Bowls hold historic journey

Updated: 2014-02-20 11:20

By Chen Weihua in Washington (China Daily USA)

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The US State Department in Foggy Bottom may look like just another boring office building, yet few people realize that inside, 42 rooms on the 7th and 8th floors have been transformed into the style of early American houses and are used by the President, Vice-President and Secretary of State to receive foreign officials in home-spun elegance and style.

What even fewer people might know is that many of the rooms also have a strong Chinese flavor. "So much of the influence on American decorative art is from China," said Marcee Craighill, director and curator of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the State Department. "The Chinese influence permeates the fashion and designs that are used throughout the rooms."

Most noticeable are probably two so-called Hong punch bowls, one old and one new, in the John Quincy Adams State Drawing Room.

The old one was brought back by American merchants who went on the US' first trade mission to China. The ship, the Empress of China, left New York harbor on Washington's birthday - Feb 22 - of 1784 and returned on May 11, 1785.

"It was an extremely profitable trip, making a 25 percent margin. This spurred more ships to go to China to trade," Susan Holly, senior historian at the State Department, said on Wednesday during a tour for Chinese journalists.

The colorful decoration on the exterior of the bowl depicts life along the busy waterfront of the Pearl River, where Western warehouses, merchants and their assistants crowded the limited space allowed by the Chinese. Inside the bowl is a magnificent floral arrangement.

Bowls hold historic journey

Although Hong refers to firms, warehouses or factories, the buildings housed all the activities of living and working for foreign merchants in China in those days.

Scenes of the Western trading area at Canton, now known as Guangzhou in South China, first appeared on punch bowls around 1765, according to the State Department handout.

Next to the antique punch bowl is a modern Hong bowl from the 21st century. It was made in 2008 to mark the opening of the new US embassy building in Beijing, thanks to the painstaking collaborative efforts of West Virginia University and the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, located at the site of what had historically been China's imperial kilns.

The new bowl is decorated with the flowers that represent each of the 50 US states as well as the day and night views of the new embassy building.

Along the table where the two Hong bowls are placed is a 19th century painting which depicts the business activities by Westerners along the Pearl River, with the flags of Great Britain, Sweden, among others, flying.

Holly said early Americans who went to China wanted to establish relations with the government. It wasn't possible for many years, but it was always an important goal. Official contact between the two governments started about 50 years later.

The Diplomatic Reception Rooms now receive a maximum of three groups of visitors each day by reservation, many of whom are students. Craighill said it gives the students an opportunity to think of the past and think about the present. "It provides the opportunity to look at some of these historic moments in Chinese history and American history and understand the historic journey," she said.

Anne Menotti, a senior advisor at the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, said the journey "started very early in our history with China, and diplomacy continues today with China".

"It tells the story of early trade and how important China really was to our new nation," she said.

"If it had not been for China, we would not have had many of the things we needed," Menotti said.

More than 200 years after the trip by the Empress of China, China and the US have become each other's major trading partners, with bilateral trade exceeding $500 billion. They are also the two largest trading nations in the world.

Besides the two Hong bowls, Chinese porcelains, some made with special patterns of an American eagle and even Mount Vernon, decorate the gallery and other space in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

Some mahogany chairs also feature designs of Chinese low tables and ball-in-claw feet. Chinese vases and urns from the 19th century are also here and there.

In total, the Diplomatic Reception Rooms have a historic collection of more than 5,000 decorative and fine arts objects, valued at more than $100 million. The project first started in 1961 and was completed in 1982 when the rooms were transformed into what they are today.

Knowing that most people won't be able to visit the place, the Diplomatic Reception Rooms unveiled a digital learning resource, known as the Diplomat digital badge, on Feb 12.

People are encouraged to go online and complete educational activities to earn a diplomat digital badge.

In one case, the participant will be assigned as a junior ambassador to the Secretary of State on a visit to the People's Republic of China.

"It's not just for US students, anybody with the interest can do this quest," said Holly.

 Bowls hold historic journey

The two Hong Bowls - one (left) brought back from China on US first trade mission there in the 1780s and the other made six years ago to mark the opening of the new US embassy building in Beijing - are on permanent display in the John Quincy Adams Drawing Room in the US State Department in Washington. Chen Weihua / China Daily

(China Daily USA 02/20/2014 page2)