"Dwarf Trees" from Nathan Dunn's Chinese Collection

          Nathan Dunn (1782-1844) was disowned by the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1816 for bankruptcy.  In 1818 he went to China to enter the risky yet potentially lucrative world of trade there.  On arriving in Canton, Dunn saw on his first day most of what he would ever see of China, as the strictly enforced Qing ordinance confined him to the foreign factories.  Dunn and the other foreign traders lived, ate, slept, and conducted business in a space measuring just 400 yards in length and 300 in width -- about one twenty-fifth of a square mile.  Besides tending to business, he found plenty that was amusing just by walking into the public square between the factories and the waterfront.  He was a merchant there for about twelve years, importing mostly the usual Chinese commodities: crates of tea, nankeens (a durable yellow cloth), and silken goods.
        At some undetermined point in the 1820s, Dunn began to collect Chinese things as a diversion from the daily tedium.  His original plan, which was quite modest, entailed only the formation of "a cabinet sufficient to fill a small apartment."  It was meant both "for his own pleasure and that of his friends."  However, what began as a mere hobby quickly gathered momentum as Dunn proved unable to quench his ardor for collecting.  As the Chinese collection grew, his "passion for accumulation" grew at a commensurate rate such that "every year his plan expanded wider and wider."  Consumed with collecting fever, the scope of the project soon swelled to colossal proportions.  The Qing government simply would not grant to any foreigner the permission to rove throughout the interior of China and hunt for artifacts.  For this reason, the attempts made by each of the major contenders, all large companies or institutions, inevitably ended in disappointment.  Even the East India Company -- with its army of agents, the backing of the British government, and deep monetary reserves -- tried to build a grand collection but failed.  According to one report, its entire Chinese holdings amounted to only about one tenth of what Dunn would ultimately acquire.
        He returned to Philadelphia in 1832 and paid off all of his creditors.  (Despite having been disowned by the Friends, his Quaker beliefs continued to influence his life and his work.  His business, Nathan Dunn and Company, had been one of the few at Canton which refused to traffic in opium on moral grounds.  This uprightness plus his relationships with some mandarins was to his advantage.  They appreciated the way that he, unlike most agents of the East India Company, had learned to respect the "ingenuity" and the "intelligence" of the Chinese and to treat "all classes" well.)  Back in the United States, he was director of the Philadelphia House of Refuge and was involved with several other benevolent organizations, including the Pennsylvania Institute for Instruction of the Blind, the Indigent Widows and Single Women's Society, African colonization societies, and prison reform societies.  He was a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences and in 1836 was elected to the American Philosophical Society.
        Dunn first exhibited the collection in Philadelphia after three month's preparation by a great number of artists in December 1838 on the ground-floor of the newly opened Philadelphia Museum, holding a large reception for a group of well over one hundred invited prominent guests.  Filled with artifacts, paintings, life-size mannequins, and recreations of Chinese shops and drawing rooms, the 163'L x 70'W x 35'H room in the museum gave Americans a brief glimpse of a country that most never would see.  Twenty-two square pillars, each adorned with paintings, supported the ceiling.  Guests were initially struck by the ten-foot, multicolored Chinese lanterns that hung from the ceiling as well as by the two enormous rectangular screens facing each other at either end of the hall.  Each measured fifty feet in length and was divided into compartments that offered detailed depictions of Chinese flowers as well as panoramic views of landscapes, seascapes, and river scenes.  No fewer than fifty life-size clay statues with real human hair populated the salon in dioramas, representing all strata of Chinese society: mandarins, priests, mourners dressed in white, tragedians, itinerant barbers, shoemakers, smiths, shopkeepers and their customers, boatmen, beggars, merchants, soldiers, and many others.  After visitors recovered from the overall effect achieved by the museum's interior, they next delved into the particulars contained in the fifty-three glass cases, each covered by a facsimile of a Chinese roof.  In the cases were furniture; models of bridges, canals, pagodas, and boats; an actual boat; musical instruments; weapons; jewelry; varieties of porcelain and porcelain vases, some being six feet tall; lacquer-work; agricultural tools; a coffin; bamboo pillows; seventeen concentric ivory balls carved from a single block of ivory; spectacles with frames made of tortoise shells and lenses composed of rock; coins; a stuffed Chinese buffalo sent by William Wood; a thirteen-foot boa constrictor coiled around a wild cat of China; and more than three hundred prints and paintings depicting almost every aspect of Chinese life.  The exhibition enjoyed great success, bringing in a reported 100,000 visitors in three years at an admission price of twenty-five cents.  Although it did not present any new ideas about China, the Museum did play a major role in shaping American perceptions of China.
        In 1842, at the urging of "many of the most influential, scientific, and learned persons of the British metropolis and kingdom" (and also partly due to Dunn learning that the Philadelphia Museum Company was mired in substantial debt by its own financial ineptitude), the collection travelled to London.  Perhaps sensing his exhibit's political potential, Dunn also had declined the generous offer of Louis Philippe, the King of France, to purchase the collection for $100,000.  Instead, he had all four tons of it loaded onto the packet ship Hendrick Hudson, and, in December 1841, he set sail for London.  There, under the direction of the curator and co-proprietor William B. Langdon, the exhibition was kept up for several years in a building at Hyde Park Corner that was specially constructed for its use  Following a favorable report from its first visitor, the young Queen Victoria, the British nobility and scholars flocked to Dunn's 225' x 50' exhibit pavilion in droves, and for the next two years, the Museum enjoyed considerable success.  One entered through a two-story pagoda with green roofs edged with vermilion.  In an atmosphere of hostility toward the Chinese fuelled by unflattering opinions found in the press, Dunn's collection not only survived but thrived.  The Chinese Collection formed the tangible point of interscetion between the view of the Chinese as a nation of unenlightened savages and one which produced objects worthy of appreciation.  Langdon enlarged Dunn's 1839 120-page Ten Thousand Things Chinese: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Chinese Collection in Philadelphia, of which approximately 50,000 copies had sold in Philadelphia.  For Dunn, this collection of goods was read as a representative of Chinese culture, which he then marketed through his exhibition to an interested public, making Chinese culture into a commodity.    He used methods which appealed to the Victorian fascination with the melodramatic, and capitalized on the omnipresent interest in China at the time.  The Catalogue was Dunn's attempt to exercise control over a guest's visit.  Acting as a museum guide, it imposed structure onto the experience by directing the visitor's movement through the entire exhibit instead of allowing the guest to wander haphazardly as he or she might have at most other museums of the time.
        While it certainly was not reflective of Chinese culture as a whole, it was the largest and most comprehensive collection of Chinese goods yet displayed in London.  The Catalogue carried information by such noted authors on China as Sir John Davis (1795-1890), Dr. Robert Morrison (1782-1834), Karl Gützlaff (1803-51), and Jesuit missionary Jean-Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718-93).  The collection's popularity in England ensured the sale of more than 300,000 copies of the catalogue's London editions.  The initial admission price here was 2s 6d.  (After Dunn's death the price would be dropped to 1s.)  Langdon made an effort to provide accurate information and relate only facts in his Catalogue.  The result was, for its time, an informative and fairly balanced discussion of Chinese culture.
        In 1843, Nathan Dunn watched from his home in London as one ship after another set sail for Canton. British merchants and missionaries, no longer convinced that change in China was impossible, were heading there with newfound vigor.  In Dunn's opinion, their hope for finding China more open to British manufactures and evangelism was ill-founded.  In a chilling prophecy, he augured failure for merchants and missionaries alike.  The former dreamed of reaping a "golden harvest" from greater access to China's markets in the wake of the war, but they would find only "straw," as the opium trade was "draining that country of all the precious metals."  And as for the missionaries then "going out in great numbers," Dunn predicted that they would confront a populace that associated their efforts to proselytize with the sins of the avaricious merchants.  Missionaries would ultimately face the hard truth, he predicted, that "opium and the Bible cannot enter China together."
        Sometime after Dunn's death at age 62 of malaria in Vevey, Switzerland in September, 1844, the collection toured England before being returned to the United States.  (A portion of it may have been lost in a train wreck near Edinburgh in 1849.)  A similar collection was shown at P.T. Barnum's New York Museum, and eventually Dunn's was sold at auction in 1851, its size reduced to about half of the original.  Over twenty-five years later, the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia reportedly featured a few items from the Chinese Museum. 1

      Ten Thousand Chinese Things, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Chinese Collection in Philadelpha by Nathan Dunn (1839) :

       (Under the section of "Paintings")  "892-894.  Views of various buildings, in the centre one of which are dwarf trees, for which the Chinese are so celebrated." (pg. 83)

      Things Relating to China and the Chinese: An Epitome of the Genius, Government, History, Literature, Agriculture, Arts, Trade, Manners, Customs, and Social Life of the People of the Celestial Empire, Together with a Synopsis of the Chinese Collection by William B. Langdon (1842):

       CASE XLI.  Fruits, Teas, &c. &c.
       "I.  A specimen of a dwarf tree, for which the Chinese are so celebrated.
       "The practice of dwarfing forest trees is common among the Chinese, and is considered as a test of the gardener's skill; bamboos, cypresses orange, and a species of elm tree are thus treated; and when well stunted and distorted, these victims of fashion often bear extravagant prices.  The following is the mode as practised by the Chinese.  The thick branch of a fruit tree is deprived of a ring of bark, and the place covered round with a lump of rich loam.  This is kept moist, and when the radicles have pushed into the loam, the whole is taken off and placed in a shallow pot.  The branches most loaded with blossoms are selected, and the abscission taking place when the fruit is nearly ripe, they are in that state sold in flower pots.  When the dwarfing process is intended to be in imitation of old forest trees, the branch which has pushed radicles into the surrounded loam is separated from the tree, and planted in a shallow earthenware flower-pot, of an oblong shape.  The pot is then filled with small lumps of alluvial clay, sufficient to supply a scanty nourishment to the plant, and water is added in a regulated quantity.  The branches are repressed by cutting and burning, and bent into shapes resembling those of an old forest tree in miniature.  Roughness is produced in the bark by smearing it with sweet substances that attract ants; and the plant in time acquires the desired smallness of leaf, and general stunted appearance.  The elm is most frequently used for this purpose: nor do the dwarfs require any further attention, when once fashioned, than to have the young shoots kept down by clipping.  Trees of this description live to a considerable age, this specimen was brought from China while in full health, having been kept in the same flower pot upwards of fifty years.
       "II.  Another tree of the same description, showing the manner in which the root is twisted, so as to afford as little nourishment to the tree as possible, in order to obtain the required smallness of leaf."  (pg. 166)

       "1140.  Basket of flowers, the most prominent being the Mow-tan, called by the Chinese Hwa-wang, "King of flowers."
       "Ornamental flowers, or ming wa, are cultivated by the Chinese to such an extent as fairly to indicate a general taste for flowers.
       "Ladies wear them in their hair, aud [sic] pots of the common sorts adorn their door-ways or terraces; dwarf trees or shrubs are planted in the inner court of the houses or temples, and flowers are sold in the streets, in bouquets, festoons, and garlands, at all seasons.
       "Their floriculture is conducted with a success depending more on practice than the positive deductions of science, and confined to the most popular favorites, as cammelias, chrysanthemums, peone (Mow-tan} oranges, citrons, &c. in these, being all indigenous plants, they succeed very well, and they have produced a great number of varieties.  The Fá-tee, or flower gardens near Canton afford a good idea of Chinese floriculture, both useful and ornamental; and in number of species and varieties it is probably not exceeded by any in the country, as the patronage of foreign customers has drawn to it plants from all parts of China."  (pg. 221)

       "1169 & 1170.  Views of various buildings, in one of which are dwarf trees, for which the Chinese are so celebrated.
       "Almost every garden in China abounds in flower-pots containing stunted stems with miniature fruit, fully ripe."  (pg. 224)

       "1311.  View of the landing and entrance to the Fa-tee flower gardens, situated a short distance above Canton, on the bank of the river.  They are principally owned by the Hong merchants of Canton, and foreigners are allowed to visit them on certain days in each month.  These gardens are beautifully laid out, and afford much gratification and relief to persons confined to the narrow limits to which all foreigners are restricted at Canton.  From these gardens the greater number of those beautiful dwarf shrubs are procured, that are so much esteemed."  (pg. 244)


1      Pagani, Catherine "Chinese material culture and Britush perceptions of China in the mid-nineteenth century" in Barringer, Tim and Tom Flynn (ed.)  Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture and the Museum (London: Routledge; 1998), pp. 34-37, 40;

Haddad, John Rogers  The Romance of China, Excursions to China in U.S. Culture, 1776-1876, 4. China in Miniature: Nathan Dunn's Chinese Museum, http://www.gutenberg-e.org/haj01/frames/fhaj05.html;

Aaron Caplan, Nathan Dunn's Chinese Museum, American Philosophical Society, http://www.amphilsoc.org/library/mole/c/caplan.htm;

Dunn -- Osborn -- Battey Family Papers, 1744-1927, http://www.haverford.edu/library/special/aids/dunosbat/.

Portrait, c.1830 and attributed to George Chinnery, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/66462.html?mulR=19854.

       The value in the year 2008 of the "twenty-five cents" mentioned above as admission in Philadelphia around 1840 would be at least $6.42 per Samuel H. Williamson, "Six Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1790 to Present," MeasuringWorth, 2008. URL http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/; the value in the year 2007 of the two shilling and six pence mentioned above as admission in London around 1842 would be at least £9.24 (one shilling in 1845 = £3.88) per Lawrence H. Officer, "Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1830 to Present," MeasuringWorth, 2008. URL http://www.measuringworth.com/ukcompare/.

       Philadelphia's population in 1840 was 93,665, making it the fourth largest city in the U.S., per http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab07.txt.  The 26-state nation's population at the time was 17,069,453, per http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1840_United_States_Census.  (Martin van Buren was the 8th president.)

       London's 1841 population was 1,948,417 persons, per http://www.londononline.co.uk/factfile/historical/.

       See also "From Colonial Times to World War II: America Peeks at Bonsai," http://www.phoenixbonsai.com/AmericaPeeks.html.

See also this undergraduate honors thesis in History which references our article here.

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