1. Begin by discussing with students how images of China and the Far East made it to the West. Remind them that this was a time before cameras, before television or movies, and before the Internet.
How would people have known about faraway lands and what they looked like? (They would have had to rely on written descriptions of traders and travelers. The earliest accounts of the Far East came along the Silk Road, the most famous of these being Marco Polo's Travels. These accounts relayed strange descriptions of distant palaces, new customs, and unheard-of inventions. Artists would have had to use the written word, along with a limited source of drawings and prints, to imagine and create scenes of faraway lands.)
2. Read the following description of an object from the Royal Observatory in Beijing. Have students close their eyes and imagine what this object would look like from the description given here. (Take a look at the language; this has been translated into 17th-century English, and some things might not be familiar to the students. A note on two words within the text: "Brazen" refers to the object being made of brass, although it is actually made of bronze; "Horison" refers to the horizon, specifically of a celestial sphere. The horizon is the great circle on a celestial sphere perpendicular to the line above [the zenith] and below [the nadir] the observer.)
A Celestial Globe of six feet diameter
"...The globe itself is Brazen, exactly round and smooth: The stars well made, and in their true places, and all the Circles of a proportionable breadth and thickness. It is besides so well hung that the least touch moves it, and tho it is above two thousand weight the least Child may elevate it to any Degree. On its large concave basis rest in an opposite Station four Dragons, whose Hair standing up an end, support a noble Horison commendable by its Breadth, its several Ornaments, and the Delicacy and Niceness of the Work. The Meridian in which the Pole is fixed, rests upon Clouds that issue out of the Basis, and slides easily between them, its motion being facilitated by some hidden Wheels, and moves with it the whole Globe to give it the required Elevation...These Machines being most of them above 10 feet from the ground, have for the Astronomers greater conveniency, Marble Steps around them, cut Amphitheater-wise."
From Memoirs and Observations Made in a Late Journey through the Empire of China, Louis le Compte, 1697
3. Pass out drawing paper and pencils and give each student a copy of the text, or place it on an overhead so that students can refer back to what was written. From this description, have the students draw what they think this globe would look like. (You may want to discuss with them what a celestial globe is, if there are any questions.
A celestial globe is a globe on which the stars, constellations, etc. are depicted in their proper relative positions in the sky.)
4. While they are drawing, remind them not to look at anyone else's drawing.
5. Once they have finished, put all of the drawings up and discuss the differences and similarities in the ways each student pictured this object from the description. What were the challenges of trying to imagine what this object would look like based solely on a written account?
6. Explain to students that you are now going to show them the way an artist depicted this object in a scene from the late 17th century, during a time of increased trade between China and Europe.
7. Display an image of The Astronomers tapestry and use the following questions.
Examine the objects and the actions of the figures in this image.
What do you think is happening in this scene?
Describe the setting for this scene. Where do you think this scene is supposed to take place?
Have students identify the object that they drew. In what ways is it similar to, and different from, the written description they drew from?
If the globe you drew from the description is actually "10 feet from the ground," how does that correspond to the scene shown here?
What other objects associated with astronomy are shown here?
How would you describe the figures in this scene? One of the figures is thought to be Father Schall von Bell, who is seated to the left of the globe. Discuss the way he is depicted in relation to the other figures in this scene.
What are some of the challenges of trying to depict images from written descriptions? (When working from a written description, there is much left to the imagination. We know that the French artists who created these images had written descriptions as a guide in creating the tapestries, and that there were also engravings of each of the objects that were found at the Royal Observatory in Beijing.)
Do an Internet search on the "Ancient Observatory in Beijing," and view images of the objects shown in the tapestry as they are preserved today at the Ancient Observatory Museum. How are the real objects like or unlike the objects shown in the tapestry?
A Jesuit priest, Father Ferdinand Verbiest, said the following in relation to sharing knowledge of astronomy with the Chinese: "Our Holy religion, under the starry cloak of astronomy, is easily introduced among princes and governors of the provinces." In relation to what you see on this tapestry, what does this statement tell you about the motivations of sharing knowledge between the Europeans and Chinese in this time period?
8. Look at other images from The Story of the Emperor of China Series.
How do the other images from this series depict scenes of China?
What role does invention play in the entire series?
How does that affect how we view these objects today?
Why do you think the aristocracy of the French court would want images such as these to decorate their homes? (A couple of possible factors: 1.) Possibly because of the increase in interest in China due to expanded trade; and 2.) In 1684, the Jesuit Missionary Pere Couplet, from Mechlin (in modern Belgium), visited the courts of Paris and Versailles with his youthful Chinese convert, Michael Shen Fuzong. Also in 1684 and 1688, Siamese embassies visited Versialles. The presence of these travelers aroused great interest among the court of Louis XIV and perhaps inspired the creation of this tapestry series.)
Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
1.0 Word Analysis, Fluency, and Systematic Vocabulary Development
Students use their knowledge of word origins and word relationships, as well as historical and literary context clues, to determine the meaning of specialized vocabulary and to understand the precise meaning of grade-level-appropriate words.
Vocabulary and Concept Development
1.1 Identify idioms, analogies, metaphors, and similes in prose and poetry.
1.2 Use knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to understand content-area vocabulary.
1.3 Clarify word meanings through the use of definition, example, restatement, or contrast.
3.0 Literary Response and Analysis
Students read and respond to historically or culturally significant works of literature that reflect and enhance their studies of history and social science. They clarify the ideas and connect them to other literary works. The selections in Recommended Readings in Literature, Kindergarten Through Grade Eight illustrate the quality and complexity of the materials to be read by students.
History—Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools
6.6 Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the early civilizations of China.
4. Understand the importance of both overland trade and maritime expeditions between China and other civilizations in the Mongol Ascendancy and Ming Dynasty.
Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
1.0 Artistic Perception
Processing, Analyzing, and Responding to Sensory Information Through the Language and Skills Unique to the Visual Arts
1.2 Identify and describe scale (proportion) as applied to two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of art.
5.0 Connections, Relationships, Applications
Connecting and Applying What Is Learned in the Visual Arts to Other Art Forms and Subject Areas and to Careers
5.2 Use various drawing skills and techniques to depict lifestyles and scenes from selected civilizations.