Academic journal article Material Culture

Objectifying China, Imagining America

Academic journal article Material Culture

Objectifying China, Imagining America

Article excerpt

Objectifying China, Imagining America By Caroline Frank Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. Xiii + 257pp. Illustrations, map. $87.00, ISBN 9780226260273; $31.00, ISBN 978-0-2262-6028-0.

China, chainie, cheny, chinaware, and chinaia ... so many variations for a type of commodity that was most desired by Europeans and Americans during the consumer revolution of early modernism . As an early American historian, Caroline Frank explores in her book Objectifying China, Imagining America the impact of this desire for all things Chinese on the trade dynamics and evolving patriotic identity of New England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries . By examining the material culture surrounding the importation and consumption of these East Indies goods in the colonies, Frank reveals a more widespread presence of Chinese objects predating the American Revolution than has been commonly understood . In the larger discussion of trade dynamics between colonial America, imperialist England, and despot China, Frank interweaves three categories of goods into her analyses: tea, porcelain, and lacquer. As the years of colonization progressed on the Atlantic coast, these imported exotic objects were invested with complex local meaning and became a crucial component in transforming colonial maritime ambition into revolutionary liberty for direct global trade

Frank challenges the standard historical narrative of colonial Anglo-America as a remote unsophisticated outpost of British culture by highlighting the colonists' deep engagement in illicit trade with "East India," particularly that of porcelain and tea . Under England's increasing restrictions of America's trade with Asia and taxation on legally imported Chinese goods, a culture of underground exchange prospered From the early seventeenth century onward, colonials found several means to satisfy their Orientalist needs: privateering by "Red men" in the Indian Ocean, pirating of cargo from rival European ships in the Caribbean, the family practice of smuggling onto private coastal New England islands, and quiet trading with the Dutch in New Amsterdam . The presence of illegally acquired Chinese objects in the domestic setting is supported by probate inventories, official records, and period correspondences By linking Chinese porcelain and tea with trade patterns and archival sources, Frank historiographically expands early America's maritime position from the limits of the Atlantic trifecta (Europe, America, and Africa) to that of a more global one .

Frank demonstrates the cosmopolitan ambitions of New England by the surviving physical evidence of chinoiserie . Rather than lumping colonial taste for a fantasized Orient with the motherland of Great Britain, Franks suggests that America cultivated its own version of an imagined Asia - a vernacular twist on the European precedent (p . 78) . For instance, Frank analyzes the Vernon House wall murals in detail to demonstrate a japanning artist's direct experience with Chinese lacquer. Frank's methodology of analyzing objects draws from Igor Koptyoff's notion of the cultural biography of things (p . 1), as well as Robert St . George's emphasis of the importance of indirect references (p . 12) . Through both specific examples of material narratives and larger surveys of inventories, Frank furthers her argument to reposition America in the crux of global trade rather than on the periphery, as previous Atlantic historians have tended to lean

Despite the title's suggestion of "Imagining America," Frank focuses exclusively on the New England region with the most southern colony discussed being that of Pennsylvania . Southern cities, such as Charleston and Savannah, are overlooked in her investigation . The reader quickly realizes this omission and must shift to view Frank's contribution as a focus on the Yankee imagination rather than AngloAmerica as a whole Nevertheless, her examination into the material culture of Northern colonies is thorough and bolstered by her gathering of facts, historical texts, and archival records In fact, Frank is very aware that her evidence is piecemeal and not because of a neglect of due diligence, but rather a lack of historical material to be found for this period when individuals purposely remained silent about how their Chinese goods were arriving on American soil (p . …

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