- China and the Church: Chinoiserie in Global Context by Christopher M. S. Johns
In the growing body of scholarship on the global connections of the early modern world (1500–1800), the study of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European chinoiserie in all its forms has sought to reassess a subject that was dismissed as frivolous for most of the twentieth century. The term “chinoiserie” appeared during the nineteenth century and has been retroactively applied to what was earlier known as “Chinese taste” or “goût chinois” in literature, drama, dress, architecture, garden design, material culture, design, and fine and decorative arts. Stacey Sloboda defines “chinoiserie” in the decorative arts as “a decorative style that emerged as the product of networks of commercial trade and artistic exchange within and between Europe and China in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”1 More specifically, the term “chinoiserie” applies equally to objects produced in China for export to Europe and to “Chinese-taste” styles produced in Europe for domestic consumption.
Beginning with Hugh Honour, twentieth-century art historians’ studies of chinoiserie treated it as a fantasy of China in the decorative arts, typically assessing the objects and styles through the lens of unreconstructed orientalism.2 In contrast, twenty-first-century scholarship on chinoiserie “tak[es] seriously the capacity of the style not only to reflect—but also to shape—taste, identity, and political opinion.”3 This new approach, applied not just in art history but across all relevant disciplines, has produced an explosion of interdisciplinary scholarship; it has wholly reconsidered the European taste for China as far more politicized, ambiguous, complicated, and meaningful than mere decorative ignorance about “Cathay.” Since about 2000, scholars working deeply in primary and secondary sources on European taste for East Asia have investigated that subject within the particular spatiotemporal contexts [End Page 243] in which it arose. Their work has redefined the exoticism inherent in the European interest in China from 1500 to 1800 as a noncolonial early modern orientalism, and further refined it by nation, such as Russian orientalism.4 Important new work has identified differences in the taste for Asia particular to the Habsburg Empire, Russia, Saxony, and France, to name just a few.5 The majority of scholarship has focused on the British taste for China, contributing the most to the dramatic reassessment of chinoiserie across numerous fields.6
In China and the Church: Chinoiserie in Global Context, Christopher M. S. Johns claims to treat chinoiserie “as a form of political and cultural expression . . . [rather than] merely a flight of Rococo fantasy” (p. 4). The book arose from his 2009 Franklin D. Murphy lectures, “China and the Church: Chinoiserie and the Roman Connection,” delivered in the annual series sponsored by the Spencer Museum of Art, the Kress Foundation Department of Art History at the University of Kansas, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. A distinguished historian of European art, especially eighteenth-century Italian art, Johns approaches chinoiserie from the perspective of the Roman Catholic Church, the focus of much of his previous scholarship.7 However, Johns limits his definition of chinoiserie to Chinese-style objects produced in Europe, eliminating from consideration the Chinese export objects that far outnumbered European chinoiserie. Johns further excludes a vast amount of material that challenges his claims: “even though quantities of chinoiserie objects do not support my argument, I make no apology for selecting those that do” (p. 10).
In his introduction, Johns contends that chinoiserie produced in Catholic Europe from the late seventeenth through approximately [End Page 244] the first quarter of the eighteenth century presents a positive view of China, which he calls “good China.” Those produced during roughly the middle two quarters of the eighteenth century, peaking around 1740–1750, present a negative, dehumanized, and emasculated view of China, termed “bad China.” The turning point for Johns is the Kangxi 康熙 emperor’s (r. 1661–1722) ban on Christian proselytization in 1722, following the Chinese Rites controversy. This black-and-white characterization of European-made chinoiserie, as depicting “good China” before...