SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Representing China in Museums

Module Code:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 2

The aim of the module is to develop students’ understanding of the intellectual, aesthetic, political and ethical issues arising from the interpretation of Chinese objects within museums. Arranged chronologically, the module begins by examining historic perceptions of China and constructions of the ‘Orient’: it explores European Cabinets of Curiosities of the 16th-17th centuries and the fashion for Chinoiserie of the 18th century.

The module addresses histories of imperialism, trade and encounters with China, identifying the ways in which Chinese objects were displayed in international exhibitions and ethnographic museums in Britain in the 19th century. The emergence of the idea of Chinese art in the West in the late 19th-mid 20th century, as well as the role of the market and dealers will also be discussed. Finally, the module considers issues of representation, ownership, and politics by analysing displays in Europe, the US, and China today

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course, students will:

  •  have gained a broad awareness of cultural histories of exchange between China and the West from the 14th century to the present.
  •  understand the various contexts for the reception of Chinese culture in the West via the formation of private collections and the development of taste in Chinese art.
  •  demonstrate a critical knowledge of the role of the museum (historically and in the present) in the production of meaning and value to Chinese objects, via practices of collecting and display.
  •  appreciate the shifting significance and values ascribed to Chinese objects as they are placed in different museum contexts from the 16th-21st centuries.
  • acquire a knowledge and understanding of the formation of particular China trade, ethnographic and art collections.
  •  develop an awareness of contemporary issues in the ownership and display of Chinese artefacts.
  •  gain an insight into displays of Chinese objects in a range of museums and galleries in Europe, the US and China.

Scope and syllabus

The course examines the intellectual, aesthetic, political and ethical issues arising from the interpretation of Chinese objects within museums via sessions organised chronologically.

  1. Introduction.
  2. Orientalism and Chinoiserie: Marco Polo to the 18th century.
  3. British imperialism and exhibitions in the 19th century.
  4. Ethnographic collections and displays in late 19th –early 20th century.
  5. Constructing the canon I: Chinese art in late 19th-mid 20thcentury.
  6. Constructing the canon II: Chinese art in the 20th century.
  7. Visit to Percival David Collection at the British Museum.
  8. Issues in the representation of China: art, politics, communities.
  9. Visit to V&A, or Hotung Gallery at the British Museum.
  10. Contemporary Chinese displays: Europe, the US and Asia.

Method of assessment

Exam=60% of Mark, 2,000 word assignment = 20% of Mark, 2,000 word assignment = 20% of Mark

Suggested reading

  • Abe, Stanley (2011) ‘Rockefeller Home Decorating and Objects from China’, in Vimalin Rujivacharakul (ed) Collecting China: The World, China, and a Short History of Collecting, University of Delaware Press, pp 107-123.
  • Anderson, Anne (2009) ‘'Chinamania': collecting Old Blue for the House Beautiful, c 1860-1900’, in Potvin, John and Myzelev, Alla (2009) Material Cultures, 1740-1920: the meanings and pleasures of collecting, Ashgate, pp 109-128.
  • Barnes, Amy Jane (2010) ‘Exhibiting China in London,’ in Knell, Aronsson, Bugge Amundsen, Barnes, Burch, Carter, Gosselin, Hughes and Kirwan (eds.) National Museums: new studies from around the world. London: Routledge, pp386-399.
  • Barringer, Tim and Flynn, Tom (eds) (1997) Colonialism and the object: empire, material culture and museum, London and New York: Routledge.
  • Chang, Ting (2013) Travel, Collecting, and Museums of Asian Art in Nineteenth-Century Paris, Ashgate.
  • Clunas, Craig (1997) Art in China, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Conn, Steven (2000) ‘Where is East? Asian objects in American museums, from Nathan Dunn to Charles Freer’, Winterhur Portfolio, vol 35, no.2/3, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp 157-173.
  • Green, Judith (2002) Britain’s Chinese collections, 1842-1943: private collecting and the invention of Chinese art, DPhil, University of Sussex.
  • Haddad, John (2008) The Romance of China: Excursions to China in U.S. Culture: 1776-1876, Columbia University Press. On-line book:
  • Hevia, James (2003) English lessons: the pedagogy of imperialism in nineteenth-century China, Durham and London, Duke University Press.
  • Hill, Katrina (2012) ‘Collecting on Campaign: British Soldiers in China during the Opium Wars’, in Journal of the History of Collections, pp 1-16.
  • Hope Chang, Elizabeth (2010) Britain’s Chinese eye: literature, empire and aesthetics in nineteenth century Britain, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Impey, Oliver (1992) ‘Lever as a collector of Chinese porcelain’ in Morris, Edward (ed) Art and business in Edwardian England: the making of the Lady Lever Art gallery, Special issue of the Journal of the History of Collections, Vol 4, no. 2, Liverpool: National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside, pp 227-238.
  • Levell, Nicky (2000) Oriental visions: exhibitions, travel and collecting in the Victorian age, London: The Horniman Museum & Gardens.
  • Levell, Nicky (2001) ‘The translation of objects: R. and M. Davidson and the Friends’ Foreign Mission Association, China, 1890-1894’ in Shelton, Anthony (ed) Collectors: individuals and institutions, London: Horniman Museum, pp 129-161.
  • Lie Dan Lu, Tracey (2013) Museums in China: Materialized power and objectified identities, Routledge.
  • Pearce, Nick (2001) 'Soldiers, Doctors, Engineers: Chinese Art and British Collecting, 1860-1935', Journal of the Scottish Society for Art History (December 2001), vol 6. pp. 45-52.
  • Pierson, Stacey (2007) Collectors, Collections and Museums: the Field of Chinese Ceramics in Britain, 1560-1960. Oxford; New York: Peter Lang.
  • Rujivacharakul, Vimalin (2011) Collecting China: The World, China, and a Short History of Collecting, University of Delaware Press.
  • Said, Edward (2003) Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, London, Penguin (first published in 1978).
  • Shambaugh, Jeanette Elliott with David Shambaugh (2007) The odyssey of China’s imperial art treasures, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
  • Shelton, Anthony (ed) (2001) Collectors: individuals and institutions, and Collectors: expressions of self and other, London: the Horniman Museum.
  • Thomas, Greg (2008) ‘The Looting of Yuanmingyuan and the Translation of Chinese Art in Europe’ in Nineteenth-Century art worldwide: a journal of nineteenth-century visual culture, Volume 7, issue 2, autumn 2008.
  • Tythacott, Louise (2011) The Lives of Chinese Objects: Buddhism, Imperialism and Display, Oxford and New York: Berghahn.  
  • Varutti, Marzia (2014) Museums in China: The Politics of Representation after Mao, Boydell Press.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules