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“the curious question of Chineseness: The Royal Pavilion”

Clare Chun-yu Liu

After three decades of transformation, the Brighton Pavilion was completed in 1823. At the new royal pleasure palace, George IV threw lavish parties, music concerts and banquets, against the elaborate, exotic background of chinoiserie interiors created for him by the designers Frederick Crace and Robert Jones.

Chinoiserie was a cross-cultural phenomenon between Asia and Europe. In Europe, there had been a long fascination with foreign, exotic and rare objects. Collecting such precious treasures historically resulted in, for example, cabinets of curiosities for the wealthy. In the seventeenth century, thanks to emerging oceanic technology and routes, objects including silk, porcelain and lacquerware from East Asia – mostly China – became available and were passionately collected and carefully displayed in European domestic environments. Given the rarity and high price of East-Asian-made products, European craftsmen designed and made decorative objects mimicking Chinese motifs but without much authenticity. In Britain, chinoiserie was most popular in the eighteenth century as the English East India Company increased its trade with China.

An interior with wallpaper of tree shoots on a red background, a mirror with bamboo shoots around the frame, and two Chinese guardian lions.
The Long Gallery at the Pavilion © Clare Chun-yu Liu

In the early 1790s, George III sent George Macartney off to China to secure business relations and trade privileges with the Eastern Empire. None of Macartney’s pleading and demands were accepted by the emperor Chien-lung, but the diplomatic mission managed to collect intelligence about China. Without much time spent on Chinese soil, the embassy’s illustrator William Alexander produced a body of visual materials based on second-hand information. His publications, including The Costumes of China (1805) and Picturesque Representations of the Dress and Manners of the Chinese (1814), then inspired Frederick Crace to create the wall panels in the Music Room at the royal residence.

Mural of a standing man and a seated child on a patterned background. They are both wearing ornate robes.
One of the chinoiserie murals in the Banqueting Room at the Pavilion © Clare Chun-yu Liu 

The Pavilion’s chinoiserie interior raises the curious question of Chineseness as a visual language, and also of asymmetrical power relations: was it a colonial gesture in this case? British colonisation only took place later in the nineteenth century, with the seizure of Hong Kong in the 1840s. How possible is it then to review such a pre-colonial phenomenon as chinoiserie through a postcolonial lens? Also, as an artist and researcher of diasporic Chinese background, I see that Chineseness as an identity is at stake: what is Chinese after all? As an exploration of the relation between the personal and historical has been central to my art practice, there is a further concern of articulating lived experience.

In response to these queries, I made an artist film This is China of a particular sort, I do not know [link] – a fictional ethnography informed by historical research, I created new narratives in the form of film script where historical individuals and myself put forth our respective perspectives. Across the film, George IV, Chien-lung, George Macartney, William Alexander, Ang – my childhood neighbour in Taiwan who was a Ching dynasty royal family member – and myself (the only living person present here) question each other over the representation of Chineseness in situ.

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