More history than meets the eye
This beautiful anchorage with its forest of masts bears a wealth of associations. Whampoa, on the Pearl River, 30 miles from Canton, was, when this charming picture was painted (in the early 19th century), the farthest point to which foreign vessels were permitted to sail. Beyond it their draft was too deep for the shallow waters and -- more important -- they would be, in the opinion of the Manchu government of China, too near the city and probably troublesome. Thirty miles downriver from Whampoa was the stream debouches into the great bay on whose southwestern tip lies Macao, that old Portuguese colony which for several centurries provided safe and neutral ground for many travelers.
Among these adventurous transients were a few European painters whose work effectively influenced a number of Chinese artists to turn from their own traditions in this matter and experiment with oils, chiar-oscuro, and Western perspective, often with marked success. The majority of these men did not sign their work; from them evolved a collective style that is now often called the "Chinnery School," in default of a better term. George Chinnery was the only Western artist who actually remained on the coast for a great period of time, and whose prolific output is easily recognized.
Chinnery studied under Sir Joshua Reynolds at the Royal Academy in London till 1795, when, at the age of 21, he went to Ireland, married, and passed a few unhappy and debt-ridden years. In 1802 he repudiated these responsibilities and returned, alone, to London going on to India a few months later. There he painted the portraits of successful merchants and other prominent men, but was still unable to order his own affairs and make a living, especially after his family rejoined him. In 1825 he once again turned his back on this situation and pressed on farther eastward, this time to Macao and Canton, where he had a successful career and remained for the rest of his life. Though only a minor artist, he made a unique niche for himself in the history of painting, simply because he was on the China coast at the period before and after the First Opium War. Today his pictures of the foreign and Chinese merchants, the junks on the river and on the sea, the local girls, are much sought after, not only because they are pleasing but also because they form a valuable record of a vanished era.
Artists found the south China seas very paintable, with their beautifully colored waters, the glorious, seaworthy junks, the nimble little sampans, the fascinating islets and harbors. Then there was Macao, built to look like a south Mediterranean port, and -- as a climax -- there were the clipper ships, the wonders of that period, never to be surpassed for grace, speed, lightness, beauty. sometimes there would be as many as 50 or 60 of them lying in the roads off Whampoa, an anchorage their crews detested. When they had discharged their cargo (much of it opium) in the autumn, they would then have to wait till the spring for the new tea crop to come down from Fukien, when they could load and set sail for home.
The government allowed the foreigners only enough ground to hold a line of warehouses (the co-hongsm ), with living quarters above. It was an interval of intense boredom for the crews, some of whom had fought at Trafalgar and all of whom believed in the irresistible destiny of England, then rising on a high tide of success, energy, and expansion. The English ships were by far the most numerous in the trade, coming on here from Calcutta.
After the Opium Wars and the opening up of the China coast for respectable trade, Whampoa more or less disappeared from history till 1923, when Sun Yat-sen commissioned a handsome officer, in whom he then had great confidence and whose name was Chiang Kai-shek, to found there a military academy. A couple of years later the deputy head of political education was one Chou En-lai, another very good looking young man, and among the members of the fourth graduating class was that very Lin Piao whose disappearance in a plane crash many, many years later was to have momentous repercussions. These figures whose destinies would one day shake the world must have looked out, in their time, over a Whampoa much like the one shown here -- without the Western sailing ships.
The harmonious and agreeable little oils seem now to depict a scene that contained many explosive elements of which the artists themselves were unaware. We catch, with them, a glimpse of that rich, rural, delta countryside and the splendid ships, Western or Eastern, which came to the ports. They are romantic views -- no doubt very literal. But they form part of that elusive Chinese mise en scenem difficult to assess then, and today.