Fanned out in brilliant dashes of cerulean, gold, and crimson, a collection of Qing bridal aprons and blouses presented the University of Oregon Museum of Art’s first generation of visitors with vivid shocks of Chinese culture and artistry. Clothing the museum’s walls, they were some of the first exotic textiles showcased from the Murray Warner Collection of Oriental Art from 1933 to 1944. However, removed from the bodies they once covered the collection’s articles seemed more art object than worn apparel. Gertrude Bass Warner, the museum’s curator, having lived among China’s citizenry for a nearly a decade, was well aware of the textiles’ uses in formal and informal settings, and her presentation of the collection spoke to her informed view. Today, museum staff of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA) help to express both form and function of the collection, introducing some of the cultural context of each piece. But what might we learn from Warner’s vision? What might her choices teach us about the museum’s first years and how she viewed arts education? Pictured in hundreds of 1940s black and white photographs, the Early Photography Archive of the University Art Museum/Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, we locate Warner’s curatorial eye and some of the perspectives of the museum’s earliest visitors.
As products of early-twentieth century international exchanges, Warner’s displays represented a skewed lens through which to view Chinese customs. Warner had lived in Shanghai, China–first, with her brother, John Foster, and, after courting her second husband, Murray Warner–from 1904 to 1909, and she returned for further collecting throughout the following decade. As U.S. citizens living abroad, Shanghai’s international communities represented a physical example of foreign intervention and influence in Chinese history. This relationship was based on a past filled with negotiated, asymmetrical legal and political regulations, many of which were established famously by U.S. gun-boat diplomacy. In the nineteenth century, Western missionaries and merchants found safe harbor for their dealings in Shanghai, including the pursuit of Christian indoctrination and cultural reforms to shape Chinese citizens. Warner’s writings document this pursuit and the skewed understanding Westerners came away with when living and learning in China.
No other item in the Gertrude Bass Warner Collection symbolizes this moment than her “A Sketch of the Domestic Relations of the Chinese,” a transcription of which I provide below. In her sketch, Warner depicts some of the daily activities she was exposed to living in Shanghai. She makes brief mention of numerous topics, including: Chinese marriage customs, upbringing for boys and girls, patriarchy, Christian mission schooling, perspectives on foot-binding, comparisons between Chinese and American women, hints at larger events (the life of the last emperor, Emperor Puyi, for instance), and concubinage. However, her “Sketch” is an exercise in mapping out Chinese society.
The “Sketch” document itself is undated and appears to have been the product of multiple writings; we find revisions and multiple pencil and pen inks that hints to this idea. It is reflection, based on her memories, though her documentary mind captured specific conversations with friends. Based on her claim to tell of “the condition up to 3 years [ago], when I left China” and the fact that she left Shanghai in 1909, it was likely penned in 1912-13. This date is further corroborated by her mentioning of the 1907 visit of former-President Taft the former first lady, which she notes happened “about six years ago.”
Her “Sketch” describes very little of specific Chinese people. Save an example of Emperor Puyi, the reader learns of daughters, mothers, and sons or blanket class distinctions, such as the “China poor,” but no individual Chinese voices come through. Very similar to her investigation into Japanese etiquette and customs, the nearly-published “When West Meets East,” Warner’s “Sketch” is contained to the Westerner’s gaze looking inward upon Chinese practices, unlike contemporary marriage, gender, and sociological studies that draw upon Chinese primary sources; for recent investigations into Warner’s various themes and topics, see: Watson, 1991; Jaschok, 1988; Dong, 2005; Goodman, 2005; and Kuo, 2012. However, Warner’s anecdotes and general observations help readers understand much of the time. And she makes mention of her nonnative neighbors, some of whom are historical figures documented in other sources. St. Mary’s Mission School teacher, Miss Dodson, pops into Warner’s recollection, for example, and there is the brief note on President Taft.
Newspapers of the time give us an idea of what Taft brought home from his visit with people like Warner. Dated Dec. 21 1907, the article describes Taft’s journey Sept. 12 to Dec. 7, 1907, through parts of Eurasia, setting with world leaders, including the Emperor of Japan and Russia, his visit to the Philippines and finally China. Taft described his thoughts on the ‘open-door’ policy and U.S. citizens abroad: “In China the American residents were anxious for reassurance as to America’s intention toward maintaining the ‘open-door’ policy. At the banquet in Shanghai I endeavored to give this assurance by restating America’s position as tot eh maintenance of the integrity of China and the fostering of American trade interests there.” From Warner’s perspective, the 1907 Taft visit was an “effort… towards giving… the [Chinese] girls a little more freedom.” This “freedom” came in the form of serving refreshments and attending to these honored guests. The honor came from showing respect for the amount of money and goods that the U.S. had sent to China following the recent “great famine” it had endured. Missionaries selected girls from the anti-foot binding school to demonstrate the changing custom of the proto-Republic period.
The history of foreigners in Shanghai, let alone all of China, and the way they proscribed etiquette and commented on custom is profound, too deep to uncover in a brief study, but a surface review of some of the study’s arguments illuminates the above biases. Scholars continue to uncover new revelations about the role of U.S. citizens living extensively in Shanghai, as Gertrude Bass Warner and her husband did at the turn of the century. Often associated with Western cultural imperialism, missionary schools were a prominent fixture in the lives of many Chinese women’s lives, especially for the 16,910 girls attending such schools by 1910 (Bailey, p26). Of the 1000+ Western women educating Chinese girls in Protestant missionary schools, the majority were, like Warner’s upbringing, conservative, educated, and mid-western U.S. citizens (Bailey, p27). They had dreamt to uproot Asian customs and transplant Victorian sensibilities in turn, and key figures such as the Christian nurse and author Kang Cheng (1873-1931) seemed to reinforce this ideology (Bailey, 29-30). Surely, external influences, especially persistent schooling in missionary schools, added pressure to the changing social structures of late-imperial China.
Real social and legal change would come from within, though, however preseed upon by foreigners. Chinese women authors of this generation of educated children would come to define the “new woman” of early-republic society, according to Goodman, which was witnessed by a real and public debate over the belief in women’s “modern personhood,” or ren’ge (2005). However, Goodman notes especially regarding the discussion of womanhood and propriety found in Shanghai’s newspapers of the period, Chinese men dominated the rhetoric of a woman’s morality (2005, 278-279). Warner leaves us only scant views of schooling for males. In fact, she was likely part and parcel to the types of “new” feminism that developed at the time. For instance, Warner’s missionary neighbors had long decried the practice of footbinding since the 1870s, and by Warner’s time an anti-footbinding societies had developed among proto-Republic circles. These groups, male-dominated circles of urbanites and the fathers of daughters with unbound feet, for the most part, sought to solve what they saw as the “woman problem.” Other home-grown women’s rights groups and advocates, for example philosopher Kang Youwei (1858-1927) who harped on women’s suffering and inequality in the West and East as early as 1902, pushed for changes well before the fall of the last dynasty (Bailey, p35-36). These combined forces–foreign influence, a crisis of Chinese male feminism, and Chineses women entering the debate–made for a truly revolutionary moment for Chinese families after the 1910s (Kuo, 2012).
Warner’s thoughts reflect the times, highlighting both local animosity to footbinding and other customs, and they highlight the role of Western collusion in social reform. She explains, “With regard to the foot-binding – the missionaries say this movement is extended in the larger cities against it a hundred years from now, I think, with the help of the foreigners, it will be entirely done away with.” There was still much work left to be done, but through concerted effort and time the custom would end. “But in the mean time,” she quipped,” it has been estimated that at the present time there are some 70 millions pairs of deformed & aching feet in China.” The limited descriptive texts present in the photographs lead this author to speculate upon Warner’s “Chinese footwear” displays (above). The select pairings of platform shoes–fanciful and intricate slippers sewn to spindly wooden platforms, now a bit muted by the black-and-white tone–highlight shoe shape and style, but the visitor would be left to assume their use. If Warner led the tour of the items, she might then have shared some of her thoughts, possibly the same found in her “Sketch.” Without her guidance, however, early museum education would predominantly rest upon the visitor’s mind. What might they have thought?
According to 1913 Warner, her evangelical friends held mixed feelings about the role Chinese women played in society. Warner remarks,
One day I asked two friends of mine who were connected with the episcopal mission, what they thought were this much noticeable characteristics of the Chinese girls & women – we had been comparing them with our American women – Miss Dodson, who has lived some 20 yrs in China  said, contrary to the accepted ideas general opinion in Europe and America, “The Chinese women rule the home.” Then I turned to Miss Crummer[?], whose experiences in China had only covered some 12 yrs. She replied “In spite of their 6-8 or 10 yrs in a foreign school, under a foreign influences, they are just as ready to accept their parents provisions for their future as they ever were” It never occurs to them that they should have any choice in the selection of their future husbands.
Personally, Warner, speaking to the lives of families encountered in Shanghai, depicts an unflattering life for daughters, wives, and mothers. After marriage girls were to be “entirely subordinate to that of her father & mother in law.” Young wives followed the Confucian ideal (wei), “She has to be humble obedient, respectful & cheerful.” Politically, a woman “simply hasn’t any rights.” And it was only with motherhood, like the respect owed her mother-in-law, that “her position improves, & by the time she is an old woman, she receives every consideration.” Here, Warner generalized about all Chinese women, though based on an extremely limited number of people, and the understanding she took away allowed her to raise a wall between her biography and these cultural “others.” Finding humor in her view that it was time that mattered most for Chinese brides, “Were I a Chinese bride,” she quips, “I should pray for the sleep of Rip van Winkle.”
In another early museum photograph, Warner displayed sets of Qing dynasty (1644-1912) women’s jewelry, set in Case 2J5 from the museum opening to August 1944. This case included: hairpins, earring and hairband pairings, intricate barrettes and semiprecious stone and metal bobbing pins and clamps. Scanning from top to bottom, the visitor’s eyes might have lingered on one of sixteen bejeweled blues, greens, and reds of the intricate hairbands or the cerulean of the dangling earrings. Next, their eyes might fall on the clusters of items arranged below. Warner splayed sets of stone hairpins on three cloth-blacked backdrops, white fabric for the darker green pins and black for the white ones. Three thin glass shelves support bobbing pins and hair clips, and Warner used clear plastic pins tack most of the objects to the display panel.
Warner’s presentation style hints at her larger motivation to awe first and worry over display particulars second. Staring into the Case 2J5, for instance, visitors would find no labels. Surely, a docent or guide, especially the master curator herself, would help to inform visitors as to the context and customs surrounding each item. But how rich might their interpretative work have been? What questions did the visitor ponder? What might be the significance of the seven red and green jade butterflies of hairband MWCH 9-80 and how did the object reflect a women’s social status, after all? Finer distinctions between the jade hairpins are obscured with the choice to string them together like vertical blinds. A critical gaze might even catch the initial, unused drill holes under one of the shelves, or the mix-mash of fancy and common pins throughout. Similar to wandering through a hunter’s den, early museum visitors gaped at Warner’s jewels as pinned and mounted trophies of Chinese craft.
The Murray Warner Collection lives on in the JSMA, with clear labels and state-of-the-art curation, but also with welcome visiting exhibitions. Many of Warner’s cherished pieces reside in the Betty and John Soreng Gallery of Chinese Art. Passing into the JSMA’s temporary exhibiting spaces, its staff features new and provocative views of Chinese history through art. This year (2016-2017), “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Chinese Propaganda from the Turbulent Decade, 1966-1976″ exhibition, a co-curated show led by chief curator Anne Rose Kitagawa, presented visitors with People’s Republic propaganda that sought to recast its citizens as new men and women, an eerily similar pattern to Warner’s depiction in “Sketch.” Introducing a wider audience to the cultural context of China’s social movement, UO Students and the public reflected upon symbolic representations of a Utopian vision and the piercing eyes of Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao).
Warner’s view of Chinese custom changed throughout her life, however, the key examples of understandings of the time are her 1913 “Sketch” and the manner in which she presented her collection to her visitors. Never a Chinese bride but ever the bridal collector, Warner’s eye exemplifies much the anticipation of an expectant bride without much of the labor of love that might be challenged by a long marriage. Her curatorial designs and the larger program bespeaks the romantic lovers phase of an new marriage. The less apparent flaws, or better realities, are underplayed to highlight the dashes of beauty and exotic elements on the surface. But, in the end, she was ever-present in this phase and her guiding hands helped to define Asian art and culture for visitors for generations after.
In fact, perchance do we capture a scandalous glimpse of the sorceress behind the veil? In this photograph, one capturing the precious seventeenth-century Ming painting, “Hunting Scene on North Hills” by Cuī Zǐzhōng, we find the hands and possibly the profile of Warner on display. Cuī’s work represents one of the oldest pieces she collected from China, in fact. Her aged hands, bejeweled with rings, clench the scroll, unfurling it for view. If it is Warner (or her hands, at least), it would be one of the last images of her life with the collection. In 1944, she moved east to live out her days estranged from the objects she so cherished. Captured in this young and bittersweet moment, the wedding of the UO Museum of Art and the Murray Warner Collection witnesses its final embrace with the loving spinster that arranged their union to begin with.
The Featured Image, a seemingly staged late-nineteenth Chinese bridal ceremony (PH014 18-21 ), comes from the GBW Lantern Slides, viewable here.
A full transcription of Gertrude Bass Warner’s “A Sketch of the Domestic Relations of the Chinese” is available here: GBW Sketch of Chinese Domesticity (1913).
Warner’s friend Miss Dodson’s appears in parochial listings, here, and the state of the mission’s affairs and Dodson’s labor can be found in the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s Fourth, Vol. 81 (here). The China Daily gave a brief description of St. Mary’s Mission School, its influence and alumni in 2001, found here.
For more on ex-president Taft’s visit to Asia, see the New York Times Article “Taft Home Again, Mum on Politics” New York Times, Taft Article 1907.
Kennell-Ellis Photography helped to produce the hundreds of early museum Eastman Nitrate Kodak images available on Oregon Digital. To glimpse the studio as it stood in Eugene in Warner’s day, click here.
Bailey, Paul. 2012. Women and Gender in Twentieth-Century China. Palgrave Macmillan. New York, NY.
Goodman, Bryna. 2005. “The Vocational Woman and the Elusiveness of ‘Personhood’ in Early Republican China,” found in Gender in Motion: Divisions of Labor and Cultural Change in Late Imperial and Modern China, Goodman and Larson (eds.), Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC.
Hershatter, Gail. 1991. “Prostitution and the Market in Women in Early Twentieth-Century Shanghai,” found in Marriage and Equality in Chinese Society, Watson and Ebrey (eds.), Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Jaschok, Maria. 1988. Concubines and Bondservants: The Social History of a Chinese Custom. London: Zed Press.
Kuo, Margaret. 2012. Intolerable Cruelty: Marriage, Law, and Society in Early Twentieth-Century China. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Watson, Rubie. 1991. “Wives, Concubines, and Maids: Servitude and Kinship in the Hong Kong Region, 1900-1940,” found in Marriage and Equality in Chinese Society, Watson and Ebrey (eds.), Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.