The Oriental Scene

‘The Oriental Scene’ by Yuxing Chen exposes the flawed knowledge and imagery of the Western gaze and cultural appropriation of Chinese culture. Through a series of photographs that let the viewer re-imagine Chinese architecture and reframe western imagery of Chinese culture, she not only points to the cultural appropriation and flawed understanding of another culture. Her project gently deflates Western colonialism as it forces us to rethink the ways in which Westerners have portrayed symbols of cultural otherness and uncovers the great irony of its widespread empirical power.

“When I moved from Shanghai to London in 2021, the surroundings were all very unfamiliar to me. I couldn't help but observe the environment and buildings, so when I first saw the Chinese architecture built by Westerners, I was fascinated by the subject of ‘differences’ and decided to explore it further. I selected the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing not only because it is the original prototype for the Pagoda in the Royal Botanic Gardens, but also because of the history of photography and the exciting chain of image transmission that is linked behind this architecture.”

— Yuxing Chen


The flawed Western gaze

Project: ‘The Oriental Scene’ by Yuxing Chen

When Chinese photographer Yuxing Chen arrived in London from Shanghai the differences from her home country were striking. By chance she stumbled into something that reminded her of home, the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. The tower was of course a replica. It was built in the 17th century by William Chambers, based on drawings he received from travellers who visited China. But it contained a major flaw compared to the original in Nanjing: While all Buddhist pagodas have an odd number of stories, the one at Kew has ten. Chen’s discovery of the replica tower and its extra floor inspired her to start the research that culminates in the project The Oriental Scene.

Yuxing Chen - Stereocard and Stereo Viewer

From porcelain to pagodas

Chinese symbols and aesthetics have been appropriated by European culture in several ways, from porcelain pieces to huge architectural structures such as the pagoda at Kew. This desire to reproduce without the necessary knowledge or information generates the distortions that Chen presents with dexterity in the three image groups that compose The Oriental Scene: still lifes, archival imagery, and photographs of Western-made Chinese buildings transformed into ghosts, leaving a void for the viewer’s imagination to fill.

Reframing the western gaze through photography

“I was concerned with somehow reinforcing the Western cultural gaze toward the East implicit in these buildings. I then began experimenting with redacting them from the photography, leaving space for exploring Eastern and Western cultural gazes and power. By actively choosing to cut out the subject, I attempted to revisit the parts that have been ignored or forgotten and to reveal the differences under the imperial eye.”

Over fourteen thousand kilometres away from the original Porcelain Tower, William Chambers built the replica based on drawings he received from travellers who visited China, to impress and reassure the royal subjects about the vast power of the British empire.

Yuxing Chen - The Pagoda at Kew

An ironic testament to power relations

However, due to the lack of precision in the drawings that guided Sir William and knowledge of the buddhist culture, the crucial mistake was not eradicated. The building is thus also an everlasting testament to the westerners’ lack of knowledge, attention and ultimately care of the rich culture it happily appropriated. Once this quirkiness is uncovered the tower stands out and marks with irrevocable irony a once oh, so great imperialistic power. Something that could have remained unperceived as there is no photographic evidence of the original tower, as it was destroyed before the expansion of photography in China. 

Yuxing Chen’s project opens a discussion around the very important and delicate topic of decolonising and with the subtle gesture of creating an empty space where there used to be a building and reframing the gaze of archival material, the artist invites us to imagine a key symbol of her culture and the distortions each of our gazes can create. 

Yuxing Chen - The Kew Postcard


“There is a connection to time and authorship that goes through my work, the right of knowledge that is hidden underneath these produced images. How did people use photography in the past to see and understand each other and how does the authorship of these images impact their perception and the building of history are key questions my work wishes to explore.” 

— Yuxing Chen

Text and edit · Felipe Abreu and Christine Almlund

Yuxing Chen is a Chinese artist using photography and archives. She received her MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from the University of the Arts in London. Photography has expanded her perspective as a new approach to narrative and representation. Her photographic practice is centred around the creation and discussion of decolonization on cultural differences, identity, and historical public issues.

Selected achievements

  • – 2023 IPE Award, Royal Photographic Society, UK
  • – 2023 Grand Prix Images Vevey, Finalist, CH
  • – 2023 TOP20 Chinese Contemporary Photography, CN
  • – 2023 The Paintbrush of Nature, Aperture Gallery, London, UK
  • – 2022 The Fourth 1839 Photography Nomination Award, CN