Other People’s Clothes: The Secondhand Clothes Dealer and the Western Art Collector in Early Twentieth-Century China

This article was originally published in the Vol. 26 No. 2 / Fall-Winter 2019 issue of West 86th.

Western museum collections of Chinese dress were enabled by Qing dynastic collapse and the ensuing rise of imperialism and tourism. This article reconstructs the process through which Chinese dress objects transferred from wearing to display, and the collectors, curators, and dealers responsible. In revealing the key role of the secondhand clothes dealer and probing collectors’ motives and scholars’ priorities, it seeks to take a fresh look at the process of creating meaning in the museum collection. Through a close analysis of pawnshop texts, it reconstructs the parameters of materiality, workmanship, and geography through which dealers assessed garments, and compares this with the collector’s connoisseurship framework. Thus, the article explores how foreign buyers changed understandings of secondhand Chinese dress, and more fundamentally, what this history tells us about how objects transition between different modalities of worth within the “art-culture system.”

The fact that rather abruptly, in the space of a few decades, a large class of non-Western artefacts came to be redefined as art is a taxonomic shift that requires critical historical discussion, not celebration…. [S]uch a focus would treat art as a category defined and redefined in specific historical contexts and relations of power.

—James Clifford, Histories of the Tribal and the Modern

The demise of the Qing dynasty in China ushered in not just political upheaval but also a new age of touristic collecting. When the Manchu regime fell in 1911, the market was flooded with the possessions of Manchu and Han families forced to liquidate their assets, and these objects—porcelain, robes, jades, paintings, and furniture—continued to be sold through the next two decades. In an age when Chinese art was first entering European and North American museums, the origins of Chinese dress collections such as those of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and many others can all be traced back to this period.

Of course, Westerners had purchased objects of Chinese dress well before the early twentieth century. Large quantities of chinoiserie silks were exported during the Canton Trade period (1700–1840) of East India Company trading between China and Europe, and, from 1784 onward, between China and North America. Embroidered robes and shoes provided a simple signifier of China: traded by merchants, collected by missionaries for lecture show-and-tell, purchased as souvenirs for female relatives. But while trade restrictions confined foreigners to Guangzhou (Canton), the “unequal treaties” (the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing and the 1860 Treaty of Beijing) that ended the Opium Wars (1839–42, 1856–60) forced China to open to Western trade and diplomatic presence in the Treaty Ports. These wars, along with the 1850–64 Taiping Rebellion, the 1899–1901 Boxer Rebellion, other uprisings, and a series of environmental disasters, rained blow after blow on the Qing empire. And so, when impoverished elites first turned to dealers to sell off their possessions, foreigners visiting and living in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai were in a privileged position.

Dress was one of many objects whose circulation and valuation were transformed by foreign buyers’ conceptions of “Chinese art.” As Susan Naquin has written, foreign presence brought competing tastes to the marketplace, introducing terms like “curios” and “oddities” that widened established definitions of art.1 34, no. 2 (2015): 210–44, 217.To understand how Chinese dress was framed in this early, formative period of collecting Chinese material culture, a framing that still holds sway today, and in turn, how these dress objects were deployed to make certain conclusions about Chinese society, this paper reconstructs the process by which they entered the museum. Here I outline what the historian James Hevia called the “dense referential grids” that objects acquired as they transferred from Chinese society to Western collections: the “taxonomic categories, aesthetic schemes, and temporal and spatial signifiers” they were given, that formed not just a reinterpretation of the object, but a reappropriation.2 By probing collectors’ motives and scholars’ priorities, I seek to take a fresh look at this process of transfer, and in so doing, reveal something of the agents responsible and the process of creating meaning in collections. And so we begin in an ostensibly unlikely place—the secondhand clothes shop.

The Secondhand Clothes Seller in Qing Society

In Chinese culture, as in many premodern cultures, the normative preference was for new clothes made by tailors, but as the Qing economy expanded, the secondhand clothes seller came to occupy a major role in the wider system of clothing provision. Clothing and textiles were always viewed as an asset easily liquidated; terms for secondhand clothing date back as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). But wealth possessed a certain fragility in the Qing (hence the saying “Fortune does not last through three generations”), and bankruptcy led many more to turn to the secondhand clothing shop for clothing. Two terms are used to reference secondhand clothing, both pronounced gùyi.3 The first character has a longer heritage, but the second, which initially appeared around the mid-Qing, came to prevail, preferred by the sellers themselves, according to the Republican-period scholar Qi Rushan (1875–1962).4

The rise of the secondhand clothes seller was entwined with that of the pawnshop. Many depended on the pawnshop as a storehouse and for credit, and opening pawnshops was a common business activity during the Qing period. As the number of pawnshops grew—from 9,904 in 1723 to some 25,000 by the early 1800s—so too did the need to find a sales outlet for unredeemed objects, called “dead pawn” (si dang).5Each month, the pawnshop merchants collected such goods, numbered them, and invited secondhand clothes wholesalers to purchase them through a bidding system.6 Wholesaler representatives examined the goods to calculate potential profit, wrote their names and bidding prices upon pieces of paper, and placed the papers in a small box; finally, the pawnshop merchants opened the box to find the highest bid.7 Once the wholesaler acquired the clothing, he or she separated items into different categories: unlined, lined, fur, cotton, and bedding. Dirty clothes were washed and damaged clothing repaired, before being passed on to the guyi retailer to sell in temple markets and street stalls.8

Furs were a big specialty for the pawnshop, but pawnshop texts list a wide range of clothes. Dragon robes, women’s jackets and skirt sets, embroidered collar and sleeve sets, and court jackets and outfits were all found in the pawnshop and hence, if unredeemed, passed on to the secondhand clothes dealer.9 Dealers sold through market stalls and urban shops, and they catered to a variety of customers: though they predominantly served the poor and frugal, literary and biji (notation book) references suggest that many might have had cause to visit secondhand clothing shops. For one, it offered a means of getting a complete set of clothing, including socks and shoes, without waiting for the tailor: a useful option for people in a hurry, or for those who needed to dress their way into different social roles: urbanite, scholar, official.

Used clothing shops were clearly not acceptable to all, but the pressures facing impoverished officials meant that in order to dress appropriately, they might well need to shop at the secondhand clothes store. The late Qing official Li Ciming (1830–94) was renowned for his luxurious lifestyle, which required a greater income than his official salary. His accounts show that he shopped at secondhand shops as well as employing tailors and buying ready-made accessories. In 1876, he spent sixteen taels at the secondhand clothes shop, roughly the same as the cost of a newly made, lined satin robe and jacket. That year he had spent a quarter of his budget on clothing (about 65.4 taels: his income was 215.7 taels, and his expenditure 214.8).10 Li did not detail what he purchased, but evidently disdain for secondhand clothes could be overcome.

Disdain derived partly from the prestige of new clothes, and partly from the perception of used clothes as old, damaged, or still worse, disease carriers.11 As an 1824 Beijing bamboo ballad put it, “Clothing hung upside down half-old-half-new, the seller sings out again and again, straight collars and raised lapels; summer grass-cloth, winter clothing—buy as you please, [but] who knows who first made it?”12 Urban rhymes describe passages lined with a parade of sellers, each one draped with clothing, each one competing for customers:

All the households are full of old clothes, these are gathered like a mountain to hastily sell them.

Furs, cottons, linings fine and thick, they are valued and separated by price.

Lining the street, vendors set up market stalls and shop fronts, clothing for the four seasons hanging on both sides.

They sing out the price in a loud voice, passers-by stop to hear their refrain.13

This refrain was a renowned performance. The Victorian photographer John Thomson (1837–1921) told of how the old-clothes men competed with the storytellers for “their humorous stories,” writing,

[They] will run off with a rhyme to suit the garments as they offer them to the highest bidder. Each coat is thus invested with a miraculous history, which gives it at once a speculative value. If it be fur, its heat-producing powers are eloquently described. “It was this fur which, during the year of the great frost, saved the head of that illustrious family Chang…. [H]e put on this coat, and it brought summer to his blood. How much say you for it?”14

Their witty, parrying dialogue (he guyi) pivoted upon claims of convenience and condition: despite its used nature, this clothing lacked any sign of dirt or damage, still able to protect its wearer from the winter cold and the summer heat.15

Many cities had secondhand clothes markets. In Beijing, sellers clustered around the Tianqiao area outside Qian Gate (the southern entry to the Inner City), and the Eastern Great Market, where the larger secondhand clothes shops were based. Chi Zehui, who chronicled turn-of-the-century Beijing commerce, charted around 220 traders, employing more than 2,000 managers and salesmen, paid three to five yuan per month.16 In Guangzhou, Archdeacon John Henry Gray (1823–1920) visited an early-morning fair held every day which sold, among other things, “dresses of all kinds, second-hand shoes.” His wife, Mrs. Gray, was amused by “men walking about displaying beautifully embroidered second-hand robes on their backs or spread over their arms, they having no stalls on which to arrange their goods.”17 Tianjin’s Secondhand Clothes Street in Hongqiao district, east of the northern gate, was another well-known secondhand market, attracting silk, cotton, fur, and antiquities shops, alongside the secondhand clothes sellers.

In Suzhou, though secondhand clothes sellers were present at least as early as the eighteenth century, a guild for sellers, the Emperor’s Handwriting Guild (Yunzhang gongsuo), was not founded till the mid-nineteenth century, sometime before 1876.18 In Beijing, the Capital Great Market Secondhand Clothes Sellers’ Guild (Yandu da shi guyi hang) first formed in 1929.19These dates are telling—if the secondhand clothes seller rose during the Qing dynasty, then dynastic collapse and the tumultuous transition to the Republic created conditions still more conducive to this sector. Louise Crane, a Beijing resident, noted the “increasing popularity of the ready-made clothing shop, once resorted to only by the unfastidious.”20 And Zeng Pu’s (1872–1935) novel Flowers in a Sea of Sin (Nie hai hua) mentions the increasing power held by the Beijing secondhand clothes-sellers: “Nowadays the guyi sellers in the Back Gate have become a powerful group! Most of the shop-keepers wear blue hats with peacock feathers, they have splendid carriages and bejewelled horses, and specialize in the wardrobes of the princely mansions, coming and going out of the noble houses, so they get better access to the news than you and I!”21

While civil war and famine made profit for the pawnshop and secondhand clothes seller alike, they also made a target out of their stores of material wealth, something visualized in the 1902 Yangliuqing print The People Loot a Beijing Pawnshop (fig. 1). The image depicts the 1900 pawnshop looting in the Tianqiao area during the antiforeign uprising known as the Boxer Rebellion.22 Strikingly, it visualizes objects being placed in motion: even as a group of men dole out money at center, on either side dealers have begun to sell on the goods, welcomed in by neighboring houses. On the right we see two secondhand clothes dealers offering a fashionable jacket to the Manchu woman standing at the door. As the print illustrates, the Boxer Rebellion marked a new stage in the circulation and collecting of Chinese material culture.

Fig. 1. The People Loot a Beijing Pawnshop (Beijing cheng baixing Qiang dang pu 北京城百姓搶當舖), 1902. Previously collection of Wang Shucun王树村 (1923–2009), sold at Jiade 嘉德 auction, summer 2004, Guangzhou. After Wang Shucun 王树村, Zhongguo minjian nianhua shi tulu 中国民间年画史图录 (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1991), 541, no. 552.

Collecting Chinese Dress

This new stage can be traced back earlier, to the 1860 sacking of the Yuanmingyuan, when Anglo-French forces pillaged the Qing imperial summer residence. Weeks later the British and French armies arranged a sale of the loot, and as imperial objects filtered into collections and museums, their quality and design stimulated art markets in London, Paris, and the United States, determining market desires and collecting categories for the next few decades. By the fall of the dynasty, Western conceptions of Chinese art had developed considerably, with new sites for producing and circulating knowledge about Chinese objects, and a fast-growing volume of connoisseur knowledge.23

Most twentieth-century accounts displayed a marked absence of interest in the circumstances under which objects entered Western collections.24Curators revealed snippets of knowledge here and there: “Most of them are Manchu imperial and official robes, which are said to have been taken from a certain palace in the Forbidden City by Yuan Shikai, during the disorders and to have included many garments from the wardrobes of the Empress Dowager Cixi and her court ladies.”25The American collector William C. Paul acknowledged that “as a result of shattered fortunes, and frequent looting of the palace by the contending armies, old embroideries, hand-woven tapestries and brocades” were “scattered thru the marts of Europe and America.”26 But generally human agency was downplayed, hence the popular construction “the objects found their way onto the market.”

The early twenty-first century has seen more interest in the figures who bought the objects to market, particularly big dealers. For dress and textiles, S. M. Franck & Co. and Yamanaka and Co. were two of the most important dealers of this period. In Britain, Franck & Co. were the largest importers of Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Turkish, and Persian antiquities between 1883 and 1937; their contributions to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum are well documented.27 More important in America was Yamanaka Sadajiro (1865–1936), a Japanese dealer who turned to Chinese art to stock his New York antiques shop following government restrictions on Japanese art exports in the 1890s. With a network of buyers through China and Japan, Yamanaka thrived during these years, supplying the Rockefeller family among others.28

Another key dealer was the Tianjin-based trader George Crofts (1871–1925), who ran a large fur business between 1861 and 1925, employing six Chinese and eight Europeans. Collecting antiquities began as a hobby, but success led to his becoming an agent for Franck, and in 1914 he began corresponding with the Royal Ontario Museum director Charles T. Currelly (1876–1957). Their correspondence covers enormous shipments of costumes, rugs, porcelain, and bronzes: some objects purchased directly by the museum, some purchased by other buyers for donation to the museum, and some to be purchased by other museums or dealers.29 Crofts sent the museum photo albums (fig. 2), each photograph presenting twenty-odd garments, grouped according to style, many of them women’s jackets, robes, and skirts, with labels such as “Specification of Embroideries: Comprising elaborate Manchu robes of the late Empress Dowager of China and her Court Ladies—and other embroideries of great interest.”30 Some museum objects can be correlated to catalogue entries, but since some of Crofts’s objects were sold on to other museums, much of this original collecting context has been lost.

Fig. 2. Page from photo album created by George Crofts, containing images of clothing he had collected to sell and donate to North American museums. Croft Archives, Royal Ontario Museum.

Dealers such as Crofts or Yamanaka were the public face of extensive networks that systemized object transfer—connecting European and North American art dealers with Chinese curio shop owners through agents and itinerant dealers. Their reputation was key to their success, but their networks depended most of all upon the middlemen who maintained object supply. And for clothing and textiles, the secondhand clothes dealer—though little mentioned—was central to the establishment of Western museum and private collections. As Chi Zehui described, “For other more valuable pieces of clothing, these are sold to distant and foreign lands where several times the [normal] profit can be made. Even ordinary items, once they have been washed, dyed, or altered, then their sales can be improved—all these are techniques used by those in this business.” 31 Agents combed the countryside for dragon robes and rank badges: “Really good old embroideries are becoming scarce, hard to find and high in price. Many shops have their buyers in different parts of the country, searching for the descendants of once wealthy families, who are now willing to part with their heirlooms for greatly needed money.” 32 In Beijing and Shanghai, local merchants opened embroidery and antiques shops, deconstructing robes into collars, borders, and sleeve-bands to eke out their inventories, as one rhyme described: “The secondhand clothes stores have such dexterous skills—they increase their profit by turning old fabrics into new!”34Cook’s Handbook cautioned Beijing shoppers to check for soiling, damp, and “imitation as a lot of fancy ribbons made in Europe” were now being used “in place of the real thing.” Buyers were also warned against robes made up of trimming “cut from old garments and tacked or glued on to newer materials.”35 Bredon acknowledged the advantages of home-based shopping for the very discerning or ignorant, but recommended visiting Chinese or foreign-managed shops as “more amusing.”36

A perspective on these Chinese-owned shops is found in Zhang Tiejiu’s fascinating account of managing Hong xing de, one of Beijing’s foremost embroidery shops.37 Zhang listed more than twenty embroidery shops on Embroidery Street (near Liulichang), and told how their stock came from once-wealthy official families, whose shrinking salaries led them to secretly sell their embroidered clothes to street markets and old clothes shops.38 The usual profit for clothing was about 30 percent, but since “nobody knew the price of these ancient clothes” (or as Cook’s Handbook put it, only “the purchaser” could “put a value according to the special circumstances of his appreciation”39), the price could be marked up many times.40

Many objects in North American collections can be traced back to purchases during this period. The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art’s Murray Warner Collection was formed by Gertrude Bass Warner (1863–1951) and Murray Warner (1869–1920), who went to China to establish the American Trading Company’s engineering department. From 1905 to 1920 they lived in Shanghai, where they purchased hundreds of robes, skirts, accessories, and furnishings, perhaps from shops like “Mrs H.J.Moysey’s Studio” (Maoli youxian gongsi), photographed here piled high with garments and textiles, marketing the imperial and official bodies that once wore them (fig. 3). The 1910–11 diaries of Harriet Monroe (1860–1936), a critic for the Chicago Daily Tribune, visiting her sister, Lucy Monroe Calhoun (1865–1950), in Beijing, described shopping expeditions: “Nov 1st … we buy coats, panels, etc. in embroidery at 23 Flower Street.”41 Secondhand clothes dealers sought out tourists in their homes and hotels. Mrs. Gray described her desire to “collect some of the beautiful Chinese embroidery in silk … most charming in taste and design,” which was satisfied by “a queer little man, a dealer in embroidery,” who visited when he had stock that might tempt them.42 The Chicago collector Lucy Calhoun (1865?–1950) went to China in February 1912, where she met “a most beguiling and eloquent dealer” of textiles and painting at the American legation. She proposed that the Antiquarians (a society made up of “socially prominent women”) send her a modest allowance so she could buy textiles for the Art Institute, and she shipped these items in May 1912.43 The New Englander Lucy Truman Aldrich (1869–1955) had a long-standing interest in Asian textiles; she traveled to Asia six times between 1919 and 1929. Her diaries and letters describe visits from Chinese merchants, or time spent in a “little dark shop … pawing over piles of evil smelling silks looking for something really old or worthwhile.”44She bought numerous robes and accessories that she later donated to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

Fig. 3. Mrs H.J.Moysey’s Studio (Maoli youxian gongsi), “The Embroidery Industry in Shanghai,” China Journal, May 1939, 267–68. The caption read, “Selections of gowns worn by emperors and high officials. The one at the extreme right was worn by Emperor Chien Lung [Qianlong]; these and other gowns are handmade and their design represents the emblems of the Eight Immortals and other good luck omens.”

For the early twentieth-century Western collector, Chinese women’s dress contained different facets of appeal. Like the Japanese kimono, Chinese robes were the latest trend, worn and furnished by bohemian members of high society, such as Harriet Monroe, in deliberately nonconventional ways that sought to recontextualize the object as creative performance (fig. 4). A talented poet, Monroe was much interested in Chinese poetry. Similarly, displaying Chinese objects in domestic interiors signified social prestige and cosmopolitan sophistication. For those disillusioned by the Industrial Revolution, handicrafts’ reference to the “mysterious and romantic Orient” revitalized contemporary design. Collectors donated Asian textiles to museums linked to design schools as “study collections” directed toward educational use: “The Chinese were masters of the art of dress design … remarkable for their simplicity of style.”45In an age of health reform movements, Chinese dress was seen as advantageous in its elegance and combinatorial flexibility.46 Amid industrialized palettes of synthetic shades, “Oriental colors” were widely seen as superior. Mrs. Gray described one girl’s “deep yellow silk handkerchief, … most charmingly shaded … as only these Easterns know how to shade colors.”47

Fig. 4. The American poet, critic, and editor Harriet Monroe wearing a Chinese robe. Vanity Fair, August 1920.

Gender ideologies also played a role in bringing these objects into the museum collection. Embroidered robes referenced the idealized Chinese gentlewoman in her garden or boudoir, known in the West through export watercolors and wallpapers, a vision reiterated by museum curators. Thus, while Sir Percival David collected porcelain and John D. Rockefeller collected painting, their wives, Lady David (Sheila Yorke-Hardy) and Mrs. Abby Rockefeller, collected embroidered robes. Equally, it was typically female curators who were instrumental in the exhibition and publication of Chinese dress—Jean Mailey, Helen Fernald, Pauline Simmons. Their ability to gain curatorial positions and publishing opportunities was partly due to the absence of male curators who had been called into military service, but doubtless it was easier for women to negotiate the chauvinistic museum world through the “minor arts” of textiles and furnishings.

Back in early twentieth-century China, this foreign demand would have been a windfall for dealers struggling with a clothing system undergoing dramatic change. Still, the orientation toward the foreign buyer also raises the question of how the Western buyer’s acquisition of old Chinese clothes managed to operate outside what fashion curators Alexandra Palmer and Hazel Clark identify as “the pejorative connotations of the second-hand clothing market” and instead signal “elitism and connoisseurship” in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.48 After all, many of these collectors knew of the origins of their “beautiful Chinese embroidery.” The missionary wife Mrs. Gray told her mother, “many of the valuables come from the pawn-shops, and are sold as unredeemed pledges, but Henry says a great deal that is exhibited is stolen property,” yet she made “some small purchases, an embroidered Pekinese lady’s jacket amongst them.”49 Eliza R. Scidmore (1856–1928) provides a still more detailed account:

Still further east of Chien-men’s (Qian Gate) broad street are Bamboo Chair Street and other sewery side lanes, where dealers in furs, old embroideries and second-hand clothing abide. The old-clothes market, held on an open common every morning from daylight until nine o’clock is one of the sights of Peking that bears many repetitions. There is a permanent old-clothes bazaar surrounding the open market space, and the rows of alcove shops are so many silk- and satin-lined grottoes, all speciously dazzling with color and tinsel. In the early morning the whole common is covered with piles of silk and furred and gorgeous garments that have often been stolen before they were pawned to these shrewd “uncles.” The coup-d’oeil is brilliant and striking, the sheen and shimmer of rich fabrics in the Peking sunshine is bewitching; but, prowl as he may, the tourist finds no decorative treasures at the fair, since the professional buyers have gleaned before him, ready to hawk any desirable objects around the legations, and flaunt them at the grand gathering of all such purveyors in the hotel garden court at noon.… The old-clothes merchants are usually folding up their goods when foreigners arrive on the scene, but some uncle will beckon one away through side slums and garbaged lanes to his own particular labyrinth of stone passages and courts, and show his store-room filled with official costumes, great curtains, palace and yamen hangings, and plunder.50

Her description of this area, known as Thieves’ Market, builds a revealing disconnect between object and context: the “sheen and shimmer” of the “gorgeous garments” “dazzling with color and tinsel” set incongruously within “sewery streets,” “side slums[,] and garbaged lanes.” This discordance is found in other accounts, and one reading is as implicit justification for the Western buyer who “rescued” these gorgeous items from their drab surroundings. But the disconnect is also underpinned by the suspicious circumstances through which the objects have entered those surroundings—their “bewitching” and “speciously dazzling” effect on the “prowling” tourist is an unsettling pointer toward their “stolen,” “pawned,” and “plundered” journeys. Scidmore’s description underlines the impossibility of concealing the disreputable paths traveled by many of the objects. To declare the object’s secondhand status was to strike a delicate balance. On the one hand, its value derived from belonging to a real person, but equally, it could not visibly manifest presence of their ownership through dirt, smells, or stains. This balance was particularly problematic for body-bound objects such as dress, intimately tied to the same bodies experiencing the turmoil of war and famine. The Western collector wished to imagine the genteel Chinese lady sitting embroidering in her courtyard rather than forced to sell off her material surroundings, even if, logically, the object’s purchase implied this fate.

Various strategies were utilized to resolve this disconnect and enable a narrative that permitted the conscionable purchase of used dress objects of Chinese men and women. In some cases, collectors sought to deflect its original context by re-creating the object: restructuring used clothing into another object, often Western in construction—tea gowns, opera cloaks, or fancy dress—asserting the cultural identity of the Western collector even as they toyed with the dress of the cultural other.51 William C. Paul described how “[t]housands of beautiful coats have been cut up to make table runners to grace American homes. Sleeve bands … have been made up into table mats, or used to adorn a dress front, or to trim milady’s hat … framed under glass to make serving trays or dainty wall panels.… Persons of artistic taste have found a hundred ways to utilize these beauteous fabrics of a by-gone age.”52In the early twentieth century, the ability to turn “remnants of Oriental embroidery … to account” became a means of establishing oneself as a “person of artistic taste,” and further, of fashionable taste.54 In actuality, nineteenth-century objects dominate most collections. But late Qing objects were problematic for the Western buyer; the chaos and destruction of nineteenth-century China jarred uneasily with admiration for the lengthy and glorious Chinese past. One 1913 exhibition described nineteenth-century art in terms of “decadence … triviality and a finniking style of execution,” when compared to either the Song or the eighteenth century; another 1939 exhibition saw the decadence in technique as “slow but inexorable.”55

To avoid such associations, sellers and dealers went to great lengths to age objects. Despite the typical absence of provenance information, they gave objects historical framings, documenting age to increase value. This gauze panel, now in the Royal Ontario Museum collection (figs. 5ab), was removed from a dragon embroidered robe or furnishing and remounted with a blue floral border in the early twentieth century. Both Chinese and English inscriptions affirm a “Guarantee of Antique” that the embroidery is more than one hundred years old. There are also numerous records of Chinese shops making and aging new objects: “Quantities of embroidery are being made to meet the growing demand from abroad. Many methods, such as smoking and exposing to the sun, are resorted to make the work appear old.”56 The embroidery shop manager Zhang Tiejiu described how they would buy old tapestry furnishings from Suzhou, take them apart, repair any damage, add a lining, embroider some flowers to conceal the seams, and then sell for increased margins—a process captured in this photograph by Hedda Morrison (1908–91), of a man assembling and finishing pieces of embroidery (fig. 6). Zhang admitted such merchandising was deceptive, but also defended the skillful techniques, unafraid of painstaking workmanship (this a likely criticism of the craftsmanship of early twentieth-century producers of new robes and embroidery).57

Fig. 5a. Embroidered blue gauze panel removed from 19th-century dragon robe or furnishing and remounted with black floral woven border in the early 20th century. Seed stitch, silver and gold couching; 26¾ × 15⅝ in. (68 × 39.5 cm). Royal Ontario Museum, 971.170; Gift of Miss Mabel H. Adie.
Fig. 5b. Detail showing Chinese inscription: 藍段口佃保壹佰年老 (Blue piece guaranteed to be more than one hundred years old); stamp: “Cheng & Co” 成義和 Peking; English inscription: “Guarantee of Antique: This gives our guarantee that this piece of embroidery is over 100 years old, 1929.”
Fig. 6. Photograph by Hedda Morrison showing a man working with the border of a piece of silk embroidery, ca. 1933–46. 4 × 6 in. (10 × 15 cm). Hedda Morrison Photographs of China, Harvard-Yenching Library, HM06.9794.

Finally, specific discourses were used to narrate the objects, in particular of the imperial court—“personal requisites of court life in old China” and figural tropes such as “Manchu lady” and “Chinese lady”—uncomplicated with attributes such as place, age, or socioeconomic position that might suggest the real life behind the discarded dress object. To be sure, this emphasis on the noble owner was appropriate for dress collections in the early twentieth-century museum. But it was also a departure from the earlier Canton Trade period associations of embroidered textiles. It was only after the mid-nineteenth century, as Western imperialism grew increasingly powerful and increasing numbers of court objects appeared on the market, that “imperial” prevailed as a value-conveying attribute. Just as the entrancement with Chinese handicrafts was tied to the dissatisfaction with the Industrial Revolution, so too was the disappearance of many European courts implicated in the “deepening fetishization” of court material culture:58 “During the reign of the Manchus perhaps no court in the world was more brilliant in colour than that of Peking. Princes and Mandarins in their dragon robes of gold embroidery on deep shades of blue; Princesses with their Phoenix, the emblem of the Empress.… An indication of such a scene is given in the present display of coats which have actually played their part in the functions of the Manchu Court.”59 Dealers such as the Anderson Galleries, which produced the preceding text, knew that establishing these kinds of connections was an integral part of appealing to their customers.

Accordingly, it became critical to establish an imperial line of descent: key words such as “dragon,” “court,” and “imperial” were essential marketing terms through which the most valuable collections could establish this kind of lineage. For example, Charlotte Hill Grant (1894–1973) lived in Beijing between 1921 and 1935 with her husband, Dr. John Grant, who established Peking Union Medical College’s department of public health. Assisted by her relationships with Manchu women such as the lady-in-waiting Princess Der Ling (1885–1944), Mrs. Grant collected more than six hundred Qing robes and accessories, which she later gave to the Denver Art Museum.60

And yet, for all the purported exoticism attributed to the object, letters and catalogues reveal how many collectors, through the activities of collecting and displaying, sought to “make the world one’s own”—an exercise guided by the cultural rules of their society rather than those of the object’s.61 Indeed, the processes of collecting and exhibition were essentially a displacement of the Chinese noble owner by the Western noble owner, or in Susan Stewart’s terms, establishing “the narrative of the possessor,” something most obvious in a media image from the Metropolitan Museum’s 1945 exhibition showing the vice-director’s son wearing what was thought to be a general’s robe, actually a theatrical costume (fig. 7).62 Thus, imperial objects were transformed into “Mr. C.S.Holberton’s collection of snuff bottles, Mrs R.H.Benson’s embroideries, and the porcelains of Dr. A.E. Cumberbath,” with their owners’ activities of acquisition and discernment reported in newspapers and catalogues.63

Fig. 7. Photograph of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s vice-director’s son wearing a robe from the museum’s collection. The caption read, “With appropriate Oriental solemnity, Fairman Jayne, son of Horace H. F. Jayne, vice-director of the Met, models a late nineteenth-century robe for a Chinese general, worn when not engaged in military activities, one of a collection of 200 Manchu robes in the museum.” New York Herald Tribune, March 7, 1945.

Collectively, these three strategies—restructuring the object, asserting the historical past, and discourses of nobility—underline the tension between the ideal being constructed in the museum and the reality on the ground in the secondhand clothes shop, a tension that ultimately derived from the encounter of the secondhand dealer with the Western collector: Mrs. Gray and the “queer little man,” Lucy Calhoun and the “most beguiling and eloquent dealer,” and the two different modalities of worth each side found in the object. These differences were to become increasingly salient as dress objects transferred through the secondhand clothes trade on to museums, department stores, and global expositions, particularly in the catalogues that articulated this worth.

Exhibiting Chinese Dress

In the decades preceding the first exhibitions in the 1930s and 1940s, Chinese dress was displayed in places now forgotten as exhibition space—the global exposition and the department store. The various world expositions held over the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries played a major role in establishing ideas about Asian textiles and dress. From the 1862 Great Exhibition in London through to the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress, all featured displays of Asian textiles, categorized as handicrafts, women’s work, or textile industry. Department stores were another important importer of Asian textiles. Sarah Cheang’s research has demonstrated how shopping in Victorian emporiums such as Liberty of London inflected the Chinese dress object with nostalgia for Britain’s colonial past, as did the museum, providing a forum to articulate ideologies of race, colonialism, and nationalism for the public.64

Significantly, these different spheres—museum, store, gallery—shared a common discourse and conceptualization of Chinese dress. Liberty’s contributed dress objects to the 1935 International Exhibition of Chinese Art at Burlington House; its name is listed in the index of lenders alongside museums and collectors.65 Similarly, the displays and marketing of the shopping space were often contiguous with art museum practices. The Chicago department store Marshall Field held monthly displays with themes like “Oriental culture,” and every object sold was given a “research history ticket”; one example, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, reads, “Silks from the Imperial Court and Mandarin Families, personally selected by Marshall Field and Company for the Pageant of China … Purchased from Tai Ku City of Shansi Province in 1935, 60 Years old.”66 Both museum and department store used strikingly similar framings of imperial power and exotic splendor; compare, for example, the Marshall Field text with this passage from a 1946 exhibition catalogue from the Royal Ontario Museum: “About 25 robes in the present collection claim to be from the wardrobe of the Empress Dowager herself. There is no proof of this, yet we cannot doubt that in a number of cases it must be true. Some of the dresses … could only be worn by an Empress.”67

The presence of Chinese dress in these diverse spaces exposes the tussle between art and ethnography that characterizes the trajectory of exhibiting Asian objects in Europe and North America during the first half of the twentieth century. This struggle was also true of other mediums. Earlier Chinese material culture occupied a somewhat ambiguous position between fine art and anthropology, but as a much wider range of objects became available, as collectors shifted toward more serious, systematic collecting and museums gathered ever richer, larger collections, and as a series of international exhibitions of Chinese art were held throughout the 1920s and 1930s in Europe and North America, so the classification of an oddly wide range of objects as “Chinese Art” became dominant. The art historian Steven Conn has argued that the art historical displacement of Chinese material culture’s “curio” framing necessitated both the adoption of Western art frameworks and the rejection of other possible frameworks of understanding.68 But for Chinese dress, the deployment of these chronological, formal, and stylistic categories was particularly vexatious. Whereas other areas of material culture such as porcelain or painting could be feasibly channeled into existing museum categories, dress had been excluded from major Western museum collections well into the nineteenth century.69 In fact the only museum site that legitimized the study of dress was the ethnographic collection, where anthropological scholars viewed dress as crucial to ordering cultural development. But to participate in the new locations and resources of Chinese art, curators of dress had to firmly reject any anthropological associations and align themselves with the decorative arts, whose “immediate attraction,” as the curator Laurence Binyon (1869–1943) put it, “springs from the pervading presence, visible alike in the paintings, the ceramics, the carvings, the textiles, of that quality we are accustomed to call decorative; a quality that gives universal pleasure.”70 Thus, to avail themselves of art historical value, curators established what the anthropologist James Clifford called a “scheme of classification … for storing or displacing the object so that the reality of the collection itself, its coherent order, overrides specific histories of the object’s production and appropriation.”71 Curators’ and collectors’ ability to claim the authority of such schemes and also to erase more recent associations with commercial production were both important aspects of dress’s being accepted as art.

The earliest Western studies of Chinese dress can be seen in the early twentieth century, in short art historical accounts and collection catalogues published by writers and collectors.72 But the 1930s and 1940s museum catalogues present the first real impetus to establish knowledge systems around Chinese textiles, and they demonstrate the challenges of confining objects such as court robes and rank badges within the category of art.73 Whereas in the study of painting and bronzes, connoisseurship methodologies could integrate documentary evidence inherent to the object—the seal or the inscription—this was not a productive approach with the typically anonymously produced textiles and dress. Instead, to develop “scholarly apparatus” of stylistic schools and chronological progressions, curators such as Alan Priest and Helen Fernald produced descriptive histories outlining stylistic evolution and shifts in imperial taste, based primarily upon formal analysis and the rare dated examples from tomb excavations. In the absence of accessible textual sources,74 this attempt to categorize and order was clearly a difficult enterprise. The inherent challenges were sometimes partly blamed upon the obstructiveness of the Chinese, unencumbered by the Westerner’s desire for “complete” understanding:

The worst of it is that, rigid as these regulations were, most of them were never written down, but were to a great extent transmitted by custom…. [T]he student has to deal with the most carefree explanations of scholars (many of them actually ex-officials) to whom it had never occurred to think about the why and wherefore of the clothes they themselves wore and with the yarns of Chinese dealers and teachers bent on pleasing their clients and entirely uninterested in accuracy. The result is that the Westerner, with his passion for dates and cataloguing, is in for a long period of sifting the material and testing the statements which have been made, before he gets anything like a complete survey of Chinese textiles.75

For those who have made their way through the endless stipulations listed in imperial texts such as the Illustrated Standards of Ritual Objects of Our August Dynasty (Huang chao li qi tushi), the idea that Chinese dress regulations were never written down is deeply ironic. And the arrogant tone is most revealing of a time steeped in Orientalism, in which Westerners assumed that their superior intellectual capacities enabled a “complete survey,” even if this survey was predicated upon and concerned with an essentially Western understanding of Chinese dress and textiles. But this text also reveals how the encounter of collectors and secondhand dealers constituted a conflict between two very different ways of reading the object, or in the terms of James Clifford’s art-culture system, different ways of assigning value to locate objects within specific museum and market contexts.76 While, in the Western museum, curators debated whether Chinese dress should occupy the art or culture (anthropology) display, the secondhand dealer would have argued it belonged in neither. As the pawnshop texts evidence, secondhand garments belonged in the category of “not art”—produced by professional weavers and embroiderers, made up of patterns, styles, and color schemes that evolved in workshop settings and were reproduced for commercial gain.77

This conflict can be seen, for example, in the collector’s interest in the aged and antique, which to the secondhand clothes dealer must have seemed rather strange. Pawnshop texts indicate that in the secondhand clothes trade, value derived from a lack of bodily presence. It was newness and cleanliness that gave an object value, not evidence of a past existence—people desired the promise of blank potential for whoever donned the garment. Pawnshop texts repeatedly emphasized condition, particularly age, as a source of value in secondhand garments. In “Principles for Examining Clothing” (Kan yi guize), the 1759 pawnshop guide Dang pu ji laid out the importance of assessing the clothing in terms of dimensions, colors, and particularly age. Being stylistically “of the times” was repeatedly singled out as central to value—“In sum, fashionable patterns are best, old designs are second-rate.”78 Failing to meet this requirement was represented as a primary “fault”: “[A]ll aspects [of its cut] must be made according to up-to-date styles. Above and below, outside and inside, every (place) must co-ordinate, the colors must be crisp and fresh so that all will love them, (only) then will (the garment possess) complete beauty.”79 Yet for Chinese dress to be desirable to the Western buyer, to some degree, the opposite was true. Of course, too much bodily presence was never a good thing; nobody wanted dirt, sweat, or insect damage. Still, in the museum, the garment’s worth depended upon a patina of historical value.

The discrepancy between different ways of reading the object was also displayed in regard to auspicious motifs. From an early stage, North American and European collectors and curators placed faith in auspicious design as a system for material discrimination, vital given the absence of the kind of paratext found in painting, calligraphy, or even porcelain. As the collector William C. Paul saw it, “Without this knowledge, many a fine piece of Chinese embroidery would simply be an odd or graceful ornament. But with an understanding of the meaning, so lovingly and patiently wrought into each element of the picture, it will stand forth as a glorified message of good will and a thing of beauty, today, tomorrow, and forever.”80 Such messages of goodwill were positioned as key to grasping meaning in the object.

While foreign collectors placed their faith in auspicious symbolism, the pawnshop texts outline a system whose participants believed instead in materiality as a means of discerning object value. The professional had to be able to read geographical and workshop origins through focused sensory study of materiality—dimensions, weight, yarn, and weave qualities.81 Their understanding of materiality was grounded upon a geographically ordered conception of the textile production system—the texts feature an obsessive interest in place of origin. Pawnshop dealers could identify garments made in Nanjing, Hangzhou, Guangdong, and Suzhou, and these regional differences were hierarchically priced and conceptualized. Such detailed knowledge of the material manifestations of localized silk specialties reflects the regional structure of the trade. Individuals derived competitive advantage from such knowledge, and dealers needed to know the difference between satins produced in Nanjing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Guangdong workshops, or between the gold thread used in Nanjing and Suzhou workshops.

Notably, localized materiality was understood as formed through institutions and individuals, the workshops and craftsmen responsible for the quality of an object. One pawnshop text described how Nanjing goods were the best, while those from Suzhou and other provinces were second in quality—a ranking that “derived from their colors, labor, and method.”82 Indeed, this geographically ordered knowledge of materiality was ultimately a defense against the proliferation of workshops, weavers, dyers, and embroiderers: “In regard to debating the qualities of silks and satins, it all depends on their place of origin, all can be divided into high and low, expensive and cheap. Since there are very many workshop brands, and craftsmen’s techniques are different, and further the measurements and dimensions are [also] different, and [still] further the quality of the silk [lit. raw, aged], the freshness of the dye colors, the weight of the measures, all are different.”83 Beyond expert knowledge, another defense against this wilderness of objects and makers was workshop brands, and so the pawnshop dealers also detailed the producer names found on their objects.84

This conception of regional specialties and workshop differences, so integral to Chinese dress, was markedly absent from the Western connoisseurship literature, which promoted instead a curiously disembodied materiality read in isolation from its production context. In the early twentieth-century museum, workshop brands or producers were rarely mentioned. There was little interest in labels such as the one on this embroidered green jacket, which detailed its sale in the Siberian Fur Company shop (figs. 8ab). The Beijing shop, whose Chinese name was De Yuan Xing, specialized in antique embroideries and furs. Workshop marks or maker notations such as those on this length of robe material (figs. 9ab), referencing the individuals whose handling and knowledge enabled the object’s movement through time and space, are often found inside robes and textile lengths, but they were unrecorded in accession records and overlooked by scholars.

Fig. 8a. Jacket embroidered with scenes of “Female Warrior Medley.” Cai xiu xi wen shi tuan gua 彩繡戲紋十團褂 (Woman’s jacket with ten opera scene medallions). Hangzhou Silk Museum 0057, purchased in Beijing from the Beijing youyi shangchang北京友誼商場 in 1985.
Fig. 8b. English label: “Siberian Fur Co.”
Fig. 9a. Length of fabric to be made up into a floral eight-roundel sleeveless robe (batuan kanjian), late Qing. Collection of Daniel Greenberg; photo by Daniel Greenberg.

Fig. 9b. Annotation along the bottom back side: “九〡〤八泰宋恆三千有卅四綵牡丹花均大坎肩”; an approximate translation is “9148 [these numbers are from the Suzhou ma 苏州碼 numerical coding system] Tai Songheng [workshop name] three thousand, thirty-four colored peony flowers distributed over the large sleeveless coat [kanjian].” Collection of Daniel Greenberg; photo by Daniel Greenberg.

From the collector’s perspective, such evidence spoke of the commercial routes traveled by the object, the journey from wardrobe to stall, from shop to museum. Suppressing evidence of these routes was part of the constructed art historical framing of the object. It was the flip side of a discourse of noble ownership and auspicious design that enabled used Chinese dress objects to enter the Western art museum, by denying their origins as products of commercial workshops, whose journey had been enabled by the expertise of the secondhand clothes dealer.85


Rachel Silberstein is a historian of visual and material culture in early modern China, specializing in fashion and textile handicrafts. She is currently a lecturer at the University of Washington, and her monograph, A Fashionable Century: Textile Artistry and Commerce in the Late Qing, will be published by the University of Washington Press in 2020.

Epigraph: James Clifford, Histories of the Tribal and the Modern (New York: Routledge, 2002), 196.

  1. 1 Susan Naquin, “Paul Houo, a Dealer in Antiquities in Early Twentieth Century Peking,” Études chinoises
  2. 2 James Hevia, “Plunder, Markets, and Museums: The Biographies of Chinese Imperial Objects in Europe and North America,” in What’s the Use of Art? Asian Visual and Material Culture in Context</em., ed. Morgan Pitlka and Jan Mrázek (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008), 129–41.
  3. 3 估衣, 故衣。
  4. 4 Qi Rushan 齐如山, Gudu sanbai liushi hang 故都三百六十行 [Three hundred and sixty trades of the old capital] (Beijing: Shumu wenxian chubanshe, 1993), 116.
  5. 5 T. S. Whelan, The Pawnshop in China (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1979), 50. 死当
  6. 6 Qi Rushan, Gudu sanbai liushi hang, 114–16.
  7. 7 Whelan, Pawnshop in China, 36–37.
  8. 8 Lou Xuexi 池澤匯, Chi Zehui 婁學熙, and Chen Wenxian 陳問咸, eds. and comps., Beiping shi gongshangye gaikuang 北平市工商業概況 [A survey of industry and commerce in the city of Beiping] (Beiping: Beiping shi shehui ju, 1932), 221.
  9. 9 Dang pu ji 當鋪集 [A collection of pawnshop texts] (1759), in Zhongguo gudai dangpu jianding miji: Qing chao ben 中国古代当铺鉴定秘籍:清钞本 [Rare texts on Chinese historical pawnshops: Qing dynasty editions] (Beijing: Quanguo tushuguan wenxiansuo wei fuzhi zhongxin, 2001), 64.
  10. 10 Zhang Dechang 張德昌 compiled the data found in Li’s diary in Qing ji yi ge jing guan de shenghuo 淸季一個京官的生活 [The life of an official in the late Qing dynasty] (Hong Kong: Xianggang zhongwen daxue, 1970), 110–11, 159.
  11. 11 Qi Rushan, Beijing sanbai liushi hang, 116.
  12. 12 Cui Xu 崔旭 (1767–1847), “Gu yi jie” 估衣街 [Secondhand Clothes Street], in Jin men bai yong 津門百詠 [One hundred rhymes on Tianjin] (1824), 5; compare Zhang Cixi 張次溪, ed., Jing Jin fengtu congshu 京津風土叢書 [Collection of Beijing and Tianjin customs] (China: Shuang zhao lou, 1938). 衣裳顛倒半非新,摯領提襟唱賣頻;夏葛冬裝隨意買,不知初制是何人。Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.
  13. 13 Gu Bingquan 顧炳權, ed., Shanghai yang chang zhuzhici 上海洋場竹枝詞 [Bamboo ballads from Shanghai’s foreign settlements] (Shanghai: Shanghai shudian chubanshe, 1996), 126. 衣莊:凡家當滿舊衣裳,存積如山發售忙。粗細皮棉與夾,分標價目任評量。沿街設櫃市門莊,四季時衣掛兩旁。更有開攤高唱價,行人駐足聽低昂。專買新衣亦有莊,製成男女各時裝,紗羅綢緞兼皮貨,可買可租任客商。
  14. 14 John Thomson, Illustrations of China and Its People(London: S. Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1873–74), 243–44.
  15. 15 喝估衣。
  16. 16 Lou Xuexi, Chi Zehui, and Chen Wenxian, Beiping shi gongshangye gaikuang, 220.
  17. 17 Mrs. John Henry Gray, Fourteen Months in Canton (London: Macmillan, 1880), 316.
  18. 18 Suzhou lishi bowuguan 苏州历史博物馆, eds., Ming Qing Suzhou gongshangye beike ji 明淸苏州工商业碑刻集 [A collection of Ming and Qing dynasty Suzhou stele inscriptions on industry and commerce] (Nanjing: Jiangsu renmin chubanshe, 1981), 212, 215, 221.
  19. 19 Li Hua 李華, Ming Qing yilai Beijing gongshang huiguan beike xuanji 明清以來北京工商會館碑刻選集 [Compilation of Ming and Qing commercial guild stele inscriptions from Beijing] (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), 178.
  20. 20 Louise Crane, China in Sign and Symbol (London: Kelly & Walsh, 1927), 67.
  21. 21 Zeng Pu 曾朴 (1872–1935), Nie hai hua 孽海花 [Flowers in a Sea of Sin] (1907; Taibei: Guangwen shuju, 1980), 21.290. 如今後門估衣舖的勢派大著哩!有什麼富興呀、聚興呀,掌櫃的多半是藍頂花翎、華車寶馬,專包攬王府四季衣服,出入邸第,消息比咱們還靈呢!
  22. 22 Wang Shucun王树村, “Qingdai Beijing cheng laobaixing qiang dangpu banhua” 清代北京城老百姓搶當舖版畫 [The Qing dynasty print “The people loot a Beijing pawnshop”], Wenwu, no. 9 (1959).
  23. 23 Hevia, “Plunder, Markets, and Museums.”
  24. 24 Daisy Yiyou Wang, “T. Loo and the Formation of the Chinese Collection at the Freer Gallery of Art,” in Collectors, Collections and Collecting the Arts of China: Histories and Challenges, ed. Jason Steuber and Guolong Lai (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2014), 151–82; Naquin, “Paul Houo.”
  25. 25 Helen E. Fernald, Chinese Court Costumes (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology, 1946), 7.
  26. 26 William C. Paul, Old Chinese Embroideries (New York: Kwong Yuen, 1929), 3–4.
  27. 27 “S. M. Franck & Co. Ltd.,” Victoria and Albert Museum, accessed October 16, 2016, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/s.-m.-franck-and-co.-ltd./.
  28. 28 Yamanaka & Co., Inc., Exhibition of Chinese Textiles, Imperial Robes, Brocades, and Embroideries, New York, May 1940.
  29. 29 “Donation of $5,000 for purchase of Collection of Chinese Robes from George Crofts, China,” August 1919, Crofts Archives, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.
  30. 30 “The George Crofts Collection” catalogue, November 1918–July 1919, Croft Archives, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.
  31. 31 Lou Xuexi, Chi Zehui, and Chen Wenxian, Beiping shi gongshangye gaikuang, 220.
  32. 32 Hilda Arthur Strong, A Sketch of Chinese Arts and Crafts (Peiping: H. Vetch, 1933), 257–58.
  33. 33 Zhang Ziqiu 张子秋, Xu dumen zhuzhici續都門竹枝詞 [Further bamboo ballads from the capital] (1819), in Qing dai Beijing zhuzhici, shisan zhong 清代北京竹枝詞: 十三種 [Bamboo ballads from Qing dynasty Beijing: Thirteen collections], ed. Yang Miren 楊米人 (Beijing: Beijing guji chubanshe, 1982), 64. 估衣鋪內心機巧,舊面翻新利倍收。

    These “dexterous skills” pitted the clever seller against the ignorant tourist. After 1900, China became a destination for what the long-term Beijing resident Juliet Bredon called the “world-girdlers,” who rushed madly from tourist shop to tourist shop. Bredon singled out “fine throne covers, tapestry pictures, brocades, cut velvets and Court gowns” as objects one could buy without the “techniques” needed to buy porcelains and painting.3334 Juliet Bredon, Peking: A Historical and Intimate Description of Its Chief Places of Interest (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1931), 464.

  34. 35 Thomas Cook Ltd., Cook’s Handbook for Tourists to Peking, Tientsin, Shan-hai-kwan, Mukden, Dalby, Port Arthur, and Seoul (London: T. Cook & Son, 1910), 29.
  35. 36 Ibid., 444.
  36. 37 Zhang Tiejiu 張鐵九, “Beijing de xiuhuoye he Hong Xingde” 北京的繡貨業和鴻興德 [Hong Xingde and the Beijing embroidery trade], in Beijing gongshang shihua 北京工商史話 [A history of Beijing industry and commerce], ed. Zhongguo minzhu jianguohui Beijing shiwei yuanhui, Beijing shi gongshangye lianhehui wenshi gongzuo weiyuanhui 中国民主建国会北京市委员会, 北京市工商业联合会文史工作委员会 (Beijing: Zhongguo shangye chubanshe, 1987), 92–97, 93.
  37. 38 Ibid.
  38. 39 Thomas Cook Ltd., Cook’s Handbook for Tourists, 29.
  39. 40 Zhang Tiejiu, “Beijing de xiuhuoye,” 93.
  40. 41 Quoted in Elinor Pearlstein, “Color, Life, and Moment: Early Chicago Collectors of Chinese Textiles,” in “Clothed to Rule the Universe,” special issue, Museum Studies 26, no. 2 (2000): 88.
  41. 42 Gray, Fourteen Months in Canton, 217.
  42. 43 Lucy Calhoun to Harriet Monroe, February 26, 1912, cited in Pearlstein, “Color, Life, and Moment,” 109n22.
  43. 44 Lucy Truman Aldrich to Abby Rockefeller, November 30, 1920, Lucy T. Aldrich Papers, Rhode Island School of Design Archives, Providence.
  44. 45 Fernald, Chinese Court Costumes, 9.
  45. 46 The Inspector General of Chinese Maritime Customs, ed., Catalogue of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Collection at the United States International Exhibition Philadelphia (Shanghai: Statistical Department of the Inspectorate General of Customs, 1876), 8–9.
  46. 47 Gray, Fourteen Months in Canton, 270.
  47. 48 Alexandra Palmer and Hazel Clark, “Introduction,” in Old Clothes, New Looks, Second Hand Clothing, ed. Alexandra Palmer and Hazel Clark (New York: Berg, 2005), 173.
  48. 49 Gray, Fourteen Months in Canton, 316.
  49. 50 Eliza R. Scidmore, China, the Long-Lived Empire (London: Macmillan, 1900), 190, 192–93.
  50. 51 Bredon, Peking, 465–66; Verity Wilson, “Western Modes and Asian Clothes: Reflections on Borrowing Other People’s Dress,” Costume 36 (2002): 139–57; Sarah Cheang, “Selling China at the Department Store: Class, Gender and Orientalism,” Journal of Design History 20, no. 1 (2007): 1–16, 8–9.
  51. 52 Paul, Old Chinese Embroideries, 3–4.
  52. 53 “Odd Bits of Embroidery,” New York Times, December 26, 1909; “Various Styles of Dress This Season Show the Influence of China and Japan in Embroidery, Coloring and Workmanship,” New York Times, December 29, 1907.

    A second strategy was to construct the object as something worn in the historical past rather than the near present. By the early to mid-twentieth century, alongside imperial associations, age was a central value for Chinese dress collectors. Curators and collectors created dynastic hierarchies, promoting imperial dress from earlier, more prestigious periods such as the late Ming or high Qing of Qianlong and Kangxi, and the literature displays a marked insistence that their collections were preserving these periods of excellence: “Like so many Chinese textiles, we can date them ‘not later than Ch’ien Lung [i.e., Emperor Qianlong, r. 1735–96]’ and they are quite possibly earlier.”5354 Alan Priest and Pauline Simmons, Chinese Textiles: An Introduction to the Study of Their History, Sources, Techniques, Symbolism and Use Occasioned by the Exhibition of Chinese Court Robes and Accessories (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1931), 20.

  53. 55 Manchester City Art Gallery, ed., Catalogue of an Exhibition of Chinese Applied Art (Manchester: G. Falkner, 1913), 9, 13; Exhibition of Chinese Imperial Robes and Chinese Brocades (London: China Institute, 1939), iii.
  54. 56 Strong, Sketch of Chinese Arts and Crafts, 257–58.
  55. 57 Zhang Tiejiu, “Beijing de xiuhuoye,” 97.
  56. 58 Craig Clunas, “China in Britain: The Imperial Collections,” in Colonialism and the Object, ed. Tim Barringer and Tom Flynn (London: Routledge, 1998), 41–51, 468.
  57. 59 Old Chinese Rugs and Old Mandarin Coats: The Arthur Urbane Dilley Collection (New York: Anderson Galleries, 1916), n.p. My italics.
  58. 60 Emma C. Bunker et al., Secret Splendors of the Chinese Court (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1981), 6–7.
  59. 61 James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 218.
  60. 62 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 136.
  61. 63 Manchester City Art Gallery, Catalogue of an Exhibition of Chinese Applied Art, 9, 13.
  62. 64 Cheang, “Selling China.”
  63. 65 Catalogue of the International Exhibition of Chinese Art 1935–6 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1935), 230.
  64. 66 Christa C. Mayer Thurman, “Introduction,” in “Clothed to Rule the Universe,” special issue, Museum Studies 26, no. 2 (2000): 6–11.
  65. 67 Fernald, Chinese Court Costumes, 29.
  66. 68 Steven Conn, “Where Is the East? Asian Objects in American Museums,” Winterthur Portfolio 35, no. 2/3 (Summer–Autumn 2000): 167–70.
  67. 69 Lou Taylor, “Doing the Laundry? A Reassessment of Object-Based Dress History,” Fashion Theory 2, no. 4 (1998): 337–58, 339.
  68. 70 Laurence Binyon, foreword in Bernard Vuilleumier, The Art of Silk Weaving in China (London: China Institute, 1939).
  69. 71 Clifford, Predicament of Culture, 162–65.
  70. 72 Stephen W. Bushell, Chinese Art (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1910), vol. 2, chap. 5; Broderies chinoises (Paris: Henri Ernst, 1922); Henri d’Ardenne de Tizac (1877–1932), The Stuffs of China, Weavings and Embroideries (London: Ernest Benn Ltd., 1924); Victoria and Albert Museum, Brief Guide to the Chinese Woven Fabrics (London: Board of Education, 1925); Victoria and Albert Museum, Brief Guide to the Chinese Embroideries (London: Board of Education, 1931).
  71. 73 Priest and Simmons, Chinese Textiles (1931); Alan Priest, Catalogue of the Exhibition of Imperial Robes and Textiles of the Chinese Court (Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1943); Fernald, Chinese Court Costumes (1946).
  72. 74 Chinese sources were not used until Schuyler Cammann’s China’s Dragon Robes (New York: Ronald Press, 1952).
  73. 75 Fernald, Chinese Court Costumes, 2. My italics.
  74. 76 Clifford, Predicament of Culture, 196, 221.
  75. 77 Ibid., 222.
  76. 78 Chengjia baoshu 成家寶書 [Cheng family book of treasure] (19th c.), in Zhongguo gudai dangpu jianding miji, 412. 總以花樣時興為高,老花樣者次之。
  77. 79 Dang pu ji, 40, “Kanyi guize.” 且夫衣之全美者,要身長而袖大, 腰寬而下窄, 大領圈合, 其中做得時樣. 上下表裡, 俱各要相配, 顏色鮮嫩人皆愛之乃為全美也。
  78. 80 Paul, Old Chinese Embroideries, 15.
  79. 81 Dang pu ji, 68. 要看紬,緞,綾,絹,紗,羅,粧蟒,尺頭等物,須要看其輕重,功夫為規準。如內造漢府,重有五十五兩,有四十兩,皆有不一。槩而論貨有高低,看物留神,隨機應變, 不過論大槩而已矣。
  80. 82 Chengjia baoshu, 412. 惟江寧者為高。蘇州貨並別省次之,皆由取其水色, 工夫, 作法之故也。
  81. 83 Dang pu ji, 343. 盖綢緞之中寔輪非, 凣其出處, 皆有可分高低, 上下, 貴錢之別。因其機房字號甚多, 匠人做法不一, 並其尺寸,寬窄,長短不同,更兼絲性之生熟, 水色之鮮醜, 分量之輕重,皆不相同之。
  82. 84 For example, “Plain tribute Satin, 1 pi, length of 4 zhang 4 chi, width of 2 chi 8 cun, every chi is worth 4 qian, the edge has a De Yuan workshop mark.” Dang pu ji, 70. 素貢府緞,壹疋,長四丈四尺,寬二尺八寸,每尺四錢,邊上有德源字號。
  83. 85 Clifford, Predicament of Culture, 220.

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