They eat with their fingers instead of with chopsticks such as we use. They show their feelings without any self-control. They cannot understand the meaning of written characters. – From Charles R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650 (London, 1951).
Chinese and Japanese representations of sixteenth century Europeans have always fascinated me. We’re used to seeing early modern Europeans as the normative figures in the story of global exploration. After all, they were the ones who wrote the chronicles, diaries and letters upon which traditional historical narratives of the so-called ‘Age of Discovery’ were based. Japanese Nanban (“Southern Barbarian”) art, or Nanbanbijutsu, and the accompanying chronicles such as the one quoted above, can be fascinating correctives to these Eurocentric narratives.
A seventeenth century Japanese painting of a group of Portuguese merchants, accompanied by what may be an African slave. Japanese depictions of early modern Europeans in paintings and literature tend to emphasize their terrible personal grooming — “they stank of butter” as one observer put it — and physical ugliness.
A nanban painting of a Portuguese carrack, seventeenth century. This particular ship design was quickly adopted and assimilated by Japanese craftsmen, as was the arquebus, the direct ancestor of the flint-lock rifle.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, East Asian depictions of Europeans began to change. Chinese painters at the court of the Kangxi Emperor, for instance, began to depict European Jesuits in a more sympathetic light. I’m particularly fascinated by this 1685 portrait of the Dutch Jesuit astronomer Ferdinand Verbiest. Clad in the robes of a Chinese man of learning, Verbiest’s European origin is virtually indiscernible:
This sketch by Peter Paul Ruebens of the French Jesuit Nicolas Trigault makes for an interesting visual contrast. The note on the drawing states that he is adorned in Chinese dress.
The late eighteenth century witnessed an increase in European power in the East Asian sphere, and with it a new visual vocabulary for depicting Europeans. This painting by the remarkable Japanese artist Shiba Kokan (1747-1818) depicts A Meeting of China, Japan and the West. Note the European (probably Dutch) figure’s up-to-date anatomical book.
For those interested in learning more, Charles Boxer’s The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650 is an excellent start, as are many of the essays in Stuart Schwartz’s collected volume Implicit Understandings (Cambridge, 1994). Wikipedia’s page on the Nanban trade is pretty good as well.
Verbiest was born in Tielt. He was Flemish, not Dutch. Trigault was born in what was French Flanders at the time. Check Nicolas Standaert's 2001 work on the history of Christianity in China. While Boxer was a great scholar, he was not a China Jesuit specialist and his work, while mostly solid, is somewhat old.
Asian and World History
California State University, Fresno
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