The Inexplicable and the Unfathomable: China and Britain, 1600-1900.
The ‘Chinese character seems at present inexplicable’, observed Lord Macartney during his celebrated embassy to China in the 1790s, while the Chinese themselves at this time often described ‘western ocean barbarians’ as ‘unfathomable’. The failure of Macartney’s embassy is well known, not least the Emperor Qianlong’s dismissive comment that ‘we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures’.
A sense of bafflement might therefore overwhelm the present-day visitor to the Forbidden City, on encountering its glorious array of English clocks, many imported during Qianlong’s reign. The present conference will consider some of the endless misunderstandings and deliberate deceptions that characterised relations between Britain and China in the four centuries under review, in fields as varied as religion and art, and commerce and literature. It will also explore, however, the burgeoning range of contacts between the two countries, and the increased mutual understanding achieved by two cultures separated by ‘the confines of many seas’.
Organised by: David Park (The Courtauld Institute of Art), Lars Tharp (Ceramics Historian, Curator and Broadcaster) and Frances Wood (Former Curator of Chinese Collections, The British Library)