It may come as a surprise that China, in view of its commercial importance and its population of 400 million, does not occupy a more considerable place on the Champ de Mars, but it would be wrong to accuse the Imperial Government of indifference or rancour.
It should not be forgotten that when last year we invited China to take part in our Exhibition, the Tsong-li-Yamen (or rather the Foreign Office, the Quai d'Orsay of the Tsong-li-Yamen, the Council of Ministers and the Chancellery of the Empire) was embarrassed, as similar requests had been addressed to it by England for its colonial exhibition, by Spain for the Barcelona exhibition and by Belgium for the Brussels competition.
The Cabinet of Peking did not want to accept the invitation of a single power and could not, on the other hand, take part in all these various tournaments without using up capital whose use was dictated by the disasters caused by the overflow of the Blue River and the ruin of hundreds of thousands of families.
The representative of the Celestial Empire therefore apologised to Paris, but his government, anxious to show us its friendly feelings, gave orders to the officials (these are Europeans and Americans) of its customs in the ports open to international trade to encourage traders and industrialists wishing to exhibit in Paris. For this purpose they were granted exemption from export duties.
The publicity given to these benevolent provisions remained without effect until 1888, and the Chinese representative could not commit himself to using the space granted to him by the Exhibition management. So much so that we would not have had a Chinese section, if, at the beginning of that year, rich merchants from Canton, encouraged by their success in Barcelona, had not decided to request a bay.
It was too late. Mr. Berger and his collaborators had no more space, but they hastened to offer a 300-metre plot of land on Avenue de Suffren, near the Desaix vestibule. This is where the Chinese pavilion is located.
Unfortunately, there was not enough time to make it big and beautiful before the opening: Canton, the nearest port, is 35 days from Marseille. How could the necessary materials and workers be brought in? How could we be ready for the 5th of May? We had to resign ourselves to turning to a French architect.
Let us at least do justice to our compatriot: he was able to give his hasty construction a sufficiently Chinese character; with its roof surmounted by three towers, his pavilion sufficiently resembles the wing of those Buddhist monasteries that General Tcheng Ki Tong, that erudite and remarkable writer, described so well in our Figaro. The exterior decoration, carved and coloured wood, comes from China.
Let us enter the pavilion. Marvels await us. What would it be like if there had been more exhibitors, as we would have wished in our capacity as Chinophile and former traveller to the Middle Kingdom?
For there are fifteen of them, only four in name. Two of the latter are of those rich Cantonese merchants of whom we have spoken. They occupy five sevenths of the frontage; the other two sevenths are granted to Chinese merchants long established in Paris.
What should we note, however, among so many treasures? Firstly, there are exquisitely painted bamboo barks: an ordinary decoration for Chinese exhibitions, which we are seeing for the first time in Europe. Secondly, inside the pavilion and above all, embroidery. Admire, for example, this large carpet of 2.5 by 7 metres, the work of 18 months - a masterpiece of weaving. And how soft and supple this embroidery is: a secret of the trade that we can betray: it was beaten for a long time with heavy hammers before being sent to the dyeing plant.
Rugs, more rugs. White satin backgrounds, various subjects, a perfect harmony of colour. Then, embroidered panels: the visit of the birds to their king and queen.
Here are rice blankets, curtains, screens, fans, screens, frames, a thousand trinkets, adorable in their colours and shapes.
Further on, ivories of admirable finesse and taste. See these flower-boats from Chu-Kiang. Now we come to the boxes, with their hardwood inlays and green feather decoration - a Cantonese speciality.
Here we find the furniture. Ebony, sandalwood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory. Twenty marvels, more than one of which is unpublished.
Finally, here is the realm of porcelain, about which nothing needs to be said, as this section deserves a volume; here are the paintings, the screens, the musical instruments, here...
But it is a long time since the reader closed his Guide, all to the feast of the eyes that he will offer himself several times at the Chinese Pavilion.
© Guide Bleu du Figaro et du Petit Journal 1889