Historical story

Quote Thijs

Last updated:2022-07-25

Porcelain trade is not the subject of a historical research project on China. This time the Chinese culture and the mutual influence through contacts with Europeans is under a magnifying glass. The young Republic played an important role in this.

China is popular in the Netherlands. Our country is one of China's largest European trading partners, and the universities are also showing interest in Chinese cultural and language studies and research programmes. This cultural interest can be traced back to the seventeenth century, as can be seen in the exhibition Barbarians &Philosophers, The Image of China in the Golden Age.

This exhibition at the Frans Hals Museum is part of the multi-year research project The Chinese Impact, which is led by Thijs Weststeijn. He is an art historian at Utrecht University and guest curator of the exhibition. What new insights does his project give us?

Crying Emperor

While scientists in previous research mainly looked at the trade relations between China and the Netherlands and at the quantities of porcelain traded by the Dutch East India Company, this is the first research project focused on cultural exchange, according to Weststeijn. “In the seventeenth century, the period of the first structural contact, the Netherlands led the way with publications about China. The travel journals of traders who had visited the closed country were hugely popular at home. The images in it, although often edited or even invented, spread very quickly.”

This determined the image of China in the Netherlands and again inspired artists. For example, Vondel wrote a historical play about the fall of a Chinese emperor. This was the first European literary work set entirely against a Chinese background, with Chinese protagonists.

Criminal Jesus

Chinese objects, as well as persons, have returned to Dutch paintings since the seventeenth century. “Our research revealed that the 'Korean' in the painting The Miracles of Saint Francis Xavier (Peter Paul Rubens, 1617-18) the Chinese trader Yppong. Out of curiosity, this man had traveled to Holland with a merchant fleet and arrived in Middelburg in 1601. Rubens used Yppong as an eyewitness to Francis's miraculous conversions of Asians.”

In addition to traders, Roman Catholic missionaries of the Jesuit order also traveled to China. The information they reported to the home front was of a different nature than the travel reports. “Jesuits described that the Chinese emperor was moved to tears by the Dutch devotional art. Of course we cannot take this too literally because of the religious agenda of the missionaries. What we do know is that Chinese artists copied Dutch prints, including those by painter Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). However, this was mainly at the behest of Jesuits. The Chinese themselves thought that Jesus was a criminal, with his crown of thorns.”

Oldest Civilization

Dutch traders mainly tried to arrange free trade places in China, which they ultimately failed to do. In doing so, they did not behave like superior Westerners. The country was far too big and powerful for that:in China they could not gain a foothold by force, as elsewhere in Asia. In addition to respecting the power of the Chinese emperor, some Dutch people had great admiration for the millennia-old Chinese culture they saw.

The oldest European translation of the Conversations, the most important work of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551 – 479 BC), appeared in 1675 in Dutch. The version in Latin, the scientific language in Europe at the time, would not appear until twelve years later.

“The research shows how much the author Pieter van Hoorn opened the view of the rest of Europe to China with this Dutch translation. We see that among some contemporaries the Eurocentric world view began to waver. With the age of Chinese culture, scholars began to question the Bible as a historical source. The Biblical flood is said to have occurred in 2349 BC, but the Chinese era in ancient sources went back as far as 3000 BC.”

Not being able to take the Bible literally was swearing in church! Were the Chinese sources incorrect or had the Flood been a more local phenomenon? Doubts everywhere, according to the research project. “The Amsterdam linguist Isaac Vossius (1618-1689) did not doubt the Chinese sources and this was also the last straw for followers of the philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677) not to take the Bible literally. The ancient Egyptian civilization had also been known since the early seventeenth century that it was older than the Flood, but with the addition of the Chinese era, that could no longer be a coincidence.” The first fossils would not be interpreted as such until the eighteenth century, so at the time of this discussion there was no physical evidence for the age of the Earth.

Speed ​​demons

The admiration for the wisdom of the Chinese also caused the misinterpretation of sources. A good example of this is the sand yacht. “This cart, a kind of wheelbarrow with tarpaulin to make it easier to move goods, has been imitated in the Netherlands on the basis of descriptions from China. They had not seen the car in action and thought it was a passenger vehicle, but that turned out to be a creative misunderstanding. The prototype from 1600, in which Hugo de Groot also tore along the beach, is well documented. A scale model can be seen at the exhibition in Haarlem. Unfortunately, it didn't work as well as expected:it was only a useful mode of transport when it was downwind. But the great thing is that the overly positive image of Chinese culture and skills in the Netherlands has led to new inventions.”

While De Groot called the Chinese the smartest among all nations, Western science also provided new insights into China and thus influenced the image of the Dutch. Until now, this side of history had been far underexposed, according to Weststeijn. “The emperor, who was seen as the divine mediator between the heavenly bodies and the earth, was particularly intrigued by Western knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. And although the Chinese knew about gunpowder and cannons, they were very impressed by the superior Western small arms.”

Before the Dutch set foot on Chinese shores, the Chinese had mainly had contact with the Portuguese. It is therefore special that they have come to depict all Europeans as Dutch, namely tall and with red hair. “However, in the long term, the Dutch have not made an impression, according to our research. It was mainly a few men who had a temporary influence on the Chinese emperor.”

Exotic details

The Flemish Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) was one of these men. He was the one who introduced the Chinese Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) to Western knowledge of astronomy and mathematics by accurately predicting a solar eclipse. Verbiest became the emperor's private tutor and head of the observatory in the Forbidden City of Beijing. He had the instruments built for this. One of his fellow missionaries wrote a book with all collected information about China, which appeared in 1668. The Dutch translation was very popular and was also illegally copied and published.

“It was an important book in terms of content, although the information was very colored. The rationale of this book was that the Jesuits were doing a good job in China. The Chinese would have always been Christian, but they forgot for a moment. Evidence of this was an eighth century Christian tombstone.” Because of Verbiest, the emperor allowed preaching Christians to do their thing in his realm.

The travelogue with drawings by Johan Nieuhof is of a completely different order. As a trader he was an eyewitness, which gave his book a contemplative and non-religious approach. The images in his travel journal showed China to life for the first time, although here and there decorated with exotic details by his publisher. It was mainly these images that made this wildly popular book a success.

“Nieuhof's prints were used as examples and were widely imitated in art. In this way you also see the invented additions, for example in Chinese architecture. Nanking's pagoda is supposed to have seven floors, but an extra one was added, including some curls. Then you see eight-storey pagodas popping up in Dutch images, according to our research. The influence of this book on the Dutch image of China was enormous.” The scientists are not yet finished with this part of the research, and will look, among other things, at the clothing and haircuts of the Chinese in the prints. Another aspect that will be further investigated is the role that Chinese women played in contact with the Dutch.

In this way, China trickled into Dutch culture in various dimensions. Not only because of the millions of pieces of porcelain or the imitation Delft Blue for everyday use, but also in the idea of ​​a superior culture. “This created a rare situation in which the Dutch looked up admiringly to the oldest civilization on the other side of the world. And not just among the scientists, other Dutch people also found East Asia extremely interesting. Various types of information, whether it came through travel journals, pictures or the newspaper, were in great demand.”


In 1680, Vossius wrote with admiration about Chinese art, science and the enlightened emperor who listened to his subjects. But after 1700, interest in China and the biblical discussion among Dutch scholars ebbed somewhat. The attempts at free trade had failed and all trade went through Batavia, today's Jakarta. “There is no longer any direct contact with China, which means that the scientific and cultural exchange disappears. In other European countries, interest in China is growing and the focus of the debate is shifting to universities in London and Paris, where scientists continue to discuss Chinese culture. For example, the French philosopher Voltaire believes that the Chinese emperor Qianlong is an enlightened despot, unlike his own autocratic king.”

But that too was disappointing and in the eighteenth century two stereotypes remained. The land was either heavenly or the Chinese were unreliable scum. In the Netherlands, the Chinese could still be found mainly in satirical literature, which ridiculed the admiration of Vossius and his contemporaries.

“The fact that the missionaries who stayed in China were recalled by the Pope was the death knell for the cultural exchange with the Netherlands. According to the pope, the influence of the Chinese emperor was too great on his Jesuits, they 'chinese' too much. The Chinese emperor was deeply offended by this and in 1715 curbed the religious freedom of the Christians in his empire.”

The decline in admiration is also related to the political situation in the Netherlands, according to Weststeijn. “In the seventeenth century, the Dutch were busy articulating their own identity as a new nation. Much of their self-esteem depended on the VOC successes, which you can see in the paintings. One hundred years later, when the Republic is established, it will be less necessary.”