The Newsletter 75 Autumn 2016

Images of the Canton Factories (Book Review)

Hope Marie Childers

The port city of Canton (now Guangzhou), China, served as a vital hub in the early phase of modern global trade. In the 18th century, numerous European companies set up shop in the designated foreign quarter of factories and warehouses. Like their peers around the world, Chinese artists adapted quickly to the sweeping social, economic, and aesthetic changes wrought by these mercantile aspirations on a world scale. The resulting artworks – often labeled as ‘export art’’ – have long been characterized by art historians as inauthentically hybrid, and thus not deserving of scholarly attention. As a broad category, export art encompasses a great diversity of objects made by artists throughout China in a variety of styles and mediums. These include paintings, fans, textiles, decorative and utilitarian ceramics, lacquer ware, and much more.

This object-oriented volume, co-authored by Paul Van Dyke and Maria Kar-wing Mok, examines representations of Canton via a specific type of Chinese export art, using fresh eyes and new angles. Bookended by an introduction and conclusion, the volume consists of nine chapters: six are chronological surveys, each spanning approximately a decade; the remainder consist of thematic analysis. The introduction provides a succinct history of the founding of Canton’s European merchant district, beginning with the construction of China Street in 1760 (p. xx). The study concludes with the years preceding the Great Fire of 1822, when the entire quarter of factories burned down, thus changing the landscape forever.

The authors train their lens on painted panoramas of the Canton factories, specifically those found on porcelain punchbowls and on two-dimensional surfaces, from small gouache panels to large canvases in oil. Their objective, as referenced in the book’s subtitle, is ‘reading history through art’. This is achieved using a kind of dialogical method: close scrutiny of archival sources enables the authors to weave an intricate chronology of each European company’s presence and activity in Canton, depending on the waxing and waning of their commercial fortunes. As Van Dyke and Mok suggest: “This ongoing rivalry between Europeans—combined with the Hong merchants’ willingness to make the changes they wanted so long as they paid the costs—resulted in the gradual transformation of the landscape” (p. 12). In turn, that shifting panorama of factories and warehouses along the quayside can be recognized in visual form on pots and paintings.

The study is distinguished by two fresh approaches brought to bear on the many portraits of China Street and its shifts over time. The first is their painstaking cross-referencing of logistical minutiae gleaned from the archives against close observation of fine details in the artworks. Careful observation of painted elements confirm that numerous scenes serve as fairly reliable documentary evidence of the district’s transformation over time. Grounded in this method, Chapters 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, and 8 offer meticulously sourced narratives, visual and textual, of the factories. The list of aspects that the authors consider is impressive: the construction/alteration of buildings; architectural features; interventions by key personnel; increase in rents (affecting occupancy); the presence (or absence) of national flags; seasonal clues; scale and perspective; the impact of fires. Moreover, they have cross-referenced their analysis with colonial-era maps to corroborate their findings.

Equipped with such detail, the authors posit a more precise dating of the painted scenes than previously possible. This matters, they argue, because the factory portraits are a category apart from ordinary export art “such as Chinese life scenes, landscapes, daily activities and images of plants and animals” (p. xxi). Rather, they suggest that “factory paintings were a type of historical record that buyers wanted to display in their homes to represent their experience in China” (p. xxi). As such, customers expected a certain level of verisimilitude and a recognizable sense of place in these souvenir objects.

This understanding paves the way for the volume’s second notable contribution: Chapters 3 and 5 offer brief analyses of the technical circumstances behind the production of the porcelain bowls and the paintings, revealing key disparities between the two mediums. For example, the punchbowls are characterized by far less accuracy in rendering a particular moment in time than are the paintings. This may be due partly to their manufacture in pottery centers at some distance from the site, or because the patronage and sales practices demanded more flexibility in content for these utilitarian objects (p. 23-7).

In contrast, the paintings are shown to be highly reliable in their representations of narrow, identifiable slices of time in Canton’s history. Further, though the paintings are often extremely similar, no two are alike, as artists avoided the use of templates or direct copying methods (p. 22). Indeed, the uniqueness of each painting serves to dispel the commonplace claim that Chinese artists were merely skilled copyists. Most engaging is the Chapter 5 discussion about the skilled use of vantage point and perspective by the artists to emphasize a distinct set of aesthetic and compositional values. The authors assert that “rather than inferring an ignorance of ‘Western’ perspective, the Chinese artists’ work unveils their knowledge of indigenous Chinese ideas of perspective” (p. 49). They provide details of factory paintings on maps, silk, and reverse painting on glass as examples to demonstrate the influence of multiple perspectives as used in traditional scroll painting.

The result is an interdisciplinary volume that closely entwines object histories and archival context, thus elevating it above the descriptive, evaluative literature of connoisseurship so common to this era of art production. It furthermore stretches trade and economic histories beyond their usual boundaries, to encompass cultural expression.

The shortcomings of the book are minor. A number of passages make for rather dry reading, an unavoidable trade-off for a factually dense, detailed chronicle. Another quibble is the lack of a list of illustrations and no page references in the majority of captions. These omissions diminish the ability to enter the volume via the artworks themselves – surely a standard starting point for most readers, especially artists, art historians, collectors, and the like. Rather, the arrangement requires readers to access the images through a mostly linear path through the text itself (which does provide Plate- and Figure-numbers). This discourages casual browsing, ultimately limiting its audience.

The book’s many strengths include its well-ordered and comprehensive bibliography, an appendix indexing primary sources pertaining to early company movements, and scrupulously cited detail. The authors mine data from not only the usual colonial-era archives (i.e. British and French), but under-utilized collections in Denmark, Sweden, and Belgium, as well as Chinese-language sources newly available online. While not a theory-driven study of the genre, this extensively illustrated (100 color plates and 32 black and white figures), fact-rich analysis will serve as a vital reference for specialist scholars, such as collectors of Chinese export art of the period and historians of global trade in the early colonial era. It should also have broader appeal among art historians, who have taken greater interest, of late, in such popular, but non-traditional forms. The hallmark of such art is its fast-moving fusion of varied interests, styles, mediums, and markets. Historically, this cross-cultural hybridity has been viewed with skepticism, yet it seems that scholars of Chinese art history are beginning to acknowledge this intriguing and vital – if undervalued – stage in China’s formidable aesthetic legacy.

Hope Marie Childers, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. (


Reviewed title: Paul A. Van Dyke and Maria Kar-wing Mok. 2015. Images of the Canton Factories 1760–1822: Reading History in Art. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 9789888208555