Speaker: Michael Keevak, Respondent: Leonard Blussé
This paper concerns European attempts between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries to obtain what they called ‘free trade’ privileges with China, then as now a rather slippery term with a variety of significations. In China the notion of ‘free trade’ did not exist, at least in any formal capacity, and indeed trade as such could be said to have had a completely different ideological history. To come into contact with the empire or to engage in any form of relations with it necessitated obedience, and if trade should be granted as a result it was a gesture of compassion and beneficence, not a recognition of common or reciprocal benefit.
One of the most interesting examples of this discrepancy is the Dutch embassy to China of 1655-1657, which was clearly – from the Dutch point of view – a story of failure. Rather than achieving its goal of unrestricted yearly trade, the ambassadors received an imperial edict allowing them to return once every eight years.
In this paper, I would like to pay particular attention to the letter of introduction composed by the Dutch governor at Batavia, to which the emperor's edict was a careful reply. The original still exists, along with a Chinese translation housed in the archives of the Grand Secretariat. The letter was written from a perspective in which free trade was seen as both self-evident and necessary; we might call it a religion of trade, to be measured against an equally adamant claim about the naturalness and divinity of the Chinese practice of paying tribute to the emperor. Matching the Europeans' insistence on the sanctity and naturalness of mutual trade was an equal and opposite insistence on the centrality of China and the fact that Holland had never before been part of the Chinese world. It was a classic example of a refusal in the form of praise and compassion, just as the postponement of tribute (and formal trade) for another eight years was presented as a gift, not a punishment.
Michael Keevak is a professor of Foreign Languages at National Taiwan University (homepage), where he has taught since 1992. He is the author of four books, the most recent of which is Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton, 2011). This paper is part of a new book project, Western Failures in a Chinese World, 1248-1817: Peace, Empire, Trade, God, Humanity. This semester he is also a DAAD Guest Professor at the University of Hamburg.
Leonard Blussé is emeritus professor of History at Leiden University. His fields of interest, in which he has published widely, are the Early Modern history of Southeast and East Asia; the history of overseas Chinese; and global history. His main books are: Visible Cities Canton, Nagasaki and Batavia and the Coming of the Americans (Harvard UP, 2008); Shiba shiji-mo Badaweiya Tangrenshihui (The Chinese Community of Batavia at the End of the Eighteenth Century) (Xiamen UP, 2002); and Bitter Bonds, A Colonial Divorce Drama of the Seventeenth Century (Markus Wiener, 2002).
This seminar is organized in the context of the VIDI-funded research project, The Chinese Impact: Images and ideas of China in the Dutch Golden Age.