Background and objective: The Low Countries as the cradle of the European image of China, 1602-1721

 China is a “noble diamond, sparkling divinely in the eye,” wrote Joost van den Vondel after meeting a scholar from China. The nation’s “Prince of Poets” was not alone: Dutch artists, cartographers, and craftsmen were the most prolific Europeans in portraying the Middle Kingdom. Individual accounts, mostly related to the Jesuit mission, circulated in Europe from the late 16th century onwards. Yet the first adequate Western considerations of Chinese history, art, and philosophy were written by Netherlanders – even including the first tragedy set in China.

The image of China in Europe originated in the 17th-century Low Countries in which art and ideas interacted, affecting low and high culture. Dutch stereotypes of Chineseness are traceable in applied art from Sicily to Scandinavia and in scholarship from Paris to Saint Petersburg. This provenance is surprisingly little known. Images of China have been studied extensively, but earlier authors addressed either visual culture (Crossman, Honour, Impey, Jacobson, Jarry) or intellectual culture (Dawson, Hazard, Mackerras, Pinot, Porter) and therefore focused on France, England, and Germany in the 18th century. Limited in their disciplinary scope, they failed to recognize where and when the first comprehensive impact of China on the European imagination took place.

Even though recent scholarship has signaled that the Netherlands were “Europe’s primary entrepôt for information about Asia” (Lach/Van Kley: 508) and that the Dutch perception of China has “considerable significance for understanding early modern Euro­pean culture generally” (Van Kley 2003: 231), no one has faced the challenge of studying images in art and ideas in an integrated manner. The only overview history of Sino-Dutch exchanges charts diplomatic and trade contacts from a positivistic viewpoint, stopping short of analyzing the artistic and literary discourse these contacts engendered (Blussé/Van Luyn 1989/2008). An integrated approach of the Northern and Southern Netherlands has been introduced only preliminarily (Vande Walle/Golvers). Various spe­cialized studies addressed the trade and imitation of Chinese porcelain (Finlay, Jörg 1984, Odell 2010), but they failed to correlate the objects with China’s intellectual im­pact. Finally, historians of literature have entered the field recently (Van Kley 2003), but the main study (Pos), despite its erudition, lacks intertextual analysis of how the Middle Kingdom figured in Dutch writings.

The present program centers on the question: Which images of China developed in art and writing and how did they express current artistic, literary, religious, and philoso­phical discussions in the Low Countries? The analysis of a wide range of sources explores these images as referring to each other rather than to historical reality, highlighting how attitudes towards China expressed questions of local identity.

Projects 1 and 2 analyze material and textual sources respectively. This approach is complemented by project 3: the analysis of Chinese images of the West, based on con­tacts with tradesmen and missionaries from the Low Countries. The three-pronged ap­proach prepares project 4: the integrated analysis of artistic and intellectual culture in a comparative cross-cultural perspective.

The program’s temporal boundaries span a century. 1602 marks the arrival of the first cargo of Chinese porcelain in Amsterdam. 1721 saw the Chinese Emperor’s formal toleration of Christianity, which was inspired by his private tutor Ferdinand Verbiest, revoked. This period of first confrontations produced novel images that gradually crys­tallized into fixed clichés, determining the empirical conceptions of later generations.

Method: imagology

The project is rooted in the field of imagology: the study of the ideological circumstances and cultural conventions that determine the emergence of ethnic and national stereotypes (Beller/Leerssen, Leerssen). The research complements this approach, which has so far been part of literary criticism, with the study of artworks and material culture. Moreover, the program criticizes imagology’s traditional Eurocentric bias.

Essential to imagology is its attention to the dynamic of the discourse itself, re­gardless of the question whether the stereotypes adequately reflected reality. Imagologists explore how European countries have expressed their own sense of identity through their images of others. The present program likewise analyzes how existing Western debates determined Dutch images of the Chinese Middle Kingdom. Artistic and ideological preconceptions paradoxically contributed to China’s impact which “need have little to do with the literalness of an actual experience” (Spence: xiii). The program’s focus on artworks and writings for the European public complements the archival schol­arship that typifies earlier research on the Dutch in Asia (cf. Blussé 1986).

Imagology studies the dynamic in which potentially flexible images turn into fixed stereotypes over time. The approach is threefold. 1) It identifies tropes as the building blocks of a discourse about a foreign land. 2) It situates these tropes in an intertextual context in order to establish how representative a given trope was of more widespread patterns. 3) It studies the historical context to establish which outside factors determined the tropes’ persistence. The present program extends this method to include the visual arts, in which individual themes and stylistic elements fulfilled a similar role to textual tropes (Weststeijn 2007). This makes it possible to connect artistic and literary features to a unified intellectual-historical framework. Studying the historical context is essential for this ambition: the program explores, for instance, how religious differences in the Low Countries colored different views of China. Step 3) analyses how stereotypes were used as arguments that involve projection, when one’s own group is contrasted with another group, and identification, when similarities between groups are highlighted. The present project points out that this larger framework is determined by existing ideologies, which explains, for instance, why Spinozism came to play a role in the debate on China in the Netherlands. The research establishes to what extent stereotypes were markers of ideologies that otherwise remained implicit. Ultimately, even in the case of applied art, the popular images of happy Chinese in timeless, undisturbed gardens were deemed to reflect the philosophical superiority of East Asia, the mirror image of Europe that was torn by religious and political strife.

The proposed imagological approach also involves other interpretive categories in regard to stereoptype, especially gender. 17th-century Europeans often formulated China’s ‘otherness’ in terms of the Chinese attitudes towards women, homosexuals, and eunuchs. In the Netherlands, ideas on the foreign and the feminine were particularly closely intertwined. European texts higlighted attitudes towards women that purportedly testified to the Chinese ‘libertine’ or ‘Enlightened’ ideology. The repute of the women’s accommodating attitude also determined the European taste for Chinese art: the depicted ladies were seen as objects of desire just like he precious artworks themselves. Yet these foreign works were also suspect: decorated porcelain and silk were associated with the purportedly female confinement to the private sphere, fickleness, and irrationality. Porcelain and silk were seen as feminine commodities whose aesthetic qualities expressed the purportedly enlightened status of women in China (cf. Mitchell, Porter). This observation inspires a consideration of how the category of gender itself developed with regard to foreignness in the 17th century.

Finally, the program ‘hears the other party’ by incorporating the view from China. It will figure among the seminal studies analyzing early modern Europe’s cultural history in comparison to China’s (Lee, Miller/Louis, Standaert 2008, Xu Bo). This global outlook inspires fresh theoretical criticism in regard to imagology and Orientalism. A com­parative approach offers a more nuanced and complete account than the traditional Euro­centric perspective. The main overview (Beller/Leerssen: xiv) signals that “tran­scend[ing] the ethnocentrism and Eurocentrism which is the subject-matter of imagology in general … is a task for the future.” The program has taken up this challenge.

Project 1): Chinese themes and styles in the visual arts

Netherlandish artists and collectors gravitated towards depictions of China and the style of Chinese works. The project explores which preconceptions endured, analyzing themes, styles, and theoretical concepts in an integrated manner.

1) In terms of themes, most of the printed images of China circulating in Europe were based on Netherlandish originals, ranging from the first images “from life” to en­tirely fanciful ones. The project charts persisting visual conventions as many of these images, incorporated in model books and other publications, “took on a life of their own, representing China long after their original time of production” (Reed/Demattè: 13). The project foregrounds Johan Nieuhof’s particularly influential illustrations, based on a 1655 trade embassy to Beijing.

2) For style, the project focuses on applied art made for the European market. When the demand for porcelain outgrew its import, imitation Chinese Delftware presented the Oriental taste even in poor Dutch households. The project therefore examines how China was imagined in low culture. Yet it also identifies The Hague’s court as a model for aris­tocratic collections of ceramics, so-called “Dutch” galleries, throughout Europe.

3) The project explores the motivation for choosing Chinese themes and styles through a discussion of the art theory of the period. Dutch writers commented on China’s renowned “culture of the brush,” ranging from Rembrandt’s pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten to Isaac Vossius, the first European to defend Asian aesthetics.


Applying imagology to the fine arts, the project traces pedigrees of themes and styles and identifies the context that determined their persistence. First, it compiles a compre­hensive database of printed images of China and the Chinese by Netherlandish artists in order to chart the “extraordinary” number of works that is “in need of further explora­tion” (Pos: 420). This is feasible as Nieuhof’s book forms the research’s core and the total of relevant images is limited (c. 200). Focusing on a selection of 10% of the works, the project highlights enduring themes and strategies of representation: illusionistic techniques supporting the “from life” status versus fanciful additions made for publica­tion in print.

Next, the project carefully selects 15-20 works of applied art in Dutch museums (Amsterdam, Delft, Leeuwarden, Leiden, The Hague), exploring the purported linear qualities of the Chinese masters and conceptions of space as different from Western ones. It foregrounds the unique situation in which Netherlanders informed Chinese craftsmen on aspects that would be recognized as ‘Chinese’ by European buyers, result­ing in a hybrid aesthetics that poses a challenge to the field of imagology.

The prints are widely available in Dutch libraries but (outside Reed/Demattè) they have never been studied in a comprehensive manner. Additional scholars have ad­dressed applied art (Crossman, Howard/Ayers, Impey, Jörg 1984, Ulrichs 2007) without, however, considering the overarching questions posed by imagology.

The analysis of themes and styles is supported by the concepts and vocabulary de­veloped in Dutch art theory. How were the Western principles of imitation and emulation applied to non-Western art? Sharing its results with project 2, the research explores how a positive take on Chinese aesthetics was related to generally held utopian views of Chinese society.

 Research questions

1) Which images of China and the Chinese were disseminated in prints?

2) Which stylistic aspects regarded as ‘Chinese’ were imitated in applied art?

3) Which art-theoretical conceptions expressed purportedly ‘Chinese’ themes and styles?


Project 2): China in texts: from satire to philosophy

The project explores discussions of China ranging from popular satire (regarding Chinese consumer goods) to scholarly works (comparing Chinese thought to Spinozism). It in­ventories recurring tropes in newspapers, travelogues, drama, poetry, literature, and philosophy. This ambition is realistic through the clear selection criterion, the limited and cohesive corpus of writings (c.40, see 2e: sources), and various earlier studies (Israel 2007, Van Kley 2003, Pos, Weststeijn 2007). Isaac Vossius will receive special attention. Four ‘lenses’ for seeing China function as heuristic tools:

1) Literature. The project contrasts the purported documentary qualities of travelogues with the official embassies’ more attractive pictures. Close-reading identifies rhetorical elements that overruled objective reporting. These observations inspire an exploration of even more explicitly literary themes when China was presented as a Utopia.

2) Religion. The project analyzes religious differences coloring travel accounts as they derived from two networks, the Dutch East India Company and the Jesuit mission. It establishes how the Jesuits’ scholarship reached a wider audience only in Dutch transla­tions and editions. Special attention goes to the impact of the Chinese chronology on Biblical history.

3) Classical scholarship. The project charts classical themes, ranging from epic and tragedy (e.g, Dutch playwrights comparing Beijing to Troy) to accounts of empire and republicanism (portraying China as a ‘Platonic republic,’ a political unity contrasting starkly with Europe).

4) Philosophy. The project foregrounds how Chinese philosophy was associated with the novel ideas sparked by Dutch Cartesianism in order to highlight its potential to un­settle Western convictions (cf. Mungello 1998, Weststeijn 2007). Special focus is given to the first Latin and Dutch translations of Confucius. Finally, the project identifies ideas about philosophical language that inspired studies of the Chinese language (Weststeijn 2011).


For each of the four ‘lenses,’ the project discusses individual tropes, intertextual context, and historical context. This establishes how conceptions of China provided the back­ground for the self-images of the Dutch Republic and its southern neighbor, especially in regard to Biblical criticism, religious toleration, and republicanism. The comprehensive approach of low and high culture is indispensable: satirical documents often reflect gen­erally held conventions more clearly than texts claiming scholarly integrity do.

 Research questions

1) Which images of China and the Chinese were disseminated in texts?

2) Which of these images were persistent (i.e., what was the intertext)?

3) Which literary, religious, scholarly, and philosophical factors determined the popularity of images?


Project 3): Images of the Low Countries in China

This project addresses the mirror view, involving literature written in Chinese: which images did the Low Countries present in China? It traces how the image of the Dutch as a major European sea power evolved from a 1601 report on “redhaired devils,” through the first mention of “Helan” (Holland) in 1623, to the trade embassy of 1666. The pro­ject charts interrelations throughout the Low Countries, exploring how Dutch trade mis­sions smoothed the way for Jesuits from the Southern Netherlands.

In relation to visual images, the project analyzes how the Jesuits’ success in China depended on devotional illustrations by artists from the Netherlands which, reportedly, moved the Emperor to tears. The project foregrounds a selection of imitations that adapted the Western styles and themes for a Chinese public (cf. Golvers 1995, Jelles, Menegon, Sullivan). The analysis focuses on geometrical perspective that was little known in China before the Dutch embassies presented optical devices and Ferdinand Verbiest explained its theory at the Beijing court.

Verbiest’s efforts in particular have been characterized as the most important pres­entation of Western learning throughout the Jesuits’ stay in China (Libbrecht). The project investigates how these efforts contributed to the portrayal of the West in a favorable light.


This project deals with a topic that is novel in European scholarship while being studied to a greater degree in China (Han Qi, Huang Yilong, Wu Boya). The approach filters the recent Chinese findings through the lens of imagology: which tropes were used in de­scribing foreigners, which ones persisted, and what contextual factors determined this persistence?

An art-historical case study explores Chinese imitations of Netherlandish engravings. This will depend on traditional stylistic analysis of 5-10 selected illustrations involving linear perspective and illusionism. The project identifies contextual factors that deter­mined which visual elements were adopted or rejected, in particular the Chinese interest in Western science and specific interpretations of Catholicism.

An intellectual-historical case study addresses the Chinese reactions to Western scholarhip as presented by Ferdinand Verbiest, who is presently a popular topic among Chinese historians (Chen Jiuyuan, Liang Ruoyu, Shu Liguang). Various documents related to the Chinese reactions to his work have already been made accessible (Xu Haisong). How did Verbiest’s writings on Europe confront China with its global context for the first time?

Research questions

1) Which images of Europe did tradesmen and missionaries from the Low Countries present to the Chinese?

2) Which stylistic and thematic changes were made when Netherlandish prints were adapted for the Chinese public?

3) What was the reaction of Chinese scholars to Ferdinand Verbiest’s images of the West?


Project 4): Synthesis study

The synthesis study ties together the program’s different approaches and highlights methodological aspects. By investigating art and ideas in tandem, it provides earlier insights regarding material culture with an intellectual background while also explaining philosophical perceptions as rooted in popular visual imagery. Furthermore, it estab­lishes a comparative analysis of the mutual stereotypes which developed synchronously in the Low Countries and China.

The study addresses the imagological concept of “mediators” or individuals who ne­gotiate between cultures. It focuses on the handful of individual Chinese visiting the 17th-century Netherlands and the Jesuits from the Low Countries in Beijing. From an imagological perspective, these travelers are more significant than are the contacts be­tween Chinese and Dutch tradesmen in Batavia and Taiwan: the latter settings were by definition multicultural (as charted in Blussé 1986, 2003). The project establishes how the global travelers were themselves affected by their journey, recognizing that mediators “do not connect pure cultures, but foreground cross-cultural ramifications” (Amselle). The receptive attitude of parties in East and West inspires a more complete analysis than traditional imagology’s Eurocentrism. This approach sharpens the research group’s methodological and historical sensibilities: the cross-cultural confrontation points out structural similarities and exposes “false friends” (Miller/Louis).

Furthermore, the comparative analysis involves criticism of the method established in Said’s Orientalism (1978) that deconstructs all Western images of Asia as expressing sentiments of cultural superiority. The project discusses recent critics of Said’s approach who have noted that 17th-century European accounts of China did not fit the imperialist framework that developed afterward. These critics highlight China’s unique “Otherness” (Pos); purported cross-cultural continuities (Rietbergen); the merging of Chinese and European perspectives (Standaert 2003); and the resulting “breach” in Western identity (Brancaccio). The synthesis study explains how the research group’s results contribute to and modify this debate, pointing out, for instance, how Chinese chronology inspired Vossius’ Biblical criticism which had a lasting impact on European modernity.

Adviser 2 suggests complementing the proposed imagological method with postcolonial critical theory. The present proposal addresses postcolonialism implicitly in its discussion of Edgar Said, the theory’s founding father. The research will incorporate the key point of criticism that has been leveled against Said’s European focus (esp. by Gayatri Spivak): the project will analyze the ‘mirror view’, the Chinese perspective. In so doing, it regards the approaches of imagology and postcolonial theory as complementary and mutually beneficial. In addition, postcolonialism’s analyses of concepts such as race, hybridity, and ‘Occidentalism’ (Asian images of the West) will be relevant if only as heuristic tools that reveal continuities and discontinuities between the 17th-century situation and the modern period. Yet the project will also identify the limits of the approach: China was no colony and many aspects of the colonialist attitude among Western powers had not yet developed in full during the 17th century.

After Said, postcolonial theory (esp. Homi Bhabha) has regarded overcoming the conceptual dichotomy of ‘East’ and ‘West’ as one of its major challenges. For the Sino-Dutch exchanges of the 17th century it is evident that collaboration and cross-pollination, rather than conflict, effectively sparked creativity in art and ideas. The ceramics that became so popular throughout Europe were often made by Dutch artists after Chinese designs or – in the case of export porcelain – by Chinese artists after Dutch designs. Likewise, the Jesuits in Beijing collaborated with native helpers for their pubications in, and translations from, Chinese; Ferdinand Verbiest came to depend on more than a hundred Chinese assistants.

Postcolonial theory will remind the researchers of the fact that ‘China’ and ‘The Low Countries’ were multi-lingual, and arguably multi-cultural, entities with literally shifting borders in the period under discussion. What is essential, however, is that 17th-century Europeans themselves used a rigid East-West opposition as a main category for discussing China. In so doing they laid the basis for a trend that has lost none of its appeal today. As any glimpse at the currently popular news media will suggest, the dichotomy remains topical in Europe as well as in China. In fact, many present-day Chinese are obsessed by the Western perspective: their beliefs about how the West sees their country provide a challenge for imagology on a meta-level.

 Research questions

1) How did the artistic images of China interact with the literary images of China?

2) What were the differences and similarities in the process of image formation in the Netherlands and China?

3) How do the program’s findings inspire a critical view towards the methods of imagology and orientalism?