Culture and International Relations in the 18th Century

In ancient times, international relations typically were handled via one or another variety of royal court. Because information about other countries traveled mainly by word of mouth, international relations consisted largely of exchanges of delegations between these courts. It was the job of a foreign emissary to bring information about a foreign country back to his own ruler for strategic value. Therefore, it was critical that a court impress visitors with the strength and civility of its domain. Presumably, a monarch would want visiting emissaries to believe that his country had military strength, wise advisors, and state-of-the-art weaponry.

Before the advent of printing, the chief means of conveying such an impression was architecture, artifacts, and courtly ceremony, including hunting or military pageants designed to impress visitors. Elaborate and impressive architecture testified to the wealth of the kingdom and its ability to organize its people’s labor power (e.g., the elaborately carved decorations in early modern European palaces). Finely wrought metal artifacts acted as evidence of skilled artisans, which, in turn, revealed the kingdom’s capacity to make good weapons. The civility and intelligence of its ceremonies testified to the kingdom’s intellectual resources, as well as its military strength, and indicated the wise governance of the kingdom. Weakness in any of these areas might tempt a neighboring ruler to regard a country as weak and prompt an attack or invasion. This was the way nations created an international image for themselves before the spread of printing.

After printing was invented in China, the nature of Chinese society was transformed, opening up multiple spaces for public debate and making possible major advances in government and administration. Printed words and images were used to transmit information about almost everything from taxes and economic history to birthing practices, but print could not be used for transmitting an international image because other nations had not yet acquired the technology of printing. After printing made its way to Europe in the fifteenth century, nations all across Eurasia began to to learn about unfamiliar political systems and customs through print media. Now emissaries were no longer the major conduit for information about foreign countries. Almost any traveler could write about his or her travels, as Zheng He wrote about his travels to Africa in the early fifteenth century. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, perhaps the most important conduit for information about foreign countries, both East and West, was the Order of the Society of Jesus, more simply known as the Jesuits.

The Jesuits who went to China brought books along with them that included engraved illustrations. They also wrote letters and books about China that were sent back to Europe, where they became very popular. About 5000 of the books brought to China are still preserved in the National Library of China. Some of these books were shown to the emperors who learned about Europe from the illustrations. The emperor also received many books and images as presents from European kings and other important people. Some of these contained scenes of the palaces of European kings. Both the response to these books in China and the European response to the Chinese response can help us to understand the nature of international cultural competition at that time.

The French missionary Jean-Denis Attiret wrote an account of the Garden of Perfect Enlightenment, which was translated into English by Joseph Spence in 1752 under the title A Particular Account of the Emperor of China’s Gardens Near Peking. In his account, Attiret revealed to European readers Emperor Kangxi’s response to the European houses seen in the books brought by the Jesuits:

Emperor Kangxi, whilst he was looking over some plans of our European houses, [said] ‘this Europe must be a very small and pitiful country; since the inhabitants cannot find ground enough to spread out their towns, but are obliged to live up thus in the air!’ As for us, we think otherwise, and have reason to do so.

We should not assume that Kangxi was not impressed with the height of European buildings, but he turned what might have been a European achievement into a “put-down,” cleverly implying that tall buildings must reflect a lack of space! Sometimes we refer to this kind of response as “sour grapes.”

Although Emperor Kangxi had criticized prints of European buildings, he still decided that he also wanted engraved pictures of his palaces. In 1731, a priest named Matteo Ripa (1682–1745) was asked by Emperor Kangxi to make engravings of the Summer Palace in northeast China. Ripa created a set of prints that illustrated thirty-six scenes. Like Wang Wei, Emperor Kangxi had written a poem to celebrate each scene, which was placed together with the images to make a book. This book contained the first illustrations of an imperial garden that used the European engraving technique. The pavilions were in the traditional Chinese style and Ripa’s scenes imitated Chinese painting methods. Later, Ripa also produced a set of maps of China using the same method of engraving.

Emperor Qianlong, the grandson of Emperor Kangxi, was proud of his military victories against the enemies of China and wished to commemorate these triumphs in European-style etchings, so he asked Giuseppe Castiglione and other Jesuits in the palace workshop to make sets of drawings of his campaigns. These engravings were done completely in the European style so it was decided to have them engraved and printed in France. They were sent to Paris, and the finished product arrived in China in 1772. Over the years of his reign, Emperor Qianlong ordered more sets of his campaigns.

The third group illustrated the European Pavilions. There were twelve different constructions within this garden, which were completed around 1781. In 1784, the emperor wished to commemorate the pavilions with a set of engravings. Altogether, there were twenty images, of which the Hall of Calm Seas was the tenth image. Although Yi Lantai made the original drawings, the engraver was an artisan named Shu Wen. Two hundred sets were printed in China. This was the first time a copperplate engraving was designed and printed entirely by a Chinese artisan in China. Each set was packed in a fine wooden box and kept in one of the European pavilions for the emperor to present to people whom he wished to favor in this way. A few sets seem to have been sent by the Jesuits to Europe, of which one may be the set preserved at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland.

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