International Research Program: The circulation of enamelled objects between France and China (mid-17th – mid-19th century): Technological, cultural and diplomatic interactions

Running counter to the cliché of an 18th century Europe enamoured with Chinese goods, culture and techniques, our project aims to uncover the —almost unknown— reverse side of the global history of technology, and in particular the taste for European decorative arts in the Sino-Manchu court. Our project focuses on the circulation of painted enamelware and of enamel technology between France and China from the mid-17th to the end of the 18th century. Enamel is a prime example of an originally Mediterranean and European technology whose practice was transferred eastwards —following objects— as far as China. Fascination with painted enamels and enamel technology in China was closely linked to the prestige of European scientific instruments, watches and clocks, which were partially enamelled. Our project will aim to: 1) explore the role of European objects and technologies in the enrichment of the imperial cultural heritage; 2) study the link between monarchic powers and cultural and technological heritage in France and in China, in a comparative perspective.

Our project is based on the analysis of objects, considered not merely as illustrations but rather as relevant material sources, combined with the study of Chinese and French institutional archives, the latter being treated as having equal documentary values. Our scientific aim is to overcome two stumbling blocks: 1) the standstill resulting from a Eurocentric historiography of diffusion derived from the Jesuits’ writings and a Sino-centric view denying foreign contribution; 2) visual parallelism, which relies solely on the stylistic features of objects. We will undertake an innovative triple cross-over study involving: 1) objects and archives; 2) Chinese and French data; 3) human sciences and hard sciences (mainly non-destructive physico-chemical analysis). Such an interdisciplinary and intercultural approach raises important methodological issues. Our project is also intended to be a field of experimentation in computerized analysis of archival data. We expect that our project will actively contribute to the emergence of the global history of technology with comparative and multidisciplinary approaches, a field of research yet to be developed in France.

The relevance and feasibility of our project has been demonstrated by our two-year preliminary work carried out mainly within the framework of the LIA involving six French laboratories, seven French museums and the Palace Museum, Beijing (INSHS, CNRS, 2017-2021). The ANR support will bring the implementation of our project to a new stage and guarantee the delivery of its results. The main deliverable will consist of an open-access database, with the online edition of the Chinese and French archive corpus, and three methodological tools to optimize its exploitation. This exceptional encounter of objects, archives and physico-chemical data will be made available to the general public via a virtual and evolving exhibition, mainly prepared by the Chinese partner. Finally, by offering a longue durée vision of long-distance circulations of technology and of its impact, we will provide relevant historical elements to better understand today’s globalisation, and in particular phenomena of technological, cultural and artistic hybridisation.

Our team comprises 27 members, specialising in various fields (social sciences / natural sciences) and professional skills (research, teaching, museology). UMR 8155-CRCAO, the coordinator team, is supported by UMR 8173-CCJ, EA337-ICT, UMR 8233-MONARIS, with the participation of scholars from UPR 8011 CEMES, Université of Clermont-Auvergne, Université de Bretagne Sud-Lorient, Université Jean Jaurès -Toulouse, Musée national du Château de Versailles, and Boston University.




Bing Zhao (CNRS)

CRCAO members

Full members
Bing Zhao (CNRS)
Françoise Wang-Toutain (CNRS)

Doctoral students
Linlong Li (École Pratique des Hautes Études)