At the first ever World Expo, held in London 1851, a Chinese merchant won a gold medal for his silk. Read on for more of China’s amazing Expo history, from traditional calligraphy all the way to artificial blood serums.
With almost 10 million visitors, the Exposition Universelle was considered a massive success, hosting more than 50,000 exhibitors. Many of the post-impressionists, like Van Gogh, were said to have been greatly impressed, and inspired, by the Asian arts they saw here.
At the Chinese theater, traditional arts were on display—acrobats, sword-swallowing magicians, and brightly dressed Cantonese opera performers. The entrance fee? 1.5 francs.
These three young girls from Fujian Province performed traditional tea ceremonies. Wildly popular, the beautiful trio was invited by a Parisian photography studio to have their portraits taken.
At the Weltausstellung 1873 Wien, the first World Exposition to be held in a German-speaking country, awards were given to engines, elevators and gas lamps. But while the age of electricity has replaced the age of steam, China’s exhibition focused on what had changed little over the years: traditional herbs, porcelain and silk. Miniature towers (文昌塔 wénchānɡ tǎ)—inspirational feng shui ornaments for scholar’s studies—were also on display. A Chinese teahouse offered visitors a chance to experience the leisure life of traditional China.
Spanning a remarkable 66 acres, drawing 13 million visitors, and offering such jaw-dropping displays as the Statue of Liberty’s head (the body had not yet been built), the third Exposition Universelle offered much to gape at. But it was the smaller events, the more personal, that left a lasting impression. The Illustrated London News ran this image of an unnamed calligrapher at the Chinese Pavilion. He was reported as having an impressive amount of calmness and self-control, diligently writing throughout the day. He drew characters with a weed pen, from right to left, and—despite the large crowd—was not distracted at all, not even by a pack of curious Mademoiselles. Wearing a silk cloak and an official hat, he was clean-shaven, and his pigtail was reported to have been “well-braided.”
Held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World, The Chicago World’s Fair drew 27 million people, and focused heavily on the power of electricity, introducing the world to Nikola Tesla, neon lights, and hamburgers. But it was also a chance for China to reveal more of its rarely-seen traditional culture. On the left, a model poses in Chinese costume, but more exciting to many was the cross-dressing actor on the right. In the late 1800s, women were not allowed to perform in operas, so men not only had to dress up in drag, they also had to sing in falsetto.
Even in 1893, American audiences were renowned for their short attention spans, and so the Chinese opera singers slashed the length of their traditionally day-long dramas. Still, few Americans sat through the whole opera. Above, two actors in costume perform.
The Exposition Universelle of 1900 drew a crowd of over 50 million to Paris, and talking films and escalators both made their debuts. It was also where Rudolf Diesel premiered his diesel engine, fueled by peanut oil. The Supplement Illustre Du Petit Journal published this illustration of China’s Pavilion, where sedans, rickshaws and porcelains, as well as ornate traditional architecture was showcased.
In this illustration, a portrait of the Empress Dowager Cixi is seen in the upper right corner; in the bottom right is a gate of the Confucius Temple, there is also a small, jovial Buddhist figurine at the bottom left, three of the most important elements of Chinese life and philosophy at the time.
St. Louis, 1904
To commemorate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the 1904 Expo was hosted by America, and held in St. Louis. Ragtime music was hugely popular at the time; Scott Joplin even wrote a song for the occasion called “The Cascades.” The famous Apache war chief Geronimo was present, accepting visitors in a traditional Apache teepee, which was draped in animal hide. But one American was particularly fascinated by the Chinese pavilion.
“There is a temple,” he wrote, “where all the religious rituals and signs [are explained]. There is a market displaying crafts of carpenters, painters, silk weavers and ivory sculptors. The garden is exotic. Everything is shipped here directly from the native land. It is like a pleasant, temporary home.”
But the 1904 Expo wasn’t just about Chinese entertainment—the Shanghai Tea and Porcelain Company also inked a monumental deal with the American Blank Company; in addition to buying 40,000 tons of tea, the Blank Company agreed to distribute Shanghai tea across the United States.
San Francisco, 1915
The Expo held in San Francisco in 1915 celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal—a boon to international trade. The Liberty Bell was on display, and the first steam locomotive was also shown. This expo also meant a great deal to the newly formed Republic of China.
America was the first colonial power to accept the Republic of China, founded in 1912, as an official entity, and the 1915 Expo was the debut of the new government. Chinese and American flags were hoisted together outside of the Chinese pavilion, and an American orchestra, positioned next to the Orchestra of Shanghai, played the Chinese national anthem. The Orchestra of Shanghai also performed beautifully and won a gold medal.
Altogether, China won 1,211 awards at the 1915 Expo. Among the prize-winning goods displayed was a red liquid, the Wuzhou Pharmacy’s cure for the then-common illness, anemia. The inventor had named it “Boluode (博罗德),” a phonetic translation of the English word, “blood.”
Chicago hosted the World Expo in 1933 with the theme “A Century of Progress.” The German airship, the Graf Zeppelin, flew overseas and timed its arrival to correspond with the opening of the Expo. China’s pavilion displayed booths from many provinces, highlighting the diversity of China’s people and inventions. One of China’s award-winning products was a new brand of Shanghai-produced matches. In China, matches had always been called yang huo (洋火, foreign fire)—because they were invariably imported. But this award-wining home-grown brand had a new name: Da Zhong Hua, “Mighty China.”
Shanghai was going to host the Expo in 1936. Plans had been drawn, the Huangpu River location had been settled, and flyers had even been printed. But the Japanese invaded, and the Expo had to be cancelled.
Now, 74 years later—after political revolution, reform and decades of incredible development—Shanghai’s dream of hosting will finally be realized.
Special thanks to Tong Bingxue, Expo collector, founder of the online “China Photography Museum,” and author of the book, “China’s Image at the World Expos,” published by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Press. Special thanks, also, to Zhang Jianming, of the Old Shanghai Teahouse and Museum, and publisher of the book “Old Shanghai, Old Expo.” The images here were originally published in their two books.
- cross-dressing actor
- How much is the entrance fee for the Expo?
- He’s a cross-dressing actor playing Princess Yang.