Cindy Yu Cindy Yu

The 19th century Chinese craze for all things European

The British Museum's new show about China's 'hidden century' is all the more interesting for going beyond the political

A primitive peasant raincoat (1800-06), made from palm leaves and straw, betrays the huge economic inequalities of the dying empire. © The Trustees of the British Museum

By the 1800s, the mechanical clock had become a status symbol for wealthy Chinese. The first arrived with Jesuit missionaries and Portuguese merchants years earlier, but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that those outside of the imperial court could afford them. Rich merchant families displayed their clocks proudly, like their European counterparts had showed off pineapples.

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