Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Illustrating the ties between Asia and Europe

`There were clashes of personalities as well as of civilizations' but also mutually beneficial relations, according to a new exhibition


It was globalization by another name, with booming trade bringing benefits to many. And 400 years later its influence is still around.

Tempura -- relished around the world as a classically Japanese dish is just one example, having been introduced to Japan by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century.

After two years of intensive work, London's Victoria and Albert Museum has pieced together a unique exhibition illustrating the ancient and enduring links between Asia and Europe.

"This is the first time there was a real world trade. This was the first globalization, and China was the dominant world power," co-curator Amin Jaffer said.

"One point we want to bring across is that Asians and Europeans were involved with each other. Asia was by no means passive in the relationship," he added.

The exhibition, which opens at the end of September and runs for two months, covers the period from 1500 to 1800 when Portuguese, British and Dutch traders and missionaries were fanning out across the globe in search of cash and converts.

"We close at the end of the 17th century because after that the story changes dramatically," said fellow curator Anna Jackson. "We wanted to show a civilized period when there was more fluidity."

The relationship was by no means all sweetness and light as the European maritime powers were far from averse to using their military might to get what they wanted, but it was at least initially mutually beneficial.

The Europeans did not always get their own way. China kept all foreigners isolated and confined to specific areas of the country. Japan too, in the throes of unification and the creation of the Samurai warrior ruling class, kept its foreigners carefully segregated, picking carefully what they wanted to take from them.

In turn they made artefacts that would appeal to the Occidental eye but bearing an unmistakable Oriental style.

"The Japanese made things for the export market and generally deemed them to be of inferior quality. But these items also developed an intrinsic value of their own and found their way back into the domestic market as curios," Jackson said.

Indeed, the Portuguese, who first arrived in Japan in 1542 when a trading boat was blown off course and promptly proceeded to try -- and fail -- to convert the country to Christianity, were finally evicted 100 years later.

Britain tried to muscle in with inferior quality merchandise, but the Dutch succeeded with quality Asian cloth.

In 1633 the Japanese finally closed their borders to foreign travel, banned Western literature and confined the Dutch to Nagasaki.

But at the same time there was a fascination with these strange foreigners who arrived bearing gifts and wore funny clothes.

"The Japanese adopted several European practices. Some wore European-style dress and one picture we have shows an emperor wearing a European wig," Jackson said.

"All foreigners were objects of curiosity. Europeans were viewed as slightly supernatural," she added.

One Chinese scroll consists of miniature pictures of different Europeans and describes their dominant national characteristics as a quick reference for court dignitaries waiting to receive a Western delegation.

"It wasn't at all just a one way trade with the Europeans taking from the Asians. The Japanese for one took what they wanted from Europe," Jackson said.

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