Imagining China: the View from Europe, 1500–1700
- 1 Contents of the exhibition
- 1.1 Europeans in China
- 1.2 Mapping China
- 1.3 Strange Wonders
- 1.4 Chinese Medicine
- 1.5 Chinese Commodities
- 1.6 Reading and Writing
- 1.7 Imperial Letters
- 1.8 A New Dynasty
- 1.9 Shakespeare in China
- 2 Supplemental materials
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 curator of books Steven Galbraith discuss Mateo Ricci's close collaborations and his ideas on friendship.
- 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.
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).
- 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
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 puoluomi 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.
- 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.
- LOAN from Timothy Billings. Athanasius Kircher. China illustrata. [Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1667].