Scratching the surface of the West’s ‘Chinese’ Pagodas

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All images from The Oriental Scene © Yuxing Chen

This article is part of the Education collection, a series of interviews highlighting student and early career photographers. 

Pagodas adorn parks and botanical gardens across the West, but their heritage tells a story of aristocracy and Oriental colonialism, as Yuxing Chen discovered after swapping Shanghai for London

When Yuxing Chen moved from Shanghai to London in 2021, the Chinese photographer felt like a complete stranger. “Everything was unfamiliar to me, so I couldn’t help but start to look at familiar things like Chinese food and architecture,” she recalls.

This led the 24-year-old London College of Communication graduate to West London and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where she discovered the Great Pagoda, the Chinese-inspired tower unveiled in 1762. The building is a reproduction of the 15th-century Bao’en Temple in Nanking, known as the Porcelain Tower of Nanking. 

Chen remembers having mixed feelings about the structure, noting its unorthodox style and colonial associations. She thought about how the Chinese ‘taste’ or ‘look’ was co-opted by upper class Europeans as exotic decoration – something that became known as Chinoiserie. It was from here that her project The Oriental Scene began – a photographic investigation of Chinoiserie architecture and design in the UK, in the context of postcolonialism.

“This craze swept Europe during the Baroque and Rococo periods, influencing architecture, painting, furniture and interiors,” Chen explains. By combining the image of the Nanking Tower with other symbols from contemporary Chinese imagery, a default idea of the ‘Chinese Pagoda’ emerged. “I am therefore challenged to use the visual language of photography to depict the ‘Oriental scene,’” Chen says. “And as someone from East Asia, it is the most attractive and ‘politically incorrect’ landscape to me.”

The Oriental Scene is a mixture of archival material relating to the Nanking Tower (including postcards, prints and drawings); new photographs Chen took of Chinoiserie architecture on upper-class estates in the UK; and British-made Chinoiserie and Chinese-inspired objects like plates and takeaway boxes with featuring images of pagodas.

“I plan to break the cultural dilemma of decolonisation, to articulate my own identity and make the audience alert to cultural discourse.”

Through both the objects and archives, Chen saw how the West merged its admiration for the iconography of the Nanking Tower with simplified reproductions and interpretations, until, she explains, the idea of the ‘pagoda’ was “no longer a specific building, but a generic decorative element with an exotic flavour.”

Meanwhile, Chen’s own black-and-white photographs reclaim her culture’s symbols by cutting the buildings out of the images, leaving large, blocky spaces like ghosts within the surrounding manicured landscapes.

The project has taken Chen on a journey “from Chinese pagodas built by the upper classes, to the ceramics on the tables of common people,” an explicit interrogation of Oriental colonialism. “I’ve been able to re-think how pagodas have been used as a means of creating images of the Orient, as well as how they’ve been used by the West to depict cultural otherness,” she says. Chen hopes that by “pointing out the continuous process of the tower’s cultural transference,” The Oriental Scene will reveal to viewers just how easy it is to perpetuate cultural appropriation. “I plan to break the cultural dilemma of decolonisation,” she reflects, “to articulate my own identity and make the audience alert to cultural discourse.”

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London