Boston University in Belgium: A Workshop on Chinese-Western Cultural Relations in the Early Modern Era

Picture participants Workshop

Participants and guests at the Leuven Workshop

A workshop jointly organized by Boston University and the University of Leuven on the history of Chinese-European relations was successfully held on May 26-27, 2014 in the historic university town of Leuven (Louvain), in Flanders, Belgium.

The workshop was coordinated by Professor Eugenio Menegon (Department of History, and Director of the BU center for the Study of Asia, Boston University) and Professor Nicolas Standaert (Department of Chinese Studies, University of Leuven, Belgium).

Supported by generous funding from the College of Arts and Sciences at BU, and the Department of Chinese Studies at KU Leuven, this gathering of scholars focused on the topic of “materiality” in the cultural exchange between China and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Junior and senior scholars from Belgium, Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States presented their ongoing research on the circulation of books and scientific instruments, the financial system sustaining that circulation, and the use of gifts, luxury objects, art, and technical skills in diplomacy and Christian proselytization.

Below is a detailed concept and the program of the workshop.


KU Leuven and Boston University Workshop

“The Materiality of Chinese-Western Relations
in the Ming-Qing periods:
Methodological Approaches, Empirical Cases”

Leuven (Belgium), May 26-27, 2014.


Workshop Concept

This workshop built on recent scholarship and other workshops and conferences on the presence and role of Europeans (especially Catholic missionaries) at the imperial court and in the provinces in Ming-Qing China. It aimed to explore methodological issues and empirical case-studies that might help us re-focus some of our predominant concerns about texts and intellectual exchanges towards the material and sociological underpinnings of text production and circulation of knowledge.

Much recent research has focused on these topics:

  • Creation of epistolary and book-centered networks between Europe and China
  • Circulation of European-Chinese technical and scientific knowledge within China and with Europe
  • Artistic Circulation from Europe to China and viceversa, and related networks of patronage
  • Creation of religious networks (e.g. related to the Chinese Rites)

Most scholarship concentrates on the written texts (more rarely the physical objects) produced and circulated between Europe and China, and viceversa. We also have impressive prosopographies of different, sometimes overlapping networks, with a various degree of richness depending on periods and depth of existing research. Obviously, as historians, all we have are texts and material objects to rely on. Those texts and objects were produced by individuals or groups whom we can identify as authors; or the names and identities of those historical actors are simply mentioned within texts (letters, prefaces etc.) as participants in circulations and networks.

The objective of the workshop was to leverage existing research to explore the materiality of these circulations and prosopographies. Rather than an abstract comparison of similar systems in the European and Chinese contexts, the workshops focused on empirical cases of actual circulation and network-building in China, and between China and Europe. The workshop, while open to the entire Ming-Qing period, encouraged research on the eighteenth century, and especially the period between the Late Kangxi to Jiaqing reigns, as they are generally less studied periods.

These are some questions offered to presenters in order to focus on “materiality”:

  • How can we construct a comprehensive sociology of the networks we study, an aspect that we have been considering all along more as proxy to text/object circulation rather than on its own merits (indicator of material/financial support; friendship; enjoyment of common resources; social capital)? Are there methodological approaches we can take to go in this direction, inspired by appropriate disciplinary methods in anthropology, historical sociology, art history, history of science etc.?
  • How can we bring back to the fore the materiality of the networks and circulations we study, including topics such as travel from a location to another (via boat, cart, on foot, using local guides, Christians and non-Christians etc.); financial support; labor and gender relations etc.?
  • What does recovering the materiality of these phenomena contribute to historical knowledge? Does this focus on materiality change the way we see Sino-Western cultural relations? 



Day 1 (Monday, May 26, 2014)

Panel “Circulations of Knowledge”

Chair:  Eugenio Menegon

Discussant: Elisabetta Corsi, Professor, Department of History, Cultures, and Religions, University “La Sapienza,” Rome 


Nicolas Standaert, Professor, Department of Sinology, University of Leuven: “Circulating Chinese Books: Jean-François Foucquet’s Contribution to the Establishment of Chinese Libraries in Europe.”

Wu Huiyi, Post-doctoral Fellow, Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, UK: “Knowledge in ‘Commercial’ Printings: The Jesuits’ Use of Daily-use Leishu 

Chen Yanrong, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Sinology, University of Leuven: “Exploring the Tangibility of the Misa jingdian 彌撒經典

Final panel plenary discussion

Panel “Mapping Space and Networks”

Chair: Kristina Kleutghen

Discussant: Catherine Jami, Professor, Université Diderot and Research Director, CNRS, Paris


Nadine Amsler, Ph.D. Candidate, Historical Institute, University of Bern: Fabrics of Devotion: Women’s Share in Chinese Christian Material Culture during the Seventeenth Century” 

Mario Cams, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Sinology, University of Leuven: “Tracing Instruments and Maps in the Early Eighteenth-Century Cartographic Exchange between Europe and Qing China.”

Frederick Vermote, Assistant Professor, Department of History, California State University at Fresno: “Making and Losing Money Globally: The Financial Outcomes of Jesuit Trans-Imperial Networks”

Final panel plenary discussion

Day 2 (Tuesday, May 27, 2014)

Panel “Travel & Diplomacy”

Chair: Nadine Amsler

Discussant: Dominic Sachsenmaier, Professor, Department of History, Jacobs University, Bremen


Gregory Afinogenov, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, Harvard University:  “Noble and Common. Ideas and Objects in the St. Petersburg-Beijing Correspondence”

Noël Golvers, Researcher, Ferdinand Verbiest Institute, University of Leuven: “Communication and Exchange of Knowledge between West and East (Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries):  The ‘Routes’, Illustrated by the Case of the Via Ostendana”

Henrietta Harrison, Professor of Modern Chinese Studies, Chinese Studies Institute, University of Oxford: “Chinese and British Diplomatic Gifts in the Macartney Embassy of 1793”

Panel “Luxury and Consumption”

Chair: Nicolas Standaert


Nicolas Standaert: paper by Marco Musillo

Elisabetta Corsi: paper by Kristina Kleutghen

Catherine Jami: paper by Eugenio Menegon


Marco Musillo, Research Associate in the Department of Chinese Art at the Museo delle Culture, Lugano, Switzerland:  Tangible Jesuits and Intangible Objects: Sino-Western Relations between Empiricism and Historiography”

Kristina Kleutghen, Assistant Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis: Magnification and the West: Lenses as Material Mediators of Cross-Cultural Contact in High Qing China”

Eugenio Menegon, Associate Professor, Department of History, Boston University: Sotto questa coperta, facciamo il fatto nostro: Court Missionaries and the Politics of Luxury Consumption during the Qianlong Reign”

Final panel plenary discussion

Final Workshop Roundtable