Punchbowl with Western trading offices on the Ghuangzhou waterfront
Qing dynasty, about 1780–1790
The exterior of this punchbowl is decorated with a continuous scene of the foreign trading stations built along the banks of the Pearl River at Guangzhou.
Outside these warehouses are six national flags, flying from tall posts identify buildings hired by the East India Companies of Holland, England, Sweden, France, Austria and Denmark. Chinese commercial boats are moored along the quay, and Chinese and European merchants, the latter distinguished by their tricorne hats and frock coats, stroll along the dock conducting business. Inside the bowl is a basket of flowers contained within a floral medallion.
From 1715 the Chinese government made Canton the only open port for official trade with Europeans. The factories shown here were built on a strip of land between the city walls and the Pearl River front. Although they had narrow frontages, each building stretched back about 300 metres. They were called hongs by Europeans, after the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese word for company or business, hang, and these bowls are known as ‘hong’ bowls in the West.
As they were not officially allowed into the city of Canton, European traders lived and worked in these rented trading stations during the trading season (roughly June to December). Their ships were disarmed for the duration of their stay and anchored off the island of Whampoa. Small Chinese vessels ferried goods and merchants through the shallower waters to the bund.
Chinese interpreters communicated with the merchants, initially in Portuguese, later in ‘pidgin’ English, and – it is thought that - it was not until the late eighteenth century that any Englishman mastered the Chinese language.
From about 1760 to 1800 the Canton waterfront was repeatedly depicted in oil paintings, watercolours and engravings, so that its changing appearance is well recorded. Architectural details of the warehouses, which were rebuilt in Western style in 1743 are therefore of interest for dating those views. The appearance or lack of particular flags similarly help to pinpoint the dating of the view although some bowls made were decorated with designs from non–contemporary earlier paintings and prints.
The architectural details of the trading stations depicted on this bowl appear in a magnificent eight metre long scroll in the British Library, painted in China for the Western market between 1760 and 1770 by an anonymous Chinese artist and showing the view from Whampoa to the city of Canton.