Theses Doctoral

Joints of Utility, Crafts of Knowledge: the Material Culture of the Sino-British Furniture Trade during the Long Eighteenth Century

Bae, Kyoungjin

This dissertation examines the material culture of the Sino-British furniture trade in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the beginning of the eighteenth century, the British East India Company began importing a large quantity of furniture made in Canton (Guangzhou), China. As the trade between Britain and China became standardized around 1720, this furniture became a part of the private trade carried out by merchants associated with Company. Unlike other objects of the China trade that fed into the vogue of chinoiserie, export furniture crafted with hardwoods from the Indian Ocean was produced in European designs of the time and thus was often indistinguishable from its Western counterparts. What cultural and economic values did export furniture represent in the early modern maritime trade and how did it reify the trans-regional movement of knowledge and taste between China and Britain? Going beyond the conventional perspective on export Chinese objects oriented toward European reception, I connect production with consumption in order to follow the trajectory of export furniture from its origins in the intra-Asian timber trade to its requisition and manufacture in Canton to its reception and use in both Britain and China, highlighting how this process linked the disparate spheres of commerce, knowledge production and distribution, and cultural practices. In the course of exploring these multiple dimensions of the object’s material life, this dissertation underscores export furniture’s bicultural and transcultural characteristics.

Utilizing diverse sets of visual, material, and textual sources, each chapter of the dissertation investigates different aspects of the movement of furniture as an assemblage. Chapter 1 reconstructs the itinerary of export furniture as a commodity from the EIC timber trade between India and China to the ordering and shipping of the furniture for the British market. I show how the character of export furniture was shaped by the constraints of space and the economic, environmental, and epistemic contingencies of long distance travel and communication. Chapter 2 examines the influence of imported Asian rosewood – an important cabinet timber from which most hardwood Chinese export furniture was made – on early modern British arboreal knowledge. If the knowledge of rosewood in the seventeenth century was grounded in classical texts that defined it as a subshrub growing in the eastern Mediterranean region, in the eighteenth century the term came to refer to a hardwood species imported from tropical Asia. I argue that this change allowed rosewood to obtain a new status as a universal category in the botanical taxonomy, which collected, pruned, and ordered heterogeneous cultural and natural information associated with it into a neatly classified “cabinet” of universal knowledge.

Chapter 3 returns to Canton to investigate Cantonese cabinetmakers and the production of export furniture. By reading the joinery of extant export furniture pieces, I show how Chinese artisans recreated foreign forms by mobilizing their embodied knowledge of craft rather than by imitating European joinery constructions. The details of this material translation not only reflect the flexibility and resilience of traditional Chinese craft but also illuminate the tacit knowledge and craft patterns of early modern Chinese artisans. Chapters 4 and 5 turn to the domain of consumption in Britain and China, respectively. Chapter 4 explores how Chinese cabinets were experienced in early modern Britain. Comparing lacquered and hardwood display cabinets, I show that Chinese cabinets were not just exotic objects; they played an active role in the evolution of the cabinet as a type of furniture in the domestic material culture and created an affective space both within themselves and in their ambient space that invited the bodily experience and imagination of the user-beholder. The final chapter examines the movement and adaptation of European round tables in mid-Qing Chinese material culture. Introduced by European mariners to Canton, the round tables quickly found their niche in local everyday life and eventually spread beyond Guangdong. I show how they partook in the formation of a new social dining practice that conveyed a new political vision of equality. As a whole, my dissertation argues that export furniture was a Eurasian object that embodied cross-cultural knowledge of craft and nature, and engendered new ideas of utility and sociability.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Smith, Pamela H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 19, 2016