East is East

Asia in the Making of Europe (Volumes I & II)

by Donald F. Lach
Chicago, 965 pp., $20.00

A great deal has been heard in recent years of the revolutionary impact of the West on Asia and Africa, far less of the impact of Asia on the West. The object of these two impressive volumes is to restore the balance. Here we have an attempt to bring together, in a consistent narrative, everything that a European could know of India, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan, from printed books, missionary reports, traders’ accounts and maps, during the sixteenth century. One can only admire the immense industry and knowledge, and the skill in marshaling the evidence, which Professor Lach has put into his work. Two further volumes will deal on the same major scale with the seventeenth century; two more will carry the story to 1800, when the beginnings of European industrialization changed the whole context of the relations of Orient and Occident. But already one can say that nothing of this scope and magnitude has been performed before, and nothing is likely to be performed again.

Our concern here must be less with the facts than with their implications, though the facts are engrossing enough. That the whole basis for Europeans’ attitudes to Asia was changed in the course of the sixteenth century, no reader of Professor Lach’s volumes can doubt; nor is there any reason to impugn his judgment that it was the discovery of Asia rather than America which had the most profound immediate effects on Europeans. The interest of Europeans in Asia, as exemplified by the number of books published, was phenomenal. No sooner had Mendoza’s History of China been published in Rome in 1585 than reissues appeared at Valencia in Spanish and at Venice in Italian. By 1600 there were nineteen additional Italian printings and eleven in Castilian. A German and a Latin version appeared at Frankfurt in 1589, another German translation at Leipzig in 1597. Dutch translations appeared in 1595, French in 1588, 1589, and 1600, and an English translation in the year of the Armada. By the end of the sixteenth century Mendoza’s work had been reprinted forty-six times in seven different European languages.

This is only one striking example of an interest universal throughout Europe. An examination of new titles printed in France between 1480 and 1609 shows that there were one hundred books about Asia to eighty about the Turks and only forty on the New World. When four Japanese youths visited Europe between 1584 and 1586, they were the subject not only of “much talk” and “many letters by a vast circle of correspondents” but also of no fewer than fifty-five publications. “There can be no question,” Professor Lach comments, “about the impact which they made in Europe.” What concerns us is the nature of this impact. Was it merely an effervescent interest in the strange and exotic, the perennial curiosity in the “marvels of the east” which meets us already in the fantastic illustrations of medieval manuscripts, or had the permeation of knowledge reached a point where it affected…

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