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Washington’s china visits home

By HONG XIAO in New York | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-12-14 23:50
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Displays of porcelain and other artwork celebrating American presidents and important personages in exhibition The Dragon and the Eagle: American Traders in China, A Century of Trade from 1784 to 1900 at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. Provided to China Daily

While China and the US may currently be quibbling over shifts in trade policies, the centuries-old history of bilateral trade between the two nations is a story that can never be changed.

A new exhibition that opened at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum on Friday tells that story through marvelous objects.

The exhibition is titled The Dragon and the Eagle: American Traders in China, A Century of Trade from 1784 to 1900, because the “dragon and the eagle have long been recognized as the symbols of China and the United States respectively, according to the museum’s website.

At the end of the 18th century, China was the oldest empire in the world, and the United States was the world’s youngest republic.

Initial trade relations began when the American trading ship Empress of China sailed from New York bound for Canton on Feb 22, 1784, a year after the peace treaty was signed officially ending the American Revolutionary War. The date happened to be General George Washington’s 52nd birthday.

The exhibition, which is divided into sections with titles like “Dreaming of the East” and “Exotic Tastes”, displays items from the collections of the HKMM and several US museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Winterthur Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum, Harvard Business School and a number of private collectors.

Valuable trade goods, export artifacts, nautical instruments and archival materials tell the tale of two nations benefiting from bilateral maritime trade, commerce and business and nautical technologies

Winterthur Curator Leslie Grigsby does a condition check on a recently arrived vase, originally brought to America by a member of the prominent du Pont family in Hong Kong. Provided to China Daily

On loan from Winterthur Museum in Delaware are 31 examples of Chinese export porcelain that arrived in America in 1784.

Dishes once owned by America’s first president George Washington are featured, according to Winterthur senior curator Leslie Grigsby.

Grigsby said that among the most iconic ceramics produced for the American China trade are those associated with the Society of the Cincinnati, founded in 1783 as a fraternity of officers who served during the Revolutionary War.

The dishes in this exhibition are from a 302-piece breakfast, tea and dinnerware set acquired for George Washington by Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, in 1786. Lee paid $150 for the service, then forwarded the wares to Washington’s Virginia home at Mount Vernon.

Also from Winterthur is an enameled and gilded jug bearing Washington’s portrait.

Grigsby told China Daily that Winterthur’s participation in the exhibit “provides an excellent opportunity for the museum to build new international relationships”.

“More poetically, it allows our beautiful objects to return — for a time — to the place where they were made, so many years ago,” she said.

As Winterthur’s senior curator of ceramics and glass, Grigsby has twice joined European and American experts in Chinese porcelain to present to Chinese scholars and collectors at conferences in China.

“Afterwards, several of the Chinese collectors visited Winterthur to attend the museum’s annual ceramics conference,” she said.

Winterthur director of academic affairs Gregory Landrey has been deeply involved in conservation efforts at the Qianlong Garden at the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Mark Nardone, Winterthur’s communications manager, told China Daily that the Chinese are inviting local (US) museums to exhibit there in a significant way, “because of relationships that precede the trade war by years,” he wrote.

“Museum professionals in both countries see their work as a deeply personal way to build bridges,” he added.

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