Seeing China At The Royal Geographical Society

By Siba Matti | 20 July 2008
a black and white phot of a Chinese junk on a river with a bank crowded with buildings and other junks

Canton after the rain, 1930 - 1939, Ato Photographic Association. © RGS-IBG

Thanks to its ever-expanding population, the Beijing Olympics and the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, interest in China is at fever pitch.

But beyond that, relatively few are aware of the country’s complex historical links and shared culture with Britain, and this is the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society.

Seeing China, which runs August 21 2008, uses photographs and maps to explore the personal perspectives of four London-based Chinese community groups.

More than 90 adults, young people and children, born in both China and Britain, used the Society’s collections to reminisce and reflect on collective and diverse histories, as well issues of global migration and identity.

Direct contact between the two nations initially took place when Christian missionaries, led by Italian monk John of Montecarvino, visited China in the 13th century. Christianity quickly became a significant British export and later a recognised religion, cemented by the Jesuit movement in the 1600s.

One of the most renowned Chinese Jesuit converts was Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung, who left his hometown of Nanking to journey around Europe with Father Philippe Couplet, a Belgian priest and the procurator of the China Jesuits in Rome.

While on his travels, European royalty and dignitaries were captivated with Fu-Tsung and their new-found Chinese culture, repeatedly asking him to demonstrate how to use chopsticks and write the language.

The fact that he was different was celebrated, and kings including James II and Louis XIV even commissioned portraits – the most famous of which is on show; a magnificent piece by Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1687, entitled The Chinese Convert.

European interest in China showed no sign of slowing, prompting many entrepreneurs, travellers and officials to visit in search of wealth and with the hope of experiencing the exotic eastern culture for themselves.

In turn, global migration increased, and Chinese people across the globe, from Malaysia and Mauritius to Jamaica, Singapore, South Africa and India, moved to the UK. By the 20th century, thousands were arriving on Britain’s shores, as well as fighting for the Allied troops in the First and Second World Wars. But the apparent differences between the Chinese and British, rather than being commemorated as they were during the nations’ first encounters, were unfortunately largely met with a wall of ignorance, particularly during the Victorian era – however, a member of the Chinese National Healthy Living Centre offers an interesting response to this:

“Most English people think all Chinese look alike but they might find it hard to believe that when I first came to England, I found it difficult to distinguish between English faces.”

For many, emigrating to the UK was a completely alien experience, with a steep learning curve to conquer.

“We were unfamiliar with British social mannerisms,” another member of the Healthy Living Centre explained. “We found it hard to adjust to touching each other in public and giving a peck on the cheek – kissing on the lips was out of the question!”

Of course, not everyone viewed this subject in such a blithe manner – one member of the Healthy Living Centre even remembers when, 30 years ago, British people would spit on the Chinese in the street.

The self imposed superiority of the British was observed by many, including photographer Grace Lau. She has attempted to illustrate this view point in an image ironically depicting the “port” of Hastings, to make “an oblique comment about imperialistic representations of the exotic Chinese”.

In fact, despite it being a pre-feminist society, even British women were given higher status than Chinese men during the Victorian era, as a small cluster of pictures of Isabella Bird Bishop illustrate.

Born in 1831, Bishop was one of the first females to travel from England to the Far East. She was treated with great respect, as seen in a portrait of her on a boat, where she occupies one half, with at least a dozen well built Chinese crew members crammed in the other side. As one young member from the Soho Family Centre innocuously said of the picture:

“I don’t understand how the crew can all fit in one part of the boat, working and sleeping together, and the other part would be for Mrs Bishop.”

Meanwhile, an older member of the Soho Family Centre observed the stark differences in eastern and western attitudes towards women that existed, and to some extent, still do.

“Isabella was so lucky, she went to China, she could write about what she knew and many people paid attention to this. If Chinese women go out into the world and get an education, and go back to China and show what we have learned, it wouldn’t be accepted,” a member of the Soho Family Centre observed.

In Bishop’s time, Chinese women probably had the lowest status of all. While she was allowed to be independent, to spread her wings and travel the world, her eastern counterparts were forced to follow very old fashioned and often harsh values and traditions.

One such ritual is foot binding, which looks to be an excruciatingly process, and was linked to beliefs about beauty, marriage prospects and social status – important priorities for Chinese women.

“Girls had their feet bound from an early age,” remembers a member of the Chinese National Healthy Living Centre. “It was extremely painful, and they would always cry, but the way they walked was very beautiful.”

But on a more positive note, the same member added: “Nowadays, women who get a good education can pursue a career that gives them financial independence and they do not need to seek security from men.”

Despite any struggles that they may have endured upon arriving, many of the community members felt settled in the UK, and considered it their home.

Several had happy memories of landmarks which had to a connection to the west. For example, a photograph of Soochow Creek in Shanghai is oddly reminiscent of the River Thames, while skyscrapers in the city have a clear resemblance to Canary Wharf.

Interestingly, however, a lot of younger members who had never seen China with their own eyes felt an affinity for the county. One member of the Chinese National Healthy Living Centre felt a strong admiration for the River Yangtze, the longest river in Asia, measuring more than 3,500 miles long.

“The River Yangtze is beautiful. It is said that some parts are so wide and deep that a million boats can pass through.”

Although this exhibition could not be described as visually stunning, it more than scratches the surface of the colorful history and culture of the Chinese, offering an opportunity to see beyond negative news headlines.

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