Adopting a Chinese Mantle
: Designing and Appropriating Chineseness 1750-1820

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The thesis examines methods of imagining and appropriating China in Britain in the period 1750 to 1820. It considers how those who engaged with the textual and material culture of China depicted and envisioned China. The thesis identifies a set of practices by which eighteenth-century writers, scientists, and designers appropriated elements of Chinese culture: adopting a Chinese mantle in the dressing of bodies, the dressing of rooms and the dressing of text as Chinese. Extending the work of Chi-Ming Yang on performing China beyond theatrical performance, this thesis explores the limits and effects of performance of Chineseness in home decoration, scientific thought, and satire.

Divided into three sections, the first addresses the relationship between women and Chinese ornamentation within a domestic setting. Identifying a theory of ornamentation prevalent in eighteenth-century culture, it addresses the way women negotiated their engagement with the Chinese aesthetic, due to the negative associations it carried. It shows how the appropriation of Chinese goods represented a novel and alternative method of expression and identity formation, even permitting the recreation of an Empire at home. The second section examines how China becomes an object of study and the practices it produces, including translation, location, dislocation and display of exotic objects and texts. This section brings to light an account of Lady Banks’s Chinese porcelain collection as an example of how networks of exchange were created and complicated by the influx of Chinese goods, materials and ideas. The final section addresses the way in which satire employs a ludic Chinese mantle to challenge received ideas about aesthetics, monarchy and misrule.

The thesis argues that adopting a Chinese mantle contributes to the fluid concept of identity formation whereby the performance of identity, through Chinese objects, dress and speech, helped to project a civilised and sophisticated personality. It charts British delight and anxiety felt towards China: playfulness and intellectual dismantling, rather than Orientalist aggression, were the primary methods of accommodation until the militarisation of the British and Chinese Imperial projects in the nineteenth century.

Date of Award2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorClare Brant (Supervisor)

Cite this