Knowingly or not, anyone who has spent much time at all on what used to be called the “China Coast” will surely have come across the paintings of the George Chinnery, an English artist active in Macau in the second quarter of the 19th century. Whatever profile Chinnery may have in the broader painterly pantheon, in Hong Kong and Macau he is the closest to an artistic native son that the Western colonial tradition has.

A photograph captures an instant frozen in time; old photographs therefore take on a higher significance precisely as a record of the past. Photography was born roughly at the same time that Hong Kong entered world history in the early 1840s; the emerging British colony soon attracted photographers of international repute on their first trips to Asia, and local photography studios were already being set up in the 1850s.

Here at last a book to unearth the untold story of Chinese porcelain in Spain at the time when both countries first started trading. Early relations between China and Spain remains an understudied subject, and the glaring absence of a monograph on Chinese porcelain in Spain has finally been redressed with the magisterial Chinese Porcelain in Habsburg Spain by Cinta Krahe. Habsburg Spain (1516-1700) coincides with the late Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing (1644-1911), a period of great accomplishment in Chinese ceramics.

If you turn to page 105 in this book you will see two extraordinary figures standing and facing each other in a colored albumen print from 1872. They both have bare feet; one wears a light-blue three-quarter length robe, rather like an elegant silk dressing-gown, and the other a similar one of a darker color, with what looks a little like a skirt underneath. They have rather serious expressions on their faces, and medium-length thick, dark, dry-looking hair. They both have upturned mustaches, rather in the style affected by Kaiser Wilhelm II, although not quite as extreme, and they look as if they’ve been painted on.

A rt has been central to China’s long history and to her core spiritual and intellectual values. However, much of that heritage has either been destroyed or it is now kept outside the country. Most of the onslaught has long been self-inflicted, deliberately aimed at China’s own cultural legacy, from the Tang dynasty’s iconoclastic reaction against Buddhism around the year 845 that led to widespread destruction of temples and statuary, to the devastating Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), or the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).