How the West Met and Misunderstood the East

Posted September 18, 2009 at 4:19pm

European visitors to the Americas and Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries often wrote home “racist, imperialist accounts— of primitive people and backward cultures, Middlebury College professor Timothy Billings said. Not so with most European visitors to China during the same period. These pioneers often brought back home literature, artwork, artifacts and memories from what they perceived as a strange, wondrous and captivating land.

The result is a fascinating exhibit of cultural memories and early scholarly work on Ming China through the eyes of Europeans, “Imagining China: The View From Europe, 1550-1700,— now at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Billings curated the exhibit in conjunction with exhibition consultant Jim Kuhn.

“The main idea of this exhibit is to show not just how Europeans viewed China —but also to show the difference between how China is viewed now and then,— said Billings, who started his academic career as a traditional Shakespeare scholar but branched out after he cultivated an interest in Chinese language and literature. “You read details in these European accounts of an extraordinary utopian vision of China — there are no thieves in China, there are no beggars in China.—

As a scholar, Billings was taught to be skeptical of such far-fetched claims by early modern Europeans — like the often-repeated story that the Chinese did not drive their passenger carriages with horses or mules, but rather affixed sails on top. Or the claim that the Chinese had trained birds that caught and delivered fish.

But a close examination of history shows some basis for these fantastical European tales. The Chinese, for example, did sometimes affix sails onto pushcarts and wheelbarrows. And, according to Billings, there was a rural Chinese tradition that involved training cormorants to fish for them.

“The challenge for us,— Billings said, “is to figure out what’s true representation and what’s misrepresentation.—

Billings also wanted to focus on some of the early Jesuit missionary activity in China, including a philosophical “Essay on Friendship— written by late 16th-century Jesuit scholar Matteo Ricci in Mandarin Chinese. The document, Billings said, represents the first text in Mandarin Chinese written by a European.

Billings, who just published the first modern translation of the treatise, said “the whole Jesuit presence in the period is so important that we devoted a lot of time to it.—

The exhibition runs through Jan. 9 in the Folger Great Hall and contains rare books, artifacts and maps from the Library of Congress, the Walters Art Museum, the British Museum, Nicholas Gridley and Billing’s own collection.