Socialist Worker

A cultural encounter between East and West

Encounters: The Meeting of Europe and Asia 1500-1800. Victoria and Albert Museum, London until 5 December

Issue No. 1926

A huge black screen, dated 1674 and made by skilled Chinese craftsmen, depicts the activities of an enclosed Chinese court. It is a lively scene, rich in decoration and colour, and shows a multitude of characters going about their daily tasks. In the extreme left of the screen are a small group of European merchants.

They are outside the court—on the periphery of Chinese affairs. This lavish object shows how, in the early period of European contact with Asia, Europe was not the dominant power it would later become.

In 1492 Columbus landed in the Americas in his search for a route to the East. Six years later Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama achieved this goal, landing on the Malabar coast of India, starting a period of rapid growth of encounters between Europe and Asia.

Prior to this, contact between the two continents was via the ancient and lengthy Silk Road. But with the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 the ability to trade via this overland route became increasingly difficult.

This exhibition explores the exchange between East and West through the goods traded between these continents. The Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, English and French, were all keen to establish trading links with Asia. What they found were not backward peoples but great, rich and sophisticated civilisations which could not be easily pleased with a few coloured beads.

When Vasco da Gama landed in India he presented the local ruler with 12 pieces of striped cloth, six hats, four strings of coral, a case of sugar, two casks of oil and two casks of honey. The local ruler was less than impressed—and most likely insulted.

The Europeans were able to impose their will on weaker areas—including parts of southern India and Indonesia.

But China, Japan and Mughal India were strong powers during most of this period, and were able to dictate the terms of the encounter and therefore of trade.

The Asian goods shipped back to Europe included commodities such as spices and tea, but also the products of highly skilled labour such as porcelain, silk garments and luxury goods made from precious metals.

Over 200 objects are included in the exhibition, many from Asia, which show the skill and artistry of the continent during this period. Europe had little to sell that the Asians wanted, and had to pay for these goods in silver.

Although Asia did not receive mass imports from Europe, there was fascination with its scientific and artistic developments. Technological goods such as guns, clocks, cartography and lenses were much admired and copied.

The exhibition shows that this was a period of cross-fertilisation of cultures.

For example, an Indian statue of Jesus as a child recalls similar statues of the Hindu god Krishna as a child. A rock crystal figure of Jesus from Ceylon resembles the Buddha with his reclining pose.

European paintings introduced Western-style perspective to Asian artists, and a number of Japanese and Chinese paintings in the exhibition display this new style.

However, relations were not always harmonious. The great Asian powers were worried about the influence of Europe and Christianity.

In the exhibition is a wooden edict made in 1683 which prohibits Christianity in Japan. It states that any individual turning in a missionary would receive 500 pieces of silver.

By the late 18th century the imbalance between Europe and Asia had disappeared. The British were flooding China with opium to destabilise its economy, leading to the Opium Wars. In India the Mughal Empire collapsed, allowing the East India Company to fill the void.

This, coupled with rapid industrialisation in Europe and the growth of naval and military power, allowed the imperialist domination of the Asian continent to reach its full might.

This exhibition shows that this process took centuries, and that this part of the globe was a thriving area. It helps to debunk the imperialist myth that Europe was the dominant power from the outset.

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Sat 6 Nov 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1926
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