21 Jan Our Journey Into the Unknown: How we came to discover the secrets of our world
Throughout history, academics and adventurers alike have been fascinated by the far-flung places and people they don’t understand. We Germans have the perfect word for these unknown aspects of the world: ‘Fremde’. Today, Wikipedia defines ‘Fremde’ as a term for anything considered to deviate from what is familiar, so anything that is, or is perceived to be, very different or far away from what is conventional and understood. But does this concept still have any relevance nowadays? Can anything seem at all “fremd” in an age when it takes 21 hours and costs 600 francs to travel to the other side of the world? The answer is yes. With ethnocentrism, xenophobia, culturally insular attitudes, and fear of foreigners undoubtedly on the rise in recent years, it’s clear to see that there are still aspects of our everyday lives that we find strange and frightening, which we attempt to exclude and marginalize as a result.
Has it been like this for centuries? Have we always been so frightened of things we don’t understand? To find the answer to this question, we’re embarking on a journey back in time. And we won’t be traveling by airplane or camel caravan. Instead, our means of transport will be the books from the MoneyMuseum’s library. In six stops covering a total of twelve books, we’ll use these texts and illustrations to show you how our view of foreign lands and cultures has gradually broadened and changed over time. Our journey will take us from Marco Polo’s 13th-century travelogue, documenting his time in Kublai Khan’s Empire, right up to Erich Scheuermann’s 1920 work “The Papalagi.”
Journey with us into the unknown – back to a time when the other side of the globe was still truly worlds away.
Stop 1: The Utterly Unknown
The first stop on our journey will focus on a time when it was still very unusual to travel. Anyone who decided to sail off into the unknown had a very good reason for doing so: they were setting out to conquer far-off lands like Alexander the Great, trading goods like Marco Polo, or embarking on pilgrimages in Rome, the Holy Land, or Santiago to secure their salvation.
Those lucky enough to return safe and sound would regale their astonished listeners with tales of their adventures, over and over again. Unfortunately, we can’t ever know what these tales involved, as the rich tradition of oral storytelling has not survived to our time.
It was very rare for people to write down accounts of their adventures back then. The most famous example is probably a book by Irish monk Brendan (approx. 484-577), in which he recounts how he sailed the seas in search of paradise. The book contains more fantastical events than real ones. Perhaps the author was trying to satisfy his readers’ expectations with these wondrous tales, or perhaps these were the only way he could explain some of the things he saw. In any case, over half a millennium later, there emerged the most famous travelogue in world history. It was titled “Book of the Marvels of the World” by its creator, though it is known more commonly in English as “The Travels of Marco Polo.” This is the next text we’ll be examining, followed by Johann Stumpf’s Swiss Chronicle, whose illustrations prove that, in the mid-16th century, even intellectuals had absolutely no idea what far-off lands looked like.
The Marvels of the World
Marco Polo, Die Wunder der Welt.
Published 1983 in the Manesse Library of World Literature.
In 1298, the widely traveled merchant Marco Polo met writer Rustichello da Pisa in a prison. While the two men waited for their ransom money to come in, Marco Polo told da Pisa all about his travels. Rustichello da Pisa, who had already penned several romance novels, wrote all of Polo’s adventures down and, in doing so, created a bestseller that remains a classic, with new editions still being printed to this day. “Le Livre des merveilles du monde” (= “Book of the Marvels of the World”) was an instant success. A total of 150 manuscripts, in a wide range of languages, remain today. The first printed edition was published in Nuremberg back in 1477.
The book describes the journey that Venetian merchant Marco Polo made, together with his father and his uncle, to the court of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. Kublai Khan appointed Polo to his service, which meant that the merchant got to explore all of China before returning to Venice. This was an incredibly long journey, during which Polo saw some extraordinary things.
There were many aspects of Polo’s travelogue that left some of his contemporaries feeling skeptical. For instance, they believed he had wildly exaggerated the magnificent splendor of the court of the Great Khan, as educated people at that time had read the works of William of Rubruck, who had characterized Mongolians as savage barbarians.
To this day, there are some writers who take great pleasure in trying to expose Marco Polo as a fraud: they claim that he was never in China and that he learned everything he knew from books – otherwise he would have mentioned the Great Wall or Chinese tea, or at least chopsticks.
Marco Polo was a merchant writing for other merchants, so he provided details that would be of interest to them. For example, here is his description of trading town Sinju, now Yizheng, in Chapter 71:
“You must know that when you leave the city of Yanju, after going 15 miles south-east, you come to a city called Sinju, of no great size, but possessing a very great amount of shipping and trade. The people are Idolaters and subject to the Great Khan, and use paper money. And you must know that this city stands on the largest river in the world, the name of which is Kian. It is in some places ten miles wide, in others eight, in others six, and it is more than 100 days’ journey in length from one end to the other. This is what brings so much trade to the city we are speaking of. … Messer Marco Polo aforesaid tells us that he heard from the officer employed to collect the Great Khan’s duties on this river that there passed up-stream 200,000 vessels in the year, without counting those that passed down.”
But even Marco Polo’s writings weren’t entirely without elements of fantasy: they include descriptions of a huge griffin and the dog-headed inhabitants of the Andaman Islands. But these insertions could also have been added by Rustichello da Pisa, in order to satisfy readers’ expectations and make the book more appealing.
Switzerland and the Rest of the World
Johannes Stumpf, Gemeiner loblicher Eydgnoschafft Stetten, Landen und Völckeren Chronick wirdiger Thaaten Beschreybung.
Printed 1546 by Christoph Froschauer.
On 9 March 1522, something scandalous happened in Zurich. Some men ate some thin slices of sausage – in the middle of Lent. The scandal was planned, deliberately engineered by Huldrych Zwingli, a Zurich-born leader of the Reformation. As a result, this event, which came to be known as “The Affair of the Sausages,” is commonly regarded to have sparked the Reformation in Zurich.
The scandalous act was committed in the home of Christoph Froschauer, a printer by trade, and one of the main mouthpieces for the Reformation in Zurich. It was in Froschauer’s publishing house that the Zurich Bible, newly translated by Zwingli, was printed, along with its theological treatises. He also printed Johann Stumpf’s Swiss Chronicle, another text that played a critical role in the Reformation.
Stumpf wasn’t just a historian, but also a theologian, who presented his chronicle as the story of a chosen people who win their freedom with the help of God. He depicted the House of Habsburg as the enemy of this freedom, portraying them and their officials in the worst possible light. The story of William Tell, a marksman forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head by a wicked bailiff called Gessler, would later become world-famous thanks to Friedrich Schiller’s play.
With his chronicle, Stumpf presented the reformed people of Switzerland with a picture of their own past, which portrayed the Protestants’ mid-16th century struggle against Habsburg Emperor Charles V as a natural continuation of what had already happened.
Stop 2: Trading With the Unknown
Since the Crusades, Europe’s elite had developed a taste for spices and fabrics from the East, and valued them highly. For many centuries, the Venetians had bought these goods from Constantinople and Alexandria, but these trade routes were rendered virtually unusable by the Ottoman Wars.
But Europe was still yearning for exotic, luxury goods from Asia, such as spices, tea, valuable fabrics, porcelain, and lacquerware. Adventurous traders made a fortune bringing these goods to Europe. If traders could find shorter sea routes, they were in with a chance of making even more profit. That’s how Columbus discovered America – it was more or less an incidental by-product of his failed expedition to find a shorter route to Asia.
Although the term “Age of Discovery” has now gone out of fashion, it’s a very apt description of the events of the 16th century from Europe’s point of view: the world was opening up as a trading partner and a playground for unscrupulous explorers, who were delighted to discover that there were some communities out there that could be wonderfully exploited.
At this stop, we’ll be looking at two books that were published at about the same time. One is about Persia and the Mughal Empire in India, and the other is about China. But one major theme they have in common is how good these countries, with their wealth of treasures, were for business.
The East India Company
John Ogilby, Asia, the first part, being an accurate description of Persia, and the several provinces thereof. The vast Empire of the Great Mogol, and other parts of India: and their several Kingdoms and Regions.
Published 1673 in London.
When the English King Charles II greeted his Portuguese bride in 1662 and she asked for a cup of tea, the King’s embarrassed response was: “We don’t drink tea in England. But maybe some ale will do?” Britons found this quote pretty amusing when, twenty years later, England had become a nation of tea-drinkers. This transformation was largely due to Britain’s long-distance trading company, the East India Company.
Although it was founded back in 1600, the East India Company was only moderately successful to begin with. It wasn’t until the aforementioned King Charles II granted the company extensive new rights that things started to change. Within a hundred years, it had developed into a sort of state, which not only had a monopoly over trade in India, but also took over the subcontinent bit by bit, becoming unfathomably rich as a result. Trading with faraway lands wasn’t enough for the Europeans – they had to conquer them too.
John Ogilby’s book describes Persia and the Mughal Empire, which included large parts of India. Ogilby himself was never there. He published this book in his role as the English King’s royal cosmographer, just a few years after the East India Company’s privileges were extended. These new privileges entitled the company to mint its own money, recruit its own troops, start its own wars, and capture its own land – as long as it limited its actions to its allotted territories.
The book attracted a great deal of interest from Ogilby’s contemporaries. The London elite was wondering if it was worth investing in the company’s shares and in trade with these distant lands. By publishing this book, Ogilby created an incentive for investors, and by promoting the company, he contributed to its success.
China: a Shining Example
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.
Published 1665 by Jean de Meurs in Leyden, a French translation of the Dutch original, published 1663.
In today’s globalized world, it’s difficult to imagine 17th-century Europeans’ fascination with the exotic goods brought over from the Far East – and the countries themselves.
Early descriptions of China painted a picture of an earthly paradise: a land of riches, wisdom, and peace. The strange things that traders brought back with them, made from completely unknown materials, reinforced the Europeans’ impression that China was an entirely different world. Especially in the years following the devastating Thirty Years’ War, the huge, ancient, and peaceful empire of China seemed, in all its rationality and wisdom, a stark contrast to the situation in Europe, and was therefore romanticized as an example to strive for. Kings liked the sound of an all-powerful emperor, while humanists and philosophers of the Enlightenment were captivated by the idea of a society where there was no church or aristocracy, whose bureaucracy was based on performance rather than parentage, and whose population was educated down to the poorest social classes. In those days, the Chinese were the only people that Europeans considered to be equal – if not superior! – to them.
One of the prominent sources of information about China at the time was a book by Joan Nieuhof, who visited the country and the imperial court in Peking as a member of the Dutch trading company. It is crammed with detailed cultural and geographic information about the country, and is almost decadently illustrated, with 150 engravings that gave readers a comprehensive, realistic impression of China – unlike Stumpf’s “Germanized” depiction of Constantinople.
No wonder this book was such a huge success. It was reprinted and translated again and again – here is the French edition. This book was one of the main reasons for the China-inspired fashions that emerged in Europe and continued to considerably shape the continent for the next hundred years.
Stop 3: Describing, Measuring, and Evaluating the Unknown
In 1751, the first volume of the so-called encyclopedia was published. This was a major work of the Enlightenment, intended to incorporate all of Europe’s knowledge in one enormous lexicon. In the spirit of the encyclopedia’s initiator Diderot, the writers of the approx. 70,000 articles attempted to gather this knowledge in a manner that was – at least in their own eyes – entirely objective and free of any bias.
Of course, this new method of describing the world also changed the way books were written about faraway, “fremde” lands and people. These became an object of study, which was approached with curiosity, but which scientists were also keen to measure and evaluate. Comparisons were drawn between Europe and these distant lands, while their people were classified as “civilized,” “barbaric,” or “wild”.
And, of course, these assessments always came with the question of which people had accomplished the most and were the most advanced. The scholars of the Enlightenment had no qualms whatsoever about presenting themselves as the benchmark.
To illustrate this development, we’ll be looking at an atlas from the start of the 18th century, as well as an era-defining work that began the comparative study of religion.
Measuring the World
Published 1710 in Nuremberg.
There’s no better tool for understanding the world than a map. They form our conception of the earth and its geographic characteristics, making them essential for many fields of study. It’s no wonder that the libraries of the early modern period were full of globes and atlases.
In Europe, this cartographic image of the earth was constantly being updated. Anybody who sailed off the well-known trade routes would carefully document their route and pass on their findings. After all, apart from finding better trade routes across the seas, they were also securing their own legacy: many bays, mountains, and islands are named after those who had recorded them or financed the expedition.
This work was published by one of the most notable cartographers of the time: Johann Baptist Homann. However, the atlas itself wasn’t actually all that groundbreaking. He didn’t have access to any exclusive maps, and he hadn’t made or financed any expeditions tasked with measuring unknown countries. Homann’s works were based on well-known maps.
His marketing methods were much more remarkable: buyers could choose specific maps that were relevant to their individual interests and requirements, and then put them together in their own personal atlas. Whoever bought our copy must have been pretty wealthy, as it contains 60 maps of all of the continents known at that time, and is elaborately colored and decorated.
Ethnology vs Folklore: Describing the Religions of the World
Antoine Banier und Jean-Baptiste Mascrier, Histoire générale des cérémonies, moeurs, et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde.
Published 1741 by Rollin Fils in Paris, illustrated by Bernard Picard.
In the 16th century, Europeans had a relatively clear position on matters of religion: Europe’s development of far-off lands included Christian missionary work, that is, spreading the “one true faith.” This wasn’t always as easy, in practice, as those in Rome had imagined.
The ideas of the Enlightenment changed this position. Those who refused the church and their representatives and opted for religious tolerance were able to learn about the variety of religions and belief systems followed by people around the world. Suddenly, Christianity was no longer the “one true faith,” but just one religion competing against many others. The Huguenot Jean Frédéric Bernard wrote a book that perfectly embodied this realization, and served as the basis for the book we’re presenting here. It was published between 1723 and 1737 in Amsterdam and, in seven volumes, it subsumed all of the information known at the time about both European religions and those practiced in faraway lands. The work was illustrated by engraver Bernard Picard.
This book was praised by philosophers of the Enlightenment as a huge step forward, but in 1738, it was added to the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books. The Huguenot Bernard couldn’t resist including a few jibes in his description of the Catholic Church.
This book, by French clergymen Antoine Banier and Jean-Baptiste Mascrier, is based on Bernard’s work and the illustrations by Bernard Picard. The two clergymen completely rewrote the sections about the Catholic Church and edited the rest of the work to corroborate the claim that Catholicism was the true faith. In 1741, all seven volumes were published with the same illustrations and information as the version written by Jean Frédéric Bernard, but this time from a Catholic, rather than a Huguenot, perspective.
Whether you’re looking at the old version or the new: these volumes mark the beginning of the comparative study of religions and represent a milestone on the road to religious and ethnic tolerance – and we’re not just talking about tolerance toward “primitive” peoples, but also toward those “perpetual foreigners” living right in the heart of Europe, Jewish people.
Stop 4: Europe Conquers the Unknown
At the end of the 18th century, Europe’s attitude toward the rest of the world changed drastically. The young nations set about dividing the world between them. And if you’re looking for any moral scruples among them, you won’t find any.
Their mission was based on a firm belief that there were “higher” and “lower” cultures: they believed that those able to construct machines that could spark an industrial revolution must have been fundamentally different from all of the other peoples who weren’t able to achieve such technological feats. This gave rise to the idea of the “white man’s burden,” as it was called at the time, the obligation to lead these inferior peoples into modernity, as a sort of guardian. The huge profit one could make in the process was an added bonus.
The writings of John Stedman, who was recruited into a mercenary force tasked with suppressing a slave rebellion, detail the horrendous consequences of this exploitation. Stedman was one of the first Europeans who could no longer reconcile his conscience with the atrocities committed against indigenous people and slaves in the name of civilization.
The second book is a travelogue about an expedition by the famous Captain Cook. From the 18th century onwards, exploring and charting even the furthest corners of the globe was a matter of national prestige.
John Stedman, Nachrichten von Surinam und von seiner Expedition gegen die rebellischen Neger in dieser Kolonie in den Jahren 1772 bis 1777.
Published 1797 in Hamburg, abridged translation of the original English-language version from 1796. (Narrative of a five years’ expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam in Guiana, on the wild coast of South America from the year 1772 to 1777.)
The Europeans’ economic development of other continents was inseparably linked to slavery and human trafficking. From the 16th century onwards, slave traders abducted millions of Africans and transported them to America, where they were forced to work on plantations, growing cotton, tobacco, sugar, cocoa, and coffee for Europe.
Scotsman John Stedman wrote about the inhumane treatment of the slaves in his diary. In 1772, he joined a mercenary force tasked with suppressing a slave rebellion in the Dutch colony of Suriname. Stedman was shocked by the casual, daily violence and barbaric punishments used to bring slaves to heel in South America. He describes the abuses in detail, and condemns them.
Stedman also had personal reasons for this: he had lived in Suriname among Africans, Indians, and many people of mixed heritage. He had fallen in love with a mixed-race (“mulatto”) woman and fathered her child.
In his diary, Stedman puzzled over the different races a great deal, and came to a clear conclusion: they are all people and therefore children of God who deserve to be treated humanely. At the time, that sentiment wasn’t taken for granted as it is now.
Stedman’s views represent a change in attitudes that emerged at the end of the 18th century. Many people read his book and carefully considered what he had to say, but couldn’t see any economic alternative to slavery – including Stedman himself. It was only in the following decades that slavery was gradually outlawed. The British Empire outlawed slave trading in 1807, and slavery itself in 1833.
The Last Few Blank Spaces on the Map
Georg Forster, Des Captain Jacob Cook’s dritte Entdeckungs-Reise welche derselbe auf Befehl und Kosten der Großbritannischen Regierung in das stille Meer und nach dem Nordpol hinauf unternommen und mit den Schiffen Resolution und Discovery während der Jahre 1776 bis 1780 ausgeführet hat.
Published 1787/1788 in two volumes by Haude and Spener in Berlin.
In the second half of the 18th century, almost every part of the world had been discovered. To fill in the blank spaces on the map, some systematic expeditions were launched. The Pacific remained a relatively large blank space for a long time, until it was explored by James Cook. His mission was to find out whether there really was a huge land mass in the South (“Terra Australis”), as geographers were postulating. Instead of that huge land mass, Cook found a relatively small continent, which was named “Australia” accordingly.
On his three expeditions, Cook filled in a lot of blank spaces on the charts on behalf of the British Empire. He discovered a number of islands, such as Hawaii, Easter Island, Tonga, and Tahiti, New Zealand, and the Cook Islands, which were named after him, of course. His third and final expedition also took him to the Arctic Ocean, in search of the legendary North-West Passage.
Cook was already a celebrity after his second expedition; his death in Hawaii during his third expedition (1776-1780) made him a legend. The public interest in his life and adventures fueled the demand for reports of his expeditions, for reports just like the German one we have here. This report was translated and made readable by somebody who knew a thing or two about the subject matter: Georg Forster accompanied Cook on his second voyage to the South Pacific.
He was part of a team of scientists that accompanied the explorer in order to document what he discovered on the expedition, using the very latest scientific methods and equipment. Ultimately, this was exactly what enlightened Europe interpreted as a sign of its own superiority: the educated travelers drawing scientific conclusions from the things that the indigenous people didn’t understand, despite having lived around them for centuries.
Stop 5: Europe Travels
During the first half of the 19th century, the nobility’s prominent role in society was taken over by the middle classes. Where the nobility had defined themselves by their parentage, these middle classes developed new ways to define their social status. As well as being rich, families had to demonstrate a certain level of education in order to secure its place in middle-class society.
Just as the daughters of these wealthy families had to play the piano and sing well, the master of the house had to have a good understanding of the world. He could learn about the world by reading books, which were printed specifically for this purpose by enterprising publishers. There’s a reason Meyer called his huge encyclopedia a “Conversations Lexicon.”
While young nobles had made the “Grand Tour” across the countries of Europe primarily to learn courtly manners and meet potential allies in person, the burghers of the 19th century traveled in order to gain new knowledge. Their travels to Switzerland or Italy gave them lots of material for conversations in their parlors at home. This was less about showing off their extraordinary life experiences, and more about proving to one another that they were accomplished members of middle-class society, by delivering very similar assessments of the same places.
To illustrate this early tourism culture, we’ll be looking at Zimmerman’s “Taschenbuch der Reisen” (“Handbook of Travel”), a bestseller of the travelogue genre. Our second example is the precursor of the modern “coffee table book;” a little booklet filled with beautiful images of the Alpine region, intended to bring back memories of adventures past and spark conversation.
The “Man of the World”
E. A. W. von Zimmermann, Taschenbuch der Reisen oder unterhaltende Darstellung der Entdeckungen des 18. Jahrhunderts. Für jede Klasse von Lesern.
Published 1812 by Gerhard Fleischer the Younger in Leipzig.
“Apparently the sea snake has been sighted again in the Indian Ocean” – this is what civil servant Theobald Maske, a character in Carl Sternheim’s comedy play “The Underpants,” says to his wife in an attempt to convince her that he is not just a petit bourgeois, as she disdainfully views him, but a man of the world.
After all, 19th-century “men of the world,” were identified by their wealth of knowledge about the big wide world – which is why we still use that term to describe a widely experienced person today. And anybody who hadn’t ventured beyond their own hometown had to read books to make up for it.
The fact that even a newspaper like the “Gartenlaube,” which was written purely for the purpose of entertainment, couldn’t avoid including stories from around the world, indicates the key role that reports of faraway lands and cultures played in middle-class society.
So there was great demand. The “Taschenbuch der Reisen,” or the “Handbook of Travel”, which was published in 16 volumes between 1801 and 1815 by Eberhard August Wilhelm Zimmermann, became one of the most popular works of its time. Zimmerman was a widely traveled mathematician, natural scientist, and geographer educated in Göttingen, and his book was a bestseller.
Readers loved these books, because the renowned scientist consistently delivered exactly what his target audience wanted. The very fact that Zimmerman didn’t write about his own experiences, despite having learned a great deal from his extensive travels in Switzerland, France, England, Italy, Sweden, and Russia, is very telling. Instead, he relied on the charm of exotic, faraway countries – even though he had no personal experience of them.
He edited well-known travelogues, turning the stiff, dry reports into exciting adventure stories, which his readers practically devoured. For example, where modern writers would simply give a temperature reading, Zimmerman wrote the following description:
On his journey from Lahore to Kashmir, Bernier felt the heat hit him as soon as he crossed the 30th Parallel North. It was even more severe than it had been in Mocha in Arabia. He was so disheartened by the morning heat that he hardly believed he would see nightfall. My body, he says, has become a sieve. Whenever I drink any water, I see it reappear soon afterwards as a layer of sweat all over my body, all the way to my fingertips. My entire body is covered with small red blisters that sting like the prick of a needle.
To give you an idea of how popular Zimmerman’s “Handbook of Travel” was, here’s a quote from a wish list written by Christian Grabbe (1801-1836) when he was twelve years old:
Dear parents, I wish for – did I say wish? – I crave, long for a book, with all my heart. … I would happily give away many of my clothes to get it … I would be more than happy to go without many of my things if I could just get that book. … It is called: Zimmerman, Handbook of Travel.
Faraway Lands as Conversation Starters
Le Simplon. Promenade Pittoresque de Genève à Milan.
Published 1824 in Paris by Louis Janet.
If you love 19th-century English novels, you’ll know just how important a room the parlor was for a middle-class family’s public image. It’s where guests would arrive, to be served tea and inevitable sandwiches. It’s where the daughter of the house would perform a song on the piano, under the stern gaze of a chaperon. It’s where the lady of the house would meet up with her friends and, hopefully, where the daughter of the house would meet eligible bachelors.
These encounters didn’t always go that smoothly. How do you start an interesting conversation with someone you’ve never met before, especially considering how many topics were off-limits in the parlor?
For this reason, families would arrange books on little tables all around the parlor, books whose contents might spark conversation.
Stop 6: Alienations
Our sixth stop could almost catapult us into the present, a time in which mass tourism takes countless individual tourists prowling through even the most remote mountainous landscapes, armed with their selfie sticks, out to inspire their Instagram or Facebook followers to do the same. In a time when you have to have been to New Zealand to even join in with the conversation, nothing seems to be “fremd” anymore.
Nowadays, those faraway, “exotic” countries are treated as a means to an end: we travel to them for relaxing holidays, or use them as an exciting backdrop for our self-promotion, while an insatiable tourism industry exploits them to the point that indigenous people are driven out.
But let’s travel back just once more, this time to the beginning of the 20th century, when mass tourism was still in its infancy. Even back then, proper travelogues were being displaced by jokey publications that defamiliarized faraway countries and cultures. Mark Twain practically created a new genre with his book “The Innocents Abroad.”
Other authors soon jumped onto this bandwagon. In order to tempt potential readers into buying their books, they became committed to this new trend of making fun of faraway lands and cultures. As an example, we’ll be looking at the most famous work by writer Otto Julius Bierbaum, who is now relatively unknown, though he was very successful in his day.
And to round off our journey into the unknown, we’ll be looking at a book that turned the tables. “The Papalagi,” is a foreigner’s account of Western culture, which is, of course, foreign to him – at least, that’s what the book seems to be.
China as a Laughing Stock
Otto Julius Bierbaum, Das schöne Mädchen von Pao. Ein chinesischer Roman.
Published between July 1909 and February 1910 by Johann Enschedé en Zonen in Haarlem. A total of 600 copies were printed for Georg Müller Verlag, a publisher’s in Munich.
In 1895, the military forces commanded by the small nation of Japan defeated the powerful empire of China, annihilating its huge army in just a few months. The Chinese emperor was not only forced to pay a huge sum of money to the Japanese aggressors, but also to surrender large areas of land to Japan.
The Western world was shocked. It suddenly became clear that China was fundamentally weak, despite its vast size. One Munich-based journalist sensed a good business opportunity here. He wrote a humorous novel that made his readers laugh at China’s expense.
Otto Julius Bierbaum (1865-1910) lived in an area of Munich called Schwabing and earned his living by writing. He was one of the regular writers for satirical newspaper “Simplicissimus,” and he knew how much his readers liked stories that made them laugh. And oh, how they laughed: a country like China, which the West had considered its equal, if not its superior, for centuries, had been unable to defeat the much smaller nation of Japan!
What if we’re the Strange Ones?
Erich Scheurmann, Der Papalagi. Die Reden des Südseehäuptlings Tuiavii aus Tiavea.
Published by Oesch Verlag, a publisher’s in Zurich.
Do you ever look in the mirror in the morning and wonder what you’re still doing here, when you’ve long been yearning to get away? The daily commute to work via the crowded city streets suddenly seems like such an alien prospect. Is the paycheck really worth surrendering yourself to your moody boss, your nagging customers?
This feeling is nothing new. Authors have been expressing doubts about Western culture ever since the Enlightenment. Many of them called upon characterizations of the “noble savage” to ask, in crudely worded terms, all of those questions they didn’t dare ask aloud.
Montesquieu was the first to hit upon the idea of describing the Western world from an outsider’s perspective. In his writings, two fictional Persians describe, in equally fictional letters to their astonished families at home, the things they see and experience during their travels in France. The author was drawing on an old tradition here: people had been writing travelogues in the form of letters for years, but this time it wasn’t foreign lands being described from a Western perspective, but the other way around.
The book was a huge success. Within the author’s lifetime, it was reprinted in 30 editions and translated into English, German, and Russian. Here is the title vignette of the first German edition.
Many imitated Montesquieu’s technique, for instance, Herbert Rosendorfer, with his letters set in the Chinese past.
And that brings us to the end of our journey. Our six stops have brought us back to the here and now, where each and every one of us has to figure out what aspects of our lives we personally consider to be “fremd,” and whether we should try to understand these aspects a bit better. Ultimately, any journey we make into the unknown is also a journey of self-discovery. It is only through others that we can truly find out who we are.