Foreign Devils and Philosophers

Aliz Horvath

The history of foreign exchange involving the Chinese and other people in Asia and beyond constitutes a relatively well-researched theme in the existing scholarship. Sino-European relations, in particular, have been extensively studied by a number of renowned scholars, such as Kenneth Pomeranz, Bin Wong, Jonathan Spence, and Leonard Blussé, among others, largely from the perspective of politics, trade, and religion.  

Cultural aspects, on the other hand, constitute an emerging, and hitherto less studied, area in the relevant existing literature. Some exceptions include Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat, which uses specific artifacts as starting points for broader discussions on transnational encounters, as well as Jürgen Osterhammel’s Unfabling the East, which takes a more intellectual historical approach to study the European Enlightenment’s encounter with Asia. Foreign Devils and Philosophers, edited by Thijs Weststeijn, constitutes an ambitious project aiming to refine received assumptions about the mechanisms of Sino-European encounters through the lens of cultural history. To a certain extent, the collaborative and highly diverse characters of the book resemble the three-volume Asia Inside Out series (edited by Eric Tagliacozzo, Helen Siu, and Peter Perdue), which also takes a somewhat unusual approach by zooming in to the significance of specific concepts, moments, and even years in history to shed light on their role in the shaping of Asia – although the latter focuses predominantly on Asian (and not Asian-European) circumstances.

Approaching Sino-European encounters

In general, Sino-European relations in the early modern period are often studied through the operations of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and its British version, as well as through the missions of the Jesuits. These appear in the present volume as well, but less as protagonists and rather as platforms, for the most part providing a sort of ‘stage set’ for more specific and narrowly defined analyses to facilitate a more nuanced and diversified understanding of the nature of Sino-European (particularly Dutch) encounters.

The introduction guides the reader by offering multiple means of handling the book. On the one hand, the volume expressly prioritizes temporality in the study of cultural influences in the context of early modern encounters between the ‘Chinese’ and ‘Europeans’ by organizing the essays in a chronological order. At the same time, an intriguing specialty of the project is that it clearly emphasizes the importance of multi-way approaches, which the text enacts by juxtaposing the perceptions of the Dutch and other Europeans with those of the Chinese through a balanced proportion of chapters focusing on each perspective. It is worth mentioning, though, that a curious duality exists in the authors’ intention to pair “six chapters featuring Dutch protagonists to six chapters where other Europeans are central” (p.15), thus emphasizing the difference between these groups, whereas the actual content of the essays often blurs the line between perspectives, creating a more diverse and heterogeneous picture. This method delineates a complex network of interactions, not only contributing to existing discussions about the nature of transnational encounters in the early modern period, but also encouraging the reconsideration of the very meaning of ‘Chinese,’ ‘Dutch,’ and ‘European’ in a broader sense.


Akin to the diversity of the authors behind the Sino-Dutch joint project, the basis of the volume, the vehicles for the analysis of the book’s overarching theme are also manifold and effectively reflect the kaleidoscopic textures of “foreign encounters.” According to the concise introduction by Thijs Weststeijn, the book studies the nature of Sino-European exchange through four distinct points: “the representation of foreigners, the material and intellectual context of intercultural meetings, the political and religious agendas that determined the conditions and outcomes of these meetings, and the encounter of East and West as a mediated negotiation between individuals from sub-groups for which the terms ‘Chinese’ and ‘European’ are often only partially adequate” (p.3).

Narrating Sino-European encounters

In a more concrete sense, the abovementioned concepts translate to a curious synergy of contributions in Foreign Devils and Philosophers which, beside the question of periodization and the perspective of the protagonists, can also be examined through the sources, concepts, and methods that appear in them. For example, at first glance, Djoeke van Netten’s essay on the formation of the image of China in late 16th-century travelogues, Dong Shaoxin’s analysis of the shifting meaning of the term ‘Tartar’ in European missionary writings, as well as Lennert Gesterkamp’s contribution on cultural aspects behind the obstacles hindering the development of trade relations between the Dutch and the Chinese appear to be somewhat closer to previous trends in the existing scholarship since they largely focus on trade and religious connotations through more “traditional” written sources. However, a major strength and peculiarity of these chapters lies in the creative interpretation of seemingly familiar themes. This can be observed, for instance, in Gesterkamp’s chapter, which uses the highly intriguing material, the Investigations on the East and West Seas (東西洋考), to argue for the importance of proximity and distance as key to a more subtle understanding of the relationship between the Chinese and the ‘red-haired barbarians.’

A similar tendency can be traced, particularly from the perspective of source types, in Joris van den Tol’s essay on the significance of petitions in relation to gambling in Formosa, in Trude Dijkstra’s chapter on the impact of the first European translation of the Confucian classics, as well as in Noël Golvers’ piece on the role of Jesuit libraries as platforms of intercultural contacts and as “mirrors of European cultural life” (p.246) in 17th- and 18th-century China. A major peculiarity of these papers is related to the nature of the sources they rely on, such as the hitherto overlooked range of petitions and reviews in late 17th-century learned journals, in order to illustrate the negotiated and ‘symbiotic’ dynamics of Sino-VOC (Dutch East India Company) relations or the question of chronology in the context of Confucian ideas vis-à-vis European religious traditions, respectively. Akin to the previously mentioned essays, these pieces are also linked to dominant themes in the existing scholarship of Sino-European encounters, such as trade and religion. However, they all aim to shed light on a fresh layer of these topics while also reconsidering the situation of the sources (e.g., learned journals) and that of the protagonists, such as the Jesuit mission’s role as both central and marginal in China.

On the other hand, Thijs Weststeijn’s own essay on early modern Chinese visitors to the Netherlands, Chen Yufang’s study on the network of relationships between the Jesuits and scholar officials in China as a key factor behind the success of the former, and Cai Xiangyu’s discussion of the story and internal dynamics of the Dutch embassy to China in 1794 all take a more microhistorical approach. The examination of specific individuals, such as Tomás Pereira and André van Braam Houckgeest, among others, effectively highlights the fluid nature of mediation, as well as the negotiation of individual ambitions and collective interests.

Representing Sino-European encounters

Finally, the concept of representation appears perhaps most vividly in the essays by Willemijn van Noord and Sun Jing, who both intertwine written materials with visual sources and material culture, which have so far received comparatively less attention in the relevant literature. The Chinese and European style paintings in Sun’s comparative analysis and the treatment of Chinese heritage in van Noord’s illuminating analysis both show how specific objects can visually encapsulate complex ideas regarding identity and legitimacy, providing another interpretation of cultural history and how it can contribute to the study of early modern foreign encounters. In addition, the critical examination of the story surrounding the Chinese lacquer screen in the crafty letters of Constantijn Huygens also facilitates the broader contextualization of how an individual used this case to strategically position himself and to allegedly voice his own thoughts in disguise.

The book clearly avoids the oversimplification of the dynamics of Sino-European encounters and provides plenty of information with regard to the key actors of these processes. It thus offers a great inventory of knowledge about the concrete individuals and the characteristics and content of available primary sources. However, the strength of the volume is also its most challenging segment: it is an illuminatingly informative book, particularly for specialists of the field, but in certain essays, the amount of detail provided by the authors may make it difficult for readers who are less knowledgeable about the topic and the time period to follow the flow of the pieces. This issue becomes particularly apparent in the case of specific actors who are not always introduced sufficiently in the essays, implicitly expecting a fairly profound familiarity with their significance.

The book is complemented by an abundant appendix with the translation and transcription of the key primary sources used in the chapters for reference, although some authors embedded fully translated texts into their own essays, which somewhat disrupts the otherwise consistent structure of the book.

That said, the volume constitutes a rich contribution to the field and, using cultural products and ideas as instruments and platforms, it sheds novel light on various (hitherto rarely examined) aspects of early modern foreign encounters. Due to the fairly large time frame covered by the volume, as well as the clear emphasis on chronology in the organization of the chapters, perhaps adding some explicit concluding remarks to reflect on the overarching changes over time would have helped connect the otherwise highly revealing and fascinating dots discussed in the chapters. However, the diversity of methods, sources, and perspectives, which are well-aligned with the complexity of the overarching topic at hand, makes the book relevant to a broad range of scholars interested in Chinese and European history, transnational perspectives, the history of international relations, and early modern cultural history in general.