Cultures of Exhibition
2005 MLA Meeting
Washington, DC
27-30 December

Elizabeth Chang
University of Missouri - Columbia

Ivory Balls and Porcelain Plates:
Exhibiting China in Mid-Victorian London


Do not cite without permission of the author.

Charles Dickens, writing to Mrs. Richard Watson on 11 July 1851 of his visit to the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations (known more familiarly as the Crystal Palace), makes a surprising complaint:

I find I am ‘used-up' by the Exhibition. I don't say there is nothing in it—there's too much. I have been only twice; so many things bewildered me. I have a natural horror of sights, and the fusion of the many sights in one has not decreased it. I am not sure that I have seen anything but the fountain and perhaps the Amazon. It is a dreadful thing to be obliged to be false, but when anyone says, ‘Have you seen—?' I say, ‘Yes,' because if I don't, I know he'll explain it, and I can't bear that!! (428)

Given the extraordinarily self-multiplying numbers of “things” in the Dickens universe of fiction and non-fiction alike, a reader may well be surprised by this “natural horror” that Dickens describes. Could Dickens's spectatorial practice really be so easily depleted by the Exhibition's fusion of sights? Could the preeminent Victorian observer fail to rise to the challenge of viewing the premier Victorian display? Setting aside my questions about Dickens's coy tone, I most want to focus on the dash following the imagined query: “Have you seen—?” In this piece of punctuation, empty of any particular object or image but open to all possibilities of viewing, the particularities of Victorian visual practice threaten to take definite form. Perhaps Dickens's dread seems to stem most profoundly, in fact, from the idea that anyone but Dickens might fill in this narrative gap with an “explanation” of how one should properly see, and, perhaps more importantly, properly represent that seeing.

It is my project in this paper to try and address the problems with looking at and explaining things in certain mid-century British exhibitions; and, more specifically, to suggest that Chinese things in particular present a challenge to that developing visual rhetoric. I argue that for nineteenth-century Britons, China evoked not only a far-distant geography and rival trade empire but also a way of seeing and being seen very different from their own. For many Britons, this difference was simple: the Celestial Empire's walled gardens, forbidden cities, and designs composed without linear perspective linked directly to a corresponding Chinese stagnancy, despotism, and repressed consciousness, while the cultural productions of the British empire—many of which were proudly displayed in the Great Exhibition—were held to reflect the progressive, dynamic far-sightedness befitting a global power. Yet even as nineteenth-century writers insisted on defining China as both backward in time and isolated in space, unable to see or move beyond the boundaries of the Great Wall, “the look of China” could be found ever more commonly occupying the territory of British imaginations. Ivory balls and porcelain plates, to name only a few examples, came to shape the ways that these writers not only envisioned the Orient but wrote and pictured their own lived experience.

A cluster of descriptions published in the mid-century lull between what we now call the first and second Opium Wars give us an especially direct assessment of how Britons thought they could and should view these Chinese things. These accounts of several Chinese exhibitions—the Chinese Collection, the Chinese Junk Ke-Ying, and the Chinese portion of the Great Exhibition presupposed an essential faith in the displayed object as both legible and instructive. Recent work in museum studies offers far more comprehensive and wide-ranging critiques of nineteenth-century techniques of display than I can present here. Instead, I will focus chiefly on the ways that these exhibitions were represented in the mid-century Victorian periodical writings of Charles Dickens. China scarcely appears in Dickens's novels—though that does not indicate a lack of Chinese influence, as Wenying Xu has demonstrated in a reading of Little Dorrit . But Dickens's journalism takes more notice both of the country and its visual productions. His efforts to write about Chinese things, in Household Words and elsewhere, I suggest, in fact theorize these objects as visual media, whose display, circulation, and consumption come to rival that of the expanding field of print media. For Dickens, this is an uncomfortable proposition with both domestic and global implications, and his writings frequently attempt to contain and isolate Chinese influence.

China also becomes the means by which Dickens manages to contain the Great Exhibition's distressing fusion of sights. When writing (together with his subeditor R. H. Horne) his sole periodical account of the display for his newly established journal Household Words , Dickens resisted a comprehensive study of the Crystal Palace phenomenon. Instead the piece, entitled “The Great Exhibition and the Little One,” takes a comparative approach.

As it is impossible in any allowable space to “go through” the whole Exhibition, or touch upon a tithe of its Catalogue, let us suggest as curious subjects of comparison, those two countries which display (on the whole) the greatest degree of progress, and the least—say England and China. England, maintaining commercial intercourse with the whole world; China, shutting itself up, as far as possible, within itself. The true Tory spirit would have made a China of England, if it could. Behold its results in the curious little Exhibition now established close beside the great one. It is very curious to have the Exhibition of a people who came to a dead stop, Heaven knows how many hundred years ago, side by side with the Exhibition of the moving world. It points the moral in a surprising manner. (357)

Though the first section of the piece, a reflection on the progress of nations, has been almost defiantly abstract, this introduction of the “curious subjects of comparison” returns “The Great Exhibition and the Little One” to the primacy of the material object.

Consider the greatness of the English results, and extraordinary littleness of the Chinese. Go from the silk-weaving and cotton-spinning of us outer barbarians, to the laboriously-carved ivory balls of the flowery Empire, ball within ball and circle within circle, which have made no advance and been of no earthly use for thousands of years. (358).

Here the intended opposition is obvious: “silk-weaving and cotton-spinning” are on-going activities, present tense, while the “laboriously-carved ivory balls,” past tense, represent a mode of production figuratively ancient and outdated even if still in use. Certainly an epistemological dialectic which advances itself through the comparison of the material artifact suits a reading of two empires engaged in an ongoing and violent dispute over trade goods. But this opposition, depending, as it does, on constant reference to the analogous conditions of the external world, must immediately founder.

For if it is display of the static object, immobile and non-functioning, that demonstrates an empire's lack of progress, then the British are as vulnerable as the Chinese. Though Dickens and Horne emphasize the abstract physicality of British labor against the tangible presence of the Chinese artifact, they cannot easily surmount the obvious centrality of such artifacts to all Exhibition sites, Great or Little. Only by imposing two separate structures of extrapolation and reference can Dickens and Horne re-center the problem by insisting on stasis as an external phenomenon particular only to the Chinese example. In their reading, British models of steamships and suspension bridges allow the viewer to extrapolate the amplified scale of their real-world equivalents, and by extension the magnified power of the empire that created them. Chinese objects, on the other hand, demonstrate a corresponding and non-transformative removal from utility and technical accomplishment: “The Chinese self-supporting bridges, houses, pagodas, and little islands, on their porcelain, all standing upon nothing, are equally curious with the models of their actual structure” (359, emphasis mine).

I am particularly interested in the rhetorical interventions necessary to think about China in a cultural moment shaped by the representative display of things in general and concerns about Chinese things in particular. Thomas Richards has argued persuasively that the Great Exhibition's spectacle helped shape both nineteenth-century representations of the commodity as well as much of modern commodity culture (21). What concerns me here is the way that such spectacles of display got written out differently in the case of Chinese exhibitions given the historical conditions of Sino-British encounter as well as the received conceptions of a Chinese aesthetic rooted in eighteenth-century European fashions for chinoiserie . Linking “real” China and “displayed” China at an equivalent aesthetic remove allowed an easy dismissal of China's global influence as a trading power. But it also opened dangerous referential possibilities given Britain's importation of opium into China. Given that the main trade commodity by which the British were represented in China was opium, the idea that cross-cultural understanding could best be developed through commodity exchange was at least intermittently problematic for many Britons.

I will not pursue further here the question of opium—which Dickens himself would put off for another twenty years until his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood . Instead I'd like to return to the problem of material things: their inextricability from, on the one hand, the narratives written about them, and, on the other, the people who produce them or place them on display. Timothy Mitchell, among many others, has demonstrated how sites of imperial self-display seek to render the empire's hierarchical world-view in seemingly objective terms (7). The problem of provenance makes self-representation an especially complicated project in these cases. Though Tallis's History of the Crystal Palace speaks of “small-eyed China” sending “her fragile porcelain” and other trade objects (15), the Chinese section of the Great Exhibition was actually made up of contributions from British and American merchants and collectors. American investors smuggled the Ke-Ying from Canton to New York before mooring it as a floating museum on the Thames in 1848. The exhibition of “Ten Thousand Chinese Things” which opened in Hyde Park in 1841 was brought together by the American tea-trader Nathan Dunn.

Yet for those who mounted these exhibitions, concern about confusions or corruptions of the display space was mitigated by faith in the absolute legibility of the visual object. As the exhibition guide to Dunn's Chinese Collection puts it, “As a means of education, this Collection is invaluable. It teaches by things rather than words. The images are visible and tangible, and therefore, cannot be easily misunderstood” (emphasis original, 13). The slippage here between “things” and “images,” however, immediately points to the problem of imagining any ready reconcilability between Chinese material objects and Chinese epistemologies. Indeed, the idea that images are less prone to dangerous misprisions and errors of comprehension than words is exactly what disturbs Dickens most in his assessments of these Chinese displays. What we might call Dickens's didactic ekphrasis of the material object is a rhetorical mode especially well-suited to his discussion of China, an empire he considered both visually over-abundant and ontologically lacking. Both opinions are gathered through a reading of Chinese spaces and people as fundamentally derived from and linked to their trade commodities. As he writes of the Ke-Ying in a 24 June 1848 Examiner piece:

If there be any one thing in the world that it is not at all like, that thing is a ship of any kind. So narrow, so long, so grotesque, so low in the middle, so high at each end (like a China pen-tray) with no rigging, with nowhere to go aloft, with mats for sails, great warped cigars for masts, gaudy dragons and sea monsters disporting themselves from stem to stern…—it would look more at home at the top of a public building, at the top of a mountain, in an avenue of trees, or down in a mine, than aloft on the water.

The same problem is encountered with the crew itself. Dickens continues:

Of all unlikely callings with which imagination could connect the Chinese lounging on the deck, the most unlikely and the last would be the mariner's craft. Imagine a ship's crew, without a profile among them, in gauze pinafores and plaited hair; wearing stiff clogs, a quarter of a foot thick in the sole; and lying at night in little scented boxes, like backgammon men or chess-pieces, or mother-of-pearl counters! (403)

For Dickens, the Chinese thing is an ekphrastic crisis. The very ubiquity of the Chinese commodity—whether ivory ball, pen-tray, mother-of-pearl counter, or something else—in the British visual consciousness supplants and disrupts both the journalist's prerogative of documentary reportage and the novelist's command of realism as a mode of representation. As in his later description of the ivory balls in “The Great Exhibition and the Little One,” these commodities work as visual media to convey information about Chinese ways of seeing and being through their contours and patterns. The terms of China's visual conditions, profoundly foreign yet intimately familiar, posed for Dickens a challenging predicament of visual difference that extended and amplified his general horror of sights and explanation he wrote of to Mrs. Watson. In the description of the Ke-Ying, his constant appeals to the reader's and author's imaginations highlights the mental mediation demanded by such exemplars of visual difference.

This predicament is made further difficult for Dickens by the constant slippage between the Chinese commodity and the Chinese consciousness in these exhibition sites. Aboard the Chinese junk, the sailors collapse into boxed commodities. In the “Great Exhibition and the Little One,” the reverse occurs, and the commodities seem to take on human agency. As they write of the “carved ivory balls” that have “made no advance…for thousands of years,” Dickens and Horne assign the commodity object a stasis in fact descriptive (in their view) of the Chinese people, perpetuating the insistent linkage between China's metonymic product and its population that is widespread in nineteenth-century rhetoric. (As Leigh Hunt described the Chinese in an 1834 essay: “…their tea-cup representations of themselves (which are the only ones popularly known), impress us irresistibly with a fancy that they are a people all toddling, little-eyed, little-footed, little-bearded, [and] little-minded” (113).) But these mid-century attempts to distill and disseminate China through the space of its representative objects were especially likely both to consider China's representative objects to be, exclusively, its trade commodities, and, further, to describe those trade commodities in the language of human migration. As a writer for Fraser's Magazine reviewing Nathan Dunn's Chinese Collection under the byline “A barbarian eye,” puts it:

The figures, as an intelligent friend observed, are made of the same material as ourselves—viz., of clay. They have, however, undergone a different process, having been baked. We should hence take it for granted that all these life-sized Chinese men and women are literally made of porcelain; and when we consider the “packing up” of all these brittle human beings, and their long voyages by sea and journeys by land from Canton to Philadelphia, and from Philadelphia to Hyde Park Corner, the varieties of possible accidents and broken limbs which crowd upon the imagination are frightful to contemplate. (177-78)

The sarcasm of this passage does not blunt its essential point—that the influx of Chinese goods into British territory represents mass immigration. If the frailty of the porcelain makes this invasion less than terrifying, it also reminds the reader of the ready availability of other examples of Chinese porcelain in the space outside the exhibition hall, themselves a kind of visual invasion. Given the easy movement from objects to eyes to minds which Chinese things allowed, according to these observers, such a visual invasion might seem to have a similar effect on British ways of seeing and being. The distillation of the Fraser's author to his single barbarian eye demonstrates how such attempts at comedy inevitably cohere around sites of anxiety.

A key part of the difficulty here is the inability to keep the Chinese thing confined to its bounded site of display. Since the objects that represented China in the Great Exhibition and Nathan Dunn's Chinese Collection were often themselves trade commodities, there was little distinction between an exhibition's representative and instructive images and commonly available commercial goods. Hybrid pieces like the willow pattern plate, based on Chinese designs but produced in British factories, further blurred these differences. The fine points distinguishing these contemporary domestic productions and the antique Chinese porcelain worthy of collection and display were, for most nineteenth-century viewers, nearly invisible. Further confusing matters, the willow pattern was in fact so commercially successful and readily available that the domestic piece tended to superimpose itself on any apparently “Chinese” porcelain of any date and origin. I would like to concentrate in the rest of this paper on the implications and difficulties posed by British display of this hybrid aesthetic object.

What is especially interesting about the willow pattern in this context, I think, is the fact that from almost the first years of its circulation the pattern was described as an illustration of a supposedly ancient Chinese legend. This accompanying legend, in fact a wholly modern British concoction, inspired a huge variety of narrative treatments ranging from sentimental fables to broadly satiric dramas, resulting in the unusual situation of a single commercially available image accompanied by a range of texts, rather than vice versa. The plate's heterogeneous origins and the legend's popular creation meant that here, the rhetorical intervention in the “Chinese” thing remained highly unstable. As these narratives got revised, multiplied and circulated, so did the material object of willow pattern china, until a ready familiarity with both the pattern's design and the story's outline allowed meta-narrative play on these visual and cultural interpenetrations. One such treatment, the 1851 play “The Mandarin's Daughter,” featured an opening speech delivered by the Enchanter Chim-pan-see against a backdrop of the willow pattern plate. In it, he details his shock at finding Chinese things so widely distributed in English spaces:

Of course when I heard of your great Exhibition
I was speedily found in a state of transition
On my dragon I came—but conceive my surprise!
Round a public house kitchen on casting my eyes
I saw upon table, stand, dresser and shelf
In Earthenware, China, stone-hardware and delft
Drawn long ways and shortways, drawn outside and in
On plate, cup and saucer, dish basin, tureen
A picture which is but a full illustration
Of an older love story well known in my nation…

Chim-pan-see's opening remarks pinpoint the problem of the unbounded reproduction of Chinese things. Though drawn by the formal display space of the Great Exhibition, the enchanter is struck instead by the informal public house exhibition of the willow pattern, which he comically reads as a semiotically equivalent site of display. Yet Chim-pan-see's surprise at finding the willow pattern on every “table, stand, dresser and shelf” is surely not matched by the British audience, whose attendance at the play presupposes their familiarity with the pattern under discussion. The humor of “The Mandarin's Daughter” depends upon both the audience's uneasiness about Chim-pan-see's eclipsing “pleasure/ At finding the English so ready to treasure/ The legends of China,” and their subsequent relish of the buffoonish antics of the play's Chinese mandarins. But it also relies on a set of assumptions about the proper functioning of “plates” grounded in a expanding periodical culture. Publications ranging from the earnest Family Friend to the satiric Bentley's Miscellany printed renditions of the legend through the mid-nineteenth-century with varying degrees of attention to the willow pattern's revisions of the concept of illustration. Mark Lemon, later editor of Punch , spins an entire 1838 essay out of his punning title: “A True History of the Celebrated Wedgewood Hieroglyph, Commonly Called the Willow Pattern, With a Plate .” The willow pattern thus served as a reminder of the primacy of the visual text in the British present, despite the legend's efforts to root the narrative in a precursive and imagined Chinese past.

Further, any treatment of the willow pattern plate as a single visual text avoids the significance of the pattern's mechanical reproduction. One key factor in the mass production of the willow pattern by modern British factories was the development of the process of transfer printing, as Dickens was fully aware. Transfer-printing techniques were detailed in his Household Words piece on potteries (also co-written, this time with W. H. Wills) which appeared just a year after “The Great Exhibition and the Little One.” The piece describes a lengthy tea-time conversation between a bored visitor to Staffordshire and his willow pattern plate, in which the plate reminds the visitor in minutest terms of the processes of its own production at the Copeland (Spode) factories.

And didn't you see (says the plate) planted upon my own brother that astounding blue willow, with knobbed and gnarled trunk, and foliage of blue ostrich feather, which gives our family the title of “willow pattern”? And didn't you observe, transferred upon him at the same time,…that amusing blue landscape, which has, in deference to our revered ancestors of the Cerulean Empire, and in defiance of every known law of perspective, adorned millions of our family ever since the days of platters? (340)

This rouses the visitor from his stupor to declare:

Not to be denied! I had seen all this—and more. I had been shown, at Copeland's, patterns of beautiful design, in faultless perspective, which are causing the ugly old willow to wither out of public favour; and which, being quite as cheap, insinuate good wholesome natural art into the humblest households. (341)

Dickens's optimistic prediction of the willow pattern's demise fails to come true. Purchasers of Copeland Spode china were far more likely to display the “amusing blue landscape” of the willow pattern on their mantelpieces or dinner tables than the “good wholesome natural art” preferred by Dickens. That Dickens recognizes this preference is evident in the piece's title: “A Plate Article.” The Household Words essay and the willow pattern china, themselves both plated articles, share a printed mode of reproduction but diverge in modes of circulation and display.

Returning a final time to “The Great Exhibition and the Little One,” I'd like to make note of one object in Britain's exhibition that Dickens is unreservedly willing to praise and describe: the “wonder” that “nothing exceeds and but few approach” otherwise known as the printing machinery of the Illustrated London News . Dickens and Horne contrast this machine with the Chinese printing press: a “rude expedient …never… improved from the hour of its first construction. It is an illustration of the true doctrine of Finality; the gospel according to which would have taught us…to keep the stupendous machinery which produces our daily newspapers with the regularity of the sun, through all eternity, in the limbo of things waiting to be born” (358). Dickens's emphasis on the profound importance of the printing press to national self-definition and display seems to anticipate Benedict Anderson's theory of national definition through printing press capitalism. Likewise, the article's closing attack on Tory party conservatism suggests that China's place in “The Great Exhibition and the Little One” has only been as a figurative placeholder in what is essentially an internal national critique. In my reading, however, the reception and representation of these mid-century Chinese displays represent strands in an evolving transnational aesthetic. Chinese things exhibited in British spaces created a hybrid space of paradoxically domestic foreignness. In reading Dickens's periodical repudiations of these visual cross-penetrations, I propose that we can discover, within his rhetoric of textual resistance, some of the challenges posed to national print culture by a transnational nineteenth-century visual aesthetic.

Works Cited


[Dickens, Charles]. "The Chinese Junk." The Examiner June 24 1848: 403.

Dickens, Charles. “To the Hon. Mrs. Richard Watson.” 11 July 1851. The Letters of Charles Dickens . Ed. Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson, and Nina Burgis. Vol. 6. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988. 427-429.

[——, and R. H. Horne]. “The Great Exhibition and the Little One .” Household Words 3 (5 July 1851): 356-60.

  [——, and W. H. Wills]. “A Plated Article.” Selected Journalism 1850-1870 . Ed. David Pascoe . New York: Penguin, 1997.

Hunt, Leigh. “The Subject of Breakfast Continued.--Tea-drinking.” London Journal 9 July 1834: 113-114.

Langdon, William B. Ten Thousand Chinese Things: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Chinese Collection Now Exhibiting at St. George's Place, Hyde Park Corner... London: G. M'kewan, 1844.

Lemon, Mark. “A True History of the Celebrated Wedgewood Hieroglyph, Commonly Called the Willow Pattern.” Bentley's Miscellany 3 (1838): 61-65.

The Mandarin's Daughter . British Library ADD MSS 43038A. British Lib., London.

Mitchell, Timothy. Colonising Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Richards, Thomas. The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914 . Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Tallis's History and Description of the Crystal Palace . London: J. Tallis, [1852].

“Wan Tang Jin Wuh: By a Barbarian Eye.” Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country 27 (1843): 176-84.

Xu, Wenying. “The Opium Trade and Little Dorrit: A Case of Reading Silences.” Victorian Literature and Culture (1997): 53-66.