Imagining China children's exhibition

Chinese fishermen fishing with cormorants, 1671. Folger Digital Image 32110.

This article collects the children's exhibition material featured in Imagining China: the View from Europe, 1500–1700, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

China is an ancient civilization that has attracted travelers and explorers for hundreds of years. It is home to many rare plants and animals, including leopards, porpoises, and giant pandas. Chinese inventors and scientists made important discoveries, which impressed visitors from other lands.

During Shakespeare's lifetime, people in Europe learned more and more about China. Read on to make your own discoveries!

Middle Kingdom

For thousands of years, people in Europe were curious about the lands far away to the East. A Greek scientist and mapmaker named Ptolemy made some of the earliest maps of China, which he called Regio Serica or the "Silk Land." Silk is a soft, delicate cloth that comes from China and in Ptolemy's time, was very special and expensive. In ancient China, how to make silk was a carefully guarded secret.

Ptolemy did not go to China himself, but used stories and information from other people to make his maps. Take a look at one of his maps. Can you find China?

Later on, other mapmakers and explorers visited China and created more accurate maps.

People who make maps are called cartographers. Look closely at the work of three early cartographers. One of the maps shows the Great Wall of China. Can you find it?

Lost Letters

Under Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), English ships and sailors were eager to explore the world. China had many things that Europeans were curious about, including tea, delicate dishes made out of porcelain, and perfume made from musk. English merchants wanted to find a faster, easier way to get to these wonderful items and bring them back for their customers.

Queen Elizabeth wrote several letters to the "Emperor of Cathay" and sent them with ships, hoping that the emperor would help her sailors find the best route for traveling between the two countries.

In one letter sent with Captain George Waymouth, who was looking for a way to China by sailing north of what is now Canada, Queen Elizabeth writes that the English are born explorers and "a people by nature inclined to great attempts, and to the discovery of countries and kingdoms unknown."

None of the queen's letters ever reached the emperor. The letters got lost, or the ships themselves got lost and had to turn around. Sometimes, the English sailors were even attacked by pirates!

The Kangxi Emperor

The Kangxi Emperor, helped by his grandmother and several royal advisors, began ruling China when he was only 7 years old. He began ruling by himself at age 15.

He is the longest-ruling emperor in Chinese history, and one of the most successful. He protected China from attacks from the Mongols and Russians, and helped to unify its many provinces. The Kangxi Emperor also supported culture and the arts. Under his reign, scholars created the the Kangxi Dictionary, the most complete dictionary of Chinese characters.

Cool facts:

  1. The Kangxi Emperor had more children than any other Chinese emperor—more than 30!
  2. In 1696, the emperor personally led three armies, totalling about 80,000 troops, against the Dzungars in Mongolia.
  3. The Kangxi Emperor liked to read and appreciated books and poetry. He wrote a preface to a collection of 50,000 poems by over 2,200 writers in 1707.

Strange but True

Visitors to China brought back many wonderful and exciting stories. Some of these stories were true, but others were not.

Imagine that you heard the following stories about China. Would you believe them? Why or why not?

  1. Chinese people traveled in wagons that were pushed along by sails, instead of pulled by horses.
  2. Flying tortoises live in China.
  3. The Chinese secret ingredients for making beautiful porcelain dishes included grinding up eggs and lobster shells, and then burying the dishes in the ground for up to 100 years to allow them to harden.

None of these three stories are true. However, a European engineer was so inspired by stories about wagons with sails that he designed one that could be raced on long, flat beaches near the seashore. The stories about flying tortoises were based on a mistake in translation; sometimes sea tortoises had algae grow on their backs, and the Chinese called them "green haired tortoises" because the algae looked like hair. "Hair" was mistakenly translated as "wings." Finally, the recipe for porcelain was a closely guarded secret for many years, but it does not include eggs or lobster shells.

Listen to exhibitions manager Caryn Lazzuri discuss Chinese porcelain.

Europeans were amazed when they heard about Chinese fisherman using trained birds to catch fish for them. But this story is true! Fishing with trained cormorants, a kind of bird that lives near the water, is still practiced in China and other parts of the world today.

Imagining China family guide