Peaceful Competition at the Panama Pacific International Exposition

This blog post will investigate the Chinese pavilion at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 to illustrate how as David Raizman and Ethan Robey explored in their book, Expanding Nationalisms at World’s Fairs, during the 20th century, nations began to focus on forms of soft power such as design and production rather than arms to demonstrate their power.1 This post explores the expense, positioning, and critique of the Chinese pavilion at the Panama International Exposition to illustrates how nations used their pavilions at expositions as emblems of themselves in formal politics and general society.

The international political context of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 was characterised by the opening of the Panama Canal. The canal’s opening shifted global power dynamics by increasing competition in the Pacific. It had made the Pacific easily accessible to China and a space China could begin to compete in. This change in China’s position in the world power standings was subsequently reflected through the excessive grandeur of Chinese pavilion at the Panama exposition. The opening of the pavilion was filled with exorbitant pageantry featuring Qing officials giving various opening day speeches to an extensive crowd.2 As the exposition souvenir guide points out, China ‘appropriated $750,000 and her native artisans to build her pavilion’.((The Souvenir Guide Publishers, Panama-Pacific International Exposition 1915 Souvenir Guide, San Francisco, 1915, 15.)) This expense notably exceeded what other nations, excluding the host, spent on their pavilions. This immense effort that China put into their pavilion illustrates how the Chinese considered the international exposition a crucial place to demonstrate their new power and increasing global presence. This is further implied by how this pavilion contrasted significantly to the previous Chinese pavilion at the international exposition at St Louis in 1904. This was critiqued for the lack of Chinese national symbols and poor exhibition technique and management. It held such minimal significance in China that it was not even organised by Chinese officials but by European and American Chinese Customs Service employees.3This striking difference between the two China pavilions reflects the difference in China’s international position reinforcing how pavilions had become an emblem for nation power within the realm of international politics.

Figure 1. The Souvenir Guide Publishers, Diagram showing Exposition ground plan, Palaces, Courts, Pavilions and Concessions 1915, map,, 20.

The importance of international expositions as a place to display national prestige is also evidenced by how the spatial organisation of expositions reflected the global standings of nations. As Raizman and Robey emphasise, in other expositions, the placement of nations represented the ‘sliding scale of humanity’, and physical objects, such as the central transept at the Great Exhibition in London in 1951, were used to resemble the ‘equator’ and the divide between the West and the East.4The ground plan of the Panama exposition shows the China pavilion in an area characterised by Western nations. It is opposite the pavilions of significant American states such as New York City and is neighboured by Canada. This location aligns with China’s desire to be seen by the international community as a state that held power equivalent to that of the US. Furthermore, the size of the Chinese pavilion is comparable to that of other Western nations, whilst nations that would be defined as being in the ‘East’ such as India and Persia, had smaller spaces. This highlights how the size of pavilions was also used to represent for a nation’s power reinforcing how increasingly not only weaponry represented global power.

The final feature of the Chinese pavilion at the Panama expositions that illustrated how pavilions came to represent nation’s global reputation is seen through the criticism towards the pavilion’s attraction of the Underground Chinatown. At the Underground Chinatown, visitors could view caricatures of opium addicts, performances in opium caves and gambling halls.5 The attraction was met by protests from Chinese officials and the Chinese American community before it was eventually shut down. The critique focussed on the racial and cultural humiliation and, most significantly, how the attraction risked China’s reputation within the international community.6  Within the exposition, they did not want to be considered a ‘lost nation’ for fear of the broader global implications this would create.6 This concern on the impact of China’s international reputation was broadcast in both local American Chinese-language newspapers and Western newspapers. This extensive critique not only from Chinese officials but also, the expatriate community and Western journalists and its focus on the international reputation illustrates how pavilions had become seen as an emblem of the nation.

Overall, the excessive expense of the Chinese pavilion, central positioning and concern that the failings of the pavilion would change the world’s perception of China, illustrate how during the early 20th century new ways to present international power had been created. National pavilions at international exhibitions became representations of countries’ global standings that impacted nationals at home and abroad.

  1. David Raizman and Ethan Robey, Expanding Nationalisms at World’s Fairs: Identity, Diversity, and Exchange, 1851-1915 (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2018), 8. []
  2. Ibid., 185. []
  3. Raizman and Robey, Expanding Nationalism, 176. []
  4. Ibid., 28 []
  5. Ibid., 188. []
  6. Ibid. [] []