Review by Jessica Lanier
Objectifying China, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America

Caroline Frank, Objectifying China, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 272 pp.; 49 halftones, 1 line drawing, 2 tables, notes, index. $25.00 (softcover).

Caroline Frank’s highly readable new book on the presence and meaning of Chinese culture and commodities in colonial America is an important addition to ceramics scholarship and, more broadly, American studies. Objectifying China, Imagining America offers a synthetic approach that integrates visual culture and consumption theory with maritime and economic history. Frank brings a global perspective and provides a rigorous theoretical treatment of Chinese porcelain in colonial America. This in-depth analysis has been missing from the significant body of literature on China and the West despite the presence of Chinese export porcelain—arguably China’s most durable commodity and signifier—in every colonial seaport.

Although it has long been known that tea and its inevitable accompaniment Chinese porcelain was present in colonial urban centers by the 1720s, in her opening chapter, “The First American China Trade,” Frank makes a convincing case that Chinese commodities were entering the colonies with some frequency by the 1690s via a shadowy network of piracy and smuggling. Indeed, she recasts American colonists as enthusiastic China traders and full participants in global commercial networks long before the inauguration of direct U.S.–China trade in 1783, a fact that has been noted by historical archeologists as well. In the late seventeenth century, British imperial interests so successfully transformed these Anglo-American Indian Ocean traders from heroic privateering “Red Sea men” to marauding pirates that they were stripped not only of their Chinese goods but of their historical legitimacy (pp. 49–52). In part because of these (often ineffective) trade restrictions, Frank argues, Chinese goods achieved an outsize economic and symbolic place in the American consciousness over the next one hundred years.

In chapter 2, “Imagining China at Home,” Frank presents a fascinating analysis of the japanned wall panels in the Vernon House, Newport, attributing them to sign painter William Gibbs, who owned the house by 1708 and died in 1729. More important is her insistence that they be included in the canon of early American painting. Here we have clear evidence that Americans were not only “actively and independently engaging with a Far Eastern aesthetic” at a much earlier date than previously thought, but that they were operating with the “same level of sophisticated prejudice” as any London practitioner of chinoiserie (p. 61). Colonists such as Gibbs were not naive provincials but British “citizens of the world.” Using a variety of sources (and perhaps consulting Coromandel screens in his neighborhood), Gibbs created a series of paintings that blended a specifically New England technique with Chinese and European motifs to depict despotic and cruel infidels. In short, Gibb’s imaginary China is a hybrid that visualized widely held negative stereotypes of the Chinese.

In chapters 3 and 4 Frank continues to make the case that Chinese commodities, despite restrictive British policies and the ascendancy of the East India Company, were much more widely available and appreciated in the eighteenth century than is apparent in official records. Yet colonial and federalist consumers rarely, if ever, offered specific interpretations of the blue and white China-scapes that graced their tables. The author inquires what porcelain meant to its original purchasers, before it acquired the weight of history and became treasured heirlooms of “Yankee mythology” that celebrated fortunes made through direct trade with China (p. 146). She delineates a long and compelling association among Chinese export porcelain, a mastery of overseas trade, and a cosmopolitan interest in the wider world.

Frank parses out the ambiguities, contradictions, and ironies that existed between a desire for Chinese goods and an ambivalence, even willful ignorance, about China and its people. She identifies “slippage” between the extensive factual information available to Americans and their attitudes toward Chinese commodities, which served as ever-shifting receptacles for Western fantasies, desires, fears, and prejudices, overwhelming any desire for real knowledge about the Chinese. Frank argues that we must attend to the politics of the American context. Early owners of porcelain in the colonies were often thwarting British imperial authority. Frank cites both Dutch influence and an “embrace of commercial capitalism” as key factors in the taste for Chinese goods, a taste in tension with Puritanical fears of licentious freedoms, seductive ornament, and perhaps ill-gotten riches (pp. 146–56).

Chinese commodities entered and circulated in the colonies in a variety of ways, some legal and many not, but always invested with a panoply of contradictory meanings: booty or badges of gentility, feminine extravagance or manly trading prowess? According to Frank, ownership of Chinese porcelain in America initially “invoked a masculine liberty to make one’s own rules and mastery at sea and on land” (p. 161). Nonetheless, the same anxieties about porcelain, and Chinese goods in general, evident in Britain discourse—as femme fatale, as vanity, or as a symbol of ruinous extravagance that stoked mercantilist fears of dependency—appeared in the colonies as well and grew with increasing consumption. However, the earlier associations persisted, and British restrictions on colonial trade ultimately invested Asian commodities with “a powerful ideology of imperial control and domination” (p. 108). In the post-Revolutionary period, freedom from Britain meant freedom to trade with China and the means to secure the country’s future prosperity. This is one reason the inauguration of official U.S.–China trade in 1783 has loomed so large in our collective imagination. In this view Chinese porcelain was completely disengaged from its production but had everything to do with its procurement, forever “entangled with the disposition of American maritime capital and the men who controlled it” (p. 172).

In Frank’s concluding chapter, “Manly Tea Parties,” she reconsiders the meaning of Boston’s “destruction of the tea,” one of the best-known events of the Revolution (p. 181). Building on the work of Robert St. George, T. H. Breen, and others, Frank argues that the American response to Chinese commodities, particularly tea, ultimately offers a key index to the moment we became un-British. The century-long history of Chinese commodities in America inevitably politicized tea as an agent of debilitating enslavement wielded by a tyrant mother country who had disowned her children, casting them as “lesser” colonized subjects who had somehow gone native in the enervating climate of America. Tea was such a potent symbol precisely because of latent but powerful fears about the possibly emasculating, even fatal, effects of Chinese contamination. Charged with alcohol consumed from a Chinese punch bowl, the tea-partiers resisted becoming “servile Indians” by donning their garb and destroying “the colonizer’s tool” (p. 201).

This thought-provoking book covers a lot of ideological ground. The author probes the long and ambiguous relationship between America and China and finds racism and fear of contagion at its core. The West found Chinese commodities both irresistible and potentially dangerous; controlling trade with China was thus of major importance in the run-up to the Revolution, in its aftermath, and to the present day. Quibbles are minor. Some may question whether “china,” “chaney,” and its variants always meant Chinese export porcelain in the more than one thousand probate inventories that stand at the center of Frank’s research (pp. 135–36). Certainly in ship manifests and commercial records, the term china may be taken at face value, but how discriminating were inventory takers when it came to classifying ceramics? Frank rightly calls her probate evidence “impressionistic” rather than definitive (p. 139). An appendix charting more of this prodigious research would have been welcome, as would color plates, but this is not a picture book, and given the economic realities of academic publishing, the book’s reasonable price aptly compensates for these admittedly minor deficiencies.

Jessica Lanier
Salem State University

Ceramics in America 2013