China in perspective

Explorers and Collectors

a round plate seen from above, showing yellow and green splotches of coloured decoration swirling round the enamel.

Many Chinese and China-related objects preserved in Europe were originally acquired by travellers who visited the Far East either for leisure or for professional reasons. Several prominent collections, in fact, stem from the legacies of such expats and explorers. That of Robert Hans van Gulik (1910-1967) for instance: a sinologist, diplomat, musician and writer who worked for the Dutch Foreign Service. Van Gulik collected fine art, literature and music manuscripts, of which a large part is kept as a special collection at Leiden University Libraries.

a book laid open to two pages, filled with black calligraphy of Chinese characters and red calligraphy next to those characters

Slovenian collector Ivan Skušek (1877–1947), in turn, was mostly enchanted by finely carved Chinese furniture. Skušek was a naval officer in the Austro-Hungarian army who lived in Beijing from 1914 to 1920. An avid collector, he dreamt of one day opening a museum in his native country to share his fascination with Chinese arts. His legacy, including numismatic objects, sculptures, porcelain, paintings and architectural artefacts, is housed today at the Slovene Ethnographic Museum.

a drawing printed on paper showing the interior of an Asian household with four figures in colourful dresses standing around

Contrary to Skušek, George Eumorfopoulos, a London-born business magnate of Greek descent, did manage to establish his own museum. He had the exhibition space built as an extension to his Chelsea Embankment home after his collection of oriental objects had grown to monumental proportions. Among the first to see the beauty and value in Chinese heritage, Eumorfopoulos was instrumental in its discovery by future generations. His life’s work went on to become part of the collections of the British Museum and the Benaki Museum in Athens - the realization of another iconic collector.

a model of a building (perhaps a granary) with a staircase, windows, balcony and pitched roof. Green lead glazed earthenware.

Like Eumorfopoulos, Carl Simon (1873-1952) did not explore China himself. Yet he did manage to collect enough photographs to produce 80 glass slides for use during events in which he presented stories about China to an audience. It isn’t clear how Simon acquired the images, nor if they were carefully chosen or haphazardly gathered. Whatever the answer may be, the pictures offer a fascinating view on Chinese history and society, literally and figuratively peeking through a coloured lens. Because not only did Simon have his staff hand-colour the slides, he also included images representing Japan instead of China. This misappropriation would have passed by his audience, who had little to no knowledge of the complex differences in Eastern cultures.

a black and white picture, later coloured in, of a busy Chinese shopping street with stalls on either side and people milling about, colourful drapes with Chinese script hanging above street level

Several of the Chinese collections in Europe are rooted in the history of missionaries in Asia. The Catholic faith, while favored by the Yuan dynasty in the late Middle Ages, became more widespread among the Chinese population from the 16th century onwards, when Jesuit missionaries set up posts, followed by Franciscans, Scheutists and other orders. Lutheran missions were established in the early 19th century, often consisting of smaller congregations. Yet their impact on local communities was substantial and in many cases spurred the emergence of new spiritual movements.

Two people sit on rocks at the mouth of the cave, a cave lake stretching out behind them ending in a steep cave wall

The legacy of Franciscan friar Dionysius Piatus Wantz (1884-1968), stored at KADOC KU Leuven, bears witness to life in the Hubei province in the early 20th century. As in many similar collections, the photographs and documents not only testify to historical events but also paint a picture of the local community and the new life the expats built for themselves.

a group of people stands around a camera, wearing traditional cotton tunics and vests. Some of them are holding cymbals and tambourines, showing the musical instruments off to the camera.

Yet there is more to these collections than documentary value. The personal photographs and studio-produced photo souvenirs in particular, shed light on what was regarded as iconic of China: the must-see monuments, breathtaking landscapes, seasonal customs, and other local traditions.

a glass slide photograph of a large statue in a temple, festooned with decorations

Often, these legacies hold an intrinsic artistic and photographic value as well. The collections from the early-20th-Century Finnish protestant missions, for instance, contain genuine gems of photography.

rice paddies stretch out to the horizon, with clear terraces on hillsides separating the paddies from each other. In the distance, a mountain range looms in the mist.

The photographs taken by pastors such as Hannu Haahti (1906-1935) and Juho Toivo Koskikallio (1889-1967) are often of museal quality. Rising above the documentary, the personal and anecdotal, they portray Chinese people, landscapes and architecture in an almost transcendent way - highlighting patterns, textures, lines and details that would escape the less observant or more transient traveller.

a photograph of dense tree foliage, in the distance the top stories of a Chinese pagoda can be seen