Trude Dijkstra
Search for other papers by Trude Dijkstra in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, ‘Holland had lost its interest in China’.1 The decline of the Dutch East India Company had set in, whereafter the Dutch concentrated on Java for their direct trade and increasingly began to rely on Chinese and Portuguese intermediaries for contacts with China.2 Dutch scholarly preoccupation with the Middle Kingdom also waned. No further projects of translation were undertaken and, after Vondel, Van Hoorn, and Van der Goes, no Dutch literary project made China its subject. Furthermore, the Sinophilia expressed by the likes of Vossius and Witsen found little continuation in the Dutch Republic but, instead, moved to specialised academies in Paris and London. In the same period, China’s Confucian literati became ‘disenchanted’ with the West, leading to a marked decrease in interest in European learning. In the early eighteenth century, the European objections to the Chinese rites had led to the expulsion of Catholic missionaries from China. In 1721, the Decree of Kangxi proclaimed in no uncertain terms that ‘Westerners should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble’, hammering the point home by stating that ‘I [Kangxi] have concluded that the Westerners are petty indeed’.3

As this ‘century of mutual exchange drew to a close’, the Dutch printing and publishing business also underwent considerable changes.4 Around the turn of the eighteenth century, the industry experienced a recession that led to a period of contraction and concentration on the domestic market. After a century of exceptional growth, the number of publishing firms fell, and Dutch printers and booksellers lost ground on foreign markets. Additionally, the Dutch no longer held the market of French-language books and periodicals in France. This meant that printers, publishers, and booksellers increasingly began to depend on the Dutch domestic market.5 Combined with lessening scholarly interests and a decrease in first-hand accounts and travelogues, changes in the Dutch book market resulted in a decline in the number of books, pamphlets, newspapers, and learned journals on China published in the Dutch Republic at the turn of the eighteenth century. At this moment when Dutch interest in China began to wane, Europeans generally viewed the Middle Kingdom in a positive light. Confucius was written about in glowing terms, the Chinese system of government was looked upon with admiration, and Chinese products such as porcelain and silk were in high demand.

Less than a century later, however, this appreciative attitude had undergone an almost complete reversal. By 1800, China was portrayed as a backwards and stagnant country, with a corrupt system of government that was associated with force and oppression. Earlier views of Chinese superiority were deconstructed in favour of European supremacy, placing the foreign country fully into the newly formed Eurocentric worldview.6 Modern historians are not the only ones to notice this shift. In 1788, the English translator of a popular description of China noted how European Sinophilia of the seventeenth century was turning into eighteenth-century Sinophobia:

The learned seem to differ widely in their ideas respecting [the Chinese]. By some they have been extolled as the wisest and most enlightened of mankind; while others, perhaps equally, if not more remote from the truth, have exhibited them in the most contemptible point of view, and represented them as a despicable people, deceitful, ignorant, and superstitious, and destitute of every principle of human justice.7

In France, Montesquieu and Voltaire represented opposite sides of this spectrum; the German thinker Johann Gottlieb Herder thought the Chinese greedy, full of ‘crafty hustle and subtlety’,8 while his countryman Gottfried Leibniz was probably one of early modern Europe’s foremost Sinophiles. Even though the colonial environment in de seventeenth century sometimes fostered intercultural interactions, places like Batavia (1740) saw an increase in European hostilities to Chinese communities, culminating in Sinophobic pogroms.9 The scholarship is still undecided as to what caused this shift in intercultural attitude, when it started, and how to conceptualise it. Various contributing factors are proposed, such as economic causes,10 changing perceptions towards art,11 and an increase in class mobility.12

This eighteenth-century shift was again most visible in print. By analysing form, content, and material-technical aspects of various text types, the present study has provided insights into the ways in which seventeenth-century readers could take note of China. But of course, related processes would continue to influence European perceptions of the Middle Kingdom in the centuries beyond. And so, we now have a good sense of the earliest processes of European-Chinese textual transmission from creator to consumer, accounting for publishing strategies and marketing structures; the reciprocal effects of printed works on the intended audience; and the importance of authors, translators, printers, publishers, editors, illustrators, engravers, and booksellers in shaping (inter)cultural consumption. But there is so much still to uncover.

Of course, the ways in which various media shape (global) cultural encounters in the present day is well recognised. Yet this influence has hardly been considered for the early modern period.13 The present study has demonstrated how representations of intercultural contacts in print influenced, and were in their turn influenced by, contemporary artistic, literary, and religious discourse and controversy. No singular European image of China existed in the seventeenth century, nor in the centuries thereafter. By considering how printed works and their producers influenced representations, intercultural encounters are better understood, which becomes all the more relevant in our ever-globalising world.


J.J. Duyvendak, ‘China in de Nederlandse letterkunde’, Jaarboek van de Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde (1938), pp. 3–14, p. 15.


Thijs Weststeijn, ‘“Sinarum gentes … omnium sollertissimae”. Encounters between the Middle Kingdom and the Low Countries, 1602–92’, in Song Gang (ed.), Reshaping the boundaries. The Christian intersection of China and the West in the modern era (Hong Kong: HKU Press, 2016), pp. 9–34.


Jen Li Dun, China in transition, 1517–1911 (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1969), p. 22.


Weststeijn, ‘The Middle Kingdom in the Low Countries’, p. 229.


Karel Davids (ed.), The rise and decline of Dutch technological leadership (2 vol., Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008), pp. 150–173; J.A. Gruys, P.C.A. Vriesema and C. de Wolf, ‘Dutch national bibliography 1540–1800. The STCN’, Quaerendo, 13 (1983), pp. 149–160.


Lach and Van Kley, Asia in the making of Europe, vol. 3; Mungello, The great encounter; Colin Mackerras, Western images of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).


Jean Baptiste Grosier, A general description of China. Containing the topography of the fifteen provinces which compose this vast empire (2 vol. London: C.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1788), p. iv, in Ashley Eva Millar, ‘Revisiting the Sinophilia/Sinophobia dichotomy in the European Enlightenment through Adam Smith’s “Duties of Government”’, Asian Journal of Social Science, 38 (2010), pp. 716–737.


Johann Gottlieb Herder, Ideeen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (vol. 3, Carlsruhe: Christian Gottlieb Schmieder, 1790), p. 14, as quoted in Blake Smith, ‘Colonial emulation. Sinophobia, ethnic stereotypes and imperial anxieties in late eighteenth-century economic thought’, History of European Ideas, 43.8 (2017), pp. 914–928; Trude Dijkstra, ‘The Lettres Chinoises and its shaping of contrasting perceptions of China’, in James Raven and Mark Towsey, Knowledge and communication in the Enlightenment world (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, forthcoming).


Leonard Blussé and Nie Dening (eds.), The Chinese Annals of Batavia, the Kai Ba Lidai Shiji and other stories (1610–1795) (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2018); Smith, ‘Colonial emulation’.


Geoffrey Hudson, ‘The historical context of encounters between Asia and Europe, as seen by a European’, in Raghavan Iyer (ed.), The glass curtain between Asia and Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965); David M. Jones, The image of China in Western social and political thought (New York: Palgrave, 2001).


Adolf Reichwein, China and Europe. Intellectual and artistic contacts in the eighteenth century, trans. by J.C. Powell (London: Kegan, 1925); Christiane Hertel, Sitting China in Germany. Eighteenth-century Chinoiserie and its modern legacy (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2019).


Waley-Cohen, The sextant of Beijing.


Dana Mastro and Riva Tukachinsky, ‘The influence of media exposure on the formation, activation, and application of racial/ethnic stereotypes’, The international encyclopedia of media studies, online 2012.

  • Collapse
  • Expand