‘It’s like walking over a bridge on a willow pattern plate,’ remarked Virginia Woolf when reviewing the stories of the seventeenth-century Chinese writer, Pu Song-Ling.[i] Using the narrow bridge on the popular willow plate as a metaphor for her attempt to understand the strange stories-- boys who climb ropes to find peaches in heaven or men who fall to the ground and dissolve into tigers--Woolf relates her feeling of estrangement in walking over this cultural bridge. Her reference to the willow plate--one of England’s best-known projections of a fanciful China--is an expression of British chinoiserie, an often devalued decorative motif and style in ceramics, fashion, architecture, and gardens. Yet chinoiserie, like Woolf’s reading venture, is an expression of England’s fascination with the Chinese aesthetic, an aesthetic that would serve as valuable training for the British visual and reading eye in the early twentieth century.
In a 1942 New Yorker cover, the cartoonist Charles Addams would shatter this idealized notion of a timeless China on the blue willow plate. Inserting wartime images from the brutal Sino-Japanese War fought on Chinese soil, 1937-1945, Addams replaces doves with Japanese planes. Cannons are lined up among the willow trees, Japanese soldiers rush across a footbridge carrying national flags, and warships replace junks on the river. This image conjures a geopolitical China, a historical dimension ignored in the hyper-reality of chinoiserie.[ii] Looking at a blue willow plate, or any aspect of chinoiserie, presents us then with a double challenge: to understand the way the aesthetic and culture of China is filtered through British and European tastes in the decorative arts, and also to see through the fictions and hyper-reality of these arts to the history behind the decorative style and objects.
We begin then with multiple Chinas—a China without origins, time or place as represented on the willow plate; the historical China with its political and cultural upheavals during the Republican era, the civil war and the Sino-Japanese War; and the magnetism of the Chinese aesthetic that would enrich British visual and literary arts in the century to come. By extension, the literary chinoiserie of authors like Katherine Mansfield, and the Occidentalism of her counterpart in China, Ling Shuhua, prepared both the British and Chinese eye and literary imagination for later aesthetic encounters between China and England….