From Disney's Mulan to Coldplay's questionably-titled song Princess of China, this populous East Asian nation continues to be a rich source of inspiration in the west – and it is a cultural exchange that goes back centuries.

View of Canton, China

View of Canton, China c.1830

Chinese School

American Museum & Gardens

The first British encounter with China began in 1793, when British statesman George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney, led the first successful envoy to Beijing. The historically rich cultural interchange enjoyed between this 'west' and this 'east', each continually changing, loosely defined geographic spaces in their own right, is richly reflected in their respective artistic traditions.

London-born George Chinnery, a Royal Academician born in 1774, spent much of his later life in southern China's Canton region producing portraits of ordinary – and extraordinary – people and day-to-day scenes in nineteenth-century China.

Chinese Barber Outside the American Factory in Canton (Guangzhon), China

Chinese Barber Outside the American Factory in Canton (Guangzhon), China 1826

George Chinnery (1774–1852)

National Trust, Coleton Fishacre

An image is never just an image – the devil, as they say, is in the detail. Notice in Chinnery's title the words 'American Factory': a jarring insertion of 'Westernness' into what seems like a distinctly Chinese scene. 'American Factory' in Chinnery's painting refers to one of the many trading factories for foreign goods opened up in the latter eighteenth century, as China started inching away from its isolationist empire to experiment with foreign trade. Even the most personal images contain hidden details about the greater tides of history that shape our lives.

Maritime trading was a key component of Anglo-Chinese relations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as can be seen in these common depictions of Chinese trading ships and seaside landscapes by contemporary English artists.

Egg Boats off Macao, China

Egg Boats off Macao, China

William Daniell (1769–1837) (attributed to)

Leicester Museums and Galleries

In this painting, notice the hair plait worn by the Chinese merchant in white. The hairstyle is known as the 'queue', where the front and side of a man's head is shaved, and the remaining hair gathered up and plaited towards the back. The queue originates not from the Han Chinese – China's predominant ethnic group – but rather from the Manchus, an ethnic minority hailing from what is now part of north-eastern China. Though forming less than two percent of the Chinese populace at the time, the Manchus were formidable warriors and seized power of the Chinese palace in 1644, ruling as the Qing dynasty. The new Manchu emperor then ordered all Chinese subjects to don the queue as a sign of their submission to the new regime: failure to follow this was punishable by death – a 'lose your hair or lose your head' policy.

A British Merchant Steamship in the China Seas

A British Merchant Steamship in the China Seas c.1880

Chinese School

National Maritime Museum

Then there are paintings where the presence of the west in China is more explicit. In this work by Bristol native and RA Schools graduate Ernest Board, Scottish physician Sir Patrick Manson is shown tending to a patient suffering from a case of parasitic infection – Manson, incidentally, would go on to be celebrated as the founder of tropical medicine.

Manson is flanked by a short, hunched assistant, who stands by the physician and props up what looks like medicinal jars. The assistant strikes a noticeable contrast to the upstanding Scottish physician, whose towering height even outstrips his patient's bedchambers. The assistant is adorned in shabby, understated Chinese garments; Manson, in a blindingly white tailored suit. The assistant has a short, diminished stature; Manson gives an air of dignity and grandeur in his high-handed presence. The assistant serves to hold the instruments for Manson, who is positioned as the 'real' originator of scientific and medicinal knowledge.

The striking contrast between the Scottish and Chinese individuals in Board's painting is part of a broader western cultural trope of the 'white man's burden', which conjures images of the civilised white man faced with the daunting, but unshakeable, burden of taming the 'exotic' masses.

Here comes the inevitable problem that anyone faces when studying cultural systems of exchange – can we even use the language of 'exchange' to speak about a relationship marked by vast asymmetries of power? While the start of the Anglo-Chinese story may have been sparked by a natural curiosity to 'open up' the unknown through trade – which begs the question, can you 'open up' something that was never yours to begin with? The relationship quickly turned into a tumultuous tale of plunder, gratuitous death, and the dissolution of kingdoms. By the twentieth century, one of these nations would emerge as the world's preeminent empire, richer and stronger than ever; the other, its political base destroyed, with hundreds of thousands civilians dead, lives lost to failed uprisings and unrest.

The two opium wars of the nineteenth century were sparked over a trade deficit between China and the United Kingdom. The British tried to redress the imbalance by importing opium into China, which caused mass addiction and widespread social and economic disruption. Chinese officials thus tried to quell the trade, noting the drug was illegal in the UK, but their efforts at conciliation came to naught, thus sparking the wars.

The Streatham was an East India Company ship, while the Red Rover was one of the earliest opium clippers that shipped the now highly-demanded narcotic.

While art may seem like sublime flight from real-world problems, these paintings of the early Chinese-English encounter show how even the most sparse portraits speak volumes about the social and political situations of its time. Art itself is never naive; there are choices made behind what is represented, what is not, and how people are displayed. These choices then shape how we regard and make sense of our contemporary world. The scenes and people in these paintings, though long dead and buried in our material world, continue to hold symbolic power in our modern age. The Chinese barber, the Opium clipper, and Sir Patrick Manson's wanton assistant, speak valuable truth to power to us viewers today, all from their humbly framed canvases.

Rebecca Liu, writer