The Canton Trade System
And the Export Art of the Pearl River Delta, 1780s-1880s


An exhibition developed by the Visualizing Cultures project, MIT, Opening May 2016

American Culture Center, University of Shanghai for Science and Technology (USST)
516 Jungong Road, Yangpu, Shanghai 200093

Exhibit designed by Ellen Sebring
Based on “The Rise and Fall of the Canton Trade System” by Peter C. Perdue
Edited by John W. Dower
Installation by Scott Shunk

This exhibition draws on artwork produced in China for Western consumption between the late 18th and late 19th centuries. Because the Qing dynasty exercised control over trade with Europe and the United States through the city of Canton (now Guangzhou), foreign merchants resided there under tight restrictions for six to eight months each year. Although known as “the Canton trade system,” the large Western trading ships never actually made it to Canton. They entered China from the Portuguese colony of Macau, and then hired Chinese pilots to guide them up the perilous Pearl River to the great anchorage at Whampoa island. From there they relied on small Chinese vessels to ferry goods to and from Canton. China had many products desired by Westerners, including tea, raw silk, and luxury items such as porcelain, lacquer, and furniture. The West offered little of interest in return. Led by England, huge quantities of silver bullion initially were exported to China, but in time the major foreign export became opium (produced mainly in colonial India). When Qing officials attempted to suppress this, the British and their allies responded with the devastating Opium War of 1839 to 1842, following which China was forced to open additional trading ports led by Hong Kong and Shanghai. Although some foreign merchants objected, opium remained a primary export thereafter. The visual picture of the China trade that Western merchants conveyed to audiences back home usually ignored opium, however, and relied on paintings and artifacts that celebrated both the dynamism of overall commercial transactions and the brilliance of Chinese arts and crafts.