Eastern Magnificence and European Ingenuity

Clocks of Late Imperial China
Catherine Pagani
An exploration of the important role played by elaborate clockwork in relations between China and Europe from the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries


The period from the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries was one of complex change for the Chinese. Europe was eagerly looking to the East with an interest in developing a China market, not just in commercial and diplomatic enterprises but in evangelical ventures as well. The resulting contacts produced significant cultural exchanges and appropriations, as well as misconceptions and stereotypes. Profoundly affected by these interactions were the areas of technology and the decorative arts. Europe became enamored of Chinese style, and a fashion known as chinoiserie permeated the decorative arts. In China, one result of Sino-European contact was the introduction of a new and important technology: the Western mechanical clock.

Called in Chinese zimingzhong, or "self-ringing bells," these elaborate clocks were used as status symbols, decorative items, and personal adornments, and only occasionally as timepieces. Most importantly, they were signifiers of cultural power: Europeans, whether missionaries or ambassadors, controlled the introduction of both object and technology, and they used this control to advantage in gaining access to the highest reaches of Chinese society.

Through her focus on technology and the decorative arts, Catherine Pagani contributes to an overall understanding of the nature and extent of European influence in late Imperial China and of the complex interaction between these two cultures. This study's interdisciplinary approach will make it of interest to those in the fields of art history, the history of clockwork and of science and technology, Jesuit history, Qing-dynasty history, and Asian studies, as well as to the educated general reader.

Catherine Pagani is Associate Professor, Asian Art History, University of Alabama.

Praise / Awards

  • "This study explores the meanings of cultural objects previously not well studied to challenge some fundamental assumptions regarding the differential formation of the cultural systems that allegedly distinguish China and Europe. It alerts us to the salience of the cultural contexts within which European technologies and products were introduced into China and the ease with which ill-placed cultural assumptions can cause scholars to misinterpret historical change."
    —R. Bin Wong, University of California, Irvine, American Historical Review, February 2003

  • ". . . a valuable contribution to our knowledge of Sino-European interaction, which reveals a previously neglected dimension of history."
    —D. E. Mungello, Baylor University, Journal of Asian Studies, February 2003

  • "The strength of Pagani's work lies in her ability to bring together the rich details of the historical record and the artifacts of material culture in an informative and enjoyable account of clocks and clock-making in China. Her book will surely serve as the reference par excellence on this topic for years to come."
    —Laura Hostetler, University of Illinois, Chicago, Sino-Western Cultural Relations Journal, XXV (2003)

Look Inside

Copyright © 2001, University of Michigan. All rights reserved. Posted April 2002.

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Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 304pp.
  • 44 photographs, 1 map.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2001
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11208-1

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  • $89.95 U.S.