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Four men of Chinese descent in traditional clothing standing for a photograph amidst a crowd of white men in dour suits and women in high-necked lace dresses with elaborate hats at the 1904 World's Fair.
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John M. Olin Library, Ginkgo Reading Room

Gateway to the East: China at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, opened its doors to the public on April 30, 1904. By the time it concluded in December, millions of people had visited the fair. The nearly seven-month-long spectacle showcased a plethora of magnificent buildings, remarkable displays, scientific marvels, and exhibitions of cultures and products from foreign lands.

Two men of Chinese descent in bright, traditional clothing standing amidst a crowd of white men in dour suits and top hats at the 1904 World's Fair.
Prince Pu Lun, Chinese Commissioner, at the Opening Day Ceremonies of the 1904 World’s Fair. Photo from the Missouri Historical Society.

The St. Louis World’s Fair dazzled visitors and those who followed it in newspapers. By putting the city of St. Louis on the global map and bringing the world to the American heartland, the fair greatly furthered a cultural agenda of promoting America’s progress and superiority to audiences at home and around the world.

A crowd gathered at the Chinese Government Pavilion at the 1904 World's Fair.
Dedication to the Chinese Government Pavilion site at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Photo from the Missouri Historical Society.

The Gateway to the East exhibition examines how various groups of people, including American state officials, fairgoers, Chinese diplomats, members of the Chinese communities in St. Louis, and contemporary scholars and community historians, understand the meaning and legacy of the fair. Personal stories from the 1904 World’s Fair bring to light a curated view of China designed specifically to appeal to an American audience who viewed China as the “old regime” with an exotic culture but outdated civilization. The exhibition also sheds light on the cultural diplomacy utilized by the Qing government and its American counterpart, as both were navigating through the forces of colonialism, imperialism, diplomacy, and globalization by the turn of the 20th century.

This exhibition was organized by Dr. Zhao Ma, assistant curator Lingran Zhang, and Chinese Studies students, with help from Curator of Local History Miranda Rectenwald.

The Gateway to the East exhibition can be viewed whenever the Olin Library building is open to the public; please see the Building Access heading on the Olin Library Guidelines and Policies page for information on when the Olin Library is open to the public.

The header image credit belongs to the Missouri Historical Society.