix Beato is the most well known photographer. He arrived in 1873 and stayed there for over 20 years. His images, and the commentaries that accompany them, helped to create what became the dominant image of Japan as simple, rustic and picturesque.

Many people, particularly those in the diplomatic corps, who visited Japan also visited China and it is interesting to compare their views. Rutherford Alcock had been consul in Shanghai before becoming Britain’s first minister in Japan. When he first arrived in Japan he discovered that ‘with the Japanese we take a step backward some ten centuries to live again the feudal days’. Both China and Japan were compared to the Middle Ages, but whereas with China it was the backwardness of that era that was envisaged, with Japan it was the romance of the past that appealed. Both the Chinese and the Japanese were considered to be a nation of children. But again, the Japanese were happy, contented children, whereas the Chinese, ‘only once they had received a good flogging, became very good boys’. The Japanese were not seen just as picturesque, they were seen as a literal embodiment of their art. The adventurer Isabel Bird, when she arrived, felt that she had seen them all before, ‘so were they like their pictures on the trays and the fans and teapots’.

‘The Chinese Collection, Hyde Park Corner’, from The Illustrated London News, August 6 1842. Museum no. PP10

Buying souvenir goods was an important part of any trip to the East. Back home it was exhibitions that gave people the opportunity to see objects from East Asia. In 1842 when the first British treaty was being signed with China, there was a exhibition of Nathan Dunn’s ‘Chinese Collection’ in London. It was certainly the most comprehensive show yet seen of Chinese material culture – as well as decorative arts and paintings and architectural models there was a series of tableaux of life-sized Chinese figures modelled in clay. The exhibition was extremely popular and it remained open for years. Although the exhibition may have increased knowledge about China, comments about the country did not alter standard perceptions. Reviews often focused on the stagnation of China compared to the civilised West.

Japanese objects shown at the Paris International Exhibition of 1867, about 1850-1867. Museum no. 847:1-1869

It wasn’t until the London International Exhibition of 1862 that Japanese objects were seen in any large number by a wide audience. The majority of the objects were assembled and exhibited by Rutherford Alcock, the British minister in Japan. The display was an immense success with the critics, the public and designers. Critics advocated the need for reform in Britain, urging manufacturers and designers to look to Japanese objects to improve their own design. At the next great exhibition held in Paris in 1867 the Japanese displayed objects for themselves.

A year later, in 1868, there was a revolution in Japan, which resulted in the overthrow of the shogun, the military ruler, and the restoration of the power of the Meiji emperor. The new Meiji government initiated a major transformation of Japan along western lines, in order to achieve parity with the West rather than be dominated by it. Japan participated in all subsequent international exhibitions, these events gave them the opportunity to garner international prestige, to acquire the latest technological information about the West and to promote the country’s own products.

Sideboard, E.W. Godwin, 1867. Museum no. CIRC.38:1-5-1953

For the Vienna exhibition in 1873 China also sent an official contribution, although it was organised by the foreign-run Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs.  Despite such participation China’s prestige, given its defeat in the two opium wars and its seeming reluctance to embrace western civilisation, was low and its culture was generally dismissed. Although Chinese goods continued to be imported into Britain in the 19th century, it was Japanese objects that took the country by storm. They were imported in great quantities and sold through specialist dealers and shops such as Liberty’s, started by Arthur Liberty in 1875. There was a craze for all things Japanese and no middle class drawing room was without its Japanese fan or teapot. The appearance of this new and very different aesthetic seemed to offer possible solutions to the debates about the future of design that were taking place at the time. Designer and writer Christopher Dresser played a particularly important role in disseminating Japanese art in Britain. He wrote about Japanese art, lectured about it, imported it as a dealer, and was the first European designer to go to Japan in 1876 and write about his experiences there. He produced works that are very much influenced by what he saw as the simplicity and boldness of form of Japanese art. Another leading exponent of Japonisme was E.W. Godwin, although his famous Anglo-Japanese furniture designs suggest he was also influenced by China.

Objects bought in Peking by Stephan Bushell. Museum no. 109-1883

Although its culture was generally overlooked in favour of its neighbour, Chinese ceramics continued to be admired and collected. The person who probably did most to promote a greater understanding of Chinese ceramics in the Victorian period was a man called Stephen Bushell, who was a doctor at the British legation in Peking. He wrote a number of books about the subject that are still used today. In 1883 the Victoria and Albert Museum employed him to buy Chinese ceramics and the 240 ceramics he acquired for the Museum show his discerning eye. He bought not only the highly decorative and colourful ceramics with which the West was already quite familiar, but objects made for the imperial court and the scholar’s table that would not have been seen in the West.

Chinese ceramics influenced British art potters such as Bernard Moore and William Howson Taylor who experimented with Chinese style glazes with great success at the end of the Victorian period.  Yet such Chinese inspiration has always been rather overlooked. In the 19th century Chinese art was compared unfavourably with the recently revealed achievements of its neighbour. Vast amounts were written about Japanese art in the Victorian period, but very little about China. One exception was a handbook published by the V&A but, at a time when a people’s character was seen to be reflected in the art they produced, it is peppered with comments about the Chinese character: ‘It would hardly be supposed that an effeminate race such as the Chinese would have a taste for working in metal. But it should be remembered that they have not always been a degenerate race softened by luxury and by too great a facility for enjoyment.’

Things were changing in China, however. John Thompson the photographer noted that  ‘the Western nations have woken the old dragon from the sleep of Asia’. Yet  China’s attempts at modernisation were seen as nothing when compared with Japan, which ‘out of the darkness of semi-barbarism, has shot up planet-like in search of wider orbit in a brighter sun’. Britain and other European nations did much to help Japan modernise. British engineers constructed lighthouses and railways, British shipbuilders and naval architects helped build up Japan’s commercial and naval fleets, and British instructors taught English, mathematics and physics.

Theatre programme, 14 March 1885. Museum no. theatremuseum-1885

Although initially encouraged by the idea that Japan was becoming like the West, Britain began to get rather uneasy as the country started to develop industrially and militarily. Commentators retreated into more comfortable fantasies of ‘old Japan’, a view perpetuated by visitors who travelled there. Whereas the West’s vision of China was of a glory long past, with Japan it was the romance of something only recently lost. Algernon Mitford, talking at the end of his life, marvelled at the way in which ‘at a bound Japan leaped out of the darkness of the Middle Ages into the fiercest light of the 19th century’. And yet, he evinces a sort of nostalgia: ‘Although feudalism is dead, its ghosts haunt me still. I shut my eyes and see picturesque visions of warriors in armour with crested helmets.’ It is interesting that Mitford helped to create the most fanciful image of Japan in the West, by advising Gilbert and Sullivan when they wrote The Mikado.

While the image of Japan was generally far rosier than that afforded to China, it was still based on the conviction of western superiority. Japan could be admired artistically, but the West had the industrial and military power. As Rudyard Kipling, who visited Japan in 1899, wrote: ‘Verily, Japan is a great people, her masons play with stone, her carpenters with wood, her smiths with iron and her artists with life. Mercifully, she has been denied the last touch of firmness in her character that would enable her to play with the whole round world. We possess that. We, the nation of the glass flower shade, the pink worsted mat and the red-green china puppy doll and the poisonous Brussels carpet. It is our compensation.’  However Japan was beginning to show that it did have a touch of firmness with which to play with the world. In 1876 Japan signed a Western-style treaty with Korea. Tensions between Japan and China, Korea’s traditional protector, led to war in 1894, and Japan was the victor. Defeat at the hands of a country that had for centuries lived under its shadow was an enormous humiliation for China.

By the 1890s, China was being carved into spheres of influence from the West, and anti-foreign feeling began to run very high. The year 1899 saw the start of orchestrated attacks on missionaries and railways, another visible manifestations of western intrusion, by the ‘Boxers United in Righteousness’. The Boxer Rebellion culminated in the siege of the legations in Peking. The British legation was the biggest and that was where the entire foreign population of Peking sheltered. Tales of the massacre of westerners filled British newspapers, but when relief troops did arrive 14 August – those troops including soldiers from Japan – they found the death toll to be quite low. The troops revelled in a frenzy of looting and for the first time the Forbidden Palace was entered. A formal peace treaty was signed in 1901, according to which the Chinese had to pay crippling indemnities. This rebellion, coming right at the end of Victoria’s reign, left a lasting impression on western perceptions of the East, and the Boxers became the symbol for everything that was hated and feared about China. Japan meanwhile was close to realising its political ambitions. By the terms of the 1902 Anglo-British Alliance it was finally accepted as a foreign power. There is some irony in the fact that the West had admired the country’s art for decades, but only once it started fighting wars considered it ‘civilised’.