The social effect of the 1935-6 exhibition of Chinese art at Burlington House, London


China is seen today as one of the great powers shaping the global economy. It regularly appears in conversations about trade, globalisation, environmentalism, conflict, …etc. This is a long way from the late 19th early 20th century China whose population was mainly farmers, living so close to the breadline that a drought between 1876 and 1879 caused over 10 million deaths. The various uprisings towards the end of the Qing dynasty left the country split into factions, run by militarists and warlords who exploited the lands and people in endless conflicts for supremacy. This isn’t even accounting for all the imperialist aims of the west and Japan who continued through brutish force to take territories and intervene in China’s politics. (Bickers, 2017, p.0-76)

I chose to write about China and its struggle for a place on the Global stage of economic powers when searching for something to write about around art activism. This is a story which rarely comes up in this context because it isn’t traditional ‘activist art’ which the Tate defines as a “term used to describe art that is grounded in the act of doing and addresses political or social issues” (Tate, 2017). I am using this definition loosely when calling the 1935 exhibition of Chinese art a form art activism, because the art itself, was not created with the purpose of instructing social or political change, but the choice to exhibit the art was driven in part by politics. What is central to this essay are the attitudes of those in the West (Europeans, Americans) towards the Chinese before and after the exhibition.

I start this essay by looking at key historical events in China at the turn of the 20th century and how that shaped the opinions the Chinese had of their rulers. I also look at the prevailing opinions in the West of the Chinese. Then I look at the exhibition, how and why it came about and the political and social goals that it came with. Finally, I try to understand what effect if any the exhibition might have had by looking at the change in attitudes of those in the West.

For much of the historical context, I use Robert Bickers book ‘Out of China’ published by penguin in 2017, which goes over the rise of China in great detail. Bickers is a professor of History at the University of Bristol and has published eight other books relating to modern Chinese History.

Early 20th century China

In 1894 the Chinese suffer a defeat at the hands of the Japanese losing Taiwan, in 1897 Germany take Jiaozhou Bay, in 1908 Korea was detached from China by the Japanese. The problem for China was not only external but endless uprisings were also weakening the state and the 1900 Boxer rebellion lead to further European concessions. This is the end of a long line of uprisings, defeats and humiliations suffered by the Chinese in the later part of the Qing dynasty. The Chinese felt disillusioned by the state, they had lost faith in its competence and worried about national extinction (wangguo). Nevertheless, when The Republic of China took over in 1912 it was with most territories still intact. (Bickers, 2017)

The view of China in Europe and America was that of degradation or as the President of the American Sociological Association wrote, “China is the European middle ages made visible” (Ross, 1911). Along with essays and books published by the Macartney’s mission, the view in the west was that “China’s government took the form rational, enlightened despotism” (Bickers, p.143). During the Nationalist revolution in the 1920’s china saw an influx of foreign journalists, although there were many balanced accounts it was the critics such as J.O.P Bland and Rodney Gilbert who’s writing most influenced foreign discourse (Bickers, 2017). Gilbert’s, What’s Wrong with China published in 1926 reflected the popular, at the time, ‘scientific’ idea of social Darwinism and talked about “breeds of men” having a “cultural limit” which if succeeded would throw them into “confusion and misery as the savage who is taken from his native wilderness” (Gilbert, 1926, p.14). Despite admitting that he himself could not read Chinese literature, on the same page writes “Chinese canonical philosophy is stuffy and ponderous, revealing at every turn a childish ignorance of first principles” (Gilbert, 1926, p.44). With Gilbert’s 17 years experience in China as a journalist, his writings were taken seriously especially by those who mattered, business and military men (Bickers, 2017). There were others who wrote about the Chinese such as Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry which although widely read did not spread to those actually interacting with China (Bickers, 2017).

Lead up

Despite the xenophobic views towards China so prevalent at the time, there were still small groups of collectors, academics and sinophiles who created groups like Vereniging van Vrienden der Aziatische Kunst (Society of Friends of Asiatic Art) in Holland and Freunde Ostasiatischer Kunst (Friends of East Asian Art) in Germany. The former coordinated one of the earliest exhibitions of Asian art in Amsterdam in 1925 pooling 212 pieces from private collections including the British collectors Sir Percival David and George Eumorfopoulos. A year later Freunde Ostasiatischer Kunst coordinated one in Cologne which was the first exhibition after the first world war to succeed in borrowing work from foreign European institutions. In 1929 an exhibition in Berlin was organised boasting 1,272 exhibits on loan from 171 public and private collections including three vases on loan from China. The exhibition had an accompanying lecture series and 458 page illustrated catalogue. The rapid growth from the 1925 Amsterdam exhibition to the 1929 Berlin exhibition suggests a fast increasing interest in Asian and specifically Chinese art and archaeology (Steuber, 2006).

In 1932 a group lead by Sir Percival David and George Eumorfopoulos proposed a comprehensive exhibition of Chinese art. After lengthy negotiations in 1934, the Chinese government decided to participate by lending large a quantity of work. Japan was pressing on Chinese territory after its occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the Chinese government hoped that a display of its grandeur would garner sympathy and support from the west against Japanese imperialism (Steuber, 2006). The exhibition was also part of a series of nationally themed exhibits at the Royal Academy the most popular being the Italian with received over half a million visitors. With a strong endorsement from Chiang Kai-shek, many within the Chinese government saw this as a chance to establish its place on the global stage of cultures next to that of Persia and Italy (Steuber, 2006).

The exhibition wasn’t without its controversy many in shanghai criticised Sir Percival David’s involvement who had lead groups in the Dunhuang expeditions in 1908 (Bickers, 2017). The Dunhuang expeditions lead to thousands of ancient relics being taken overseas and by now we’re seen as theft of national treasures (Liu, 2016). These critics were further enraged by Eumorfopoulos and David who had asserted they and not Chinese experts knew Chinese culture best. With so much of the artwork being so intimately intertwined with China’s imperial and national struggles, it must have taken some discerning and pragmatic calculation by Chinese officials to support the exhibition.


On the 28th of November 1935, the exhibition of Chinese art opened at the Burlington house London. With 780 pieces on loan from the Chinese government, the whole exhibition boasted a 3,080 piece collection (Bickers, 2017). Along with a lecture series which included prominent sinophiles and academics from as far away as the States this was the grandest display of Chinese heritage and culture to date. It received 401,768 paying visitors much more than the Persian exhibition with 255,724 visitors, or the French exhibition with 298,201 visitors, it was surpassed only by the Italian exhibition (Scaglia, 2016). The Times wrote when comparing it to western art that it is “a saner and serener vision in which there was no room for our small greed and self-aggrandisement, and in which we realised our true place in the infinitely” (The Times, 1935). The Manchester Guardian reported “Chinese culture has at all times found a perfect means of expression in Chinese art” (Newton, 1935).

Despite its grandeur, earlier prejudices were still apparent especially within the mainstream media, the article titled “Decorative objects” published in The Times, 17 December 1935; showed an unwillingness to treat the work as serious art by using the word decorative (Liya, 2011). Chinese critics were often infuriated by Western attitudes who would refer to Oriental work as “curios”. Wen Yüan-ning writes in an issue of T’ien Hsia, an English language periodical published first in shanghai, that the word “curios”, “indicates a lazy and frivolous mind which prefers darkness to light” (Liya, 2012). Sensibilities were changing though and art columnist Frank Davis criticised the British public’s prejudices when he wrote “Two sections alone should be sufficient to convince the average visitor that he is confronted with an art which can rise to monumental grandeur and still contain within itself every possible civilised grace” (Liya, 2011). Lin Yutang who published a number of articles discussing Chinese art wrote in a piece called ‘Artistic imperialism’ that even if the exhibition hadn’t deepened “intellectual understanding” it had at least “strengthening the sentimental bond between the Chinese and the British” (Liya, 2012).


The exhibition lead to a boom in “writing and translation of studies about Chinese art, literature and history, both in English and in other Western languages” (Liya, 2012). Along with the writings and translations, studies of Chinese civilisation became much more popular among the authors were the poet Laurence Binyon and sinologist Arthur Waley. Both were successful in Britain but also received wide praise from the Chinese critics for their work translating Chinese poetry and literature. Wen Yüan-ning editor of T’ien Hsia Monthly, wrote in a 1935 publication, “Waley is no mere competent adapter, but a poet in his own right” (Liya, 2012). The Burlington house exhibition certainly helped to catalyse some of these changes however it was not the only effort made by the Chinese to change foreign discourse. ‘The Good Earth’ by Pearl S. Buck, published in 1931, a bestseller throughout the United States, dramatised rural family life in China (Isaacs, 1958). It became a Broadway show in 1932 and when a film was proposed by MGM China saw it as a chance to show a more favourable image of the Chinese than the gambling opium smokers that they so often appeared as in Hollywood (Bickers, 2017). With the threat of the Chinese government banning the movie and MGM losing the whole Chinese audience, they signed a deal with the Chinese government which stated that there always be a Chinese supervisor present and that every shot be reviewed by Chinese censorship. The movie was released in 1937 and by 1955 reached an estimated 23 million Americans. With over 2,000,000 books printed and the movie reaching an estimated 42 million people worldwide (Bickers, 2017). Harold Robert Isaacs in Scratches on our Minds writes that Pearl S. Buck, “for a whole generation of Americans she created the Chinese” (Isaacs, 1958, p.155).


Between 1920 and 1940 there was a large shift in foreign attitudes towards China and the Chinese. It is hard to say what was most influenced these changes nevertheless the 1935 exhibition was a defining moment, especially in the UK. In my research I didn’t come across any sort of comprehensive analyses of direct effects and so am left with questions around the relative effect the exhibition actually had. When comparing the movie ‘The Good Earth’ which had an overall audience of 42 million and the exhibition which had barely half a million visitors, it would seem that the movie must have had the bigger influence. But it might also be valuable to take into account the viewer demographics, it is likely especially for the time that the 1935 exhibition would have attracted a wealthy aristocratic type, the sort of person that might have had more influence on politics.This is of course speculation and it is just as easy to argue that it is the public’s vote which most influences political course in which case the movie might have had a far greater effect.

The early 20th century China had a problem, they weren’t being taken seriously abroad and as a result were not being supported in any of their territorial disputes. But by carefully pushing an image of China that was both grand but also humble, not by pushing their own propaganda but by moderating Foreign cinema and promoting their art they were able to paint a new picture of themselves. “Of course, this new image of China, of noble peasants, of a people who were ‘wise’, ‘spiritual’, deeply cultured and artistic, adept with brush and ink, and infused with a love of connoisseurship, was as much a caricature in its way and as unrepresentative as any other” (Bickers, 2017, p.172).


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