About This Artifact
Created by an unknown Chinese artist, this 19th-century oil painting depicts the Chinese port city of Canton — a world-renowned center for trade and commerce. Outside of the tales of these great trading centers brought back by brave seamen, traders, and explorers, little was known about the peoples and culture of the Celestial Empire. As a result, oil paintings, like the one depicted here, became very common in Western culture as everyday people became more and more interested in the happenings of the rest of the world. The world became more and more globally connected in the 19th century, in part because of the imperialistic expansion of Western powers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. A desire for new trade and the policy of mercantilism drove this expansion. The very ideas and concepts of time and space were shrinking as the world became more technologically advanced and cross-culturally connected.
In the painting itself, we can see the flags of 6 nations prominently flying. From left to right, these flags belong to Hamburg, the United States, Chile, France, Great Britain, and Denmark. These flags marked the different trading centers that each country had control of in the port city itself. The flags also demonstrate that 1850's Canton was a melting pot of influence, trade, and cultural connectivity. Facilitated by technological and trading advancements, European and Western influence permeated many aspects of Chinese culture during this time. Allow your eyes to focus on the buildings that line the background of the image. The architecture and design of the buildings themselves reveal European influence. Western artistic influence is also evident in the use of shading and perspective throughout the painting — techniques uncommon to Chinese artwork at the time.
While the rest of the world marveled at the sheer uniqueness and splendor of Chinese goods, Chinese traders at Canton had little interest in what the rest of the world was offering. Chinese Hong merchants only accepted silver from foreign merchants in exchange for the sought-after treasures of the Celestial Empire. This created a trade imbalance between China and the Western powers trading in ports like Canton. For countries like Great Britain, silver was flowing into Canton while no monetary compensation was coming back out. The East India Trading Company began selling opium in Canton and other Chinese ports to remedy this trade imbalance. However, the opium had devastating impacts on the Chinese economy and society, eventually leading to the Opium Wars.
Influence and connectivity were often a double-edged sword for countries like China. In opening up their ports to the rest of the world, they often fell victim to exploitative trade and negotiation tactics.
Questions for Further Thought
- What types of technological advancements made this kind of cross cultural contact possible?
- To what extent does exploration affect the native peoples of the explored countries?
- Why would a painting like this be so popular or common in the 1850s? What does this say about the world at that time?