CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

About History Press Release Sessions Schedule Activities Participants Venue Discussion Registration Closed


CHEN Yushu
From Imagination to Impression The observation of China through the paintings attributed to the Macartney Embassy

Session 15 Creative Misunderstanding

The Chinese University of Hong Kong


The turning of the 18th and 19th century was European actual-reflecting period of the image of China. The image of China attributed to the Macartney embassy was the representative. Based on the Embassy member’s real Chinese experience and the rationalistic spirit, the faithful elements in the paintings were increased dramatically, nevertheless, the misconception and distorted forms were still exist.

The distorted phenomena in the Embassy member’s paintings can be divided into two sorts: image infidelity and conceptual infidelity. More specifically, the image infidelity possesses two expressions: common sense mistake and distorted composition. Also the conceptual infidelity can be expressed as both geographical amalgamation and ambiguity between general model and single case. The effective factors can be classified into the five kinds below:

Initially, the lack of original sketches is an important factor. The members  traced these Chinese images from memory and the sketches made in China. Once the experience and picture material cannot support their reproduction anymore, they combined a number of sketches into one view and utilize the same sketch for different thematic plates which are the methods to produce more Chinese motive works.

Secondly, the physical and psychological barrier between the observer and the subject. The factor of cross-race effect and the arrogance of rising Britain brought about the psychological discrimination between the observer and the objects. Besides, the Embassy's travel was watched strictly by Qing government. The Embassy observed China from a long distance. The physical barrier determined that their observation is very limited.

Thirdly, an attempt of panoptic view. The painters created a view of China for the audience as if it had been fully laid out for examination, and concealed audience and subject from each other, however, they saw relatively little of China during the short voyage.

Fourthly, the limitation of artistic ideas. Most of the plates reflected picturesque aesthetic and Neoclassical idea, but also had a tendency of formularization. Influenced by the formularization, it was not easy to keep reality.

Finally, the logical and time limitations of the visual images are entirely dependent on the supplementation of descriptive captions. As a result, with the help of the description of general practice generated by the caption, the image-as-illustration succeeds the image-as-single-event in order to exemplify the authoritative general principle expressed in the caption.

Chen Yushu

Chen Yushu, female, 27 years old, devotes herself to the research of cross-cultural communication between China and the West. During her MA degree, she researched the dissemination of the Western painting education in Shanghai in the Republic of China under the guidance of Prof. Pan Yaochang. Now, she is a PhD candidate in Department of Fine Arts, Chinese University of Hongkong, supervised by Prof. Frank Vigneron. The objectives of her research are (1) to review and analyze the images of China attributed to the Macartney Embassy. (2) to discuss the British zeitgeist and the attitude to China reflected by the images. (3) to prove the misconception from the image evidences created by the Macartney Embassy.