European encounters with Asia

By William Wetherall

A review of
Cyriac K. Pullapilly and Edwin J. Van Kley (editors)
Asia and the West
(Encounters and Exchanges from the Age of Exploration)
Notre Dame (Indiana): Cross Cultural Publications, 1986
xv, 359 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared as
"Passage to the East" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 137(33), 13 August 1987, page 75

A shorter version later appeared as
"Asian Encounters of the Occidental Kind" in
Asahi Evening News, 25 October 1987, page 6

Blue phrases did not appear in the AEN version.
Purple phrases did not appear in the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the two versions.

"Throughout the Renaissance the Europeans had compared and contrasted their achievements to those of antiquity. This vertical or temporal relativism usually ended, at least until 1540, with a paean of praise, sometimes purely rhetorical for the superior attainments of the ancients. The opening of Asia to the European mind helped to create a new relativism that was both vertical and horizontal, or both temporal and spatial. The civilisations of Asia were recognised by the end of the 16th century as being equal of contemporary Europe and as having a continuous history that went back to antiquity."

These are the words of University of Chicago professor of history Donald F. Lach, from one of the volumes of his Asia in the Making of Europe (University of Chicago Press). They are cited in the preface of Asia and the West, a collection of essays dedicated to Lach as "a token of the esteem in which he is held by his many grateful students."

The 14 chapters which follow the biographical sketch of Lach are solid essays on narrow topics divided into five broad areas: (1) Initial encounters and early images, (2) Exchanges in technology and science, (3) Interflow of religious and philosophical ideas, (4) Recent political encounters, and (5) Bibliographic studies [of Asia in Europe].

The essays are extensively documented by footnotes at the end of each chapter, and are otherwise not written to please an in-flight magazine editor or readers weaned on tourist-class history. But armchair travellers who can ration their drinks through a few dry stretches strewn with mirages will stumble upon enough real oases to make this book worth exploring.

Almost anyone interested in "India, Japan, Manchuria, Egypt and the Turkish Empire" and just as many places in Europe from the 16th to the 20th centuries, with some excursions back to ancient and medieval times, should find several essays "elephantastic" -- to borrow Lach's "elephantasies" caricature of the European who, seeing an elephant, "could believe in the existence of almost anything else."

"The passage to India, for young men in 16th-century Portugal, was a recurring opportunity for a wondrous adventure," T. Bently Duncan begins his chapter, Navigation Between Portugal and Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries.

"Portuguese elites peopled the ships with naval and military officers, fidalgos [noblemen], bureaucrats, merchants, and missionaries," Duncan writes. This is not the most felicitous, lucid, or colourful way of describing the men who crewed and sailed the Carreira da India.

The first note translates the italicised expression as "literally the 'India Career'" and then explains that it is "a term which implies a regular navigation following a standard itinerary and which could be rendered in English as the 'India run' or 'passage to India'."

The diction picks up a little when Duncan adds: "The few women aboard were mostly their [presumably not "the elites'"] wives and daughters, with a few peasant women and Lisbon prostitutes smuggled aboard by the seamen." And even nitpicker book reviewers are forced to relax and enjoy the scholarship when told: "The impressive superstructures that towered up from the stern, which housed the officers and the more affluent, were made up of narrow half-decks with less than four feet between ceiling and floor, where even fidalgos and bishops scurried about like rats in tomb-like cabins."

And tombs they were, according to statistics which Duncan cites a few pages later. "An estimated 171,000 persons left Lisbon during the years 1497-1590 [excluding persons aboard 32 ships . . . who aborted their voyages and returned to Lisbon], [of which] 154,000 reached the East safely, and 17,000 were lost to shipwreck and disease. And estimated 105,000 persons left the East, [of which] 94,000 arrived in Lisbon, and 11,000 were lost during the passage."

The total of 28,000 deaths on both legs of a journey started by 276,000 people means a death rate of 10 percent. The combined death rate in the 16th century for captains and Jesuits was 6.8 percent. Duncan attributes this lower death rate among elites to "better nutrition, and in certain kinds of shipwreck, a guaranteed place in the ship's long boat and skiff."

Apparently it was not yet honourable for a captain to go down with his ship.

Robert Joseph Gowen's essay on The Role of Japanophobia in the Emergence o the British Commonwealth is an entirely different kind of historical voyage. Its subject, though intrinsically more esoteric and less romantic than statistics on sailing between Portugal and Asia, does not justify the convoluted style which makes its 17 pages of text barely more coherent than its 10 pages of 148 small-print notes.

Yet Gowen's essay is worth reading as an interesting if exaggerated view of "how much of the credit for Britain's most original Imperial achievement, the Commonwealth of nations, rightfully belongs to that most contagious and in many ways most irrational of all the yellow perilisms, Japanophobia."

The other essays cover:

Hsu Kuang-Ch'e (1562-1633) and His Image of the West

Autres Mondes, Autres Moeurs: French Attitudes Towards the Cultures Revealed by the Discoveries

Chinese Silk Manufacture in Jean-Baptiste Du Halde, Description de la Chine (1735)

The Pharmaceutical Scincus (lizard) of Egypt

The Influence of the Turkish Wars in Hungary on the Military Theories of Count Raimondo Montecuccoli

Schopenhauer and India

Religious Impact of the Discovery of the Sea Route to India

Some 17th Century European Protestant Responses to Matteo Ricci and His Mission in China

The Sino-Soviet Railway Conflict of 1929

Marshall and the Manchurian Negotiations, January-April 1946: Prelude to Civil War

The Role of Private Libraries in the Dissemination of Knowledge About Asia in 16th Century Europe

Henri Cordier and the Meeting of East and West

One expects better editing at any price. And the high price of this book, notwithstanding its limited issue, warrants something better than its eye-tiring, pirate-grade printing. Sixteenth century presses, in Asia and West, could have done better.