During my time at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, I have found many objects intriguing. Not only the stunning craftsmanship, but also the stories embedded in each object have made each of my Wednesday shifts joyful.

Canton famille rose enamel box with Europeans in landscape with internal tray18th century

Canton famille rose enamel box with Europeans in landscape with internal tray, 18th century

Among the four gallery themes in the Museum, Dynamic World fascinates me the most. In the history of both China and Great Britain, there is one segment called the Canton trade or Canton system (or 口通商 yi kou tong shang) roughly from the first half of the 18th century to the first half of 19th century; but its legacies remain after the system broke down, which is especially interesting. Simplistically speaking, it was a system whereby Qing dynasty China and the Europeans (later the Americans) conducted businesses in controlled areas of and around the Canton city. The history of this trading system fits greatly with the exhibition theme and the objects thereof tell stories that exemplify both the system and the theme.

For example, the Canton enamel box (BATEA 1018), pictured above and below,  demonstrates the robust trade between the Qing China and Europe. On the box cover are two European women dressed very loosely and with most of their chests uncovered. If one looks more closely, there is a little European man (or boy?) between the two ladies with somewhat a funny face looking straight and unashamedly at the chest of the lady to the right. This is a very robust and interesting scene. I wonder how or what the Chinese craft artisans may have contemplated in front of this imagery.

Canton famille rose enamel box with Europeans in landscape with internal tray, 18th century
Detail on underside of box

Also interesting is the bottom of the box; something I call the East Asian delicacy. The flower pattern on the bottom is particularly attractive to the senses, introducing a special and tender attention to users’ approaches to the box. The Chinese craft artisans of this box would perhaps think, “the decoration on the top and the sides look wonderful; my overseas client would certainly take a curious look at the bottom. How about a little kind and attentive surprise at the bottom?”

During every Wednesday shift of mine I must take a look at this box. By doing so I am always reminded the stunning craftsmanship, the robust and dynamic relationships of my country in history, and, most interestingly, the high-quality “Made in China” objects and great customer care, as well as the global market wit of the Chinese.

– Zhehang Deng studied at SOAS, and completed a month’s Gallery Volunteer placement at the MEAA during August.