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Strange Wonders

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Strange Wonders

As reports came back about the wonders of China in the sixteenth century, Europeans began to construct an imaginative version of the land to the East. Many stories were true, but others were not, or contained only half-truths. Many images reproduced—like those in Kircher’s China Illustrata—were constructed from second-hand accounts, or were mistranslated from Chinese into English, Latin, or Italian. So, much like in a game of telephone, what started out as a truth in the East was depicted as a strange wonder to European readers. Reports contained stories about sailing land vehicles, trained birds that helped fisherman with their catch, exotically beautiful women, flying turtles, and fruit as large as a man’s torso.

John Speed. A prospect of the most famous parts of the world. London, 1631 (Detail)

Sailing land vehicles, famously called the “cany wagons light” that “Chineses drive with sails and wind” by John Milton in Paradise Lost (1667), especially captured the European imagination. Evidence suggests that sails were attached to wheelbarrows in areas of southern China to ease pushing a heavy load with the wind at one’s back, a practice that seems to date back several centuries. But the reports of early Portuguese visitors seem to have been misunderstood or perhaps simply exaggerated, transforming these wheelbarrows with an attached sail (jiafanche 加帆車) into large horseless coaches. In fact, believing these reports to be true, in 1600 a Flemish engineer named Simon Stevin decided to construct his own four-wheeled vehicle with sails and tackle capable of carrying two dozen passengers (shown above). It was fast enough to overtake a galloping horse.  Its use, however, was limited to the broad, flat, and straight beaches of the southern Netherlands near Scheveningen. The high-tech sailing buggies still raced on beaches today owe their origins to this truly cross-cultural invention.


Other tales—like those about birds that could catch fish and deposit them in the boats of Chinese fishermen—were criticized in Europe as ridiculously Utopian. But in fact the use of trained cormorants for fishing had been practiced in China for centuries, and the tradition is still maintained in some rural areas to this day.


Kircher’s China illustrata (1667) illustrated many of these wondrous things, even while discrediting some as untruths. A flying tortoise is indentified as the lümao gui 綠毛龜  or "green haired tortoise" famous for the long strands of algae that grow on its back. The Latin label, however, shows that mao 毛(hair) was mistranslated as "wings," resulting in a "green winged tortoise." Kircher insists the tortoise could not really have wings because that would contradict the essential nature of a tortoise (but he shows one flying anyway).  Kircher also shows a fruit which he claims is as big as a man’s torso and could feed ten or twenty people. In fact, the puoluomi 波羅密 or "jackfruit" truly is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, growing up to eighty pounds. The engraving (at right) accurately depicts its interior segmentation and also how it grows directly on the trunk of the jackfruit tree (波羅密樹).


Beautiful Chinese women were equally as fascinating to European readers. Descriptions of upper-class Chinese women in the period tend to emphasize their natural beauty, their modesty, the fineness of their apparel and make-up, the whiteness of their skin, and occasionally their education and skill in various fine arts.  Foot binding is described as early as the sixteenth century, and by the late seventeenth century descriptions appear of the long fingernails that became a fashion of the gentry during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).


The engraving at right of a Chinese beauty has strikingly European features despite the Chinese-style gown and the conspicuously small feet. The stringed instrument wrapped in silk on the table is a qin 琴, a sort of Chinese “lute” or “zither.”  This and the other objects in the room represent the cultural refinements and artistic accomplishments of the ideal Chinese woman. 


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Afbeelding van de Zeilwagen door Simon Stevin. Amsterdam, 1649. Nederlands Scheepvaartmuseum Amsterdam.

Arnoldus Montanus. Atlas Chinensis. London, 1671

Athanasius Kircher. China illustrata. [Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1667]. Courtesy of Timothy Billings.

Athanasius Kircher. China illustrata. [Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1667].

Athanasius Kircher. China illustrata. [Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1667]. Courtesy of Timothy Billings.

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