‘Reframing Chinese Objects: Collecting and Displaying in Europe and the Islamic World, ca. 1400-1800’. Workshop at the Universität Heidelberg, 7-8 December 2018.

Interior view of Chini-khana. Shrine of Shaykh Safi, Ardabil, Iran. Photograph by Yusen Yu, 2011.

An international workshop entitled “Reframing Chinese Objects: Collecting and Displaying in Europe and the Islamic World, ca. 1400-1800” was held at the Karl Jaspers Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg, on the 7th and 8th of December 2018. The workshop, conducted as part of the “Objects of Wonder” project and funded by the Excellence Initiative II of the Heidelberg University, investigated some of the remarkable ways in which Chinese objects were reframed and re-contextualized through practices of collection and display across the Islamic world and Early Modern Europe. 

Of the seventeen papers that were read at the conference, a majority were presented by scholars located within European institutions, universities and museums. Only two presentations were by scholars from outside Europe, from Iran and Uzbekistan. Six doctoral candidates from Heidelberg University delivered their papers on the first day. The review that follows will focus on the second day’s program, comprising four panels: “Perceiving Chinese Art in the Islamic world”, “Objects as Site of Knowledge Production”, “Porcelain in the Islamic Displaying Context” and “Porcelain in the European Courtly Context”.

The program on second day opened with an insightful keynote speech by Prof. Stacey Pierson of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Entitled “Framing ʻChinaʼ: Architecture, Collecting and the Spatial Aesthetics of Chinese Porcelain in Global Display Contexts”, the paper first traced the display history of Chinese porcelains exported to various locations around the world anddiscussed the architectural spaces within which Chinese porcelains were installed and presented. The paper revealed that in the process of installation and presentation, the porcelains moved into a new category of collected objects which defined, reflected and reinforced their owners’ identities. 

The papers that followed can be divided into three main themes, namely the perceptions of Chinese art during the Timurid and Mughal periods, the encounters between China and Europe in the 18thcentury and the practices that were employed in the reframing of Chinese objects. 

Historical documents and travelogues dealing with artistic connections and perceptions of Chinese art are important sources of information for our understanding of howChinese paintings, painting houses, (Negārkhāneye Chin, Suratkhāneye Chin) and Chinese mirrors (Āyeneye Chin) were appreciated in Timurid and post-Timurid Persia. This was also the time when China served as a political model, to be emulated in historical Iran of the 14thand 17th-centuries. Meanwhile in Mughal India, Chinese porcelains were collected and served at the Imperial table throughout the reign of the first six rulers.  Especially noteworthy was the chini khanaor ‘China house’, with a wall constructed with little niches arranged in registers, in which select plates and vessels were arrayed, a favourite form of display under the Mughal emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627). (Javad Abbasi, Sarah Kiyanrad, Ebba Koch)

Other presentations explored the encounters between China and the West in the 18thcentury, exchanges which seem to have been filled with mutual admiration and competition. The idea behind the affixed hanging, tieluo, of the Beijing Jesuit botanical garden, for example, with realistically depicted Chinese plants in the 18th-century, indicated the superiority of Chinese agriculture (Lianming Wang). In another paper discussing Chinese porcelain in 18th century Europe, the original arrangement of these luxury objects at the Japanese Palace in the court of Augustus the Strong showcased the political power of the Saxon court (Julia Weber).

In the last theme, the spotlight was trained on an array of historical practices engaging with the re-use and reframing of Chinese objects. One case study looked at how Chinese scrolls were cut out and remounted in a Persian album from the 15thcentury. Preserved in today’s Topkapi Library, this artefact signposts a marked shift in the taste and expectations of the viewers of the time (Yusen Yu). Another case study discussed four types of imitation and appropriation of Chinese porcelain in traditional Uzbekistan (Akbar Khakimov).

Whilea significant amount of research has been undertaken on Chinese and European encounters in the past few decades, the historical and cultural exchanges between China and the Islamic world have not been given the attention they deserve. By setting the stage for transcultural discussions between China, Europe, and Islamic world, this workshop made a significant contribution to our understanding of cultural and material exchanges between these three regions.  Furthermore, some in-depth case studies were presented here for the first time in contemporary scholarship. However, in terms of framing and investigating transcultural approaches, much more remains to be done in the future. 

No culture can be discussed in isolation, as a closed system. When Islam arrived in China more than 1200 years ago, it resulted in a sizeable Muslim minority population during the Yuan, Ming, Qing dynasties; their descendants are settled in parts of China even today. Can a porcelain with Arab characters, produced for the Ming Muslims, be regarded as a Chinese Islamic artwork? There are, in fact, no clearly drawn boundaries between different cultures, nations and civilizations in these periods of far-reaching migrations, cultural and material exchanges. A more nuanced understanding of interactions, influences and adaptations is a desideratum in this expanded field studying transcultural exchanges. In addition, the questioning of conventionalized boundaries between cultures, nations and civilizations may also have fresh epistemological insights to offer, even leading us to reconsider our contemporary forms of knowledge production. In so doing, fundamentally new facets of transcultural studies can reveal themselves to us.


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