The East occupied an important place in the western imagination. The reverse was also true. European objects and artefacts, sometimes reworked to suit Asian lifestyles, created a corresponding vision of a mysterious and exotic West.
Asia in Europe
When the Portuguese arrived in Asia they encountered a sophisticated trading network centred on cosmopolitan ports. Here they found luxury goods from throughout Asia, produced by specialist workshops specifically for different markets. These goods had immediate appeal for Europeans, who began commissioning pieces suited to western tastes.
Asian craftsmen were remarkably adept at interpreting western designs and applying traditional techniques to new forms. In the 18th century, European trading companies capitalised on these skills and developed a mass market for Asian commodities in Europe. The appeal of these objects was so strong that attempts were made to imitate them in the West. The vogue for Asian goods inspired the creation of a distinctive oriental style, Chinoiserie.
Europe in Asia
Asia was not a natural market for western luxury goods, which were often unsuited to the climate and lifestyle. However, western scientific technology did have a great impact. Asian rulers and scholars developed a keen interest in European medicine, astronomy and cartography. Glassware, mirrors and precision instruments such as clocks were highly prized and transformed many aspects of Asian life. Such western goods were also copied locally, with modifications to suit Asian tastes and needs. The influence of western military technology was also particularly significant.
Different Asian cultures also developed an appreciation for western aesthetics. Artists found that western painting offered them a new way of representing the world, while patrons in India and China occasionally commissioned fantasy buildings in European styles.
The End of an Era
In the late 18th century any uncertainty that existed about the position of Europeans in Asia evaporated. The British solved the trade imbalance with China by flooding the country with Indian opium, damaging both the economy and the health of the people. The tensions that this inevitably created led to the Opium Wars, which sealed western economic dominance of East Asia.
In India, the collapse of the Mughal empire created a power vacuum that was filled by the East India Company. Its administrative and military machine gradually reshaped the subcontinent to suit British priorities. After the defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799, British control of the subcontinent was assured. With this, the character of the European presence in Asia changed and rigid assumptions of East and West began to replace the more fluid boundaries between different cultures.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 23 September - 5 December 2004.