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Crossing the borders of a merchant class: imaging and representing elite status in the portraits of the Hong merchants of Canton Chu, Ian Pui


Portraits of hong merchants produced in the latter period of the Canton Trade (1820-1840) portray these merchants in a new manner — one that previously had not been seen in China. These portraits depict Chinese subjects through a pastiche of signs associated with China's elite, yet the medium of oil painting and the use of perspective, drawn primarily from European artistic traditions, was unusual in Canton and was not in popular use in China as a whole. This study examines portraits of hong merchants executed by a Scottish artist residing in Canton, George Chinnery, as well as his Chinese student, Lamqua, in order to trace a particular form of portraiture that emerged at this time. As I will argue, this type of portraiture evoked the contradictions inherent in the hong merchant's position, which was situated between Chinese rule and foreign trade, and also gave form to a range of tensions and disparities that existed between the merchants and Chinese mandarin officials, or hoppos. Along with the exchange of commodities which was central to the merchants trade, there existed a simultaneous cultural exchange which was affected by new media and new forms of knowledge. The introduction of oil painting to China and the circulation of merchant portraits are a case in point. The hong merchant portraits offered a stage for the performance of a carefully constructed and imagined identity that encapsulated a range of desires and aspirations for elite status within China. Furthermore, these portraits also served as an important mode of exchange with, and for, European viewers. This identity was a performance of status and class both in the imagination of the hong merchant, but also one performed for foreign traders who would see these images. The portraits of the hong merchants thus embody diverse social dimensions where the subject is embedded within a network of references to class, rank, and demeanour. Using the medium of oil paint, the illusion of the image extended beyond the use of shadow and perspective as the portraits inscribed an identity for the hong merchant that was at once elusive and illusive.

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