Library Special Collection : Johan Nieuhof’s images of China

In the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch were at the height of their power and wanted to gain trade access in China. Despite the great opposition they succeeded in sending merchants there between 1655 and 1657. The steward, artist, and chronicler of the trade mission, Johan Nieuhof (1617-1672), wrote a travel journal and made many drawings of Chinese buildings, animals, plants, towns, rivers, landscapes, people and their costumes. The Dutch trade mission to the emperor of China was sponsored by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) and led by two of the company’s overseers, the merchants Pieter de Goyer and Jacob Keyzer. The envoy travelled first by sea from the Dutch colony at Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia) where the Dutch East India Company was headquartered, to Canton and then by interior waterways to Beijing.

The book Het Gezantschap der Neerlandtsche Oost-Indische Compagnie, aan den grooten Tartarischen Cham was based on the travel diary and it was illustrated with engravings which were produced on the basis of the drawings. The book also contains a map charting the route taken from Java to Beijing. Nieuhof’s prints were standard visual sources for images that defined China for Europeans.

The first edition was published in Amsterdam by the bookseller and art dealer Jacob van Meurs in 1665. It was translated into French (L’ambassade de la compagnie orientale des Provinces Unies vers l’empereur de la Chine, ou grand cam de Tartarie, 1665), German (Die Gesantschaft der Ost-Indischen Geselschaft in den Vereinigten Niederländern an den tartarischen Cham und nunmehr auch sinischen Keiser, 1666), Latin (Legatio Batavica ad magnum Tartarae Chamun, 1668), and English (An embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham, Emperor of China, 1669). A touchstone for books on China, the book was excerpted and reprinted through the early eighteenth century.

The French edition at the Peace Palace Library contains 145 engravings, and they are accessible on this page.

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