Tunis touches on China, whose compartment is placed near the main door of the Crystal Palace, at the beginning or at the end (if one prefers) of the part of the Exhibition occupied by foreign nations.
The Chinese products have not been sent by the care or under the auspices of the government of the Celestial Empire, which is opposed to anything that might establish political relations between China and Europe. These products were not supplied by exhibitors, but purchased from merchants. They were collected by Englishmen in Canton or Hong Kong.
The Chinese exhibition therefore lacks that official character which distinguishes those of other countries. It is a small museum, a collection of curiosities, far too incomplete to give any accurate idea of the state of the industry and arts of the nation whose name it bears.
What strikes the visitor who enters the Chinese compartment first of all are the porcelains and silks of that country. We notice some large vases with long necks, whose white designs stand out beautifully against the greyish background. This type of porcelain is more distinguished, but less rich than the vases of the same shape, overloaded with grotesque figures of mandarins and models of pagodas, which we also see at the Exhibition and which are made in greater quantities for export. The plates and tea sets are of extreme elegance and lightness.
The paintings on them are, in general, more elaborate than those on the larger pieces.
The porcelain industry is, as is well known, one of the most important in China, where it has existed for nearly twelve centuries. The factories of King-te-Techin, in Kiangsi, which are still today the best in the Empire, are said to date back more than eight hundred years. It is there that a great number of merchants from the surrounding provinces go to make their purchases. They claim that the water of this locality is infinitely better for the manufacture of porcelain than that of other places where porcelain is also made. The materials used by the Chinese in the industry with which we are concerned are now perfectly well known in Europe; but the extreme lightness and transparency of their porcelain, which has not yet been equalled in our country, might lead one to suppose that there are some secrets or peculiarities in their manufacturing processes. As for their enamel paintings and gilding, they are far inferior to those of Europe and have no other merit than their strangeness.
Small pieces of porcelain sell much more cheaply in the ports of northern China than in Canton. At Ning-po, for example, a tea set of two dozen cups with paintings of the greatest elegance costs only about forty francs, whereas it would cost double or triple that amount to a Cantonese dealer.
At the time when Europe did not know how to manufacture porcelain, China sent it to her for considerable sums; but today the annual export of this article hardly amounts, in the port of Canton, to more than six to eight hundred thousand francs.
Chinese silks are the admiration of the public in the Crystal Palace. The satins and damasks are distinguished as much by the beauty of the fabric as by the elegance of the designs; but these magnificent fabrics, let us say it to the glory of our industry, often pale beside those of Lyon.
The silk industry has been in honour in the Celestial Empire since the earliest times. An ancient sovereign of that country, jealous of encouraging such an interesting industry, enjoined the empress, his august wife, to preside in person over the cultivation of mulberry trees in her gardens and the education of silkworms in her palace.
This example has not been lost, and the serigraphic industry has reached a remarkable perfection in China.
The most suitable fertilisers, such as ash and river mud, are lavished on the land intended for the cultivation of mulberry trees. The trees are carefully pruned and the leaves are protected from harmful insects.
Silkworm seed is preserved with the greatest care. The food of the worm after hatching is proportionate to its age. The leaves are very carefully weighed and laid out on extremely clean racks. Every effort is made to ensure that the magnaneries are free from all kinds of noise. The women in charge of raising the worms are bound by singularly strict rules of cleanliness, and the temperature of the rooms where the worms are raised is regulated with the greatest care.
The Chinese use a fairly sophisticated system of looms for the manufacture of silk, but they are far inferior to the Jacquart loom.
It is to the talent of the worker and to the traditions of manufacture, more than to any other cause, that we must attribute the beauty of Chinese silks, and the superiority retained by the damasks, the scarves of Nanjing and the gold and silver brocaded fabrics of Che-Kiang, and especially the incomparable crepes of China, of which we find magnificent specimens at the Exhibition.
Canton sends abroad about ten million francs worth of silks every year, the finest of which come from the Nanking area.
At the Crystal Palace we found the famous Kia-pou fabric, called grass-cloth by the English, and whose raw material we had great difficulty in determining in China.
By dint of questioning, we managed to discover that this fabric was made from the fibre of a plant known in natural history as urtica nicoea, a plant whose leaves have a certain shape and colour of large nettles.
Hia-pou is the batiste of the Chinese. We counted about fifteen varieties in a Cantonese merchant's shop, named Idko-ïun, whose products appear in the Crystal Palace. Europeans living in China make valuable use of this fabric: it is used to make handkerchiefs, jackets, trousers, and shirts, which are very cool in summer, and which have the advantage of not sticking to the skin when it is sweating.
A Chinese product that is also admired, and rightly so, are the boxes and other objects made of lacquer.
Lacquer is a resin distilled from a tree called tsi-chu, which is quite common in the provinces of Se-Tchuen and Kiang-si. Incisions made in its bark offer an easy way out for this resin, which is collected in vases attached to the underside of the incisions.
The material obtained in this way is mixed with various other substances before being used, and then applied to the wood in thin layers and in several stages: only when each layer has had time to dry is a new one added.
In Japan, it seems that at least five different layers are applied and polished with a soft stone or reed. As for mother-of-pearl inlays, they are obtained, it is said, by colouring one side of the mother-of-pearl which has been previously cut for this purpose, and then inserting the piece thus prepared into the varnish, in such a way that the coloured side is placed underneath, but reflects its shade through the mother-of-pearl.
Chinese lacquerware is generally enriched with gilding representing landscapes, junks, pagodas and fantastic characters.
Canton exports a large number of lacquer tea chests, trays, kits, pedestal tables and screens.
The Chinese paintings on display shine as much for their fine detail as they do for their perspective. The paintings of interiors are charmingly coloured; nothing is more delicate, more finished, more polished than the costumes. We notice some portraits on glass of great beauty: the Cantonese artists excel in this genre as well as in album paintings.
The painters Namkoua, Youkoua and Tingkoua, from Canton, do charming things. Their collections of industrial albums and flower albums are real treasures. Nothing introduces you to Chinese life better than the drawings and paintings which represent all its phases, all the most interesting ceremonies, all the most important acts.
At the entrance to the Chinese compartment, we notice a large carpet which seems to be made up of several pieces of cloth. The design of this carpet is part of the fabric, whereas most of the carpets we had the opportunity to examine in China simply had printed designs.
Among the Chinese curiosities are carved bamboo roots; wooden statuettes, very grotesque; porcelain barrels which serve as seats in elegant gardens; fantastic animals made of earth and wood, to which superstitious ideas are often attached and which are supposed to exert a propitious or fatal influence in the dwellings.
We also see a pretty little model of a pagoda, in coloured clay; mouldings in clay, with a daylight, used as decorations for architecture; cassolettes with strange shapes; charming models of junks; rattan furniture; chess sets, and bronzes with artistic contours.
A few delicious little jade vases remind us that this stone, highly esteemed by the Chinese, is found in all forms, as flasks, cups, and a thousand small ornaments, in the salons of the rich mandarins.
Chinese lanterns are conspicuous for their strange and varied forms.
The fans shine, some by their charming ivory figures, nestling in the silk or paper which form the folds; others, by their admirable frames of tortoiseshell, silver, or chased ivory.
Chinese screens are poorly represented here. In Canton, they take a thousand different forms. Some are made of silk paper, rounded or cut into hexagons, and decorated with grotesque paintings and ivory figures; others, made of white feathers or argus feathers, are cut into hearts and triangles.
We notice a pretty black wooden secretary with inlays; bamboo and white copper pipes; watches, knives, razors; a mannequin representing a mandarin in full costume, decorated with the peacock feather, and wearing at the top of his conical hat the button which marks his rank.
We also see a piece of dark silk, on which is embroidered, in rather large characters, a petition addressed, about two centuries ago, to the deputy governor of Canton, by some hundreds of merchants whose names are placed at the bottom.
The famous swallows' nests, which play such a large part in Chinese cuisine, could not fail to find a place at the Exhibition.
These nests are not collected in China, as is believed in Europe; they come from the Malay Archipelago, and particularly from the islands of Lava and Sumatra. They are the work of a swallow which bears little resemblance to our own, and which builds them with the aid of a mucilaginous substance, collected, as far as can be ascertained, from the
The swallow builds them with the help of a mucilaginous substance, collected, it seems, on the shores of the sea, a substance which is said to be a secretion of certain fish.
The swallow most often builds the home of its young in the crevices of sheer rocks, the foot of which is watered by the ocean, so that the finder exposes himself to the greatest dangers to reach his prey.
The nests are about twice the size of a hen's egg. They are subjected to many preparations before appearing on the table of the Lucullus of the Central Empire. They are first dried thoroughly, then delivered to the nest cleaners, who extract all the impurities with small hooks.
Once refined, they are nothing more than a whitish, brittle substance, which one would readily mistake for crushed fish glue.
Swallows' nests are commercially classified into a large number of different qualities.
The most sought-after are those that have contained young birds barely covered with a light down. When they have only contained eggs, they are classified in the intermediate grades. If their inhabitants were unfortunately already feathered, they are considered to be of inferior quality.
Those that have been abandoned by the young form the waste, because of the feathers and rubbish they are filled with.
The first quality nests are worth up to 160 and 180 fr. per kilo, while the latest types sell for barely 30 fr.
Swallow's nest soup is one of the best dishes in Chinese cuisine, and does not displease the most delicate European palates.
The exhibition of teas, which is very complete, also deserves a few words of explanation.
The shrub whose leaf is used to make tea is one to one and a half metres high.
Green tea and black tea are not, as many people imagine, the product of two different trees; the difference in colour comes only from differences in preparation.
The Chinese obtain black or green tea from the same leaf at will. However, there are some estates that are specifically dedicated to the production of green tea, as well as others for black tea.
The tea tree thrives in very light, but slightly damp soil. It reproduces by sowing seeds in nurseries. After some time, the young shoots are transplanted and arranged in regular rows at suitable intervals.
The best location for a tea plantation is at the base of a hill facing south.
The southern slopes of the Bohi Hills provide the best quality in the whole empire. They are used exclusively for the consumption of the court in Peking, which sends imperial commissioners to preside over the harvest.
The harvest takes place three or four times a year, but the leaves are not picked until the tree is three years old. The average yield of a tree is 5 to 600 grams, and its life span is ten to twenty years.
The reputation of certain vintages is lost in the mists of time.
The leaves, once picked, are subjected to slow drying on boards exposed to the wind. They are turned frequently and rolled between the hands. I have heard that the black tea leaves are exposed to the sun's rays for a few hours in the open air, which leads to a kind of oxidation, while the green tea leaves are dried in buildings.
The leaves are then roasted. For black tea, roasting is carried out in iron basins in the form of spherical caps, arranged in a row in openings in the upper part of a very long masonry furnace.
About two kilos of leaves are placed in each basin and stirred with a spatula, heating the basin to a high temperature, but not to red. The tea is slightly decayed. This process takes about half an hour.
A second drying takes place afterwards. This is done in baskets woven from bamboo branches; these baskets are about one metre high, and have a partition in the middle, also made of bamboo, on which a layer of leaves is placed, rising to about halfway up the top.
Each basket is placed above a round heat hole, into which embers have been placed. The heat from this hole penetrates the layer of tea, which is then stirred, and dries it out completely.
The roasting of green tea takes place by another process. The iron basins are placed on a furnace with an inclined surface and are therefore in an oblique position. The young leaves are subjected to moderate heat, and the old ones to a high temperature, but much less than for black tea. The process takes longer than for black tea. The leaves are continuously shaken by hand.
Green tea undergoes only one roasting; it can therefore be said that the real difference between black tea and green tea is that the drying of the latter is less advanced, less complete: so green tea can be converted into black tea, but not black tea into green tea.
It seems that, to give a more beautiful shade to their green teas, the Chinese often add Prussian blue, plaster, lead chromate and turmeric. Black teas are almost the only ones they consume; the others are destined for export.
At the London Exhibition, all the varieties of tea most widely traded can be reviewed, from Bohi, Congou, Pacho or Pékoé, Sou-tching and Paou-ching, which are the principal black teas, to Touan-kay, Hyson, Imperial tea and gunpowder tea, which form the most renowned green varieties.
© Palais de Cristal – Journal Illustré de L’Exposition de 1851