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George Du Maurier’s Visual Degeneration: Chinamaniacs and China in the British Imagination

By Amy Matthewson

Abstract

This paper focuses on George Du Maurier’s ‘chinamania’ cartoons that were published in the popular British satirical magazine Punch. Depictions of languid men and selfish women obsessed with blue and white china (the porcelain), a familiar symbol of China (the country), visualised anxieties over degeneration at a time when China was viewed as a regressive civilisation. By exploring late nineteenth century notions of decline, this paper argues that Du Maurier’s series of cartoons simultaneously mocked English societal foibles while positioning China to serve as a visual warning of wider issues concerning the degeneration of society and by extension, the British nation and its standing in the international arena.

Keywords: George Du Maurier, China, New Aesthetic Movement, degeneration, decline, Sino-British relations, satire, nineteenth century imperialism

Introduction

Between 1874 and 1880, the celebrated artist and social commentator, George Du Maurier created a series of cartoons for the popular British satirical magazine Punch, negatively depicting participants of the New Aesthetic Movement. Du Maurier was known for his keen observations and witty commentaries on English society and his parodies of the ‘Cult of Beauty’ became a popular representation of the aesthetic movement’s leading figures, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oscar Wilde, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Du Maurier satirised every aspect of the aesthetes’ lifestyle, from their sense of fashion to their fad of china collecting, and he coined the term ‘chinamania’ to express their craze for blue and white porcelain. His series of cartoons became famous and lingered in the public imagination long after he moved on to other satirical subjects. As late as 1933, Compton Mackenzie wrote that people continued to think of the aesthetes in terms of Du Maurier’s caricatures, as “ugly young women in greenery-yallery mock medieval dresses and niminy-pinimy young men with cheesy complexions and velvet jackets” (55 qtd. in Nadelhaft 627).

Even though Du Maurier was well-known for his illustrations of the aesthetes, he was not the first to poke fun at them; rather, it was his fellow-artist at Punch, Charles Keene. It was only when Keene lost interest in the topic that Du Maurier picked it up and for eight years, he created a series of memorable characters satirising the aesthetes as well as those wishing to emulate their fashion and follies (Lambourne 114-115). Du Maurier would have been well acquainted with their sense of art. As a student in Paris, he knew Whistler when they both attended the atelier of the painter Charles Gleyre. However, Du Maurier never felt he fit in; he commented, “Their noble contempt for everybody but themselves envelops me I know …I think they are best left to themselves like all Societies for mutual admiration of which one is not a member” (Anderson 2009a, 234). 

  While seemingly harmless comedy, Du Maurier’s cartoons of the aesthetes held a darker message: through an irrational desire for ‘foreign’ objects, the aesthetes were contributing to the degradation of British, or more specifically, English society which in turn, threatened the nation and Britain’s international standing. Blue and white china, or, Old Blue, is a key focal point in these cartoons; whether imported from China or made in Britain, the familiar blue and white ceramics were understood to be simultaneously Chinese and British. This symbol of China in British homes held significant meanings at a time when Britain was actively engaged with China. Reports of Sino-British conflict made headline news, catching the attention of the men who staffed Punch, as they always ensured that only the biggest news stories would be satirised in their magazine. 

Punch magazine only engaged with hot topics of the day to guarantee subjects that would be at the forefront of public awareness; topics that would have been considered too obscure did not feature and if there were concerns that an image would not be understood, Punch writers provided an accompanying poem or article for clarification. Editors, writers, and especially artists paid close attention to the use of myths, legends, and symbols, carefully considering their audience’s familiarity with the visual language. This cannot be overstated; the success of a cartoon depended upon readers’ ability to recognize and understand the meaning of an image. The signs and symbols within Punch’s imagery produced clusters of association that relied on viewers’ knowledge of current affairs in order to clearly convey meaning. Du Maurier was skilled in this regard for if readers did not ‘get the joke,’ then the cartoon was a failure. 

What then can we glean from Du Maurier’s use of blue and white ceramics in relation to late nineteenth century notions of degeneracy and of uselessness? Elizabeth Hope Chang reminds us of the importance of contextualising ways of seeing not only within their particular historical moment but also within their particular geographical space (Chang 7-8). If we are to situate Du Maurier’s cartoons historically, the series arose at a time when ideas and discussions surrounding degeneracy were in circulation. Victorian thinkers were developing social, economic, and racial theories on human groups; these ideas arose from the arguments that were developed by Charles Darwin in his theory of evolution. China’s defeat in battles against British superior firepower and the subsequent socio-political tensions resulted in a near constant negative representation of China in the British press and thus, China came to represent the epitome of a degenerate civilisation in decline. 

Du Maurier’s lampooning of the aesthetes has already been the subject of attention, most notably in the works of Rebecca N. Mitchell and Anne Anderson. Mitchell’s analysis focuses on Punch’s representation of aesthetic female dress. She investigates the connection between women’s clothing and their physical and mental health, ultimately demonstrating an anxiety over women’s emancipation. For the purposes of this paper, Anderson’s research is especially relevant. She examines the feminine association of porcelain and tea drinking and its connection to the suggestive degenerative nature of the aesthetes. 

This paper builds upon Anderson’s research to explore the significance of visual association. By situating Du Maurier’s series of cartoons within their socio-political frameworks and considering global understandings more broadly, the aim is to explore the connections between his ‘chinamaniacs,’ China (the country), china (the porcelain), and late nineteenth century notions of degeneracy and ideas of uselessness. Du Maurier’s cartoons reveal the ways in which Victorian discourses and notions of degeneracy gave rise to self-reflective anxieties not only of English society but also of Britain’s wider interactions with the global community.

Du Maurier, Decline, & Degeneracy 

Ideas of China as a degenerating civilisation started with the writings of Enlightenment thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Baron de Montesquieu, who argued that China was governed by despotism and as a result of oppressive imperial control, the nation was unable to progress.  These eighteenth-century writings were, however, countered by other philosophers, most notably, Voltaire, who described China and its inhabitants in idyllic terms. More generally, information on and about China was scarce but the country was used as an invaluable foil to ‘Western ways’ and was therefore called upon to support varied arguments by a host of renowned Western thinkers. The realities of China were, at best, vague due to limited contact and therefore China largely remained in the realm of fantasy. Only through China’s material culture, namely the designs on porcelain, that fanciful ideas arose in the European imagination, solidifying a notion of a whimsical China filled with willow trees, stone bridges, and pagodas.

As early as 1609, chinoiserie was all the rage in England. The historian J. H. Plumb writes that in 1700, a single ship unloaded 146,748 pieces of porcelain (qtd. in Kowaleski-Wallace 155) but by 1750, Chinese imports began to decline as British manufacturers started to produce and perfect their own ceramic wares and these more affordable items reduced the demand for imported porcelain. By the end of the eighteenth century, the East India Company terminated their porcelain import due to a dramatic drop in sales but by this time, the blue and white Chinese pattern wares, whether imported from China or produced in Britain, were a familiar item for all classes in British society (Copeland 5). 

Ceramics, regardless of place of production, continued to be closely associated with China and this would continue well into the nineteenth century, even as Britain’s political relationship with China experienced a substantial negative shift. At the same time, there was increased contact during this time period: two Opium wars, 1839-1842 and then 1856-1860, which resulted in strained relations between the two nations and these violent interactions led to an almost constant negative representation of China in Britain in a wide variety of media outlets and popular venues.

The catalogue for the Art Treasures Exhibition, for example, disseminated a negative vision of China and the Chinese people. This Art Treasures Exhibition of fine art was held in Manchester from May to October 1857 and remains the largest art exhibition held in the United Kingdom. The accompanying catalogue details the objects on display; in case D on the South Side of the exhibition, various pieces of porcelain are described under the subheading, ‘Oriental China.’  There were some objects whose age were difficult to ascertain and to these, the catalogue tells its readers,

Information as to the dates of the several species of manufacture is very defective, and has been in a great measure obtained from the Chinese themselves, in whom deceit is supposed to be a national virtue (144).

This offensive remark, unselfconsciously published in a catalogue that sold 155,000 copies at a respected venue, points to broader societal attitudes towards the Chinese, which would only worsen in subsequent years (Pergam 96). While Britain’s frequent contact with China resulted in greater public curiosity, information was not always reliable.

In April 1860, Chambers’s Journal lamented in its article, ‘More Celestial Intelligence’ that the only consistent information about China and its people in Britain are “drawn exclusively from the Willow Pattern Plates in every dwelling-house.” Indeed, the article complained that there was so much conflicting and contrasting information, with the exception that “the Chinese wear pig-tails—a fact of which we were already in possession from the Plates” (237 qtd. in Chang 87). The association of the ceramic wares representing, or standing in, for China and its people remained consistently familiar amidst varying and differing information. ‘Old Blue’ held a powerful cultural presence within the British imagination and it became a “national touchstone because it was always already present as a point of reference” (Chang 89). The ceramics thereby provided a sense of stability during a time of change, not only in Sino-British relations but also rapid changes that were happening in society more broadly as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

The circulation of ideas concerning modernity and progress gave rise to their counterpart, discussions and theories of stagnation and degeneracy, terms that “quickly achieved the status of popular wisdom” by the late Victorian period (Arata 3). These theories were disjointed and contradictory and without methodology or structure, but this lack of cohesion was necessary in order for the theories to fit a variety of arguments. Clarification was used only to buttress agendas as when London newspapers used Degeneration by Max Nordau, the German doctor and writer, as explanation for accusations against Oscar Wilde (Arata 3). Nordau laid out his assessment of Wilde based on what he viewed as the negative influences from Algernon Charles Swinburne, a key figure in the New Aesthetic Movement. Nordau classified Swinburne “among the mystics” because, Nordau claimed, Swinburne used the “degenerative stigma of mysticism in all his works” (Nordau 317).

Towards Wilde, Nordau was especially disapproving. He attacked Wilde for his “queer costumes which recall partly the fashions of the Middle Ages, partly the rococo modes,” arguing that Swinburne and Wilde, and by extension all participants of the New Aesthetic Movement, displayed a “predilection for suffering, disease and crime” along with an “aversion to nature, and to all forms of activity and movement…[a] megalomaniacal contempt for men and [an] exaggeration of the importance of art” (Nordau 317). Nordau linked degeneracy with the body via fashion and movement, disease and criminal behaviour, as well as a hysteria for art and these connections did not contain themselves to individual bodies, but extended more broadly to the body of society. 

Notions of diseased bodies forming a degenerate society resulted in a proliferation of historically specific works of art and literature in which, as Stephen Arata argues, expressed anxieties over “the collapse of culture, the weakening of national might, the possibly fatal decay—physical, moral, spiritual, creative—of the Anglo-Saxon ‘race’ as a whole” and these works linked “nation, body, art… their respective declines were mutually implicated” (1-2). These theories of degeneracy caught the interest of Du Maurier who, as Marion Spielmann explains, had “a distinct and clear sense of beauty, and of the scientific, with speculations and theories of race and heredity” (505).

Born in Paris on the 6th of March 1834 to a French father and English mother, Du Maurier was acutely aware of his mixed heritage; so much so, that when he was introduced to John Leech, Punch’s chief cartoonist and despiser of anything and anyone foreign, he was anxious not to be mistaken as a foreigner because of his surname (Matthewson 40).  Perhaps because of this personal background, he was both interested and anxious about theories of race and degeneracy. He became known for his cartoons that lampooned the socially awkward and out-of-place and he illustrated what he perceived as the terrifying result of alien species invading English society.

In 1871, Du Maurier depicted “The Keeper Nightmare,” illustrating horrible hybrid beasts that serve as a visual warning of what is to come if strange species are mixed together and disrupt assigned categories. Martha Banta reflects on Du Maurier’s illustrations of bizarre hybrid beasts. She points to not only an “upset [in] the laws of nature’s order” but also the cartoons seem to suggest that the British may not “survive an influx of strange bloods and species” (Banta 80).  What will happen to Britain, Du Maurier asks, if there is an incursion of foreign blood and mixing of species that disrupt the laws of society, of nature, and of God? (Banta 79-82) These imagined worlds that Du Maurier created offered readers a visual articulation of anxieties expressed through strange and unfamiliar alien species intruding into English society and what could be more strange and ‘other’ than the hypothetical Chinese who, as Eric Hayot has demonstrated, has been used as “an instrument of measure” against ‘the West’ by philosophers since the eighteenth century (12)?

The idea of the Chinese ‘regressive state-of-being’ was grounded on theories of degeneracy and sickness. Dubbed the ‘Sick Man of Asia’ due to the country’s succession of military defeats as well as its ineffectiveness in suppressing violent civil unrest, China was believed to be in a phase of ‘sickness’ and inertia, which hindered the country’s ability to progress or modernise (Wagner 57). On the 5th of January 1863, the London Daily News reported: 

Great pains have been taken to impress upon the public of this country the idea that China is in ‘agony,’ but that cannot be truly said of it as a whole, and there seems some danger that the disorder of this sick man is about to be aggravated rather than alleviated. (4)

China was, for many in Britain, a sick and degenerating civilisation, the very opposite of evolutionary ideas of advancement and progress. In 1857, one of the magazine’s most influential and prolific writers, Douglas Jerrold, made the connection between porcelain and the Chinese people when he wrote, “even as china becomes flawed and breaks, even so has JOHN CHINAMAN gone, in our opinion, smash” (Jerrold  70). Over thirty years later in 1898, John Tenniel, chief cartoonist at Punch and a colleague of Du Maurier, illustrated “Another ‘Sick Man’” (figure 1) visually commenting on China taking up the old Ottoman Empire’s global position.

In a black and white drawing, two men stand facing each other. One is a caricature of a Chinese man who uses two crutches. The other man is a caricature of a sultan using a cane. The caption reads: Another “sick man.” The Sultan (cheerily): “Going to pieces, old man? Nonsense! All you want is a dose of ‘Concert of Europe!’ why—look at me!!”
Figure 1: John Tenniel, “Another Sick Man,” Punch, 8 January 1898.

It was within this framework that Du Maurier created his ‘chinamania’ series of cartoons, at a time when China was widely understood as exhibiting symptoms of an illness that resulted in regression. Du Maurier’s illustrations of the aesthetes were consistent: they were always lackluster and slovenly with over-the-top desires for blue and white ceramics, objects understood as originating from China, a country encumbered by negative connotations within the British Victorian imagination and this association is important. If we consider Roland Barthes’ argument in Rhetoric of the Image, then the significance of an image extends beyond what is immediately perceptible. By invoking familiar and culturally specific associations, readers are able to recognise an image’s message based on the frameworks of understanding in which the viewers are situated. So what can we understand by Du Maurier’s choice in using a ‘Chinese object’ to represent his critique of the aesthetes?

Hayot calls the use of Chinese exemplarity “example-effect” stating that China “creates the possibility of philosophy by appearing as a seemingly arbitrary historical or political detail whose value lies precisely in its having ‘nothing’ to do with the philosophical material it illustrates.” China is thereby removed from the main argument and only used as an apparent ‘random’ example to illustrate the main issue or topic. But the question remains, why China and not a myriad of other possibilities? The negative consequence of ignoring the use of China as example means ignoring the significance of historical specificity and how it “functions in culture” (27-29). 

China’s presence in artistic and literary creations in the late nineteenth century may indeed have only served as background to the main issue or larger picture; however, China did appear, and appear frequently in various forms, both textually and visually. China or ‘things Chinese’ were a familiar sight within British domestic and societal spaces and with increased violent Sino-British contact, viewing China was not a neutral process. Chang acknowledges the importance of vision from the perspective of nineteenth century writers and artists that was “globally encompassing and individually specific.” The depictions and representations of China as a form of cultural expression arose from particular political and economic conditions and therefore China’s appearance in Du Maurier’s cartoons did not only concern the individual but the nation more widely (Chang 3-4). 

Equally significant is Du Maurier’s choice of language. He coined the term ‘Chinamania’, instead of, say, ‘Japanamania’ to describe the fad for things Japanese that was happening at the same time. The Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure argued that the production of meaning depends on language and identified two important elements: the signifier, the actual word or image, and the signified, the concepts that arise in one’s head upon hearing or seeing the signifier. While these codes are fluid and impermanent, they nevertheless sustain representations and are essential in understanding a society within its historical frameworks. Du Maurier connected the aesthetes with China through symbol (porcelain) and language (‘chinamaniacs’). In his cartoons, their love of blue and white ceramics, a familiar visual representation of China, dominated the British (English) home. The cartoons suggest that a desire for these ceramics rendered people useless to their family, to society, and to the nation. 

The following section examines the series of Du Maurier’s ‘chinamania’ cartoons that centre on two central and connected themes.  The first is on the idea of uselessness for both the aesthetes and their desired ceramics. The cartoons express anxieties over a nation rendered useless over its obsession with a foreign decorative object. Du Maurier was creating these cartoons at a time when notions of degeneracy and deterioration were exemplified by China, a country generally believed to be regressing due to its perceived rejection of progress. The second theme investigates Du Maurier’s aesthetes’ disruptions to expected gendered norms, which to Du Maurier, would speed up the process of degeneracy as the very social fabric of society would unravel through transgressive behaviours. Each theme is accentuated by the use of blue-and-white ceramic, the symbol of China, that make a central appearance in order to emphasize notions of degeneracy and regression. While China in the British imagination must surely be as varied as each individual viewer, the country would, to the majority, represent a binary opposite to British social and cultural conventions.

Chinamaniacs

The idea of uselessness or the state of being impractical and serving no purpose is a recurring theme in Du Maurier’s ‘chinamania’ cartoons, which he applied as much to the ceramics themselves as to the participants of the New Aesthetic Movement. The word itself was attached to the definition of the word ‘chinoiserie’ that made its first appearance in French dictionaries in 1839.  In England, Harper’s Magazine and the Pall Mall Gazette were the first to use the word in 1883 and 1884 respectively, to describe the style and taste of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the mid-eighteenth century, there was an association of uselessness connected with things Chinese.  David Porter states that chinoiserie came to symbolise “a bold celebration of disorder and meaninglessness” and that the images depicted held no substance (29). The term held a second meaning following Britain’s battles with China: ‘une complication inutile et extravagante’ was used to describe both Chinese notions (in material culture) and Chinese conduct (Witchard 18). Uselessness was also an integral part of the New Aesthetic Movement’s theory on art; the influential French poet, writer, and critic, Theophile Gautier, claimed “Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor weak nature.  The most useful place in a house is the lavatory” (qtd. in Lambourne 10). 

For upper-class women, uselessness was an ideal way of life. They “made uselessness the test of almost any activity” with the exception of managing the home (Altick 51-52). What happens when women are rendered useless within the domain they are supposed to keep ordered? Du Maurier’s 1874 “Acute Chinamania” (figure 2) illustrates how collecting Old Blue misplaces a woman’s devotion to objects rather than children.

In a black and white drawing, a mother sits crying over shattered china while her daughter stands facing here. Other girls stand in shadow in the doorway. The caption reads: Acute Chinamania. May. "Mamma! Mamma! Don't go on like this, PRAY!!" Mamma (who has smashed a favorite pot). "What have I got left to Live for?" May. "Haven't you got me, Mamma?" Mamma. "You, Child! You're not Unique!! There are Six of you--a Complete Set!!"
Figure 2: George Du Maurier, “Acute Chinamania” Punch Almanack for 1875.

The image depicts an inconsolable mother, surrounded by blue and white ceramics, grieving over a broken teapot. Her daughter begs her to cheer up to which the mother tearfully cries, “What have I got left to live for?” The child stands in front of her; the other five children depicted in the background bashfully watch their distressed mother who cries out, “You, child! You’re not unique!! There are six of you—a complete set!!”  

While humorous in its exaggerated depiction of love for inanimate objects, Du Maurier raises questions about what happens when Victorian normative gender roles are suddenly disrupted and women are rendered useless in their duty as mothers. Surely this degeneracy would have a knock-on effect. What, for example, is to happen to those six children so charmingly depicted in the cartoon? According to evolution theory, can the negative regressive trait of the mother be passed on to her children? In “Pet and Hobby” (figure 3) and “Incipient Chinamania” (figure 4), Du Maurier suggests that moral corruption can indeed be passed down from mother to child. In the cartoons, it is the child that is devoted to Old Blue.  

In a black and white drawing, a mother sits while her daughter leans against her. The caption reads: Pet and Hobby. (Showing that Chinamaniacs have their Affections like other People.) Dorothy. "Oh, Mother! I Love you better than Silver, and better than Gold!" Mother. "And better than Blue China, Dorothy?" Dorothy (after slight hesitations). "Yes, Mother! Better than Blue China!" Mother (much moved). "D-d-d-d-darling!"
Figure 3: George Du Maurier, “Pet and Hobby,” Punch, 26 August 1876.
Two women sit facing a young girl. The girl stands facing one woman with he back to the other. The caption reads: Incipient Chinamania. “O, Mamma! O! O! N-N-Nurse has given me my C-C-Cod-Liver Oil out of a P-P-Plain White Mug!”
Figure 4: George Du Maurier, “Incipient Chinamania,” Punch, 26 December 1874.

Ceramics are featured prominently in both cartoons; a large ceramic plate flanked by two vessels frame the mother and child in “Pet and Hobby” while china plates line the wall behind the mother and her little girl in “Incipient Chinamania”. Chinamaniacs, whether women or children, are too preoccupied with amassing ceramics that they have forgotten how to behave according to Victorian notions of ‘natural’ gendered behaviour and thus, “chinamania was charged with moral corruption” (Anderson 2009b, 74). Associations of the corrupting effects are implicated in the ceramics, looming large in the backgrounds of Du Maurier’s cartoons, overwhelming the mother and children.

The men in Du Maurier’s illustrations exhibit different ‘chinamania’ symptoms that invert standard gendered codes of behaviour. As irrational consumers of ‘exotic’ designed, decorative objects, Du Maurier’s male chinamaniacs are feminised through their ‘female’ consumer pursuit for porcelain. In “Aptly Quoted from the Advertisement Column” (figure 5), Du Maurier illustrates an ‘Amiable Chinamania’ coming home with two large porcelain vessels.  His surprised and irritated wife exclaims, “More useless china!  More money thrown away when we have so little to spare!” The home demonstrates the extravagance of the husband’s new purchases as porcelain lines the walls and sits on every available surface; two small children are at the forefront of the illustration, highlighting where the money should be spent and not wasted on decorative (and useless) ceramics.

In a black and white drawing, a man walks into a foyer carrying two large vases. A maid stands closing the door while two children stand in front of him and a woman walks down the stairs toward the man. The caption reads: Aptly Quoted from the Advertisement Column. Thrifty Wife, "Oh, Algernon! More useless china! More money thrown away when we have so little to spare!" Amiable Chinamaniac, "Pooh! Pooh! My love! 'Money not so much an object as a comfortable home,' you know!"
Figure 5: George Du Maurier, “Aptly Quoted from the Advertisement Column,” Punch, 15 December 1877.
In a black and white drawing, a woman sits holding a teapot while a man stands facing her. Behind them is a shelf displaying various decorative plates. The caption reads: The Passion for Old China. Husband, ‘I think you might let me nurse that teapot a little now, Margery! You’ve had it to yourself all the morning, you know!
Figure 6: George Du Maurier, “The Passion for Old China,” Punch, 2 May 1874.

Du Maurier’s cartoons create an inverted world in which women and men engage in behaviour that transgress Victorian ideas of gendered behaviours. While the women neglect their housekeeping responsibilities, the men are charged with the effeminate pursuits of collecting. Familiar and ‘natural’ sets of behaviours are suddenly and abruptly distorted. In “The Passion for Old China,” a couple argue over who’s turn it is to cuddle an old china teapot (figure 6).  The husband complains, “I think you might let me nurse that teapot a little now, Margery!  You’ve had it to yourself all the morning, you know!”  There are no children depicted in the cartoon; rather, the room is filled with ceramics. The family unit that consists of father, mother, and children is erased as men and women expend their time, money, and energies on collecting chinawares. The husband’s appearance is also significant. His relaxed posture with hands in his jacket denotes a sense of lethargy and slackness, a depiction that stands in visible opposition to the ideal middle-class male full of vigour and vitality (Anderson 2009b, 73).

In a black and white drawing, a man and a woman stand facing each other. The woman wears a long, patterned dress and holds a teapot. The man is dressed in a vest and trousers and leans toward the woman. The caption reads: The Six-Mark Tea-Pot. Aesthetic Bridegroom: “It is quite consummate, is it not?” Intense Bride: “It is indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!”
Figure 7: George Du Maurier, “The Six-Mark Tea-Pot,” Punch, 30 October 1880.

The emphasis on male lethargy is again highlighted in Du Maurier’s famed “The Six-Mark Tea-Pot” cartoon, in which a bride and her bridegroom admire the beauty of a little porcelain teapot (figure 7).  “Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!” exclaims the bride in the caption of the image.  Although the bridegroom bears Algernon Swinburne’s name, her words reference Oscar Wilde’s famous proclamation that he found it “harder and harder every day to live up to [his] blue china.” Much like Margery’s husband, the male figure coincides with conceptions of effeminate men; he wears extravagant sumptuous velvet and has a drooping and languid demeanour.  He is depicted as a “laconic, long-haired, velvet-clad, slightly debauched aesthete, who due to his world-weariness has to lean on the back of a chair (definitely spineless)” (Anderson 2009b, 75).

The exaggerated postures of male aesthetes, depicted as sickly or slovenly, oppose ideals of the robust middle-class or strong military men of action who stand upright. Rather than challenge or subvert established gender norms, the series of cartoons warn readers of a degeneracy that threatens manhood. Old Blue ceramics are front and centre in the cartoons, the instantly recognisable symbol of China in which notions of degeneracy and sickness are inextricably linked. The connection between Chinese porcelain and effeminacy is significant as the two have a long history; commenting on the fashion of the ‘Orient,’ the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury claimed, “Effeminacy pleases me;” (qtd. in Beevers 15) and in 1823, Charles Lamb began his essay “Old China” by stating that he has “an almost feminine partiality for old china” (269).  

James L. Hevia argues that as early as the 1790s, the feminisation of China was an important aspect of British understanding of itself and its position within the global community. By framing China as inhabiting a strange and inverted world, it is positioned in polar opposition to Britain. China as female is proclaimed to have traits such as “caught up in appearances, irrational, arbitrary, and whimsical,” while Britain, as the antithesis, can claim a masculine identity in “the good, the true, the real, the rational and the upright” (73). Through this negation, China functioned to produce bourgeois tastes and manners as well as respectable morals, values, and practices (73-74). By the late nineteenth century, concepts of manliness were fundamentally linked with patriotic allegiance to both Britain as well as its Empire (Windholz 632).  

Conclusion

By the nineteenth century, the shift in geopolitical conditions positioned Britain as a formidable imperial power on the world arena. Disagreements between Britain and China on how global trade and international relations should be conducted resulted in violent conflict, in which Britain emerged victorious. Ideas of ‘evolved’ civilisations and notions of racial ‘superiority’ took hold at this time of British global expansion with intense rivalry among various imperial nations for colonial competition. With the rapid defeat of China and as justification for British presence in the country, China as a degenerate civilisation became a repeated trope in dominant British discourse and in popular culture. As the ‘Sick Man of Asia,’ China was discussed in terms of its inability to wake its people from inertia in order to move forward and progress into the modern world. Du Maurier’s depictions of slack and lazy aesthetes served both as a visual warning as well as an articulation of anxieties over the breakdown of society and the nation more widely. By prominently displaying china as a familiar symbol of China, he warned his viewers that uselessness and disruptions to normative behaviours would inevitably lead to degeneration. Du Maurier adopted and developed a visual language that not only mocked societal foibles, but also posed hair-raising questions about the state of English society and Britain’s position on the global arena.

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