When East and West revelled in cultural fusion

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The Independent Online

They gave us silks, chintz and porcelain. We gave them guns, mirrors and clocks. Those objects, and other treasures illustrating 300 years of cultural exchange between East and West, will be unveiled in a sumptuous exhibition opening tomorrow at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London.

They gave us silks, chintz and porcelain. We gave them guns, mirrors and clocks. Those objects, and other treasures illustrating 300 years of cultural exchange between East and West, will be unveiled in a sumptuous exhibition opening tomorrow at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London.

Encounters , charting trade between European and Asian countries from 1500 to 1800, shows Asians viewed Europeans as every bit as exotic and curious as the West viewed them.

And, as the exhibition reveals, far from being enclosed inward-looking societies, the nations of Japan, China and India were fascinated - although not always impressed - by their European visitors.

Amin Jaffer, one of the exhibition's curators, said: "We tend to think of Asia as being closed but we overturn that myth and show there was a great attraction on both sides. Asia and Europe responded to each other differently, but they were both compelled - and on both sides a type of cultural fusion developed."

The explosion of interest between Asia and Europe occurred after Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama discovered a sea route to India, establishing direct relations between both worlds for the first time.

The European market was soon flooded with lacquer, silks, wallpapers and cashmere and items such as chintz and tea, which came to be seen as quintessentially English.

In return, Europe first attempted to export goods, such as ironmongery, in which the East had little interest. When the Chinese emperor Qianlong was presented with gifts from George III, a textile recording the arrival of the King's emissaries noted they brought gifts of no great value: "Still, in cherishing men from afar, no matter how meagre their offerings, we treat them with generosity."

But eventually the Europeans discovered what excited the rulers of China, Japan and India: scientific instruments such as guns and clocks. As now, the Japanese took items such as the musket and quickly improved on them.

"What we think of as a 20th century phenomenon is rooted in historical precedent," Anna Jackson, another of the exhibition's curators, said.

Intriguingly, Europeans also introduced the green chilli and the tomato to the east - ingredients that came to be seen as vital ingredients in Oriental cooking. The importance of that great Indian export - its food - is marked with a portrait of Sake Dean Mahomed who, after serving in the Bengal army, came to London and opened England's first Indian restaurant in 1810.

The mutual fascination was recorded in portraits which saw Europeans dressed in the style of the countries they visited or a Chinese emperor donning a European wig.

But Ms Jackson also pointed out that such exchanges were at times marred by "violence, misunderstanding and prejudice". And the Asians were as likely to laugh at the "'ugly and strange". Europeans as vice versa.

In Japan, for instance, the Portuguese were known as "nanban-jin" or "southern barbarians". While a scroll produced for the Chinese emperor Qianlong depicting various nationalities portrays British people wearing woollen flannel and drinking a lot of alcohol.

The exhibition, which runs until 5 December, also includes loans from the Forbidden City in Beijing , many of which have not been seen in Britain before.

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