Last August, two Maastricht University (UM) students had the unique opportunity to travel through China following the path described in China Illustrata, a 17th-century collection of travel journals compiled by the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, which is part of the UM’s Jesuit collection.
Jenkins and Giombini documented their own journey with a blog and have created a documentary film about their trip, which they will premier on 8 December at ‘The New World’, an event sponsored by the UM Library in collaboration with the Maastricht Academy of Fine Arts and Design (MAFAD).
They traveled across the north of the country and eventually down to Tibet. “It was really recreating history,” Jenkins says. “We had a printout of the English version of the original travel log with us, and were going from city to city to the middle of nowhere, comparing how places looked the 17th Century when the Jesuits had written about it, and that was fascinating.”
Jenkins says it was incredible not only how much the country has changed, but European attitudes towards it. “China has changed so much,” she says, “but also the way we talk about the people now is less like aliens from another planet. That was also very interesting for me, because I thought we would just compare old to new China, but I feel like what impressed me the most was how different their world view was.”
Applying the old to the new
The Jesuit Collection was bought by the Dutch government in 1973 from the two former Jesuit colleges (the theological faculty Canisianum in Maastricht and the philosophical faculty Berchmanianum in Nijmegen) and subsequently the former large seminary Warmond.
The collection includes approximately 250,000 volumes, the oldest of which date back to the end of the 15th Century and the most recent to the 1970s. It includes texts mainly in the fields of theology, philosophy, medicine, history, literature, law and social sciences (sociology, psychology, anthropology and economics), but also has a wealth of travel logs.
Odin Essers is the head curator of the collection, and says the goal is to stimulate, support and facilitate the use of UM’s Special Collections with a primary focus on education and research, particularly by students.
The trip to China was inspired by the values that UM holds dear: Inferring new knowledge from previously acquired knowledge, developing an international outlook and viewing the world with an open mind, and challenging students to develop.
“Students are very interested in being aware of what we have and how they can work with the collection,” Essers says. “We try to promote the collection as not just a library of books but as inspiration.”
There is also a team of students who work to promote the collection to their peers. “They organised a poetry slam, for example, and had about 200 students in attendance,” Essers says. “If you use books from the collection as an inspiration for different art forms and events, it becomes a lot more interesting.”
Inspiration for the trip
The idea for the China trip connects seamlessly to the Research Based Learning course On Expedition, a collaboration of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the University Library and Wikimedia NL.The goal of the course is threefold: teaching students to study reports of expeditions, helping students gain a better understanding of the exchange of knowledge in the past and exploring the wealths of the Maastricht Jesuit Library.
“We have a massive amount of travel logs in our collection,” Essers says, “in all languages and for all countries and continents, and we set up a course in which students write articles about these travel books and they based their thesis on it.”
Later, Essers decided to work with Wikimedia to broaden the readership of these articles beyond academia and into the public space. They received reactions from all over the world.
“The next step,” Essers says, “was thinking we should send students to a country—in this case China—based on a travel log that we have, so they could not only read and write about the books but experiencing something more.”
The trip was eventually made possible with the support of the University Fund (Universiteitsfonds) and the Maastricht Academic Heritage Fund.
About China Illustrata
Athanasius Kircher’s book was distributed widely in 17th-Century China and was a best seller. In it, Kircher describes Chinese culture, including clothing, gender, food, traditions and religion, with an incredible wealth of illustrations.
The volume can be found online in various translations, including in English.
The New World, an exposition inspired by ‘Two Girls on Expedition in China’, takes place 8 December, and will feature a documentary Jenkins and Giombini produced about their trip. Check out the trailer for the documentary, and read Jenkins’ and Giombini’s travel blog here.