Johan Nieuhof’s Pioneering Travels In China

Johan Nieuhof was one of the most accomplished Dutch travelers of the seventeenth century.  Although he made separate and independently valuable explorations in Brazil, India, and China, it was his experience in China that has made his name known to history.  No serious student of Asian history and economic affairs can afford to overlook him or the implicit lessons of his travels.

He was born in Lower Saxony in 1618.  He must have shown a restless interest in travel and exploration at an early age, for he was groomed as an officer in the budding commercial firms that Holland was then unleashing on the world.  The Dutch West India Company sent him to work in its interests in Brazil in 1640; there he conducted explorations in the vicinity of Maranhão and Pernambuco.  He remained in Brazil for nine years, but left once it became clear that Portugal was on the ascendancy in the region.  Returning to The Netherlands, he joined the Dutch East India Company, and was permitted to join a delegation to visit the Qing emperor of China, Shunzhi, who occupied the imperial throne from 1644 to 1661.  In this capacity he served under two other company officials, Peter de Goyer and Jacob de Keyser.  The purpose of the legation was to secure permission for trading rights along the Cantonese coast, and to extract whatever other concessions that could be gained from the emperor.

A portrait of Johan Nieuhof, from the title page of one of his books

He traveled widely in China, recording what he saw and experienced.  These notes were later collected and published in Dutch in 1665 under the title Het gezantschap der Neêrlandtsche Oost-Indische Compagnie aan den grooten Tartarischen Cham, den tegenwoordigen keizer van China.  The book proved to be extremely popular, primarily due to its lush illustrations of China’s geography, cities, and people.  Translations into Latin, English, German, and French followed; the title of the English edition of 1669, translated by John Ogilby, was An embassy sent by the East-India Company, of the United Provinces to the Grand Tartar Cham or Emperor of China.  I am assuming “Cham” here is Shunzhi, the modern name of the emperor at that time.

Title pages of the Latin edition
Map of China, from the 1669 English edition of Nieuhof’s work

It is one of the great works of Asian travel literature.  In style it often reads as an official report, lacking in subtlety or the ornaments of style; but we cannot expect corporate reports to be gems of literature.  Nieuhof begins with a general description of the government of China and its primary offices; he then moves into a description of social systems and culture.  Consider the following passage where he describes his understanding of the evolution of the Chinese language:

And to that end and purpose, in the fist place you are to take notice, that the old Chinese characters of letters differ very much from those in present use; for at first the Chinese characterized their meaning in a kind of hieroglyphic shape, as of four-footed beasts, creeping creatures, fishes, herbs, boughs of trees, ropes, etc.  But after ages, by a long series of time, and a constant practical use thereof, finding a great confusion in a vast number of differing creatures and herbs, imitating the form of some of the ancients in their characters, made or added some little points and lines about them, to distinguish them one from another, and by that means reduced them into better order, and a less number, and those are the letters they use at present. [Trans. by John Ogilby]

Here he describes the use of chopsticks, and the beneficial features of the Chinese diet:

They neither use spoons, forks, nor knives at their meat, but round sticks about half a foot long, like our drum-sticks, wherewith they are very dexterous to take up meat, and put it into their mouths, without once touching it with their fingers.  These sticks are made of ebony, or other hard wood, and tipped at the end with gold or silver.  But here you are to take notice, that all sorts of flesh are bought to the table cut into small pieces.  They drink their liquors, which are generally made of beans, Zia [?], or water, boiling hot in the heat of summer, wine only excepted, which is drunk as it is naturally.

And they find by experience that such hot liquors are very good and comfortable for the stomach, being very great cordials, and much strengthening the inward parts; and to these means they attribute their long lives and healths, being very brisk and lively at seventy or eighty years of age.  And indeed by this means I conceive the Chinese are preserved from the stone in the bladder, wherewith a very great part of the people of Europe are very much afflicted, and which divers learned men have believed to proceed from no other cause than their continual drinking of cool drink.

The remainder of the book is devoted to a description of Chinese temples, buildings, rivers, bridges, earthworks, geography, and governmental matters.  The impression given by Nieuhof’s account is of a cultured, organized, and impressively self-contained civilization.  We do not get any sense of instability or chaos in the China of his time; that would come later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, once the age of colonialism began in earnest.  There is no way, the reader of Nieuhof’s book senses, that this country could fail to become the dominant economic and cultural power in Asia.

Below are some of the illustrations found in his work:

The illustrations in Nieuhof’s book were notable in that they attempted to record things as they actually appeared, rather than as artists imagined they might be.

He met a tragic end in a way that was not uncommon for explorers and travelers of his time.  The company eventually offered him a posting in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which he accepted; he remained there for four years beginning in 1663.  After various adventures and misadventures he took up residence in Batavia in the East Indies.  In 1672 he was returning to Asia after a visit to Holland; his ship stopped at Madagascar and Nieuhof decided to venture inland with a companion to explore the area.  The tribes living there were apparently not amused by his presence, and he either was killed or met with some unfortunate disaster.  We do not know, for later attempts to find his remains were not successful.  But he left posterity his book, and this testament alone justifies his life’s labors.


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