Aristocracy for the Common People: Chinese Commodities In Oscar Wilde’s Aestheticism


  • Qi Chen (Royal Holloway, University of London)



Oscar Wilde, who has international cultural influence, is a product of globalisation of the British Empire in the late nineteenth century. To gain an adequate understanding of this controversial writer, it is worthwhile exploring clearly the cultural resources that contributed to his aesthetic system. Most studies of Wilde have largely ignored his oriental influences. This essay focuses on Wilde's writings on Chinese commodities and demonstrates how these writings helped Wilde to formulate a consumerist aestheticism free from class distinction. Firstly, this essay briefly reviews the history of Chinese goods in Britain and highlights the changes in social conditions during the Aesthetic Movement. Secondly, through reading Wilde's writings on Chinese commodities, this essay discusses the relationship between Wilde and Chinese goods and the role of Chinese applied arts in his establishment of consumerist aestheticism for the Victorian public. Thirdly, this essay situates Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray“ in the context of late-Victorian imperial culture, to draw attention to the binary oppositions in Wilde's aestheticism, and the dilemma of keeping the distinctive identity of the aesthetes amidst the democratisation of beauty. Dorian's collection serves both to recognise and resist the temptations of commodity fetishism. Dorian's endless search for sensations leads him to abuse Chinese opium, which parallels the destined fate of the decadent aesthetes and the correspondingly over-expanded imperial culture.