Museum Home Past Exhibitions China on Paper: European and Chinese Works from the Late Sixteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century

November 6, 2007–February 10, 2008 at the Getty Center

Engraved title page in Athanasius Kircher, Toonneel van China... / Dutch
Francis Xavier, Ignatius de Loyola, Adam Schall von Bell, and Matteo Ricci, engraved title page in Athanasius Kircher's book Toonneel van China..., 1667/1668

This exhibition presents works on paper from the special collections of the Research Library at the Getty Research Institute that document the fascinating story of cultural exchanges between Chinese and Europeans in the early-modern era.

The China trade flourished during this period, following newly discovered sea routes to ports in Southeast Asia. Merchants, principally from the East India companies, brought porcelain, silk, spices, pearls, and lacquerware to sell at European markets. In their wake came Catholic missionaries seeking converts. In this atmosphere, Chinese books, prints, and drawings describing the land and its people and their customs entered Europe. In turn, Western books, prints, and maps came to China as presents for the emperor, and as libraries for Jesuit missionaries. These Chinese and European works on paper were primary conduits for cultural transmissions and intercultural influences.

Many early accounts about China were written by Jesuits and widely distributed throughout Europe. The image above, a title page in a book on China, depicts the Jesuit missionaries Matteo Ricci and Adam Schall von Bell gesturing as if opening the door to the subject of China. Above them, founders of the order Francis Xavier and Ignatius de Loyola kneel on either side of the Jesuit monogram, IHS.

Complete map of the world (Kunyu quantu), detail / after Verbiest
Eastern hemisphere of the globe (in Complete map of the world [Kunyu quantu]), after Ferdinand Verbiest, about 1860
interactive Zoom in and explore this map.
learn_more See details and translations of selections from this map.

Flemish scientist Ferdinand Verbiest joined the Jesuit order in 1641; he traveled to Macao in 1659, where he studied Chinese and Confucian classics and took his final religious vows. He was a polymath best known for this Chinese world map, a revised Chinese calendar, and astronomical works in Chinese and Latin. Notwithstanding his status as a foreigner he developed an unusually close relationship with the Kangxi emperor, who conferred mandarin rank on Verbiest and granted him an official funeral.

For the emperor, cartography was a significant expression of his control over the regions under imperial domain. Verbiest's world map drew from contemporary Dutch maps and Chinese sources, but it presented the world in a format appropriate to a Chinese audience. Counter to Western mapmaking traditions that focused on Europe, the Kunyu quantu deferred to local conventions by placing China at the symbolic center, surrounded by countries that could be construed as tributary states.

View of the observatory (Guanxiangtai tu) / after Verbiest
View of the observatory (Guanxiangtai tu), Ferdinand Verbiest, 1674
learn_more See Chinese and European images of astronomical instruments.

The Jesuits may have gone to China to convert the Chinese and to introduce European ideas, but in the end they were engaged by the local culture. Following Matteo Ricci's model, the commingling of religion and science was a hallmark of the Jesuit mission. Using scientific methods to assist in the correction of the Chinese calendar and the accurate mapping of the imperial domain, the Jesuits gained access to the court. Among them were Adam Schall von Bell, who was appointed to the Directorate of Astronomy under the Shunzhi emperor, and Ferdinand Verbiest, who succeeded Schall under the Kangxi emperor.

Verbiest's two Chinese texts on the astronomical concepts to be implemented at the imperial observatory were written for the Kangxi emperor and state officials. His Compendium Latinum addressed the European audience of new Jesuit recruits, as well as the sponsors of the missions. The observatory can still be seen today in central Beijing.

Plowing (Geng) / Zhu Gui and Mei Yufeng after Jiao Bingzhen
Plowing (Geng), Zhu Gui and Mei Yufeng after Jiao Bingzhen, 1696
learn_more See a European vase in the Getty Museum's collection decorated with images from this book.

When the Kangxi emperor and successive Qing rulers issued new imperial editions of Lou Shou's Gengzhi shi (Poems on farming and weaving) (1145), they continued the traditional prioritization of agriculture fundamental to Chinese statecraft. This widely circulated wood-block book presents texts and images of the two essential Chinese agrarian industries: rice and silk. Gender-specific roles are given to men, who were responsible for rice cultivation, and to women, who raised the silkworms in the mulberry trees, and harvested and spun silk thread.

Copies of the Yuzhi gengzhi tu (Imperially commissioned illustrations of farming and weaving) (1696) were brought to Europe in the 18th century, and this scene of the Emperor plowing was reproduced in European prints, as well as in other media such as porcelain.

East facade of Hall of Calm Seas (Haiyantang dongmian) / Yi Lantai
East facade of Hall of Calm Seas (Haiyantang dongmian), Yi Lantai, 1783–1786
interactive See images of all of the European Pavilions at the Garden of Perfect Clarity in Beijing.

In the 18th century, when Chinese gardens and architectural follies were the fashion in Europe, the Qianlong emperor's interest in Western art and architecture led him to commission the European Pavilions at the Garden of Perfect Clarity. Designed principally by Jesuit architects and engineers and built in Beijing between 1747 and 1783, the complex was intended for the emperor's pleasure and as a place to display his collections of European objects. A suite of 20 engravings of the Xiyanglou, or European Pavilions, is the only contemporary source that documents the appearance of the architecture and landscape.

The engravings are among the largest of all Qing printed works and the first copper-plate engravings to be produced in China by local artists. The prints are credited to Yi Lantai, a Manchu who received his training in methods of linear perspective from Jesuit court artists.

The battle at Oroi-jalatu (Elei zhalutu zhi zhan) / Le Bas after Castiglione
The battle at Oroï-jalatu (Elei zhalutu zhi zhan), Jacques-Philippe Le Bas after Giuseppe Castiglione, ca. 1770
interactive Zoom in and explore this image.

The Qianlong emperor had admired European engravings of panoramic battle scenes that reproduced paintings by the German artist Georg Philipp Rugendas; he commissioned a similar series based on wall paintings of the battles, conquests, and ceremonies that marked his successful campaigns in the Western Region. Pingding Zhunga'er Huibu desheng tu (Images of the victories over the Zunghars and the Muslim tribes) is the first and most accomplished suite of 16 prints that celebrated notable Qing victories.

Four leading European missionary-artists at court in Beijing—Giuseppe Castiglione, Jean Denis Attiret, Giovanni Damasceno, and Ignatius Sichelbart, some of whom also designed the European Pavilons—were instructed to draw reduced versions of the battle paintings in the Hall of Imperial Glory. The emperor wished to have the prints made by the best European printmakers and the designs were sent to Paris where the French foreign ministry oversaw their costly production.