This punch bowl celebrates Western trade with China by focusing on the bustling port of Canton (Guangzhou). The decoration here offers a close look at life along the shore of the busy Pearl River, where Western warehouses, traders, and their assistants jammed the limited space allowed them by the Chinese during the half-year when the weather allowed active trading to take place in the Canton hongs.
Although referred to as hongs, warehouses, or factories, these buildings housed all the activities of the foreigners.1The designation “hong” bowl for punch bowls decorated as this one is a modern collector’s term. The 1785 invoice of one Captain Green for “4 Factory painted Bowles” brought back aboard the Empress of China may well be the only documentation for the name that was used at the time to refer to these bowls. See Mudge 1981, 95, 214. Offices, large storage rooms, dining areas, and sleeping and living quarters were dispersed throughout the maze of small, two- and three-story buildings that composed a single hong rented by a country or trading company from the Chinese merchant who owned it.2For further descriptions of the hongs, see Jorg, 54–61; Le Corbeiller 1974, 115–17. Thirteen such hongs lined the wharf, which measured little more than one thousand feet long, although most extended back from the shore promenade by five hundred feet or more. Hongs were rented on an annual basis, but the same quarters were frequently taken year after year by the same lessee, whose nationality was announced by the flag flying in front. This practice helps to date “hong” bowls.
Merchants from Denmark, France, Sweden, England, and Holland were longtime traders at Canton in the eighteenth century. The Imperial flag (yellow with double-headed eagle), however, was recorded only between 1779 and 1781, during two seasons when it was said to have been used by a Hungarian-licensed French ship.3Le Corbeiller 1974 discusses a punch bowl in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is nearly identical to the Department of State’s punch bowl. For a review of the flags on hong bowls, see Le Corbeiller 1974, 117. Moreover, the red and gilt spearhead border around the foot, the elaborate interior border of trellis and hanging flower baskets, and the beautiful floral display painted in the bottom confirm the period of the bowl.
Scenes of the Western trading area at Canton first appeared on punch bowls about 1765 and were painted in one or two panels.4Howard and Ayers 1978, 1: 209, discuss the history of Canton scenes on punch bowls. For illustrations of the many varieties, see Hervouet et al., 23–29. Continuous views, as on the Collection’s bowl, began to be painted about 1780. As the fashion for punch declined after 1800, paintings of similar port views replaced the “hong” bowls as souvenirs of the China trade.5Howard and Ayers 1978, 1: 207.
Ellen Paul Denker and Bert R. Denker
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.
The Hongs of Canton