Atlas Chinensis as Global Encounter as Global Encounter

This essay was composed for the NEH Summer Institute: Shakespeare from the Globe to the Global (seminar).

Carol Mejia LaPerle, Wright State College

The London publication of Atlas Chinensis in 1671 is part of an English fascination with China. It is an interest cultivated by over a century of travel writing narratives, inspired particularly by the cultural influence of Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation (1589–1600) and Samuel Purchas’s Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625). Atlas Chinensis is consistent with the commercial and patriotic goals of the English East India company consolidated in 1600. The fact that it is a book documenting Dutch trade aspirations in China hardly diminishes the role the book plays in tracing English participation in global encounters. Indeed, in the midst of contentious Dutch/Anglo relations in securing a favorable foothold in Euro-Asian and inter-Asian trade, and in the context of an English book maker’s duplication of a Dutch printer’s consolidation of travel reports, engravings, and official trade documents generated by the VOC (the continental counterpart to the English enterprise founded in the Netherlands and also referred to as the Dutch East India company), Atlas Chinensis highlights both an old, enduring cultural fascination with China, as well as a new and commercially urgent investment in the country.

The book’s contents merge both the cultural and the commercial. On the one hand, it is a culmination of European knowledge of China up to the mid-seventeenth century: maps of cities and provinces; accounts of idol worshipping and culinary customs; pictures of landscapes and cityscapes accompanying extended descriptions of them; mourning and funeral rituals; inventories of materials of warfare and of fashion; accounts of plants, beasts, and birds; and aspects of the Chinese language and learning. On the other hand, the book closely documents the third official ambassadorial attempt of the Dutch to secure exclusive relations with the much coveted Chinese market. Documenting Pietre Van Hoorn’s embassy to China, the account attempts to itemize, while maintaining a veneer of detached objectivity, a desperate, ill-fated, and ultimately unsuccessful venture. Van Hoorn’s embassy left Batavia for China in 1666 with the goal of securing more favorable trade conditions as compensation for Dutch maritime assistance in the Ch’ing conflict against the Cheng regime. For almost two years, the Dutch train travelled from the marginal provinces to the imperial palace in Peking (and back), negotiated trade in coastal regions and in cities, prepared and conferred gifts (including horses and oxen), banqueted, practiced ceremonial rituals, and waited for a private conference with the Emperor that never was granted. The party left Foochow in 1668 with a sealed imperial edict addressed to the Governor General at Batavia with instructions that it not to be opened by Van Hoorn. In the edict was not only a rejection of the conditions of trade proposed by the Dutch, but also a reversal of any previous trade arrangements, effectively ending all hope of Dutch commerce in China.

But despite the failure of the embassy, Atlas Chinensis emerges as a valuable English resource for conceiving and disseminating global encounters. As part of John Ogilby’s project of publishing comprehensive volumes covering all parts of the globe, Atlas Chinensis captures moments of Euro-Sino relations in extensive illustrations. The book offers panoramic views of five inter-cultural encounters, and these illustrations are the subject of a PowerPoint presentation and visual analysis accompanying the essay. While the details of the engravings are hardly decipherable when beholding the manuscript’s pages, the magnification of Folger’s Luna interface enables a detailed examination of minutiae, proving that digital projects not only allow us to see more, but urge us to look closer.