Imagining China: the View from Europe, 1500–1700

Jesuits first came to China in the 16th century. Folger Digital Image 31727.

Imagining China: the View from Europe, 1500–1700, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger, opened September 18, 2009 and closed on January 9, 2010. The exhibition was curated by Timothy Billings.

Contents of the exhibition

Europeans in China

Marco Polo (1254–1324) was one of the earliest Europeans to visit China—though he was not the first (Friars John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck both reached China in the middle of the thirteenth century). It was Polo’s account, however, that fired the imagination of Europe for centuries, launching thousands of merchants toward the riches of Cathay. Even Christopher Columbus took a copy of Polo’s account, along with letters to the King of Cathay, on his voyage of 1492. The translation and continual reprinting of Polo’s manuscript carried its influence well into the seventeenth century, and contributed to the later Jesuit interest in China.

In fact, the early modern missions of the Jesuits in China mark one of the most notable steps in early contact between China and the Western world. Jesuit missionaries who gained permission to establish a residence in Guangdong Province in the early 1580s immersed themselves in the study of Chinese literature and culture and became a crucial link in the transfer of knowledge between China and Europe in the seventeenth century.

The first Jesuit to try to reach China was St. Francis Xavier in 1552, but he never made it to the mainland. In 1582, Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) did, and the Jesuit missions to China began in earnest. Athanasius Kircher, the director of the Jesuit museum in Rome and the author of China Illustrata (1667) was one of the best known “experts” on China although he had never left Europe and knew no Chinese. Kircher was responsible for widely disseminating, throughout much of Europe, tales and images (some accurate, some not) of the fantastical land to the east.

The remarkable cross-cultural achievements in science, philosophy, and literature for which Jesuits like Mateo Ricci are still celebrated would not have been possible without the help of native Chinese collaborators. Ricci provided the first accurate description of the Chinese language and writing system, and he concluded definitively that Cathay and China were different names for the same place. He attempted to translate Euclid’s Elements of Geometry as one of his first exercises in writing Chinese, but found it too difficult. It was only years later working side-by-side with “Paul” Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) that the two were able to complete this extraordinary work in collaboration. Together they also wrote Celiang fayi 測量法義 (Methods of Measurement Explained). Xu rose to high office, converted to Christianity, and used his influence to aid his Jesuit friends in many ways. Ricci and Xu became lifelong friends. In subsequent decades, other Jesuits like Adam Schall (1591–1666) and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–88) would be appointed as court astronomers and report directly to the emperor himself.

Listen to former Curator of Books Steven Galbraith discuss Matteo Ricci's close collaborations and his ideas on friendship.

Items included

  • Athanasius Kircher. China monumentis, qua sacris quà profanis, nec non variis naturae & artis spectaculis, aliarumque rerum memorabilium argumentis illustrata Amsterdam: Apud Jacobum à Meurs, 1667. Call number: 174-732f and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Louis Le Comte. Memoirs and observations topographical, physical, mathematical, mechanical, natural, civil, and ecclesiastical. Made in a late journey through the empire of China, and publiched in several letters. London, 1698. Call number: 153-623q and LUNA Digital Image.
  • LOAN from Timothy Billings. Athanasius Kircher. China illustrata. [Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1667].
  • Collegio romano. Museo. Romani Collegii Societatis Jesu Musaeum celeberrimum: cujus magnum antiquariae rei, statuarum, imaginum, picturarumque partem ex legato Alphonsi Donini, S.P.Q.R., a secretis, munificâ liberalitate relictum. Amsterdam, 1678. Call number: Folio AM101.K5 S4 1678 Cage and LUNA Digital Image.

Mapping China

China has been called Zhongguo 中國 or “the Middle Kingdom” for almost as long as records exist, but outside China it has been known by many other names for over two millennia. Greek and Roman geographers, including Ptolemy, knew the Chinese as the Seres or “silkpeople” and their home as Regio Serica or “Silk Land.” Ptolemy refers to the Sinae, from which we derive such modern words related to China as Sino-American and Sinology. Europeans arriving in the sixteenth century were introduced to Cina or China, a name probably derived from Qin 秦(pronounced “chin,” 221–206 BCE), the great dynasty under which the First Emperor Qin Shihuang unified China into a single empire. Marco Polo visited during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) and called it Cathay, from the Khitan empire of the Liao dynasty (907–1125) which had ruled northern China recently before his arrival.

Consequently, maps from the period often include both Cathay and China as though they were two different places, along with Polo’s “Cambaluc” (Khanbaliq) and the Jesuits’s “Peking” (Beijing) as different capital cities. Names on maps include these and their variants such as Pekin, Paquin, etc., and Cathayo, Cathaio, Cataium, etc.

Accurate geographical information about China was difficult to acquire in this period, and maps reflected the confusion. This historical map was printed for a 1513 edition of Ptolemy that compared the ancient world with that known in the sixteenth century. Ptolemy’s map illustrates the world as it was known in the second century. The Serica Regio (“Land of the Silkpeople”) lies at the extreme NE corner of the world protected by mountains (no Great Wall yet), especially the Imaus mons which very roughly corresponds to the Himalayas. The Sinarum Situs (“Location of the Chinese”) is confusingly marked as a separate place below.

Maps from the period also contain a variety of depictions of the changcheng 長城 or “Long Wall” of China. The Great Wall is actually several walls separated in places by wide gaps of mountains. But accurate maps of those walls did not appear until well into the eighteenth century in Europe or China. Early European maps often depict the mountainous segments entirely from imagination, but the effect is still one of complete enclosure as if China were one great fortified city. The impressive brick version we see today dates back only to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

In John Seller’s miniature atlas, the Great Wall is shown merely as a sinewy line with bumps for battlements, and the brief text reads: “China hath ... on the North a wall of 1,000 miles long, to keep them from the Tartars, which yet proved too weak a Fence, for in the fatal year 1644, they were overrun by that barbarous Nation.” In fact, it was not the Wall that failed: General Wu Sangui (1612–78) opened the gates for Manchu troops at Shanhai pass 山海關 in a pact to bolster his own power and to subdue a rebellion led by Li Zicheng (1606–45) 李自成. Once inside the walls, the Manchu troops were unstoppable.

Gerhard Mercator’s atlas depicts the Wall mostly as a natural fortification of mountains with intermittent spans of wall between them. The same mountains extend towards the west and south giving China a natural isolation. A second map of China in Mercator’s atlas show the Wall again stretching intermittently between mountains enclosing the “Part of China” (china pars). But Beijing appears twice: once as the capital city of “Cambalu” (from Marco Polo) in “Cataio” north of the wall, and also as “Xuntien” (Shuntian 順天, the prefecture of Beijing) south of the wall, where it is also confusingly labeled “Quinsay” (Hangzhou).

Items included

  • Claudius Ptolemaeus. Claudii Ptolemei viri Alexandrini mathematicae disciplinae philosophi doctissimi Geographiae opus novissima traductione e Graecorum archetypis castigatissime pressum, caeteris ante lucubratorum multo praestantius ... Strasbourg, 1513. Call number: Folio G87 P8 L3 1513 Cage; displayed map on folio 76.
  • Martino Martini. De bello Tartarico historia: in quâ, quo pacto Tartari hac nostrâ aetate Sinicum imperium invaserint, ac ferè totum occuparint, narratur, eorumq́ue mores breuiter describuntur. Antwerp, 1654. Call number: 187-690q and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Willem Blaeu. Appendix Theatri A. Ortelli et Atlantis G. Mercatoris. Print, 1631. Call number: Folio G1015.B5 1631 Cage and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Sebastian Münster. Cosmographiae universalis lib. VI.: in quibus, juxta certioris fidei scriptorum traditionem describuntur: omnium habitabilis orbis partium situs, propriaeque dotes, regionum topographicae effigies ... item omnium gentium mores, leges, religio ... atque memorabilium in hunc usque annum 1554 gestarum rerum historia. Basel, 1554. Call number: G113 .M7 1554 Cage and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Gerhard Mercator. Historia mundi: or Mercator’s atlas. London: T. Cotes, 1635. Call number: STC 17824; displayed p. 867.
  • Gerhard Mercator. Historia mundi: or Mercator’s atlas. London: T. Cotes, 1635. Call number: STC 17824.2and LUNA Digital Image

Strange Wonders

As reports came back about the wonders of China in the sixteenth century, Europeans began to construct an imaginative version of the land to the East. Many stories were true, but others were not, or contained only half-truths. Many images reproduced—like those in Kircher’s China Illustrata—were constructed from second-hand accounts, or were mistranslated from Chinese into English, Latin, or Italian. So, much like in a game of telephone, what started out as a truth in the East was depicted as a strange wonder to European readers. Reports contained stories about sailing land vehicles, trained birds that helped fisherman with their catch, exotically beautiful women, flying turtles, and fruit as large as a man’s torso.

Sailing land vehicles, famously called the “cany wagons light” that “Chineses drive with sails and wind” by John Milton in Paradise Lost (1667), especially captured the European imagination. Evidence suggests that sails were attached to wheelbarrows in areas of southern China to ease pushing a heavy load with the wind at one’s back, a practice that seems to date back several centuries. But the reports of early Portuguese visitors seem to have been misunderstood or perhaps simply exaggerated, transforming these wheelbarrows with an attached sail (jiafanche 加帆車) into large horseless coaches. In fact, believing these reports to be true, in 1600 a Flemish engineer named Simon Stevin decided to construct his own four-wheeled vehicle with sails and tackle capable of carrying two dozen passengers. It was fast enough to overtake a galloping horse. Its use, however, was limited to the broad, flat, and straight beaches of the southern Netherlands near Scheveningen. The high-tech sailing buggies still raced on beaches today owe their origins to this truly cross-cultural invention.

Other tales—like those about birds that could catch fish and deposit them in the boats of Chinese fishermen—were criticized in Europe as ridiculously utopian. But in fact the use of trained cormorants for fishing had been practiced in China for centuries, and the tradition is still maintained in some rural areas to this day.

Kircher’s China illustrata (1667) illustrated many of these wondrous things, even while discrediting some as untruths. A flying tortoise is indentified as the lümao gui 綠毛龜 or "green haired tortoise" famous for the long strands of algae that grow on its back. The Latin label, however, shows that mao 毛(hair) was mistranslated as "wings," resulting in a "green winged tortoise." Kircher insists the tortoise could not really have wings because that would contradict the essential nature of a tortoise (but he shows one flying anyway). Kircher also shows a fruit which he claims is as big as a man’s torso and could feed ten or twenty people. In fact, the boluomi 波羅密 or "jackfruit" truly is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, growing up to eighty pounds. The engraving in his text accurately depicts its interior segmentation and also how it grows directly on the trunk of the jackfruit tree (波羅密樹).

Beautiful Chinese women were equally as fascinating to European readers. Descriptions of upper-class Chinese women in the period tend to emphasize their natural beauty, their modesty, the fineness of their apparel and make-up, the whiteness of their skin, and occasionally their education and skill in various fine arts. Foot binding is described as early as the sixteenth century, and by the late seventeenth century descriptions appear of the long fingernails that became a fashion of the gentry during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

Kircher's engraving of a Chinese beauty has strikingly European features despite the Chinese-style gown and the conspicuously small feet. The stringed instrument wrapped in silk on the table is a qin 琴, a sort of Chinese “lute” or “zither.” This and the other objects in the room represent the cultural refinements and artistic accomplishments of the ideal Chinese woman.

Items included

  • John Speed. A prospect of the most famous parts of the world. London: John Dawson, 1631. Call number: STC 23040 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • LOAN from Nederlands Scheepvaartmuseum Amsterdam, Netherlands. Afbeelding van de Zeilwagen door Simon Stevin. Amsterdam, 1649. Inventory number: S.1034(15) kaart 050.
  • Arnoldus Montanus. Atlas Chinensis: being a second part of a relation of remarkable passages in two embassies from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the vice-roy Singlamong and General Taising Lipovi, and to Konchi, Emperor of China and East-Tartary. London, 1671. Call number: 141-005f and LUNA Digital Image.

Chinese Medicine

In an age when ideas of health and disease largely centered around the four humors, and blood-letting was a common “cure” for a variety of ailments, Europeans turned to traditional Chinese medicine for new and more effective techniques. Chinese medical treatises were among the first to be studied and discussed by missionaries, and by the late seventeenth century, acupuncture, pulse diagnosis, tongue diagnosis, and moxa had all been introduced to European readers. China was also thought to be the source of two of the best pharmacological ingredients in the world, Chinese musk and “true” rhubarb.

In the sixteenth century, musk was not just a perfume; it was a potent medicinal ingredient in both Chinese and European pharmacopeias, and was considered a priceless commodity, often named along with gold, silver, and precious stones in early lists of treasures from China and India. It was widely held that the best musk in the world came from the musk deer native to the mountains of China. The musk deer was adopted as an emblem, and seems to have been used by the Jesuits as a symbol for China, often appearing as an illustrated detail on Jesuit maps of the period.

Also not thought of today as a valuable medicine was rhubarb (da huang 大黃)—another chief prize of early trade with China. In Europe, the stalk of the “common” rhubarb had been esteemed for its purgative qualities for centuries, but the root of the Chinese “true” rhubarb was extremely precious—considered a potent medicine on par with ginseng—and its cultivation eluded Europeans until the nineteenth century.

We recognize other Chinese medical practices such as acupuncture, acupressure, and moxibustion from alternative and homeopathic remedies still practiced today, and these were introduced to Europeans in the sixteenth century. Acupuncture is the technique of inserting and manipulating fine needles into specific points on the body along which qi 氣 (material energy) flows. “Moxibustion” (jiu 灸) is the therapeutic practice of burning compressed cones of “moxa” or mugwort (Artemisia) on the skin in order to stimulate the flow of blood and qi along the same meridians.

Illustrations of the acutracts of the human body (used both for acupressure and moxibustion) could be found in Andreas Cleyer’s Specimen medicinae Sinicae sive opuscula medica ad mentem Sinensium (1682). These illustrations were copied from two seventeenth-century Chinese texts: Zhang Jiebin’s 張介賓 Lei Jing 類經 (Classics Classified, 1624) and the 1680 edition of Yang Jizhou’s 楊繼洲 Zhenjiu Dacheng 針灸大成 (Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, first printed in 1601).

Listen to former Head of Collection Information Services Jim Kuhn discuss Joachim Camerarius' Symbolorum et emblematum centuriae quarta and the musk deer.

Items included

  • Joachim Camerarius. Symbolorum et emblematum centuriae quarta. Frankfurt, 1661. Call number: PN6349 .C13 1661a Cage and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Giovanni Battista Ramusio. Secondo volume delle navigationi et viaggi: nel quale si contengono l’historia delle cose de Tartari, & diversi fatti de loro imperatori, descritta da m. Marco Polo gentilhuomo venetiano, & da Hayton Armeno: varie descrittioni di diversi autori, dell’Indie Orientali, della Tartaria, della Persia, Armenia, Mengrelia, Zorzania, & altre provincie, nelle quali si raccontano molte imprese d’Vssumcassan, d’Ismael Soffi, del soldano di Babilonia, di diversi imperatori ottomani, & particolarmente di Selim, contro Tomombei, ultimo soldano de Mamalucchi, & d’altri principi. Venice, 1559. Call number: G159.R2 1554 Cage v.2; displayed p.15.

Chinese Commodities

In the sixteenth century, Europeans considered the Chinese a very civilized people with fascinating customs and commodities. Aside from exquisite porcelains (the best of which nobody in Europe ever saw), what attracted the most attention by Europeans were the curiosities of daily life, such as chopsticks luxuriously made of ebony or ivory and tipped with silver, bamboo ear pickers (the first Q-tip), and the daily use of a potent and delicious health tonic called cha 茶 or “tea.”

Cultivation of ornamental carp was another curious custom, in practice since the Tang dynasty (618-907) by selective breeding for red, gold, and yellow colors. In 1162, under the reign of the Southern Song emperor Gaozong, the prestige of goldfish was increased when an official Jinyu chi 金魚池 (Goldfish Pond) was established within the imperial palace. Yellowish gold varieties were strictly forbidden outside the palace since yellow was the color reserved for the imperial family, but other varieties could be bred by anyone.

By the time Europeans arrived, the appreciation of goldfish had been elevated to an art of leisure and conspicuous consumption enjoyed by the class of prosperous and learned scholar-officials.

Chopsticks, or “bonesticks” were a great curiosity to Europeans, and were described in many texts. Matteo Ricci wrote: “In eating they have neither Forkes, nor Spoones, nor Knives; but use small smooth stickes, a palme and a halfe long, where-with they put all meats to their mouthes, without touching them with their fingers. ... [They] usually are of Ebonie, or Ivorie tipped with Gold or Silver, where they touch the meate.” Fine chopsticks were often tipped with silver as it was believed that silver would indicate the presence of poison in the food.

John Ovington wrote a treatise on the varieties of tea in Asia, crediting it for the lack of such diseases there as gout and stones. He also praises its power to “rowze the cloudy Vapors that benight the Brain, and drive away all Mists from the Eyes,” and quotes a short poem by Edmund Waller (1606–87) calling it the “Muse’s friend.” But he admits, “although these Virtues which I have mention’d may be fairly attributed to this China Liquor, yet are they sometimes obstructed by the Use of that Sugar which is commonly mix’d with it.”

Europeans were equally enchanted by the fine porcelains produced in China, but they were puzzled about their manufacture. Extravagant theories continued in circulation well into the eighteenth century despite the insistence of eye-witnesses that it was merely a very fine clay from a particular region mixed and fired into a hard, vitreous substance. In various accounts, “China dishes” were made of ground up eggshells, lobster shells, bones, gypsum, or chalk, combined with a special water from a single source, allowed to dry in the wind and sun for a generation, or fired and buried in the earth for up to one hundred years as a gift to one’s grandchildren. Several accounts describe the famous imperial kilns at Jingdezhen 景德镇, and the restrictions against the exportation of the highest quality porcelain. Yet manufacturers responded to the foreign demand for porcelain in this period, launching an industry for specially made export items that would grow to a massive scale in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Listen to former Head of Collection Information Services Jim Kuhn discuss one of China's most famous imports, tea.

Listen to former Exhibitions Manager Caryn Lazzuri discuss Chinese porcelain.

Items included

  • Royal Society. Philosophical transactions: giving some accompt of the present undertakings, studies and labours of the ingenious in many considerable parts of the world. London: T.N. for John Martyn, 1698. Call number: R2152.5 vol. 20 nos. 236-247 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Bernard Picart. The ceremonies and religious customs of the various nations of the known world: together with historical annotations, and several curious discourses equally instructive and entertaining. London: William Jackson, 1733-39. Call number: 162147 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Nahum Tate. A poem upon tea: with a discourse on its sov'rain virtues, and directions in the use of it for health, collected from treatises of eminent physicians upon that subject: also a preface containing beau-criticism. London, 1702. Call number: 195- 239q; displayed pp.2-3.
  • John Ovington. An essay upon the nature and qualities of tea. Wherein are shown, I. The soil and climate where it grows. II. The various kinds of it. III. The rules for chusing what is best. IV. The means of preserving it. V. The several virtues for which it is fam’d. London: R. Roberts, 1699. Call number: 144- 375q and LUNA Digital Image.

Reading and Writing

A page of Chinese characters. Folger Digital Image 31695.

Seventeenth century scholars were obsessed with the idea of a universal language that would permit all peoples to communicate with each other. They were especially interested in a language based on philosophical principles which could represent the true essence of things and ideas, rather than simply use arbitrary sounds and meanings. With its conspicuous pictographic elements (largely misunderstood at the time), the Chinese writing system was thought by many to be just such a language. In 1605, Francis Bacon described it as having “Characters Real, which express neither letters nor words in gross, but Things or Notions.”

Based on the misconception that the characters were essentially hieroglyphic, many European scholars believed that they might contain ancient truths and mysteries (Kircher even argued that Chinese and Egyptian were related). The monkey reading a page in the engraving above is not a mockery, but rather an emblem for the Latin proverb Ars simia naturae or “Art, the Ape of Nature,” which suggests that Chinese is capable of mimicking or “aping” nature in its true form. The characters depicted in the background, Shang fang 上方, mean “Celestial Realm” (literally, “place above”), reinforcing the idea of a hieroglyphic script capturing the essence of heavenly truths or concepts.

Most accounts of China also mention that printed books had existed since the Tang dynasty (618-907), centuries before Gutenberg’s printing press (ca. 1440), although some in Europe responded with disbelief. A crucial distinction is that carved woodblocks were used instead of movable type, but Matteo Ricci observed that this was better suited to Chinese characters, and that artisans worked so swiftly that carving a block took no more time than European typesetters in composing pages and correcting proofs. They could print up to 1,500 pages a day.

Despite this fascination with Chinese characters, the earliest descriptions of Chinese writing in this period were reported by Europeans who had not learned the language. They frequently stressed the great number of characters, their universal comprehensibility among speakers of mutually unintelligible dialects, and the literacy and studiousness of the Chinese. The notion that Chinese is a monosyllabic language appears in the first accounts, although most “words” actually consist of two or more characters. With the publication of Matteo Ricci’s journals in 1615, Europeans first learned about the tonal structure of the language and about the difference between the classical literary idiom and the spoken form.

Items included

  • Athanasius Kircher. Athanasii Kircheri Fuldensis Buchonii e Soc. Jesu Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacus: ad eminentiss. Rome, 1636. Call number: 175- 782q and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Wilkins. An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language. London: for Sa: Gellibrand, and for John Martyn, 1668. Call number: W2196; displayed p. 451.
  • Juan González de Mendoza. The historie of the great and mightie kingdome of China, and the situation thereof: togither with the great riches, huge citties, politike governement, and rare inventions in the same. London: I. Wolfe for Edward White, 1588. Call number: STC 12003 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Matteo Ricci. De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Iesu. Nicolas Trigault’s translation from the Italian manuscript original of Ricci’s diary. Augustae Vind.: Apud Christoph, [1615]. Call number: BX3746.C5 R38 1615 Cage and LUNA Digital Image.

Imperial Letters

Through the centuries, Chinese emperors corresponded with popes via merchants and missionaries, but at the turn of the seventeenth century England had yet to make its first contact. Eager to establish direct trade with China in an era dominated by the Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish, Queen Elizabeth I wrote letters to the “Emperour of Cathaye.” English adventurers never succeeded in delivering her letters either because they fell victim to piracy or because they tried to reach China by way of America. These fruitless attempts spawned at least one literary prank in the form of a fake letter to Queen Elizabeth I purported to be from the Emperor of China.

This counterfeit letter was copied into an early seventeenth-century letterbook, and was probably intended as a joke. It pretends to be a reply to the queen’s own letter to the emperor of China sent via the merchant Benjamin Wood in 1596. Wood’s fleet disappeared off the coast of present-day Myanmar. The punch line to the joke is the supposedly outrageous date, “25000.” This alludes to the challenge posed by China’s historical records which predated the beginning of the world as it was understood from the Bible. Only a Jesuit like Matteo Ricci could have translated the emperor’s reply, which is why the copy is in Italian. (Read more about this counterfeit letter, including a transcription, here.)

The reply may have been a fake, but Queen Elizabeth did send letters to China. A beautifully illuminated manuscript letter signed by Queen Elizabeth was sent with George Weymouth in May of 1602 on an expedition to find a northwest passage to China. The letter expressed hope that a “mutual benefit amity, and frenshipe may growe, and be established between us.” But the two-vessel fleet finally turned back in August 1602 after reaching only as far as Labrador. The letter survived in its original tin box along with the original translations that accompanied it in Latin, Spanish, and Italian (though only the English is illuminated). The letters were found in a private collection in Lancashire in the early twentieth century.

Listen to former Exhibitions Manager Caryn Lazzuri discuss Queen Elizabeth I's illuminated letter.

Items included

  • Copy of letter from the Emperor of China to the Queen of England, 1600. in Letterbook, ca. 1582-ca. 1615. Manuscript, ca. 1615.Call number: V.a.321; displayed fol. 34v-35r.
  • LOAN from Lancashire Records Office, England. Queen Elizabeth I. Letter to the “Emperour of Cathaye.” Manuscript. 4 May 1602. Lancashire Archives Reference number: DDSH/15/3/1-4.

A New Dynasty

An embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China, 1673. Folger Digital Image 31710.

Nineteenth-century Europeans tended to conceive of China as a stagnating empire, but the seventeenth century saw it as a dynamic place of cataclysmic changes as the Manchus (rather vaguely called “Tartars” in this period) invaded with the help of Ming rebels. In 1644, the Manchus declared a new dynasty—the Qing—which would last until China became a republic in 1911. European eye-witnesses to the events eagerly recorded history as it was unfolding for readers back home, and some of their accounts have been useful even to Chinese historians. Yet almost everything was moralized and the prevailing view of this dynastic change was that China had grown soft and effeminate in its luxuries, and the Tartars would restore it to its former greatness.

As forces led by the rebel Li Zicheng 李自成 (1606–65) entered Beijing in 1644, the reigning Chongzhen 崇禎 emperor ordered the death of his concubines and daughters, then hanged himself to prevent his own capture. Martino Martini’s account of these events was reprinted twenty-five times in ten languages by the end of the century. He noted that the first Manchu invasions coincided with the Ming persecution of the Jesuits in 1618, and he laid particular blame for the fall on the corruption of the court eunuchs.

Juan de Palafox y Mendoza wrote his own version of the conquest of China from his bishopric in Mexico using second-hand sources. He likened it to the Roman conquest of Carthage and spoke approvingly of the Manchus. But he also praised the Chongzhen emperor and lamented his death in melodramatic terms. He criticized the Chinese rebels who aided the Manchus and cast blame on high-ranking officials.

The Shunzhi emperor 順治 (1638–61) ascended the throne at the age of five, and became the first Manchu emperor of China in 1644. This portrait depicts him at about the age of eighteen as a European dandy. It was first printed in 1667 by Athanasius Kircher, who received a letter shortly thereafter from a fellow Jesuit in China pointing out that picturing the emperor with a dog and a stick would be considered a grave insult to the Chinese. He should be seated at a table with books and mathematical instruments.

Compare that portrait to the court portrait of the Kangxi emperor (1654–1722), who succeeded him. The young Kangxi emperor is seated on a golden throne holding a large calligraphy brush. On the desk is an ink-stone and a book enclosed in a protective blue flap box. Behind him is a dragon screen in the style of the famous painter Chen Rong 陳容 (1200–1266), and beneath his feet is a Ming-era imperial carpet with lucky ruyi 如意 clouds and imperial five-clawed dragons. Kangxi reigned for sixty-one years, the longest of any Chinese emperor, and commissioned massive editorial projects to preserve Chinese language and literature.

Items included

  • Juan de Palafox y Mendoza. The history of the conquest of China by the Tartars. London: W. Godbid, 1676. Call number: 143- 974q and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Martino Martini. De bello Tartarico historia: in quâ quo pacto Tartari hac nostrâ aetate Sinicum imperium invaserint, ac ferè totum occuparint narratur, eorumque mores breviter describuntur cum figuris aeneis. Amsterdam, 1655. Call number: 203- 911q; displayed foldout after p. 90.
  • Johannes Nieuhof. An embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China, deliver’d by their excellencies Peter de Goyer and Jacob de Keyzer, at his imperial city of Peking. London: Johannes Nieuhof, 1673. Call number: 141- 515f and LUNA Digital Image.
  • LOAN from The Palace Museum, Beijing. Anonymous court artists. Portrait of the Kangxi Emperor in Informal Dress Holding a Brush (Kangxidi bianzhuang xiezi xiang). Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. Kangxi reign (1662-1722), Qing dynasty. Image and details.

Shakespeare in China

For nearly two centuries, Chinese writers, filmmakers, and theater directors have engaged Shakespeare in their works in a wide range of contexts. Performances range from nineteenth-century travesty in Hong Kong and mid-twentieth-century Soviet-Chinese theater collaboration to a global array of approaches in cinema and postmodern theater. Shakespeare was first translated into Chinese in 1904, by the renowned translator Lin Shu 林紓 (1852–1924), under the title of Strange Stories from across the Seas (澥外奇譚) . Lin knew no English and relied on a bilingual collaborator to summarize Charles and Mary Lamb’s prose adaptations for children in Tales from Shakespeare (1807). And yet because Lin wrote in the highly erudite style of classical Chinese, of which he was a master, his versions inspired a whole generation of Chinese admirers to seek out the originals. The first complete play was translated in 1922, by the prominent dramatist Tian Han 田漢 (1898–1968), who translated Hamlet from Japanese. The first Chinese translation of Shakespeare’s complete works was published in 1967.

The first decade of the new millennium has seen a boom of new Asian cinematic Shakespeares. This new wave of filmic creativity reveals how Shakespearean aesthetics and Chinese perspectives are brought together to form locally-inspired but transnationally-produced artworks. Many of Shakespeare’s works have been reimaged by Chinese artists into silent film, period epic film, urban comedy, and martial-arts film. Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are often at the center of these cinematic imaginations.

Anthony Chan’s One Husband Too Many (一妻兩夫 Yiqi liangfu, Hong Kong, 1988) weaves Romeo and Juliet into a contemporary urban comedy, while Cheah Chee Kong’s Chicken Rice War (雞緣巧合 Jiyuan qiaohe, Singapore, 2000), engages such films as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998) from an ironic distance.

Explore the video archive of Shakespeare Performance in Asia (SPiA)[1] at MIT’s collaborative and interactive website, co-created and edited by Imagining China’s video curator, Alexa Huang.

Listen to Head of Collection Information Services Jim Kuhn discuss Shakespeare in translation.

Items included

  • Martin Droeshout. Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare. in William Shakespeares Works. Print, 1623. Call number: STC 22273 Fo.1 no.01 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • William Shakespeare. Works. Translated by Zhu Shenghao. Title and text in Chinese. Peking: The Writers’ Pub. House, 1954. Call number: PR2796 .C4 1954 Sh.Col..
  • William Shakespeare. Works. Translated by Liang Shih-Chiu. Title and text in Chinese. Republic of China: Book World Co., 1964. Call number: PR2796 .C4 1964 Sh.Col..
  • William Shakespeare. Works. Translated by Liang Shih-chiu. Title and text in Chinese. [Taiwan]: Far East Book Co., [1967]. Call number: PR2796 .C4 1967 Sh.Col..
  • William Shakespeare. Translation of the Lambs’ tales from Shakespeare into Chinese Translated by Hsiao Ch’ien. Text and titles in Chinese. Peking: Chung Kuo Ching Nien Chin Pan She, 1980. Call number: PR2796 .C4 1980 Sh.Col..
  • William Shakespeare. Annotated Shakespeare. Sponsored by the Shakespeare Society of China; chief editor, Qiu Ke’an. Text in English; editorial material in Chinese. Beijing: The Commercial Press, 1984-. Call number: PR2796 .C4 1984 Sh.Col..
  • William Shakespeare. Hamulei = Hamlet. Shashibiya yuan zhu ; Peng Jingxi yi zhu. Taibei Shi: Lian jing chu ban shi ye gong si, 2001. Call number: PR2796.C4 H1 2001 Sh.Col..
  • William Shakespeare. Shauo shi bi ya si da bei ju. Four tragedies of William Shakespeare. Tai bei shi: Mao tou ying chu ban: Cheng bang wen hua fa hang, 2004. Call number: PR2796.C5 B53 2004 Sh.Col..


  1. Many of the materials and features of SPiA have now been migrated to the MIT Global Shakespeares and Performance Archive.

Supplemental materials

Imagining China children's exhibition

Imagining China family guide

Audio Tour

Explore Imagining China: the View from Europe, 1500-1700 through this Audio Tour.

A Chinese Orphan

Listen to former Curator of Books Steven Galbraith discuss the production of Arthur Murphy's play.

Active Imaginations

Listen to former Curator of Books Steven Galbraith discuss Marco Polo's travels.

  • John Mandeville. The voyages and travailes of Sir John Maundevile knight. London: Thomas Este, 1582?. Call number: STC 17251 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Marco Polo. Marco Polo venetiano, delle merauiglie del mondo per lui vedute. Venice: Appresso Ghirardo & Iseppo Imberti, [1626]. Call number: 224- 070q.
  • Marco Polo. Marci Pauli Veneti, historici fidelissimi juxta ac praestantissimi, De regionibus orientalibus libri III. Brandenburg: Georgii Schulzii, [1671]. Call number: 195- 084q.

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