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Objectifying China, Imagining America

Chinese Commodities in Early America

Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund

With the ever-expanding presence of China in the global economy, Americans more and more look east for goods and trade. But as Caroline Frank reveals, this is not a new development. China loomed as large in the minds—and account books—of eighteenth-century Americans as it does today. Long before they had achieved independence from Britain and were able to sail to Asia themselves, American mariners, merchants, and consumers were aware of the East Indies and preparing for voyages there. Focusing on the trade and consumption of porcelain, tea, and chinoiserie, Frank shows that colonial Americans saw themselves as part of a world much larger than just Britain and Europe

Frank not only recovers the widespread presence of Chinese commodities in early America and the impact of East Indies trade on the nature of American commerce, but also explores the role of the this trade in American state formation. She argues that to understand how Chinese commodities fueled the opening acts of the Revolution, we must consider the power dynamics of the American quest for china—and China—during the colonial period. Filled with fresh and surprising insights, this ambitious study adds new dimensions to the ongoing story of America’s relationship with China.

272 pages | 49 halftones, 1 line drawing, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Culture Studies

History: American History


“This is a deeply engaging work on the forms and processes of exchange that took place between nascent European nation states, their American colonies, and the range of societies and cultures they conceived as being enclosed within Asia. Caroline Frank’s arguments span continents and oceans as they offer a richly diverse history that is rightly global in scope, packed with illuminating details that fit together like a disciplinary puzzle-in-the-making.”

Robert St. George, University of Pennsylvania

“In a major intervention in the meanings of China and china in the lives of colonial Americans, Caroline Frank recasts standard global tea-porcelain consumption narratives to create a novel dialogue between Qing goods, illicit adventurers, and the Yankee love affair with the ‘Orient.’”

Sucheta Mazumdar, Duke University

Objectifying China, Imagining America is a beautiful book. It shows what we believed about the remoteness of early America is false. It bases its conclusions on an intimidating amount of research. It is methodologically complex and theoretically sophisticated. It is so clearly and engagingly written it is hard to put down.” 

European Journal of American Studies

“Eminently engaging and often provocative. . . . Objectifying China, Imagining America, grounded in an impressive array of careful and wide-ranging archival research, offers both a rich trove of colorful local details and a useful mapping of some neglected contours of early American material culture. . . . The author’s historical model brings strikingly into view both America’s early participation in world trade networks and the significance of its bounty of Chinese goods in forging the colonists’ sense of their place in an already rapidly globalizing world.”

Journal of Asian Studies

“Frank’s contribution to both the facts and mythology surrounding the role of tea and the American Revolution may be controversial to some readers, but she nonetheless launches a significant volley that new ways of looking at goods will reveal new roles for these goods in the making of a nation.”

American Historical Review

 “A fascinating and eye-opening account of Chinese imports into early America that offers a worthwhile contribution to the new history of globalization. . . . Objectifying China, Imagining America will convince its readers that China must be a part of early American history.”

Business History Review

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables
Introduction: Beyond the Atlantic in Anglo-America

1 The First American China Trade
 American Mariners in the Indian Ocean, 1690–1700

2 Imagining China at Home
 Architectural Japanning in Early Newport

3 Islands of Illicit Refinement
 Bohia and Chaney for the Northern Plantations

4 The Oriental Aesthetic in Old Yankee Households
 China in Northern Colonial Homes

5 Manly Tea Parties
 The Idea of China in Boston’s Rebellion

Epilogue: An East Indies Trade for North America

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