Fascinating China

Joan Nieuhoff, L’Ambassade de la Compagnie Orientale des Provinces Unies vers l’Empereur de la Chine, ou Grand Cam de Tartarie, faite par les sieurs Pierre de Goyer et Jacob de Keyser illustrée d’une très-exacte description des villes, bourgs, villages, ports de mer et autres lieux plus considérables de la Chine

Joan Nieuhoff

Published by Jean de Meurs (Leyden), 1665


The vast, immediate success of the book which was published in Joan Nieuhof’s name in 1665 in Dutch language was every publisher’s dream. In this time and age, his report on his journey to China, compiled of the material he had sent to his brother, was a bestseller! In the 17th century alone, six Dutch editions were published. Within the same year of its release it was translated to French – the very same edition we have here – and shortly after it was also translated to German, Latin and English.

This huge interest in the book by the global public was not by chance! At the time, China was the dream country of every merchant and especially of every investor in Europe. China had the goods European markets were longing for. Firstly there was tea, but also the incredibly modern porcelain and the wonderfully soft silk. In addition, the spices and remedies from the Chinese market were promising great profit!


Since individual people of the 17th century could not finance successful trading companies of this size any longer, ambitious men had cooperated with the government and founded trading companies due to royal privileges. One can imagine a sort of incorporated company whose capital was provided by a market of investors. These resources were used to fit out fleets, establish local strongpoints and pay permanent employees whose work should bring investors great profit on their deposits.

The area called East India at the time was particularly popular for such investments. This wasn’t just India and the Spice Islands, but also China and Japan. In 1600 the British founded their East India Company. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company followed, and Joan Nieuhof was allowed to accompany the imperial embassy. But other countries wanted to participate in the trade, too and founded companies: Denmark, Sweden, Portugal – and also France in 1665. Louis XIV had first privileged an East India Company on the initiative of his minister of finance Colbert, which competed for funds in 1665. Therefore Nieuhof’s book was just in time!

What made Nieuhof’s report especially interesting, were the 150 copper engravings that carried the reader off into the exotic worlds of the Far East. Nieuhof’s book thus started the China-trend. There could be no rococo castle without a porcelain cabinet. No bourgeois household without chinoiseries.

But Joan Nieuhof did not know which goods were desired by China in exchange. Consequently, tea and silk had to be paid with silver. The negative trade balance was troubling to all European governments until the English had the delinquent idea to import opium on a large scale. It was only then that the trade balance turned around. But surely Joan Nieuhof cannot be made responsible for this.


In our exhibition “Our Journey Into the Unknown” we also discuss Nieuhoff’s book.