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Monday, October 10, 2011



I. Wu-wei in the Low Countries
Keeping the lack of comprehensive sources in mind, it will nevertheless be interesting to analyze in which ways the introduction of Chinese art products (picturing idyllic scenes of a prosperous Empire) and the parallel occurrence of Sinophile texts (published in Amsterdam and partly written by Flemish Jesuits), transformed the intellectual outlook of Europe.
Contemporary authors, who emphasize the indigenous development of economic laissez-faire in Europe, do repeatedly emphasize the significance of the Dutch natural law thinker Hugo de Grotius (*1583- †1645).28 It is commonly understood that Grotius matters greatly for the development of 18th century Liberalism because he greatly influenced Francis Hutcheson, one of Adam Smith’s most important teachers.29 This chapter seeks to juxtapose the beginning infiltration of wu-wei into Europe with Grotius’s impact on the European mind, after the period of religious wars of the 17th century. In what way did the Low Countries diffuse wu-wei throughout Europe, while Grotius’s legacy continued to mature?

1.1 The textual diffusion
Translations of Grotius’s magnus opus De jure belli et pacis (1625), a book which had passed almost unnoticed in the year of its first publication, kept constantly reappearing throughout the century. Grotius work on the unwritten but imperative Law of God that governs also in times of war, the Natural Law, resurfaced widely in the minds of a generation which stood in awe before the terror and bloodshed of the Thirty-Years-War.30 However, the re-emerging of Grotius texts during the second half of the 17th century also meant the continuation of the socalled northern European revival of Libanius.31 Libanius, a Roman pagan teacher, had eulogized the great virtues of free commerce and peaceful cooperation between men during the fourth-century BC. Grotius and others tried to find ways to resurrect Libanius’s ancient ‘universal economy’, after 1648.32 The liberal, urban environment of 17th century Amsterdam was ideal for harbouring this neo-Libaniusian movement. Yet, it was exactly in this European city that the pieces of information, which would later be used to decode the ‘universal economy’ doctrine of the East, were first to be welcomed.
The Low Countries or more precisely the Chinezen van Amsterdam (to paraphrase van Winter)33 proved essential for wu-wei in Europe in two ways. First, they acted as the main diffusion base for the important Jesuit texts on China’s political economy. Resulting from an influx of missionary-reports from China, a mass of publications emerged, dealing with the economy, politics and history of the Chinese Empire.
 Secondly, parallel to this growing textual supply, thousands of images on porcelain, picturing mainly well-fed Chinese living happily inside a ‘wu-wei Empire’, started to flood the Low Countries, as well. Jesuit books constitute a strong variant of this Eastern current inside the Low Countries: Martino Martini (*1614-†1661) published his “Histoire de la guerre des Tatares contre la Chine” in the Catholic Flemish stronghold of Douai, 1654; Gonzalez de Mendosa’s “Rerum morumque in regno Chinensi maxime notabilium historia” appeared in Antwerp one year later. Especially two publications proved very influential (both, like Grotius first published in Amsterdam): the first scientific atlas of China, compiled by Martino Martini in 1655 (see image 1), and Athanasius Kircher’s China monumentis: qua sacris qua profanis (…) illustrata published in 1667.34 These two publications from  Amsterdam showed in detail the territorial magnificence and economic wealth of the Empire, influencing Leibniz, Quesnay and others, in the years to come.35
Apart from printing works by German (like Kircher) or Austrian (like Martini) Jesuits that revealed China’s high level of prosperity, the Low Countries were also the origin of many China missionaries, like Nicolas Trigault (*1577-†1628) or Ferdinand Verbiest (*1623- †1688).36 Just as the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (*1552- †1610) introduced Euclid to Ming China, so Trigault introduced Europe to Confucius via his Histoire de l’expédition christiene au royaume de la Chine.37 Early in 1615, he wrote:38
“We [the Jesuit missionaries] have seen [China’s] most noble provinces; we enter every day into conversation with the principle citizens, the magistrates and the men of letters; we speak the native language of the Chinese; we have learned by careful enquiry, their habits, customs, laws and ceremonial and, finally (what is of the greatest importance), day and night we have their books in our hands.”39
The economic Sinophilsm of the important Physiocrat Quesnay, with all its consequences, seems unlikely to have blossomed without another prominent work on China by Père du Halde, the Description de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise (1735), but du Halde’s work appears equally implausible without the groundbreaking Amsterdam texts or Trigault’s translation of Ricci.40 Thus, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Douai,  through commercial power, respectively Jesuit passion, proved essential for the European version of economic government by wu-wei that was soon to emergence. China, and therefore wu-wei, entered Europe not through Portugal or France but via the Low Countries. John M. Headley describes the outcome:
“The most notable single appropriation of Confucianism by the Enlightenment comes with the Amsterdam 1758 edition of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers. There amidst the traditional thinkers of classical antiquity could now be found a ninety-page exposition of Confucius and Confucianism”41

1.2 The visual diffusion
Yet, there is an additional Chinese influence on Europe via the Low Countries, and this was not by textual but by visual means. Two factors had been curial for facilitating the diffusion of wu-wei in Europe, the extensive ‘global reach’ of Dutch international sea-power and the emerging of a powerful, domestic ceramic industry – the interplay of these two dynamics powered the diffusion process.42 While Amsterdam was at the commercial and logistic heart of Europe’s largest merchant fleet with some 10,000 vessels, one of Europe’s earliest centres of ceramic industry was slowly encircling her city walls.
Dutch East India ships had swamped first the Low Countries and then the rest of Europe, with “more than three million pieces of Chinese porcelain […] between 1602 and 1657 […]”.43 The origin of the celebrated blue and white painted faïence of Delft can be traced back to this massive   influx of Chinese porcelain. By 1650, ten pottery workshops had opened at Grotius’s birthplace alone – there would be thirty in 1670.44 The makers of Delft’s faïence copied various Chinese images displaying picturesque and joyful scenes of minben (see image 2). By 1700, millions of pieces of faïence, depicting the comfort and welfare of the wu-wei Empire, had diffused throughout Europe.45
To demonstrate the importance of this non-textual diffusion, we can refer to the later case of Jean Theodore Royer (*1737- †1807). Royer was a successful lawyer from The Hague and the most important Sinologist in the Low Countries of the 18th century. He thought that the best way of develop a true understanding about the prosperous life in China was actually to collect ceramics and other objects depicting information from China. Royer believed in this hypothesis all his life, deeply mistrusting European publication on China.46
Minben-porcelain and neo-Libaniusian texts did attain their closest proximity in Amsterdam.47 For a short period, this urban entrepôt nurtured Grotius, Chinese porcelain and the bookish merchandise of Jesuit missionary zeal.48 But in contrast to later France, where the Physiocrats would transform the dispersed pieces of Eurasian economic thought into one grande Eurasian theory of good government (without having the pleasure to see it transformed into real governmental practice), the Low Countries proved unable to articulate the first European transformation of   the wu-wei principle. The Low Countries functioned only as a gateway for wu-wei, diffusing it unconsciously throughout Europe. The most likely reason for this ‘failure’ was that the intellectual heritage of the Habsburg-Netherlands (modern Belgium) within the Northern United Provinces substantially diminished as the century progressed. Catholics became virtually second-class citizens in Amsterdam and although a rest of Jesuit-Chinese knowledge did survive within the Protestant Republic, this bit was ignored for decades.49
In sum, it is critical to understand that the spread of new useful knowledge from China and the artistic images of its prosperous economic effects occurred in chorus with the formation and deepening of Europe’s own Libaniusian model. Amsterdam kept on publicizing Grotius’s call for the freedom of commerce, while the Jesuit reports on the economic glory of some 120 million Chinese became more and more popular.50 The enormous scale of imported Chinese artefacts facilitated the diffusion process of the endogenous Chinese model, via confirming, through its visual demonstration effect, the prosperous outcomes of wu-wei. Consequently, the two strings of laissez faire-thought, the indigenous Libaniusian model and the endogenous Chinese model, share a common geographical and cultural foundation (best symbolized by image 3). Both evolved simultaneously, yet separately, from the Low Countries, after 1648.51 Thus, this small part of northern Europe was responsible for setting the diffusion process of the incoming Chinese resource portfolio into motion. Over time, this process became partly intermingled with the   indigenous Libaniusian model, but before this could happen, France had to discover wu-wei first.52


Christian Gerlach

Department of Economic History
London School of Economics



28 Irwin, Against the Tide, p. 69.
29 Roger E. Backhouse, The Penguin History of Economics (London 2002), pp. 108- 114.
30 e.g. in the writings of Jean Le Clerc, Samuel von Pufendorf or Giambattista Vico.

31 Irwin, Against the Tide, p. 16.
32 Paul Hazard, The European Mind – The Critical Years 1680–1715 (New York 1990 [Paris 1935]), p. 87.
33 P. J. van Winter, De Chinezen van Europa (Groningen 1965).
34 Arnold H. Rowbotham, Missionary and Mandarin – The Jesuits at the Court of China (Berkeley 1942), pp. 246- 247.

35 Wolfgang Franke, China and the West (Oxford 1967), pp. 60-61.
36 John E. Wills, Some Dutch Sources on the Jesuit China Mission, 1662-1687, in: Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu, Vol. 54 (1985), pp. 267- 293.
37 John E. Wills, 1688 – A Global History (London 2001), pp. 128- 144.
38 Matteo Ricci/ Nicolas Trigault, Histoire de l’expédition christiene au royaume de la Chine (Latin version, Augsburg/ French version, Lyon 1615).
39 As quoted in: Rowbotham, Missionary and Mandarin, p. 245.
40 Raymond Dawson, The Chinese Chameleon – An analysis of European conceptions of Chinese civilization (New York/ Toronto 1967), p. 54.

44 Richard Robinson (ed.), Business History of the World – A Chronology (Westport 1993), p. 143.
45 Adolf Reichwein, China and Europe – Intellectual and Artistic Contacts in the Eighteenth Century (London 1925 [original: Berlin 1923]), pp. 28.
46 Jan van Campen, De Haagse jurist Jean Theodore Royer (1737-1807) en zijn verzameling Chinese voorwerpen / door Jan van Campen (Hilversum 2000).
47 It was in this European entrepôt where the first small tea shipments to Europe arrived, in 1609. Dutch VOC servants in Batavia (modern Jakarta) may have been the first Europeans who drank Chinese tea for purely personal pleasure and therefore started Europe’s relationship with tea by stimulating the shipments to Amsterdam. (Ross William Jamieson, The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in the Early Modern World, p. 283 in: Journal of Social History – Vol. 35, No. 2, Winter 2001, pp. 269-294.)
48 J. I. Israel, European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550-1750 (London 1985); V. Barbour, Capitalism in Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore 1963).

49 In 1773, Pope Clement XIV started to suppress systematically the Society of Jesus. Nevertheless, some former Dutch members of the Society managed to stay at de Krijtberg and other Northern Dutch towns, until the restoration of the Society in 1814. The property of the Southern Dutch Jesuits was confiscated instead. Overall, the effect of Pope Clement’s policies was a transfer of Southern Jesuit knowledge to the United Provinces, during the 1770s. [J. Crétineau-Joly, Clément XIV et les jésuites (Paris 1847).]
50 Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York/ London 2nd ed. 1999), p. 7.
51 Reichwein, China and Europe, pp. 19- 72.
52 Rowbotham, Missionary and Mandarin, pp. 350, 352, 360.



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