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The Lives of Chinese Objects

The Lives of Chinese Objects: Buddhism, Imperialism and Display

Louise Tythacott
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Lives of Chinese Objects
    Book Description:

    This is the biography of a set of rare Buddhist statues from China. Their extraordinary adventures take them from the Buddhist temples of fifteenth-century Putuo - China's most important pilgrimage island - to their seizure by a British soldier in the First Opium War in the early 1840s, and on to a starring role in the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the 1850s, they moved in and out of dealers' and antiquarian collections, arriving in 1867 at Liverpool Museum. Here they were re-conceptualized as specimens of the 'Mongolian race' and, later, as examples of Oriental art. The statues escaped the bombing of the Museum during the Second World War and lived out their existence for the next sixty years, dismembered, corroding and neglected in the stores, their histories lost and origins unknown.

    As the curator of Asian collections at Liverpool Museum, the author became fascinated by these bronzes, and selected them for display in the Buddhism section of the World Cultures gallery. In 2005, quite by chance, the discovery of a lithograph of the figures on prominent display in the Great Exhibition enabled the remarkable lives of these statues to be reconstructed.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-239-9
    Subjects: Art & Art History, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    This book started life one evening in 2005. I was browsing the Internet exploring representations of the China court at the Great Exhibition of 1851 when suddenly my gaze was transfixed by the most extraordinary image. The screen showed a chromolithograph depicting an unmistakable group of objects with which I had once been intimately involved. That they had been exhibited 150 years earlier – and so very prominently – was a complete surprise.

    In the early 1990s, I had undertaken anthropological research in Hong Kong, focusing upon Chinese temples and their deities. I had also been adopted into the family...

  6. Chapter 1 Sacred Beings in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) Dynasties
    (pp. 17-50)

    This chapter deciphers the possible meanings bestowed upon the five images in their first sphere of significance in China. Our trail begins on Putuo Island and the neighbouring port city of Ningbo as we trace the birth and attempt to reconstruct the early period in the lives of these enigmatic Buddhist statues.

    It should stressed from the outset that there has been uncertainty over the exact dating of the figure of Guanyin, although recent iconography experts have tended to agree it is early fifteenth century. Regarding the construction of the other four figures, all the specialists I consulted confirmed that...

  7. Chapter 2 Trophies of War, 1844–1852
    (pp. 51-82)

    This chapter moves away from the specifics of the deities and the world of Buddhist worship to the wider geopolitical forces that resulted in the removal of the Putuo Five from China. We know that in the 1840s these sacred images were brutally dislocated from their first realm of significance and that, at a stroke, their intended trajectories were altered. Once removed from their temple, they ceased being revered as numinous entities, but became instead part of the private collection of a British army officer, William Edie. They were here recast for the first time into a Western sphere of...

  8. Chapter 3 Articles of Industry: The Great Exhibition of 1851
    (pp. 83-105)

    In 1851 the Putuo Five moved from the realm of military imperialism to a highly visible display of imperialist might as part of the most conspicuous display of industrial wealth in nineteenth-century Britain. The Great Exhibition has aptly been described as a ‘national icon’, a symbol, if not the symbol, of the Victorian age (Auerbach 1999: 1). Both the building and the exhibition emerged from the wave of British self-confidence that characterized the mid nineteenth century, a period in which this nation celebrated itself as the pinnacle of technological innovation. Britain was the first and most powerful industrial nation and...

  9. Chapter 4 Curiosities, Antiquities, Art Treasure, Commodities: 1854–1867
    (pp. 106-134)

    In the two decades following their high profile performance at the Great Exhibition, the lives of the objects took on new and unexpected turns. It was in this period that they passed through the hands of a number of private collectors and as they were bought and sold, displayed in museums and exhibitions, their biographies became ever more distinctive. In this chapter we follow the peregrinations of the statues across the British landscape during the 1850s and 1860s, examining how their meanings were susceptible to change more than at any other time in their lives.

    During this phase of their...

  10. Chapter 5 Specimens of Ethnology and Race: Liverpool Museum, 1867–1929
    (pp. 135-160)

    Having traversed a range of representational spheres for almost two decades, in 1867 the Putuo Five eventually arrived at Liverpool Museum and were formally absorbed into the institution as part of the Mayer donation.¹ As we have seen, this would not be the first time that they had been classified with a range of other objects in a museum-like space, but the move proved, unlike all the others, to be permanent. Over the next 140 years of their life in the museum, the bronzes were to be subjected to very different frameworks of interpretation. In this chapter we examine the...

  11. Chapter 6 Objects of Art, Archaeology and Oriental Antiquity: Liverpool Museum, 1929–1996
    (pp. 161-191)

    In the previous chapter we saw how the deity figures were conceptualized in relation to the dominant interpretative framework of the late-nineteenth and early–twentieth-century museum, that of evolutionism. In the twentieth century their ideological meanings changed once again due to wider cultural shifts in the perception of non-European objects. Here, in a new interpretative regime in Liverpool Museum, the aesthetic impact of the objects became more important than their religious function, curiosity value or positioning in relation to race. In this chapter we examine how the bronzes assumed new identities in the twentieth century, as aesthetically powerful sculpture as...

  12. Chapter 7 Objects of Curation and Conservation: Liverpool Museum, 1996–2005
    (pp. 192-222)

    Like all the events in the lives of these images, this account will inevitably be partial and constructed. Yet the subjective nature of the story is more evident in this chapter, and this must be borne in mind by the reader, for I describe the movements of the Putuo Five through worlds with which I was familiar.

    Between 1996 and 2003, I developed a particular bond with the bronzes as their ‘curator’, and I find it difficult to disentangle my subjective experiences from the narrative that I construct. Barbara Bender, amongst others, has written of the challenges of maintaining objectivity...

  13. Future Lives: Liverpool or China
    (pp. 223-242)

    The game of tracing the life of a much-travelled object is fascinating. But it is seldom easy to do. Unfortunately museums still have the habit of labelling their treasures in the simplest way possible. They give us the name of the creator, the date of creation and possibly a mention of the previous owner. It’s as if no object has ever had life to speak of prior to arriving in this grand and important repository. And the assumption of course is that it will stay there forever. We should know better. (Pitman 2006: 283)

    A visitor to the World Cultures...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 243-266)
  15. Index
    (pp. 267-276)