SHELBURNE, Vt. — One thing museums exist to remind us of is that objects can be — objects generally are — more interesting than their functions. It doesn’t matter if what museums choose to show is called art, or craft, or higgledy-piggledy-pop: The point is the objects, sympathetically presented, can connect us with states of being where curiosity and imagination are aligned in the most fertile parts of the brain.
The object pictured above, on display at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, is a circa 1784 punch bowl. Punch bowls have their uses, and I’m all for them. But what else is it?
When I first laid eyes on it, I wasn’t sure. The label said “Hong Bowl.” The vivid and realistic polychrome imagery on the exterior showed a busy port with the flags of certain nations — the United States, Sweden, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Spain — on a row of flagpoles, and various people in boats and on the shore.
“Hongs” were the factories in Canton (Guangzhou today) operated by the nations involved in the China Trade. This trade was conducted by individuals and large companies from Europe and increasingly from the United States during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
It brought great profits, but the traders — or “foreign devils,” as they were called — were extremely restricted in their movements by the Chinese, who held all the cards: Their empire was the wealthiest and most populous in the world. What’s more, as the Emperor Qianlong wrote to the king of England, “Our Celestial Kingdom possess all things in abundance and wants for nothing within its frontiers.” (He signed off, rather thrillingly, given the status of his correspondent: “Tremble at my orders and obey.”)
Subject to stringent regulations and heavy taxes, the foreigners dwelled in the hongs and were forbidden from operating outside an area less than a quarter of a square mile in size, beyond the city walls.
After a dozen years’ residence, noted Major Samuel Shaw (the first American to engage in the Chine Trade), some Europeans “have not seen more than what the first month presented to view.”
Porcelains they ordered had to be transported from a manufacturing center 600 miles inland. The journey — or voyage, since they often arrived on Chinese boats that had sailed down the coast — took about seven months.
There were many other bizarre and fascinating aspects to this trade. So circumscribed and mysterious, in fact, was this contact between East and West that it presented itself to artisans as a natural subject on export porcelains such as this.
Hong bowls are rare. You can’t drink punch from this one. But you can see it in Shelburne, and when you do, you may find yourself burning to learn more.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.