In 1741 Richard Hatchett adapted the Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao as a vehicle for exposing Robert Walpole’s corruption and abuse of power. What Hatchett viewed as corruption, most Englishmen saw as privilege, the inherited rights of a lord, but then this was the debate of the moment. More than 1500 years earlier that same story featured in stone engravings in China, also as a means of exposing a minister’s corruption and abuse of power. Those engravings were the beginning of a long tradition of literary and pictorial exposes of social injustice in China. Artists in England likewise developed socially conscious pictures during the decades just prior to Hatchett’s intervention. Arguably, in both instances, the appearance of politicized art resulted from the demands of an increasingly literate and independent-minded audience. This lecture explores the implications of parallel development and direct interaction between China and England during the long 18th century.
Martin Powers is the Sally Michelson Davidson Professor of Chinese Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan, and former Director of the Center for Chinese Studies.