Blog post

Explorers of China, part 2

When Western traders and colonists set sail for China in the 17th Century, they found an empire focused solely on protectionism.

a porcelain figure of a man sitting down, wearing a long blue jacket with gold trim and gold tassels, his hair slicked back and ending in Victorian-style ruffles
Julien Ménabréaz (Photoconsortium)

When Western traders and colonists set sail for China in the 17th Century, they found an empire focused solely on protectionism. China had severed most ties with the West, not allowing any foreigners into its borders. Exceptionally, the Jesuits were allowed to stay at court because of their knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. Merchants, on the other hand, could only stay in the port of Guangzhou.

Both groups painted a different picture of China and Chinese institutions. The Jesuits were living at the sophisticated Chinese imperial court, while the traders complained about corruption and obstruction by Chinese merchants in Guangzhou.

The arrival of merchants was also the beginning of official exchanges and meetings between embassies and the Chinese imperial court in order to establish trading relations.

One of the first was a Dutch delegation sent in 1655 by the Dutch East Company based in Batavia (today’s Jakarta). But the Chinese assumed the Dutch were just coming to pay allegiance to the emperor. The same happened to the Portuguese and Russian delegations coming through Siberia.

One of the most famous delegations was sent by the United Kingdom in 1792. We know that again there was a problem with protocol: Lord Macartney, the British ambassador, refused to perform the Kowtow (the nine times prosternations) to pay respect to the Chinese emperor.

This problem summed up the distance and misunderstandings between China and the West. In China, foreigners were regarded as inferior. On the other hand, the West was aiming at establishing equal partnerships. As a result of the breach in communication and understanding, several other European diplomatic missions suffered the same treatment, increasing the anger and igniting a desire for revenge.

After the two Opium_Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), China was forced to open its harbours to foreigners and lease some of their territories. These lands were called ‘Concessions’, officially occupied and governed by foreign powers - such as Hong Kong, that came under British rule. The humiliation of China was seen by the West as an act of vengeance for their disrespect in the previous century.

a sepia photograph of several men in military uniform and matching hats standing on battlements, next to a cannon mounted on a two-wheeled cart.

A substantial influx of Western people ensued, now including soldiers, scientists, journalists and artists. Many migrants left behind their native country to find adventure and fortune on the other side of the globe. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 made the journey faster than ever.

The cross-continental flow of people instigated the construction of new infrastructures, such as ports, hostels, roads, railways and telegraphs. These, in turn, made the discovery of China easier for a new category of visitors: tourists. Moreover, while before merchants couldn’t bring their family, now women were allowed to enter the country too.

Among the tourists, adventurers, merchants and other professionals visiting China for a short stay or an extended period, many would share their experiences in letters and drawings, official reports or research papers. A new type of media appeared as well: photography.

The earliest pictures of Hong Kong were taken by Pierre Rossier and followed by many others. Thanks to small and easy-to-use cameras like those produced by the Eastman Kodak Company, amateurs as well as professionals created a new image of China. Western photographers also taught Chinese people how to use photographic equipment.

European families who relocated in China sent gifts, pictures and letters to their relatives back home, talking about their lives. Often, we learn a lot about the lives of the Chinese too, by reading the expats’ views on the people in their service - including drivers, nannies and cooks.

After the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), European intellectuals with leftist sympathies continued to visit the country and write articles for newspapers, take pictures or paint the local scenery. Several celebrities, too, visited China in the 20th century, among which the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his companion, author Simone de Beauvoir (1956).

The Swiss artist Géa Augsbourg visited China at the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the PRC (1959) and presented his impressions in a series of drawings.

a pencil sketch of a woman and a person bearing a large round shield and a long spear.

Cultural exchange between the West and China continues to this day: this process of acculturation is how we learn about one another and learn to appreciate each others similarities and differences.

This blog post is a part of the PAGODE project, which explores Chinese cultural heritage in Europe.

China history travelling explorers