The Historical Background
The World, Sweden and the City of Gothenburg

China and Sweden Through a Thousand Year

By: Bo Gyllensvärd, 1992

It is a well-known fact that Chinese silk was exported far away through Asia already during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 221 AD). The oldest finds of this material in Sweden are some fragments of patterned silk excavated in Birka, a 9th-century commercial center, west of Stockholm.

The Silk Road and Tang Dynasty

The silk trade had increased extensively during the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD). Silk came to the west first on the Silk Road through Central Asia and later also by sea to the Mediterranean world. This export went on through the centuries. From the Middle Ages (14th century) to the 16th and 17th centuries, Chinese silk has been preserved in Swedish churches, used as priest robes and antependiums, or altar front hangings.

Introduction of Chinese Porcelain to Europe

Chinese porcelain and stoneware reached the Near East already during the Tang dynasty but Europe first in the 16th century. When direct trade had been established between Europe and the Far East in the latter half of the 16th century, first on Portuguese and later on Spanish, Dutch, and English ships, the first blue and white Ming porcelain reached our country.

Royal Collections and Influence on European Craftsmanship

In 1631, King Gustaf II Adolfus was given a precious cabinet made by the famous ebenist Hainhofer in Augsburg. This contained many exotic things and some dishes, trays, and cups of Kraak porcelain which at that time was brought to Europe. The cabinet is preserved at the University of Uppsala. His daughter, Queen Kristina, formed a collection of about 330 pieces of this type, which has partly survived. By the end of the 17th century, several wealthy persons in our country had collections of Chinese porcelain, lacquer, and various items arranged in special rooms "à la Chinoise". The imported Chinese wares made a deep impression upon European craftsmen, especially the potters. In vain, they tried to make hard porcelain but could only copy shapes and patterns from China on faience made in Holland, France, England, and Germany. On the white glazed earthenware, the blue cobalt was used to depict Chinese figure scenes, flowers, birds, and other common patterns from late Ming and Kangxi porcelains. Even the Swedish faience factory Rörstrand copied Chinese motifs in the 1730s.

Chinoiserie: A Western Imitation of Eastern Art

At this time, the Japanese and Chinese lacquered wares became admired and were soon imitated in the West. A popular handbook on Japanning and varnishing was published in London in 1688 by John Stalker, with engravings of various "Chinese" patterns suitable for use by experts as well as amateurs to adorn furniture, mirrors, trays, and boxes of all kinds. Japanning became the highest fashion among ladies in the upper class around 1700. The exotic motifs were also reproduced on wallpapers, gilt leather, and canvas to imitate lacquer screens. This imitative art was called "Chinoiserie".

Chinoiserie in Swedish Royal Palaces

In Sweden, this kind of Chinoiserie was soon taken up. At the end of the 17th century, the Royal palaces had some of the Queens' private rooms filled with Chinese porcelain, lacquer, and other objects arranged on the walls above the doors and mantelpieces "à la Chinoise".

The Influence of the Swedish East India Company

When the Swedish East India Company started in 1731, the situation changed considerably and a vast direct import of porcelain, lacquer, silk, spices and, first of all, tea, arrived at Gothenburg, the Swedish port for the China trade. At this time the foreign beverage tea had been introduced in our country and turned out to be the most profitable cargo in the trade. This new drink required suitable vessels which, of course, preferably should be of Chinese porcelain. Cups, saucers, pots, caddies, bowls, and dishes were imported in great quantities.

Chinoiserie and the Rococo Movement

When the rococo style succeeded the baroque in the 1720-30s, the chinoiseries changed into a still more European version. Leading French artists such as Watteau, Boucher, and Pillement introduced the Chinese sceneries in interior decorations such as wall hangings and tapestries. Their pictures were reproduced in series of engravings and spread all over Europe. Other chinoiseries were made by German artists as well.

European Fascination and Misinterpretation of Chinese Culture

Most of these compositions were rather fanciful and based on the Dutch and French publications about China of the seventeenth century such as Martinus Martini's Novaes Atlas Sinensis (1655), Joh. Nieuhof's Het Gezantschap der Nederlandische Oost-Indische Compagnie (1665), Athanasius Kircher's China Monumenta...illustrata... (1667), Phil. Couplet's Imperii Sinonem... (1687), and others.

Philosophical and Cultural Influence of China in Europe

The illustrations in these books were made by European designers who had never been in the Far East, which explains the imaginative pictures. Even in the eighteenth century, the renderings of Chinese conditions - the milieu as well as the people - were rather inaccurate and gave a most idealistic picture of the remote country. The interest in China had grown rapidly and many reports made by French Jesuit missionaries in China were published in the west. China's classical books were translated into European languages. China was looked upon as an ideal empire where the people lived in a real utopia. Philosophers such as the German G. W. von Leibniz, Chr. Wolf, and the French physiocrats Francois Quesnay and Marquis de Mirabeau propagated in favor of the Confucian social system.

The Drottningholm Chinese Pavilion: A Symbol of European Chinoiserie

The physiocratic ideas were introduced in our country, among others, by Count Carl Fredrik Scheffer, who was the governor to the young crown prince Gustaf (later King Gustaf III) who was well informed about the Confucian ideas. He had, as a six-year-old boy, acted at the inauguration of a small Chinese pavilion presented to his mother, Queen Louise Ulrica of Prussia, on her birthday on July 25, 1753.

The small palace was built secretly at Drottningholm, the royal summer palace, in Chinese taste inspired by similar palaces on the Continent. The Crown Prince was dressed as a Chinese prince and had learned a few phrases in Chinese to be used when leaving the key to his mother. Great festivities were arranged in connection with this birthday present, when Chinese drill was performed and theater performances were given with Chinese subjects. The exterior of the palace had been painted in red with yellow palm trunks at the corners. The roof was green and shaped as a tent. Chinamen and dragons were arranged above the entrance and windows. The interior was furnished with Chinese lacquer screens, silk on walls and chairs, and lacquer cabinets. Chinese porcelain was arranged on the walls against lacquer screens. This small palace was rebuilt ten years later and then enlarged by two leading architects, C.F. Adelcrantz and Jean Eric Rehn, who built the most attractive Chinoiserie in a mixture of real Chinese objects and European rococo interiors with Boucher's Chinoiseries painted on the walls by Swedish artists. This Chinese Pavilion is one of the few of its kind still in existence in Europe.

The Extensive Import of Chinese Porcelain

In the middle of the eighteenth century, many palaces and mansions in Sweden had similar paintings on canvas in Chinese rooms. Dinner and tea services of porcelain were arranged in special Porcelain Kitchens filled with the precious items. It is possible that well over 30 million pieces of Chinese porcelain were imported by the Swedish East India Company during 90 years, as the porcelain from the Far East was so much cheaper than the wares made in Europe at German, French, and English factories.

European Adaptation of Chinese Designs

At first, the European shapes were reproduced in China, and complete dinner services were ordered for the western market. On these early pieces, the decoration in blue and white or colored enamels was purely Chinese, but after a while, the patterns too became more and more European. Models and drawings were sent out to Canton and reproduced by skillful Chinese craftsmen. A special type was the so-called armorial porcelain decorated with the coat of arms of a noble family who wanted to have it on its service. Several thousand English and European families had their services ordered in this fashion. Around 350 services were made for Swedish families, some of which were designed by prominent Swedish artists such as Christian Precht and Jean Eric Rehn. Among these are several made for the Grill family, who were closely related to the Swedish East India Company. An exceptionally large dinner service was presented to King Gustaf III to be used at his palace Gripsholm and decorated with the Swedish state coat of arms and crowns in blue and gold and designed by Jean Eric Rehn.

Exquisite Botanical Porcelain for Carl von Linnaeus

One of the most beautiful tea and coffee services made for Sweden was the one ordered for our famous botanist Carl von Linnaeus. The pattern shows a botanical drawing of the flower Linnea Borealis most sensitively drawn in green, brown, and pink enamels.

Chinoiseries and Their Influence on European Art and Design

During the eighteenth century, the Chinoiseries played an important role in Europe for ceramics, wall paintings, lacquered work, and interior decoration. The rococo style cannot be explained without the inspiration from China. When the English architect William Chambers published "Designs of Chinese buildings" in 1757 and in 1763 "A dissertation on oriental gardening," they made a great impression on European garden architecture.

William Chambers: Blending Chinese and Western Landscaping

William Chambers stayed in Canton for several years at the service of the Swedish East India Company as a supercargo and conducted close studies of gardens and architecture around this city. When he returned to Europe, he was engaged by the English court and created Kew Garden and other gardens with its Chinese pagoda and other oriental buildings.

The Emergence of English Chinese Gardens

The French formal garden was now succeeded by the English free park landscape with its various exotic buildings and details such as pagodas, pavilions, bridges, and open lawns, curving paths, and irregular ponds and running water. The English Chinese garden was thus introduced by Chambers and soon spread to the rest of Europe.

Swedish Adoption of Chinese Garden Styles

In Sweden, Fredric Magnus Piper, who had studied in England, created a garden of this type when King Gustaf III engaged him to plan the new gardens at Drottningholm and Haga, his summer palaces in Stockholm. They still exist, as does a small, but very tasteful, Chinese garden at Godegård, one of the mansions belonging to the Grill family.

The Diminishing and Revival of Chinese Influence in Sweden

When the direct trade between Gothenburg and Canton ended in the beginning of the 19th century, the Chinese fashion diminished but never stopped completely. At the end of the last century, a revival of the rococo style appeared and a reborn interest in the Far East, now focused mainly on Japan, resulted in a new style, l'art nouveau or Jugend. This style in Europe is to a great extent inspired by Japanese art. In Sweden, it was soon practised.

Opening of China and the Swedish Exploration

When the Qing dynasty ended in 1911, China opened up to the West. Quite a few Swedish scholars went to China for studies in geology, natural science, language, archaeology, and art. In the early 20th century, the geologist J. G. Andersson found sites in the Hoangho basin of Chinese Neolithic culture at Yangshao, which brought to light an advanced ceramic art, at that time unknown to scholars. This was followed by finds of Homo Pekingensis (the Peking man) datable to circa 500,000 years ago who lived in grottos at Zhougoudien northwest of Beijing.

The Foundation of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities

Thanks to these sensational finds made in close co-operation with Chinese experts, Andersson was permitted to bring back to Sweden a representative collection of Neolithic material, the base of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, which opened in 1929. Later, comprehensive collections of archaic bronzes and ceramics from Zhou, Han, and Tang followed. A special committee was organized to provide financial support to the scientific work going on in China and to acquire representative material. In 1921, the Swedish Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf became the president of the committee.

Growing Interest in Chinese Art in Sweden

In the twenties and thirties, a new wave of serious interest in China spread in the West, and museums as well as private connoisseurs started systematically to collect Chinese art, especially ceramics. The leading collectors in Sweden formed the China Club. The Swedish Art Historian Osvald Sirén spent a long time in China studying architecture, sculpture, and painting and published pioneering works on these subjects. He also acquired collections for the state museums.

The Crown Prince's Dedication to Far Eastern Art

The leading sponsor and supporter all the time was the Crown Prince, who in 1926 visited China and through the years built up his private collection, which in his will was given to the New Far Eastern museum, which had been opened by King Gustaf VI Adolf in 1963.

The New Far Eastern Museum in Stockholm

The new Far Eastern museum was arranged in an old building from 1700 on Skeppsholmen, an island in the center of Stockholm, where the most important state collections of material from China, Japan, Korea, and India today are shown in a pedagogical and attractive way.

Sweden's Ongoing Cultural Exchange with China

All the time Sweden kept up a cultural exchange with China and from the People's Republic received several important exhibitions. Today the interest in China, its people, country, and culture is more intense than ever. Chinese food is appreciated all over the country and in every city or community, Chinese restaurants serve typical Chinese dishes. The Chinese language is taught at our universities as well as Chinese history of art. From an Utopia in the Far East, today China has become a member of the world community, of ever-growing importance.

Bo Gyllensvärd