One of the most important, though often overlooked, events of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the creation and growth of the “Canton Trade System.” This highly regulated trade, carried out between Chinese and European merchants in the city of Guangzhou (Canton), literally transformed the global economy. It also had critical repercussions for both Western and Chinese society which are still being felt today.
Huge amounts of silk, tea, sugar, fine ceramics, cotton cloth, spices, opium and silver changed hands through the first half of the 19th century. In fact, the Europeans imported so many goods from China that their trade deficits ended up creating a massive imbalance in global monetary markets. They managed to do this even though the terms of trade under the “Canton System” were highly restrictive.
During this period western merchants were only allowed to trade in a single port (Canton), they could do business only with a specially designated group of merchants. Further, they could only trade “in season” and this period only lasted for a few months a year. The movements of European merchants were also tightly restricted. They were confined to a group of “factories” (really warehouses) on a single island on the river and could not reside in the city proper.
Most of the western merchants who engaged in the “China trade” spent between one and three years in Guangzhou. This posting was incredibly lucrative and many fortunes were made in the factories of Canton. At the same, time traveling to and from China was not easy in the late 18th or early 19th century.
Western merchants and adventure seekers wanted some way to explain their experiences and observations to their friends back home. A number of important travelogues were written during this period, some of which remain quite valuable to martial arts historians today. Amassing collections of oriental oddities was also an important diversion and sign of social status for a small group of wealthy merchants. In fact, the collections that these individuals brought back to Europe were instrumental in introducing China to the west and they helped to inspire many subsequent artistic and cultural developments.
While not always highly sophisticated, these early western accounts and collections are valuable to students of Chinese martial studies for a number of reasons. The martial arts were mostly a branch of popular, rather than elite, culture in China. Archery of course was the major exception.
Indigenous historical sources and records tend to say very little about popular culture other than to register the literati’s constant disapproval of popular heterodox religious cults (which included anything other than state sponsored Confucianism) and their disgust at the unsophisticated nature of vernacular operas and novels. But other than that, popular culture pretty much got passed over in silence. Much of what happened in this world was so common as to require no discussion. Other topics (like boxing) were considered so vulgar that they were an inappropriate subject for supposedly serious scholars and historians.
The situation was quite different for European merchants and diplomats. The various conventions of daily life in China were new to them, and they took great delight in writing detailed accounts of even the most mundane encounters. Both their literature and collections are full of objects plucked from “daily life.”
One of the things that interested many western residents of southern China were local boxing and fencing traditions. Some of these individuals had military and naval backgrounds, and others simply shared the then common interest in arms and arm collecting. Again, these individuals were fascinated by what they saw, and sought to record and transmit their observations for the benefits of their friends back home.
Chinese Export Paintings
Of course this can be more difficult than one would first guess. The highly stylized nature of traditional Chinese boxing and military training was a particular challenge for would be cultural ambassadors. These individuals needed a way to not just describe but to illustrate what they had experienced. Unfortunately, easy and reliable photography would not come into common use until the 1860s. That left travelers and would be authors with only two options, traditional European engravings (a subject that we will investigate in another post) and paintings.
While difficult to reproduce, paintings offered a number of advantages to western visitors looking to illustrate their experiences. Skilled artists could produce images of a huge variety of subjects quickly and easily. These could be tailored to different markets, ranging from relatively expensive oil paintings to quick water color sketches of local culture. Chinese artisans also learned to master a number of different styles. They could produce paintings in their the Western or Chinese idiom, or any combination of the two. Unframed images were delicate, but also extremely light weight and easy to transport. This stood in stark contrast to valuable collections of antique furniture, arms or ceramics, other commonly collected items in the 19th century. For all of these reasons, the popularity of locally produced paintings illustrating scenes of daily life exploded. By the end of the 18th century there were multiple shops in Guangzhou that did nothing except produce “export paintings” for the resident European community.
In general these images were not regarded (either by the buyers or sellers) as great works of art. Rather these appear to have been seen as an exercise in technical illustration. They were never signed, though occasionally they did receive the stamp of the shop which sold them.
Export paintings come in a wide variety of subjects, sizes and materials. Early in this era they were regarded as a more expensive luxury item. They were more likely to feature oil paints on boards or other heavy material, and to capture dignified subjects with extraordinary attention to detail. Scenes of Canton’s harbor and the factory district are relatively common subjects in this genera. There are also some absolutely stunning studies of local birds and insects that were produced for wealthy European collectors.
As we move towards the middle of the 19th century (particularly the 1840s-1850s) the art market begins to change. Many more western individuals stated to visit the area after the first Opium war. Export paintings remained popular, but they were now aimed at a more middle class market. In general these later paintings are simpler, often featuring a single figure or scene without providing any background. The end effect can be somewhat abstract. Serially produced collections of scenes of daily life become common in their period.
The basic materials used also changed. Increasingly artists moved to using watercolor paints on a very light (and fragile) form of pith paper made from aralia papyrifera, the “rice paper tree.” While often referred to as “rice-paper” this is in fact a misnomer. Chinese artists realized that this new medium was delicate, but they favored it for their own reasons. The paints that they used could not penetrate the pith paper and so they sat on top of it as they dried. This gave the finished product a remarkably bright, almost jeweled, appearance that appealed to both Western and Chinese buyers.
While less elaborate their their more highbrow predecessors, these later paintings are some of my favorites. I like their abstract simplicity, and their technical attention to detail remains unchanged. Most of the images featuring martial artists or soldiers that I have ever encountered fall into this later group.
It is still possible to buy these paintings today, though its not uncommon for them to have become damaged over the years. Simple mid 19th century pith paintings might sell for $100-$200 depending on their quality and subject matter. Very nice early oils can easily fetch tens of thousands of dollars. As always extreme caution is advised whenever you are dealing with Chinese antiques. Your best insurance policy is to go to a reputable dealer who will have the experience to authenticate a given piece.
Export Paintings as a Historical Resource
Scholars, in both China and the West, have used 19th century export paintings as a historical resource for some time. As I mentioned above they were often regarded as “illustrations” rather than art. This is not to say that these pieces lack artistic value. But it many cases their more technical nature gives them a certain primitive aurora.
Nevertheless, these same features make them quite interesting to historians of popular culture. Given that these works were explicitly created to capture the details of a given costume, craft or trade, they are often full of great information that one cannot otherwise reproduce. For example, one of my secondary interests is traditional Chinese bird keeping. Those wanting to know what species were kept, or how they were cared for, face many of the same challenges as students of martial arts history. Bird keeping was a very popular pastime in the 19th century, but not a lot about it was written down. It just wasn’t that sort of activity. However, it is often possible to identify caged birds seen in export prints, giving us some ideas about the pets that individuals owned, or at least aspired to own.
The definitive work on this subject is Chinese Export Paintings of the Qing Period in The British Library by Lo, Song, Wangand Wood (2011, Guangdong’s People’s Publishing House). The book is very extensive (eight volumes) and is published bilingually in Chinese and English. Unfortunately my library does not have this volume, and at a cool $2,000 USD it is unlikely to be getting one any time soon. Still, the research that went into this project has yielded some findings that might be of interest to scholars seeking to use export painting more generally.
To begin with the authors found an interesting mix of subject matter. While some paintings were totally unique, others fell into easily recognizable, and frequently reproduced, categories. They were able to come up with a list of 15 common subject that seemed to capture most of the existing export paintings. At least three of these groups are of particular interest to students of martial history. They are as follows:
- Canton harbor and the city of Canton
- Costumes of emperors, empresses, officials and commoners
- Street and marketplace occupations in Canton
- Handicraft workshops in Foshan
- Guangdong Government offices, furnishings, and official processional equipment
- Gardens and mansions
- Religious buildings and sacrificial arrangements
- The urging of people to stop smoking opium
- Indoor furnishings; paintings of plants and birds
- The Ocean Banner Temple
- Scenes from drama
- Boats, ships and river scenes in Guangdong Province
- Beijing life and customs
- Beijing shop signs
Images of martial artists are found in a number of categories. They are sometimes grouped with the scenes of street life and daily occupations, while at other times they make appearances in official processions (5) or images of jailers and court officers (6). Of course many of the opera singers featured these paintings (always a popular subject) would have been martial artists. They are often shown with interesting periods weapons
One other category that I found particularly interesting was number (4). Foshan was an important incubator of the southern Chinese martial arts. It is remembered as the home of Wing Chun and an important staging ground for the development of both Choy Li Fut and Hung Gar.
What we often forget is that all of this martial activity was a side effect of that city’s vibrant handicraft industry. Foshan was a center of steel production, ceramics and paper making. It also had an important silk industry and it supplied most of the manufactured goods consumed domestically by Guangzhou and other population centers along the Pearl River Delta. In the early 19th century Foshan was no sleepy little town. It was one of the most important economic centers in all of China.
This is what explains the importance of the martial arts in the towns history. Trained guards were needed to escort merchants and goods across the region. They stood watch over warehouses and pawnshops. The town’s vibrant economy supported an exceptionally large population of opera singers, many of whom were trained martial artists. Medicine sellers also abounded. These individuals were often linked to the traditional fighting styles. Sometimes they supported a local school, or else they may have used the martial arts to advertise their products more directly.
Because it held the imperial iron monopoly Foshan was even an important center for the production of weapons, including knives, swords and even cannons. That was the actual reason that both the rebels and the government contested it so fiercely during the Red Turban Revolt.
In short, it is impossible to separate Foshan’s martial heritage from the development of its economic markets. They are very closely linked. In fact, one of things that this town teaches us about the southern Chinese martial arts is that they were always a “market based activity.” No wonder we see commercial schools opening in Foshan and the Pearl River Delta prior to their emergence in other parts of the country.
It is fascinating then to realize that so many of the export paintings showing handicraft production are actually detailed records of daily life in Foshan. This is a great resource, and one that very few other towns or regions in China boast. It also remains largely untapped by martial arts historians.
Luckily one does not have to cough up a few thousand dollars to just to study export paintings of soldiers and martial artists. These were surprisingly popular subjects. They were well represented in a number of private collections which were subsequently donated public institutions and libraries.
All of the export paintings in this post can be found in the archives of the New York Public Library. They have been made available to the public through their digital collections program. In fact, public and university libraries are a fantastic (and underused) resource for anyone looking for images of the Chinese martial arts. And if you know what you are looking for its not uncommon to find export paintings in their collections.
Each of the images featured in this post contains some fascinating elements. The artist paid close attention to the details of the clothing (or in some cases uniforms) of his subjects, as well as their weapons. The actual collection at the NY Public Library is much more extensive, but these are the images that I found myself the most drawn too. I liked the double iron whips held by the first individual as they were not something I had seen in this class of paintings before. And even though spears are commonly portrayed weapon in this series of paintings, it is interesting to note that no two spear heads are the same. Every one represents a different style that can actually be seen in collections of vintage Chinese pole arms. I also like the detail on the tiger shield in the last image.
These export paintings a good example of what is out there. Students of Chinese martial studies are fortunate to have such a strong visual record of the traditional fighting styles stretching back 100 years prior to the spread of the camera. Every visual media introduces its own distortions and limitations into its view of the past. Yet it is interesting to note that these export painting often show a wide range details that early camera’s simply lacked the resolution to pick up. As such they deserve careful thought and consideration.