Celestial Empire—part five

Celestial Empire—part five
Looking In 番邦
29 March 2016

A nineteenth-century Korean atlas begins with a map of the world with China at the centre. It then presents a map of China before moving on to other states, before finishing with maps of Korea’s various provinces. This hand-coloured manuscript is a copy of a small atlas that circulated widely in printed form under the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1897). The introduction to the printed edition notes that the map of China served as a reminder of events in Chinese history, so while it identifies contemporary provinces and departments, it also marks the locations of various states that existed before China was unified under its first emperor in the third century BC, some two millennia earlier. The written language of the Chosŏn elite was classical Chinese and, as in China, knowledge of this formative period was central to Korean education, since it provided the texts and models for understanding government and human affairs. After its conquest of China, the Qing court was content to maintain similar relations with the Chosŏn to those of the Ming dynasty. As long as the Chosŏn court respected Qing power, it was allowed to manage its own affairs. This encouraged the court’s acceptance of Qing suzerainty and the performance of ritual submission through its emissaries.

Map of China from a Korean atlas

Atlas, Korea, 19th century, nla.obj-234424552

Japan’s relations with the Qing were very different. As in Korea, knowledge of Chinese language and tradition was essential for the elite, and Chinese books had long been entering Japan, coming directly from China or via Korea. But from the 1630s the Tokugawa Shogunate restricted contact with the outside world. Japanese subjects were not allowed to travel abroad, and Chinese merchants were only allowed entry at Nagasaki, where their movements were restricted and their trading was regulated. Despite their inability to visit China, Japanese still considered knowledge of the Qing dynasty useful. Nakagawa Tadateru (1753–1830), an official in Nagasaki, produced a detailed overview of life in China in his Manual on Qing customs (1799). Nakagawa based this work on carefully conducted interviews with Chinese merchants coming to Japan to trade. One of the book’s prefaces explains that an understanding of Chinese customs was essential for managing relations with these merchants. The work records in detail government administration, festivals, rites, buildings, furniture, tools, clothing, education, marriage, travel and funerals. Another preface claims that the illustrations were completed by Japanese artists working under the instruction of visiting Chinese traders, but some images are clearly drawn from earlier Chinese printed sources.

Nakagawa Tadateru (1753–1830), Depiction of city-god festival from Manual on Qing Customs, Tokyo: Nishinomiya Tasuke, 1799, National Library of Australia

By the time the Qing captured Beijing in 1644, small numbers of Jesuits had already been in China for decades. They had a few residences dotted around China, but enjoyed only modest success in winning converts. Several Jesuits perished in the disorder prevailing before and during the Manchu conquest, but early in the Qing other members of the order found favour at court thanks to their scientific knowledge. As their fortunes fluctuated with the political atmosphere, both in China and at home in Europe, the privileges they enjoyed at court were gradually lost. Yet their efforts spent learning the language and customs of China meant they were able to convey to their European readers a great deal more information about China than had previously been available.

One of the earliest European works produced on the Qing came from the pen of the Jesuit Martino Martini (1614–1661), who first arrived in China in 1643. After surviving the fall of the Ming, he journeyed to Rome in 1651. While in Europe, he produced a number of works on China. His book De Bello Tartarico Historia (History of the Tartar Wars) describes his experiences during the Qing conquest. This work also appeared, with Martini’s own maps and descriptions of China, in Novus Atlas Sinensis (New Atlas of China), published by Joan Blaeu (1596–1673) as the sixth volume of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, sive Atlas Novus (Theatre of the World, or New Atlas), a series initiated by Blaeu and his father in 1635. It contained one map of East Asia and individual maps of each of the 15 provinces of China based on Chinese surveys and cartographic studies. Accompanying these maps were descriptions of each province.

Martino Martini (1614–1661), Map of Zhili province (modern Hebei) from Novus Atlas Sinensis(New Atlas of China), Amsterdam: Joan Blaeu, 1655, nla.obj-230902859

One of the most influential works about China produced in Europe in the 17th century was an account of a journey by representatives of the Dutch East India Company to Beijing in the 1650s. After news of the Qing conquest arrived at Company’s offices in Batavia (Jakarta), representatives were dispatched to Canton with the goal of opening trade, but the Canton authorities instructed the Dutch to depart and only return with presents and correspondence for ‘the great Cham at Peking’. In June 1655 a new embassy set out from Batavia. It arrived in Canton in July, but only in March the following year was permission granted by Beijing for them to proceed to the capital. They arrived in Beijing on 17 July, and in September were allowed an audience at court alongside other embassies, including those from India and Tibet. But they were not rewarded with the trading rights they sought; instead they were presented with a letter from the emperor addressed to the governor of Batavia inviting the Dutch to offer tribute once every eight years. The ambassadors left Beijing on 16 October, arriving back in Canton in January, from whence they set sail at the end of February. Upon their arrival back in Batavia on 31 March 1657, they reported the failure of their mission. Nevertheless, they had gained rich first-hand knowledge of China. The images produced in the published account of this visit proved dominant in European imaginings of the Middle Kingdom for the next century.

Picture of the town of Anhing from An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperour of China

Joan Nieuhof (1618–1672), An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperour of China, Delivered by their Excellencies Peter de Goyer and Jacob de Keyzer, at his Imperial City of Peking. Wherein the Cities, Towns, Villages, Ports, Rivers, &c. in their Passages from Canton to Peking are Ingeniously Described by Mr. John Nieuhoff, Steward to the Ambassadours, London: John Macock, 1669, National Library of Australia


This is an edited excerpt from Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644–1911 by Dr Nathan Woolley—available through our online bookshop.