Trude Dijkstra’s research for the project The Chinese Impact focusses on the image of China as presented to the European public by way of printed publications coming from the Dutch Republic between 1595 and 1721. In recent years much has been written on the subject of the encounters between East and West during the Early Modern Period, but as stated by prof. dr. Thijs Weststeijn in the general objectives of our project: ‘[studies] have often failed to recognize where and when the first comprehensive impact of China on the European imagination took place’. Dutch book production and trade reached its apogee during the seventeenth century, and had taken the whole of Europe for its market. And it was Amsterdam that had outdistanced both its Dutch and its European competitors to become the most important centre for the production of printed material in Europe by the middle of the seventeenth century. China occupied a special place in the Dutch imagination: between 1595 and 1720 hundreds of books were printed in the Dutch Republic containing information on China, often embellished with beautifully executed illustrations And while some of these books may have been intended for export and therefore printed in French, German, Latin or English – many of these were meant for the prospective market of readers at home in Haarlem, Amsterdam or Leiden. Most of the information on China contained in these books came from reports given by Jesuit missionaries and merchants in the service of the Dutch East India Company. Both organisations played a significant role in the transmission of knowledge, science, and culture between China and the West. Through publications originating in the Dutch Republic, these two very different institutions shaped the way Europe saw China.

Asia was first opened up to the West during the sixteenth century as the result of greatly expanded trade routes. It was also during this period that Europe was first confronted with unfamiliar ideas and objects associated with Asia. First written down in travelogues and descriptions of journeys to the East, many of these ideas would eventually find their way to the printing press. The books that resulted contained information which was now available to all that could read, and which would for a large part determine the image of China during the first half of the seventeenth century.

Besides books, various other publications – some of which only came into being during the second part of the seventeenth century – proved to have a profound impact as well. China, and more specifically Confucius, featured heavily in learned journals from the 1680s onwards. The reviews of the books on China and Confucius in learned journals offers one of the first European reaction to these subjects. By nature of the publication, the debate that was introduced in such a way that – in theory – would allow a more general part of the public to grasp the content and meaning of the book, while the more critical voice of the editor may have been hidden behind linguistic manoeuvres. However, it will become clear that from the very first, Confucius and his teaching – as presented by the Jesuits – were a controversial subject in the late seventeenth century Dutch Republic, whereby many different voices would use the Chinese sage to push their own philosophical, religious or political agendas.  

The same goes for Dutch newspapers, where the articles published show the variegated interest of the public in all matters China, be it from an economic, religious, or political viewpoint. Besides being the European nucleus for the production of books and pamphlets, Amsterdam and the Dutch Republic as a whole were an important centre for the production and distribution of newspapers and periodicals. Despite still being a foreign country at the other side of the globe, China was coming closer to Europe during the second half of the seventeenth century – in part because of the increasing availability of news from the Middle Kingdom

By focussing on a variety of printed publications originating in the Dutch Republic, this project explores the role of Dutch authors, printers, publishers, and booksellers in the formation of the European wide perception of China during the Early Modern Period.

 

Trude Dijkstra is a book-historian and historian specialising in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century, and its role as nucleus of book-production in the dissemination of East-West perceptions. She has a BA in history from the University of Amsterdam, where she graduated with a MA in art studies with a thesis entitled ‘The Mad Knight of La Mancha. Don Quixote and the illustration of madness, 1605-1750’. Recently her research has focussed on newspapers, journals, and pamphlets printed in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century.