Old China Summary and Analysis (Charles Lamb)

Old China is a classical essay written by famous English writer Charles Lamb in 1823. Before starting Old China Summary, let’s get some idea about its author Charles Lamb.

Charles Lamb was an English writer who lived from 1775 to 1834. He was famous for his essays, which were subjective. He wrote about his own experiences, thoughts, and feelings.

Lamb’s writing style was witty and playful. In his writing, Lamb explored themes of human relationships, family, memory, and nostalgia.

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Charles Lamb’s “Old China” and its historical context:

Historcial context of old china

“Old China” was first published in London Magazine in August 1823. This essay is not about China’s ancient civilization as its name may suggest, rather it is about old China porcelain, a ceramic product known for its white colour and delicate beauty. 

At the time when this essay was written, there was a growing fascination with Chinese porcelain in Europe, particularly in England. Wealthy families would often display their collections of Chinese porcelain as a sign of their taste.

One of the reasons that Chinese porcelain was so popular in Europe during the 18th century was that it was seen as a luxury item. It was expensive to import, and only the wealthy could afford to own it.

In fact, in Europe and also in this essay the term “China” is used to refer to porcelain in general, due to its popularity in Europe during this time.

The essay is a personal reflection on Lamb’s childhood memories of Chinese porcelain as you will illustrate in this Old China Summary.

However, it is not just about the porcelain itself, but also about the memories and emotions that it evokes.

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Old China Summary and Structure

Old China Summary and Analysis

The essay is written in a narrative style. In his essay Old China, Charles Lamb reflects on his love for China porcelain and its artistic expressions.

He is with his cousin Bridget, who had endured a life of poverty with him. They are now rich and can afford all that they could not in the past.

However, Bridget gets emotional and remembers a time when they were not as fortunate and had to save money to buy books.

They remember their past experiences in the theatre, where they had to sit with the crowds in the galleries because they couldn’t afford balcony tickets.

These crowds were illiterate, but they paid attention to every detail and questioned every aspect of the art on stage.

Bridget wishes to go back to a state where things mattered more and had emotions attached to them, unlike now when the only worth of any item was its price tag.

Through their reflections, Lamb highlights the unique experiences of poverty and wealth that shape one’s character.

Read the Original Text of Old China by Charles Lamb

Major Themes in “Old China”:

As it mentioned earlier in Old China Summary, “Old China” is a personal reflection on Lamb’s childhood memories of Chinese porcelain.

However, it also explores several broader themes and ideas that were common during the Romantic era.

The impact of social class:

Lamb reflects on how poverty and wealth shape a person’s experiences and values. He portrays a contrast between their past experiences of poverty and their new wealth, suggesting that social class can influence one’s perspective on life.


Old China Themes

One of the main themes of the essay is nostalgia. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that is often associated with a desire to return to the past.

As it could be seen in above Old China Summary, Lamb uses his memories of the porcelain to reflect on a simpler time when he was a child.

“I wish the good old times would come again,” she said, “when we were not quite so rich. I do not mean, that I want to be poor; but there was a middle state;”—so she was pleased to ramble on, — “in which I am sure we were a great deal happier

The Unfulfilling Nature of Material Possessions:

Lamb argues that the acquisition of new possessions does not necessarily bring happiness, but that pursuit of wealth can lead to extreme materialism. 

Through his essay, Lamb suggests that a meaningful existence is not only determined by material possessions but also by the relationships and memories that we create with those around us.

The value of history and tradition:

Old China Summary

Lamb’s essay emphasizes the value of history and traditions associated with objects, particularly in old China.

He suggests that old objects carry with them the stories and memories of previous generations and that by preserving them, we are able to connect with our past and we better understand our cultural heritage. 

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Passage of Time:

Another important theme in the essay is the passage of time. Lamb reflects on how the porcelain has aged and changed over the years, much like how people change as they grow older.

This theme reminds us that everything is subject to change, and nothing remains the same forever.

By exploring these themes, Lamb encourages the reader to consider the importance of preserving memories and cherishing the objects that hold sentimental values.

Reflection on the Cultural Attitudes of the Time in Old China Summary:

Old China by Charles Lamb

The essay was written during the Romantic period and it reflects the cultural attitudes of the time towards social status and class.

Chinese porcelain was a luxury item that only the wealthy could afford, and Lamb’s descriptions of the porcelain as a symbol of wealth and status reflect the social hierarchies of the time.

Lamb’s views on the impact of social class on a person’s experiences and values are also reflective of the social and economic changes of the Romantic period which could be illustrated in the above old china summary.

“Old China” fits within the romantic movement’s interest in the past and subjective experience. Romantic poets, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, often wrote about the importance of subjective experience.

Lamb’s essay similarly emphasizes the value of emotional connection and personal experience.

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Similarities of Old China Summary with Lamb’s Other Essays:

Analysis of “Old China” shares many similarities with his other essays, particularly in his use of personal experience to reflect on universal themes.

For example, Lamb’s essay “Dream-Children: A Reverie” also explores the theme of nostalgia through the lens of childhood memories.

Both essays use vivid imagery and descriptive language to create a sense of longing for a simpler time.

Literary Techniques in Old China


Lamb uses old China as a symbol and extended metaphor of memory and nostalgia.


Lamb uses irony to contrast the value of old possessions with the superficiality of modern consumer culture.


Lamb includes personal anecdotes about his own experiences with old China and poverty, which help to make the essay more relatable and engaging for readers.

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Resonate with Contemporary Culture and Society:

Old China Analysis

Although “Old China” was written in the 19th century, its themes of social class, the passage of time, and obsession with material things continue to resonate with contemporary culture and society.

You must have observed in the Old China Summary that the class struggle between those who have- and have not- is still present rather increasing in the modern age.

1% of our elite can afford anything under the sun while others who belong to the working class and proletariat will think 100 times before buying a single luxurious item.

The obsession with material possessions and the pursuit of wealth is still a prevalent issue in modern society. Many individuals measure their worth and value based on their possessions rather than their personal values and relationships.

Reception and Influence of the Essay

There has been a significant amount of critical attention paid to Lamb’s essay “Old China” over the years. e.g. critic, Geoffrey T. Hellman, wrote in The New Yorker in 1949 that “Old China” is a “delightful essay” and that “Lamb was one of the great masters of the personal essay.”

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As for its influence on later writers, the essay has been cited as an influence on Virginia Woolf, who wrote about an old China bowl in her essay ” Street haunting: a London adventure”

In academic settings, “Old China” has been studied as an example of Romantic prose and personal essay writing.

In his book “The Personal Essay: A Guide to Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction,” Dinty W. Moore cites Lamb as a master of the personal essay and notes that “Old China” is an example of how personal experience can be used to explore universal themes.

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In conclusion, Charles Lamb’s “Old China” is a timeless piece of literature that explores the themes of nostalgia, class struggle and our obsession with material possessions.

Through his use of descriptive language, metaphor, and literary techniques such as irony, Lamb offers a reflection on the importance of preserving memories and emotional connections in a rapidly changing world.

This Old China Summary and Analysis is just a single approach towards the essay but the versatile nature of the text enables every reader to relate it with their own society.

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