top of page

China’s Hidden Century: What Were You Trying to Hide, British Museum?

How would you depict 19th-century China?

It’s the question that’s been perplexing the British Museum for the past four years. In conjunction with London University, the museum has taken on the investigation of the art and history of 19th-century China through 300 works of art from various private collectors. In the exhibition China’s Hidden Century showcased from May to October, the museum praised that, despite China’s confrontation of an “unprecedented level of violence,” “the 19th century was an era of extraordinary cultural creativity and of political, social, and technological innovation.” In essence, however, this exhibition displayed the evidence and reflections on Chinese people’s suffering in order to hide the suffering itself and downplayed the aftermath of the century-long foreign invasion–including the Opium Wars–of which Great Britain was the architect.

The British Museum named this exhibition China’s Hidden Century, but this era of China was in fact more open than ever. In 1792, King George III of England sent a diplomatic mission to China with the intention of negotiating a favorable trade and friendship agreement with the Qianlong Emperor. The mission brought gifts that highlighted the scientific achievements of Great Britain, hoping to incentivize trade. None of them caught the emperor’s eye; as the ruler of the dynasty that cut China off from the rest of the world, the Qianlong Emperor found the king’s gifts—a Herschel telescope, a planetarium, artillery pieces, air pumps, carriages, and so on—nothing compared to the “abundant products and resources” of the “heavenly Qing dynasty.” Despite its diplomatic and economic failures, the mission was able to gather information about the dynasty and the ways of the Yellow Sea, of which a European had never navigated. The gate of China was not open to the world in 1792, but it was finally blasted off in 1840—by British artillery. The Qing dynasty’s misrule and two thousand years of feudalism were exposed to the western world without reservation. But rather than continue to exoticize 19th-century China as a mystery, we might better ask: what was the British Museum trying to hide?

During the reign of the last six emperors of the dynasty, China was constantly hit by a mixture of domestic strife and foreign aggression. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, civil conflicts including the White Lotus Rebellion (1774–1805), Xinjiang wars (1820s and 1860s), and Taiping Civil War (1850–64) broke out across the country. At the same time, China fought the British and French empires in the Opium Wars (1840–42 and 1856–60), and following those were the Sino-French War (1884–85), the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), and the Boxer War (1898–1900) that was initiated by eight different countries. A “century of humiliation” thus unfolded, and this period of invasion and subjugation left 450 million Chinese people helplessly in pain, suffering, and shame.

Despite the historical realities, the British Museum did not organize the exhibition in a way that acknowledged the heavy parts of history and horrific suffering. Opening up the exhibition was the “All Under Heaven Complete Map of the Everlasting Unified Qing Empire” scroll at the entrance that depicts the complete territory of the Qing dynasty in the 1800s. In blinding azure, the scroll presents the vast land of the Qing dynasty with thousands of miles of rivers and mountains. While visitors may have gasped at the spectacular landscape, how many of them knew that a third of the land on this map was encroached by foreign powers, including Britain, during the “century of humiliation?” British newspaper The Guardian perceived the artwork as “running like a great ocean across eight inky blue scrolls,” but what was behind the majesty was not elucidated as part of the exhibition.

A Map of the Qing Empire. Photo Credit: The British Museum

Tucked in a corner of the Military section was the original document of the Treaty of Nanking, an unequal treaty signed in 1842 as a result of the Qing dynasty’s defeat by Britain during the First Opium War. The treaty mandated the Qing dynasty to pay an indemnity, cede the island of Hong Kong to the British as a colony, terminate the Canton system that restricted trade to only one port, and permit it at five treaty ports. Only the page containing signatures was presented in the exhibition; the rest of the pages—detailing the shameful requirements–were kept out of view. Displayed in the same section was a Chinese-style portrait of Queen Victoria of Britain and a portrait of Lin Zexu, the Chinese politician that strove for opium prohibition and achieved the eventual destruction of opium at Humen. The portraits of the two core figures in the First Opium War are extremely incompatible with with each other, yet the museum presented the portrait of the initiator of the war an embodiment of China’s “artistic creativity,” and the portrait of an essential fighter against the war a demonstration of China’s “resilience.” This shifts the narrative away from the source of Chinese suffering while embellishing the suffering itself. Remnants of the Summer Palace, which was destroyed by British and French soldiers in 1860, were also displayed in the same section. The broken glazed turquoise tiles were the defining symbol of European violence and imperialism against 19th-century China. Next to the remnants was a sickeningly sentimental portrait of a small dog called Looty, cleverly named with a pun. Brought back to Queen Victoria all the way from the ruins of the palace, this dog was one of the first pekingese dogs to come to Britain. Away from home forever, these artifacts were reduced to toys for invaders to admire, and the museum presented them as such. The grievance they conveyed resonated with the Treaty of Nanking far across the exhibition hall.

And the museum continues this retelling of history in every section. In the hopeful light of introducing the Chinese feminist figure Qiu Jin, the museum tears this down with the “vulgar” section displaying pairs of three-inch “golden lotuses,” shoes that were produced for women’s bound feet in feudal age. Though made of the finest silk and the most delicate patterns, these shoes were fundamentally invented to oppress women and restrict their movements, and therefore should never be tied to the theme of “cultural creativity.” Moreover, the museum displayed a crude, poorly-made military uniform from the Qing dynasty as a piece of artwork and attempted to demonstrate the “resilience” of Chinese people in the face of war. Right next to it, however, stood a bullet-proof vest owned by a military commander who likely never even went to an actual battlefield, unlike the thousands of foot soldiers. Opposite to the military commanders, these soldiers sacrificed the most, but were protected the least. In this sharp contrast, there is no resilience; there is only the bare truth of inequity, poverty, and people’s suffering from the corrupt government and foreign invasion.

The China’s Hidden Century exhibition at the British Museum adopted a problematic theme that displayed evidence and reflections of Chinese people’s suffering to conceal the pain they once experienced. It diminishes the consequences of the imperialist wars of aggression initiated by Britain and other foreign forces, while romanticizing pain and the dark historical facts through the artistic ideas of “cultural creativity” and “resilience” is a condemnable way to approach imperial history. No subject of a nation who has ever witnessed or heard of such atrocities would ever walk out of this exhibition smiling.


Wendi Wang is a sophomore in the SFS studying International Economics and planning to minor in philosophy and music. She is Co-Reviews Section Editor for the INDY.


bottom of page