Or, Contractually Bound, Peaceful, Prosperous, and Surprisingly Plural
A portrait can tell you a lot about a person. Especially one done in the older style — before the head shot — where objects and landscapes were visible at the margins of the frame. The value lies, not it its status as as a representative image of a person (though that’s usually approximated), but rather in what it says about both the idealized self of the person pictured and the cultural context within which they lived – the materials from which they pulled together their ideals. In trying to squeeze information from such paintings, a nose for discrepancies – in historical ones, our sense of what’s foreign about the past – are among our best tools, and have long served historians well.
(Of course, the information thus obtained is as much a creation of our own selves as it is of those pictured in the past … but that’s history, folks.)
As luck would have it, the archival record of the first American diplomatic mission to China gives us an opportunity to do the same thing for the United States. From the pen of Caleb Cushing, U.S. minister to China, we have an idealized portrait of the country in the form of a memo he drafted for circulation among Chinese officials and merchants.
He wrote the piece, he explained to his superiors, to correct the “very imperfect and incorrect notions” in China “as to the constitution and character of the United States.” At the end of July 1844, the State Department received a copy of the 1,200-word pamphlet that Cushing, with input from other members of the legation’s staff, had written and translated into Chinese. In his cover letter for the pamphlet, he promised to deliver it “to official and other persons in China” to help achieve the mission’s goals, and further U.S. interests in general. He called the memo “A Brief Account of the United States.”
Cushing’s memo was not the first attempt at American image control in China, of course. The American mercantile community was no stranger to keeping up particular (and peculiar) appearances at Canton. But Cushing’s mission in 1844 was the first instance of an official, organized, and duly deputized national self-presentation to China, and as such should be accorded a bit more weight. He represented more — at least to his countrymen — than the aggregate of a dozen mercantile houses.
More than a PR piece, though, what Cushing had written was, in effect, a snapshot of what he thought the U.S. was, or should be, refracted through some ideas about what he thought would appeal to the Chinese.