Punch Bowl with Cantonese Hongs
Unknown artist, Chinese, China
Punch Bowl with Cantonese Hongs, 1785-1800
Porcelain with enamel
Gift of Mrs. Hope Brown Russell 09.343
Both a monument to the trade in eighteenth-century Chinese luxury exports and a unique document of that trade, this punch bowl displays a depiction of warehouses along the waterfront of the city of Canton. In all of China, Canton was the only port open to foreign merchants, whom the Chinese government confined to the waterfront areas. The western proprietor of each warehouse (hong) was identified by his national flag; Denmark, Spain, France, America, Sweden, England, and Holland are shown here. The first American vessel did not arrive in Canton until 1784; thus this punch bowl cannot be dated earlier. Providence merchant John Brown entered the lucrative China trade in 1787 and launched six decades of voyages from Narragansett Bay that brought back tea, silks, porcelain, lacquer ware, and other luxury articles.
(October 11, 2013 – February 9, 2014)
Elizabeth A. Williams, curator of decorative arts: This bowl is both a physical product and pictorial documentation of 18th-century global commerce. It depicts the Canton waterfront, where an American flag flies high among those of European countries including England, France, and Holland, heralding the United States’ successful international trade with China beginning in 1784. A series of buildings known as hongs encircles the bowl’s exterior. Operated by Western nations, hongs served as storehouses for the China trade, a lucrative venture that brought tea, silks, porcelain, lacquerware, and other luxury articles to Western shores.
Deborah Diemente, potter and RISD Museum registrar: An individual studio potter today has little in common with the artisans who produced this bowl. Can it speak to us now? Look closely at the intricate decoration on the exterior. Note not only the number of enamels used, each representing years of experimentation, but also the many techniques of application and depth of color. Some lines flow like watercolor while others are sharp as a knife’s edge. Dozens of specialists, each executing one part of the process, labored on this bowl. Each had a particular expertise and yet the collaboration achieved a resonant harmony that could only come from a shared commitment to perfection. Such a virtuoso display of technique is an inspiration. It reminds me of the day my Japanese teacher turned sharply to a student who had complimented his talent for brushwork decoration, saying, “No, no, it is technique, not talent. You must practice, practice, practice!”
Woodward, Carla M., Franklin W. Robinson, eds, A Handbook of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1988.
Selected Works. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008.
Patrica Johnson and Caroline Frank, eds., Global Trade & Visual Arts in Federal New England. Durham: University of New Hampshire, 2014.
About the work
In the Federal period (which spanned the late 1770s to the 1820s), when this bowl was made and used, punch was not the mixture of juice and soda we serve at parties today. At that time, it was a mixture of multiple alcohols, fruit juice, and tea first concocted by European and American sailors and based on similar medicinal drinks in India.
Consumption by the middle and upper classes of imported goods such as tea, coffee, and chocolate increased in America after the Revolutionary War, necessitating new vessels and customs for their preparation and consumption. In the same way, the social ritual of drinking punch also demanded large new vessels for serving it to party guests in fine parlor rooms. To fill this need, porcelain punch bowls were created in China specifically for the American market. This particular punch bowl depicts trade by foreign merchants in China. The images of this activity are made by Chinese artists for American consumers.
Under the Navigation Acts of 1651, the North American British colonies were forced to purchase Chinese exports from the British East India Company rather than trading with China directly. After the Revolutionary War, a new class of American merchants was eager to enter this lucrative trade, supplying a growing American middle class with a variety of goods, including fine objects and textiles, that symbolized wealth, taste, and cosmopolitan refinement.
This porcelain punch bowl depicts 18th-century warehouses along the Pearl River in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, formerly named Canton. Before the 1830s, Canton was the only Chinese port open to foreign merchants. There, American merchants traded such goods as anchors, cannon shot, bar iron, sheet copper, ginseng (an herb growing wild in New England which was prized for medicinal purposes by the Chinese), tar, spermaceti candles, Jamaican and New England rum, and Madeira wine and brandy. In return, the American merchants sought Chinese silks, lacquerware, porcelain, tea, and opium.
In Canton, multi-story warehouses called hongs served as offices, trading floors, dining areas, and sleeping quarters for ship captains and their crews. Seven hongs are depicted on the bowl; the countries that owned the hongs (the United States, England, Denmark, France, Holland, Spain, and Sweden) are identifiable by their flags. Because North American ships did not reach Canton until 1784, this punch bowl could not have been created earlier than 1785. Here in Providence, John Brown (1736–1803), the well-known shipbuilder and slave trader, entered the China trade in 1787. His company participated in the flurry of shipbuilding, sending ships that traveled between Narragansett Bay and Canton, bringing back objects like this one.
The bowl depicts the American flag alongside the flags of established European nations. What does this representation suggests how Americans perceived their new role in world trade, or their aspirations?
In what ways can international trade benefit a fledging nation? To answer this question, consider, for example, the goods that were exported to China and imported to America in the 18th century. What does America export to other nations today? What does America import now, and from which countries? Ask students to research key moments in international trade in American history and plot a timeline from the 1600s to the 21st century.
The punch bowl was made by Chinese artists for an American audience. It is, in fact, a unique record of the encounter of different peoples. Ask students to go to this article and use the zoom feature to examine the bowl carefully. What is recorded in the scene, and how it is shown? Consider the built environment, the placement of the figures and the activities they are engaged in, and other details. Also discuss how scale and viewpoint are used, and how these affect our perception of the city and people depicted.
The following text, written about 50 years after punch bowl was made, describes a similar scene in Canton from an American perspective:
Fancy a building twelve hundred feet long by from twenty to forty feet broad, and in some portions of it fifty feet high, built of brick, with its floor as level as a rope walk. These hongs are of one story, in some places open to the sky, and so long that at the end of one of them the human form diminishes, and we see beings engaged in occupation, and we hear no noise, for they steal along like shadows. Here are immense scales for weighing tea; here are tables placed for superintendents, where the light falls in through the roof; far from these again are foreigners inspecting a newly arrived chop; at the extreme end is the little apartment where the tea merchant receives men upon business; and through the high door beyond, we see the lively river and a chop boat waiting, ready for the cargo. In one part of the building a second story is added, for immense suits of beautiful rooms, furnished with costly elegance, and adorned with rarities and articles of virtue. We wonder what all these chambers are meant for where no one appears, and we learn that they are merely for show and the occasional reception of guests. Here is a door that leads out on to the roof. Below us is the river, with its myriads of beings and boats; on our right the public square, with the standards of America, England, and France; opposite is the verdant island of Honam, with its villages, its canals, and its great temple. On our left is another vista of river life, the fort of Dutch folly, and behind us the dense city. We descend and find in one of the pretty rooms that some servant, who has vanished, has placed the most aromatic of tea for us upon a superb table.
–Osmond Tiffany, The Canton Chinese: Or, The American’s Sojourn in the Celestial Empire, 1849
What does this account reveal about American experiences in China? What is the narrator’s focus? How are the setting, activities, and people described? Compare the text with the punch bowl. How are these two depictions similar? How are they different?
Different decisions are made in designing drinking vessels. To learn more about the design process, first have students brainstorm a list of different kinds of drinking vessels. Then ask students to analyze one vessel’s common form and essential parts. How large is the bowl or body of the vessel? What is the shape—shallow and wide, tall and narrow, or some other form—and why? Does it have a handle? If so, where is the handle placed, how is it shaped, and why? Does the vessel have a stem? What material is this vessel typically made from, and why?
Now apply your analyses to a larger body of work. Some good examples to look at together are the ancient Greek kylix, the Mycenean rhyton, the Bohemian glass goblet, the silver tea and coffee set, and the 20th-century German teacup. Brainstorm what each vessel tells us about the beverage it was designed for and the surrounding social customs of the likely owners.
Finally, using this new understanding, have students design a vessel for their favorite beverage. Encourage them to consider the shape and material of the vessel as a way to positively accentuate the smell, taste, and visual presentation of the drink.
The punch bowl was made from porcelain. Ask students to answer the following questions: What is porcelain? How is porcelain made? Why was it so prized in the 18th century? They can find out the answers by researching different aspects of the history of porcelain production in China as well as its later history in Europe. As a starting point, read the information about the manufacture of porcelain in China provided here. To learn about the efforts of European manufacturers to learn the secrets of porcelain production from Asian makers, read pages 4 and 5 here.
Selected Works, Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2005, 192.
Amanda Elizabeth Lange. Chinese Export Art at Historic Deerfield. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan/Historic Deerfield, 2005.
“Early American Trade with China,” online resource. (http://teachingresources.atlas.uiuc.edu/chinatrade/introduction04.html.)
David Wondrich. Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. New York: Penguin, 2010.