1 Travellers and Their Literary Reflections

In his late reflections on travel writings as part of the discovery and measurement of the earth, the famous nineteenth-century scientific explorer and global traveller Alexander von Humboldt addressed the fundamental premise that human movements irrespective of their intentions lead to forms of discovery.

The greatest of all mistakes that can be found in the geography of Ptolemy [in the opinion on the extension of Asia to the East], has led humankind to the greatest discoveries in relation to new parts of the earth. […] Everything that triggers movement, whatever the moving force may be: mistakes, unfounded speculations, instinctive divinations, deductions based on facts, will lead to the broadening of the horizon of ideas and to new ways of intelligent inquiries.Footnote 1

Alexander von Humboldt starts his “Critical Inquiries” in 1852 with the observation that the miscalculation of one authority has triggered many forms of human action in exploring the planet. It is for him the act of travelling that generates knowledge and ultimately drives forward human intellectual progress, even if the travellers themselves might be misguided. Human triggers and reasons for travelling can be numerous, but Humboldt also indicated that the mental mapping of the world might provoke individual difficulties in reconciling preconceived constructions of space with the encountered human geography. This process of curiosity and its individual and collective processing in configuring, reflecting, and readjusting knowledge and identities about Asia is the topic of this book.

The most prominent European example for the individual difficulty to readjust his curiosity and preconceptions of Asia with his experienced encounter could arguably be Christopher Columbus.Footnote 2 As early as 1470, Columbus claimed his plans for the westward voyage and his curiosity on “well founded scientific reasons” in establishing the distance between the Canary Islands off the North African coast and Asia (or rather Chipangu = Japan) at an optimistic 2.760 miles instead of the actual 12.000 miles.Footnote 3 When he finally reached the Caribbean in search for Chipangu and Cathay, nothing matched his spatially preconceived knowledge. Columbus elaborated in a letter to Luis de Santangel, Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Kingdom of Aragon upon his return in March 1493 the meandering travels through the Caribbean islands. “I followed its coast to the westward and found it so large that I thought it must be the mainland, - the province of Cathay; and, as I found neither towns nor villages on the sea coast […], I kept on the same route, thinking that I could not fail to light upon some large cities and towns.”Footnote 4 The absence of towns and in fact everything that China and Japan stood for in the European imaginary finally made Columbus partly readjust his mental image of the encountered space.

Travelling appears in the vast literature as the paradigmatic form of human experience. Semantically and conceptually, travel and experience are linked in Germanic languages while most other European languages connect travel to a laborious ordeal and connect acquired liberal education semantically to a widely travelled person.Footnote 5 Travels require a huge effort to mentally and cognitively appropriate a different world while the travellers remain rooted in the cultural, mental and social framework of their original background.Footnote 6 It is this specific combination of experience, generation of meanings, and the continuous articulation of space that make travel reports a unique source for the specific ways of thinking and interpretations of individual travellers. The results of this articulation, the travel reports, open windows to understand the human social and mental structures that conceptualise knowledge about space in different times.Footnote 7 This volume focuses on different actors from across the globe who travelled to, within, and through a geographical space that we may broadly consider as Asia. In reflecting upon their experiences and encounters in travelling this space in its diversity, the travel writers try to locate these within their diverse worldviews and preconceived knowledge. Even when discussing accounts penned by European travellers, the contributions to the volume trace some of these individual and collective attempts through the analytical lens of curiosity as a human capacity and a mode of observation that led to the creation of a plurality of Asias before and against the scholarly assumption of a coherent dominating othering of “the Orient.”

2 “In Space We Read time”—Historiographical Locations of Travel Writings on Asia

Friedrich Ratzel (1904, 28). See Schlögel (2016, 3–7), Osterhammel (2013, 86–87).

In recent years, the historiography on travel writings and on the re-discovery of space as an analytical category has taken off to the extent that the fields of history, ethnography, anthropology, and cultural studies articulated emphatically a “spatial turn.”Footnote 8 The introduction reviews the different conceptual and analytical approaches to travel writing and travel and locates the volume in the literature by offering an analytical concept that has been largely neglected—the aspect of human curiosity.Footnote 9 Since the 1970s, scholarship has asked for a stronger conceptualisation of travel as a form of cultural practice.Footnote 10 In the last decades, different authors have proposed an interdisciplinary programme that would embrace the practice, the programmatic intentions, the literary representation, and the repercussions as the four themes for research.Footnote 11 It is striking that the field has seen a considerable amount of publications around these themes, yet mostly with a focus on Europe and the Americas, Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. Asia and East Asia in particular as a historical meso-region has not been the subject of prominent studies of travel writing on a larger scale or as part of a polycentric or integrative perspective on human travellers and their reflections on travel experiences and practices.Footnote 12

This is surprising for at least two reasons. Firstly, a strict historicisation and contextualisation of travels and travel practices allows us to integrate mechanisms of actions and biographical specificities of travellers in their specific historical circumstances. Asia as a spatial and perceived cultural meso-region offers a vast field for individual and collective perceptions and creations of space. The production of knowledge through the act of travel as a form of intellectual self-recognition (“Erkenntnis”) and the relationship of experience and text between semantics and social history with a clear regional focus on Asia offers the potential to understand the dialogic nature between the far and the near, the known and the yet unknown, and the self and the other.Footnote 13 These intellectual and existential processes are not confined to a mere “Western” or imperial act of travelling as generating power through knowing an Orientalised “Asia” in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.Footnote 14 Europeans travelled with different mental capacities and ideological agendas, and they apply different modes of observation that do not necessarily add up in a coherent ideology to conquer. So did Chinese, Japanese, and other people.Footnote 15 Tuan and Wang have shown that Europeans were not the only expansionist powers who used “othering” and “imperial gazes” to inscribe ethnocentric ethnographies into Asian spaces.Footnote 16 At times, inscribing political or expansionist programmes through specific forms of travel was one of the outcomes of a guided curiosity to know and exercise influence. Many social groups and individuals in Asia also travelled and conceptualised their own mental maps and cultural geographies of Asia, yet with different coordinates of generating meaning.Footnote 17 However, the cultural and social formation of Asia from multiple actors inside and outside of Asia and its diverse historical, topographic, and cultural representations have been relatively under-researched.

Secondly, Asia in its more ideological form of the “Orient” has been at the forefront of theoretical and conceptual discussions on travel writing since the 1970s. Empirical studies take still for granted the stimulating yet overly schematic and simplistic assumptions of Edward Said. In following Foucault’s concept of knowledge as power, Said assumes rather than evidences the unity of an imperial ideology that all encounters between West and East entail, with the sole intention to dominate and rule the East.Footnote 18 “From travelers’ tales […] colonies were created and ethnographic perspectives secured.”Footnote 19 Said suggests that travel writings in particular create colonial power and discourse which are possessed entirely by the coloniser. Ambiguities, nuances, and in fact other forms of inquiry or knowledge that are not primarily understood in the form of discursive power are completely absent from the ideological conceptualisation of “Orientalism.” Other postcolonial theorists have held Said responsible for a historical and theoretical oversimplification in his quest for an assumed single “intentionality and unidirectionality” of all colonial power.Footnote 20 Interestingly, although equally adhering to a relatively unhistorical and ideological assumption of unified colonial power, Homi Bhabha has argued strongly for a much more diverse and open approach in studying especially prejudice as an ambivalent form of “appropriating” the East in colonial discourse.Footnote 21 However, many historical and literary studies on travel writings seem to focus on the “imperial gaze” under Said’s paradigm of unified ideological accusation rather than on Bhabha’s ambiguity as a heuristic tool when analysing Western and Asian travel writers. The volume seeks to fill the gap left by the fact that singularised narratives of imperialistic conquest have dominated the scholarly landscape where the recognition of a multiplicity of voices and nuances within those voices who entered the region of Asia cannot be subsumed under an ideological effort of postcolonial homogenization. On the contrary, the volume traces some of the writers travelling the world and Asia in order to know and understand the encountered spaces and populations, and to analyse how they utilised their gathered knowledge through different operations of curiosity to act upon the perceived spaces.Footnote 22 In doing so, the entrenched debates around Orientalism and Eurocentrism are considered conceptual inclines that as such do not represent theoretical absolutes, but perspectives with varying degrees of overlap that need to be supplemented with more categories to give full meaning to the narratives of travelling individuals.

Space has geographical and geological as well as mental dimensions. Research on maps and cartography has traditionally drawn on travel writings as part of the socio-cultural and political representations of physical geography. Although in 1824 Alexander von Humboldt celebrated the decline of opinionated representations of the world through the rise of exact mathematical and statistical tools, the “critical comparison of descriptive works,” mostly travel writings and missionary reports, remained a highly important source of mapping.Footnote 23 Critical cartography has contributed immensely to the understanding of the relationship between power and knowledge, especially when mapping non-European spaces. J.B. Harley in particular as representative of a critical Marxist cartography used Foucault and Said to reflect on mapping as an exercise of colonial power.Footnote 24 Yet, his focus was on physical maps as the product of imperial reflection, not on travel reports as the process of curious knowledge collection and inward roads into the understanding of individual perceptions of space and their social repercussions in disseminating them. Furthermore, the Saidian literature ignores how often, at the moment of encounter with non-European geographies, European writers have produced instances of anti-imperial argumentations and sustained self-criticism.Footnote 25 Our volume shows that there is no clear linear direction towards more imperialism and “Orientalist” gazes since the beginning of European overseas expansion in the sixteenth century, although imperial attitudes, moral and “racial” classifications of different centres relate to a European way of viewing, classifying, and knowing the world until the present.

In the context of the “spatial turn” in the humanities and social sciences, interest has shifted towards the history of collective concepts of different global macro-regions as imagined historical and cultural spaces. The concept of a “mental map,” deriving from cognitive psychology, does not represent a clearly defined theory.Footnote 26 The mental maps as a concept “represent the world as it appears to the respective observer. […] It reflects the world as some person believes it to be; it need not be correct. In fact, distortions are highly likely.”Footnote 27 The spatial mental structures contain attributive values and meanings that relate the observer with their experience and encounter equally to their own backgrounds and to the encountered culture. In our volume, this concept lends itself readily to the study of descriptions, observations, and experiences of travels as we ask how individual concepts of Asia as a space were influenced by human assumptions about the self and society. This cultural semiotic process of reflecting and (re)creating our assumptions about the encountered also embraces the multiplicity inherent in this process that allows us to challenge the assumptions of an essentialist or reductionist approach by uncovering regularities instead of rules and exploring patterns and exceptions instead of insisting on prescriptions. We ask how the worldviews emerging from the travel writings are shaped through the encounters that demand a comprehensive inclusion of meaning of the encountered into existing systems of meaning of the observing travellers, and how shared collective representations of an experienced or imagined spatial environment in turn affect processes of cultural group and identity formations.

This volume addresses these inventions of Asian “realities” as documents of self- and other-recognitions. We suggest that in order to fully understand the process of aligning travel perceptions with the cognitive structures, the individual in their encounters and experiences through travel as well as the literary representation of their processed experiences needs to be taken seriously. While travellers expose intentions when they actively bring about cultural encounters and experiences on their travels, their motives and intentions cannot be assumed to match specific single concepts or even ideologies. Lifting the general suspicion of a unity of bourgeois imperial travellers to the East, the volume proposes to reconsider the very forms and motives of encounter with different, far away cultures and societies. Especially through the concept of curiosity that can be framed as less ideological than “Orientalism” and more open to understanding alignments, interferences, and collisions of culturally different expectations and experiences, the volume explores the possibilities of understanding individual practices of constructing Asia beyond a monolithic “Orientalist” suspicion. This however does not prescribe a naïve ignorance of the multiple motives that underlie individual actions. Rather, we propose a problematisation of standard dichotomies, and crucially, to this end we include chapters exploring also intra-Asian curiosities and travels. Specific motives and their ideological foundations must be read as part of the critical analysis of travel writings as historical sources.

3 In Time We Read Space—Continuities and Changes in Representing Asia

Asia is by itself not a unified single natural entity.Footnote 28 It is many. Thus, our concept of Asia is a term of human geography gone through human historical consciousness. This positions our sources, the travel reports, at the crossroads of source criticism between remains of unconscious human reports about their curiosity and conscious human narratives about the legacies and morals of their experiences. In deciphering these two distinct historical dimensions of individual operations in giving meaning to experienced environments, the humanities can first contribute to reading space in time, in an Asia that changes according to the historically bound context of the unconscious and conscious descriptions of a differentiated meso-region.Footnote 29 Further, the volume contributes to reading time in space, in a chronology of travel reports about Asia in which space emerges in different distinctions and subtle nuances as a continuously shifting meso-region with characteristics of subdivision and differentiations.

The assumed perception of superiority of Europeans in terms of civilisation facing Asian modernity loses its dogmatic strength when we look at the diversities of parallel synchronous and asynchronous interpretations of time in and between spaces. In this context, the perception of Asian space and spaces influences the perception of normative times of development and progress—notably more prominent after the seventeenth century. The perception of space and the way in which it is described also relates to the critique of the sources. In the tradition of source categories like the travel report, the education of the objective observing individual gives way increasingly to an observing authentic individual who appropriates reality of encountered spaces through a personal critique and not through an objective categorization of collecting knowledge. This becomes prominent and problematic around 1800.Footnote 30

Travellers were supposed to deliver authentic yet objective information. This preoccupation was already apparent in the Middle Ages, for example in the composition, transmission, and reception of the account of Marco Polo’s travels (1254–1324).Footnote 31 The emergence of an ars apodemica in the West in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the ethnographic observations in China starting from the Ming dynasty were utilised to turn objective facts into political and administrative knowledge.Footnote 32 While this knowledge–power nexus was to some extent always present, it did not predetermine the categories of observation or the anthropological constant of observing outside of given categories for the sense of curiosity itself—simply to know and to report what was not yet known. This trend to deliver information based on curiosity not channelled merely through the utilisation for power sees peaks in the sixteenth and the late eighteenth centuries during the first European Encounters and the Enlightenment. In 1789, the French Anquetil-Duperron could still claim the aim of an educated traveller for the enhancement of the knowledge of humankind.

The true Traveller is someone who loves all humans like brothers and who is insusceptible to pleasures and needs, who stands beyond grandeur and low sentiments, praise and criticism, riches and poverty. Without binding himself to a special place, he rapidly moves throughout the world as an observer of good and evil, without interest in its origin or its motives within a specific nation. If this traveller is knowledgeable, he has a clear judgement and discovers at once what is ridiculous and untrue in a behaviour, a habit, or an opinion.”Footnote 33

The ideal traveller as described here is invented as a cosmopolitan citizen who is knowledgeable and prepared, but also abstracts from his own person and sentiments towards an elevated point of observation without suspending his own critical judgement. The purification of lower sentiments and the rational observation bestow upon the traveller the right of an opinion that is no longer bound to a European context of culture, but the true voice of reason. Most travel reports do not conform with this ideal, yet they mirror and reflect upon important elements of the problem of authenticity and critical reasoning to understand the generation of different types of knowledge about other cultures. Thomas Thornton highlighted in his Ottoman travels in 1809 the vital importance of impartiality, a superiority to prejudice, a sobriety of observation, and a patience of inquiry “which few travellers possess.”Footnote 34

This element of impartiality becomes an ambivalent feature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the tradition of romantic individualism that placed sentiments and experiences before factual accounts. The competition and differentiation between professional explorer and individual tourist gaze became already apparent in the normative evaluation of travellers. Friedrich Ratzel saw this professionalisation in danger when he insisted that the aim should always be to “elevate from a higher form of tourism towards a professionalized scientific travel.”Footnote 35 This rather European or Western shift in observations on Asia has profound repercussions for intra-Asian travel reports as they also shift from factual to normative accounts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ella Maillart when reflecting on her travel through Central Asia in 1935/6 famously captured this. “When I crossed Asia with my friend Peter Fleming, we spoke to no one than each other during many months, and we covered exactly the same ground. Nevertheless my journey differed completely from his.”Footnote 36 Subjective observations multiplied views on Asia, but also opened the doors of entry for ethnocentric and racial hierarchies that attributed civilizational stages in a linear historical process of development to regions in Asia.

This is however not necessarily a process of Western appropriation of Asian spaces only. European and North American travellers increasingly attempt to appropriate Asia as a diversified space on moral grounds and those of racial distinction. But in adopting Western ideas of progress beyond the fiction of a distinction between Western technology and Asian values (ti yong - 体用), Asian travellers equally applied a linear element of historical progress to characterise the differentiation of Asian spaces and ultimately claims to leadership on Pan-Asian ideas.Footnote 37 The ideological origins of a normative progressive pattern with the West against the West can be traced in the adoption of normative observations on intra-Asian difference by experiencing, conceptualising, and ultimately understanding space through a new conceptualisation of linear and normative progress in time.

4 Curiosity, Knowledge, Identity—Reflections on the Analytical Categories for the Travelling Construction of Asia

The current volume follows a more specific and modest, yet analytically much clearer concept. It focuses on the self-definition of the traveller as they move across Asian human geographies in different epochs to understand the forms of knowledge about the East generated in specific contacts and encounters.Footnote 38 In uncovering the core human desire of meaning-making individuals to seek and to relate to their findings, the volume connects individual traveller experiences from the Middle Ages to the modern vlogs and social media travels. Although the cases picked are mostly featuring elite men in travelling, the volume is cognisant of the still largely unwritten history of women and non-elite men travellers across Asia. Yet, in focusing on male perspectives, the volume presents a more specific interpretation of gendered narratives to argue for nuances beyond the male colonial gaze in the exploration and conceptualisation of Asia.Footnote 39

Among those categories of encounters, contributions will discuss religion and spirituality, governance and legitimacy, practices and symbolism of different forms of mobility, and the question of knowledge as a tool of reasoning, judgement, and power. All contributions will take up the perspectives of the travellers to reflect upon the act of personal observation as source of authenticity and legitimacy to investigate the intricate dialogic relations between the knowledgeable observing subject and the observed object. This changing relationship does not follow a clear-cut chronology, nor easy categorizations of Western and Eastern. At times, Christian and Islamic travellers entering Asia manifest a genuine curiosity, even as they accept civilizational discourses and hierarchies. More importantly, such hierarchies are not necessarily self-referential and self-congratulatory, but rather often based on a concept of civilization that could be shared transculturally.Footnote 40 On the other hand, early modern and modern examples that are also considered in this volume exemplify both Western and intra-Asian (Japanese) narratives that sometimes accompany empire-building efforts and either assume or conceptualise methods for the study of “others.” Even in these cases, instances of scepticism and self-criticism complicate the picture, so that our case studies on the reverberations of curiosity and the testing of self-perception in travel writing truly problematize current dichotomies and a reductive focus on the category of power in the literature on encounters. Such problematization is relevant and challenging also for those who study (and live in) a contemporary world where the tensions and opportunities surrounding the relations between East and West appear more pressing, and where the phenomenon of de-territorialised identity formation across Asia involves both transnational communities and people moving within a nation-state.

The history of travel writing and the historical dimension of Asia’s human geographies are two fields that continue to produce important scholarly works. For instance, recently Boris Stojkovski has carefully collected in two volumes an enjoyable array of essays on travel writing that touch upon themes such as flora and fauna, music and spirituality, from Herodotus to the twenty-first century.Footnote 41 And with regard to intra-Asian encounters, Upinder Singh’s and Parul Pandya Dhar’s book on connections, imperial expansion, and historical networks represents a gem for any reader interested in the flows of ideas, political and cultural patterns across this continent.Footnote 42 Edited volumes have turned out to be the most flexible means also to gather essays at the intersection of these two topics, exploring the history of travel literature specifically treating voyages and encounters across Asia.Footnote 43 And we now have an increasingly clear and varied picture of changing descriptions of Asian social and physical landscapes across time.

Still, the existing literature, even when surveying the intersection between travel accounts and Asian spaces, and even when alternating different chronologies and rationales for the juxtaposition of certain case studies, is lacking in conceptual depth and chronological breath. What ideas are particularly well suited to open windows into the reasoning and emotions behind the written record of travellers moving across Asia? And what continuities can we trace over time and among both non-Asian and intra-Asian travellers? In their book A Century of Travels in China: Critical Essays on Travel Writing from the 1840s to the 1940s, Douglas Kerr and Julia Kuehn combined a narrow chronological focus coinciding with the aftermath of the Opium War with the choice to look only at English-speaking writers.Footnote 44 This undeniably deepens our grasp of preoccupations and agendas of Anglophone travellers during a key century in the history of China, but it also determines much of the tone and many of the conclusions found throughout the volume, which ultimately in many of its essays finds what it seeks: European “othering” and imperialist gazes. Readers interested in longer trends, comparative reflections, and nuanced conclusions remain unsatisfied.

Attempts to stress the openness and curiosity of European travellers to Asia during the Enlightenment have also turned out to be promising but problematic. Through a brilliant and compelling analysis of materials from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, Jürgen Osterhammel has portrayed the Enlightenment as an exceptional period in the history of European encounters with (and representations of) Asian human geographies.Footnote 45 However, in doing so, he has indirectly reinforced the presumption that, before and after this exception, European travel writers were supposedly unable to experience and express similar forms of openness and curiosity. Moreover, we should not assume that civilizational discourses were always proceeding on different, mutually unintelligible tracks. Interestingly, Steve Clark and Paul Smethurst have questioned this assumption by including in their collection of essays studies of Asian authors, but their chronological focus is still quite narrow, while their volume is not regionally focused as it considers also the impact of Asians travelling to the West.Footnote 46 In the present collection of essays, we focus on one global region, Asia, and we aim to broaden the chronological framework—beyond an admittedly important yet uncharacteristic century such as the one following the Opium War, and beyond a period surrounded by an aura of exceptionality such as the Enlightenment.

We also wish to both expand and problematize Gerard Delanty’s suggestion that commonalities and links between East and West are more relevant than apparent dichotomies.Footnote 47 Indeed, to some extent, it is relatively easy to develop comparative analyses that stress apparent similarities, and the study of the experiences and reconstructions of the same Asian landscapes by different Eurasian actors is no exception. Since at least the late medieval period, a basic definition of civilised societies was shared transculturally by the “three eyes”—Christendom, the Islamic world, and China. This common understanding of ordered polities and civilizational traits, in turn, sparked genuine curiosity as well as production of knowledge among European and Asian travellers, both before and after the Enlightenment—which was therefore not exceptional.Footnote 48 Yet, it is crucial to recognise that, besides this shared idea of civilization and shared notions of space and movement, each traveller also articulated unique discourses underpinned by locally rooted meanings, and political, cultural, and/or spiritual identities. The desire to stress commonalities should not blind us to the fact that Christian and Islamic universalisms engendered intellectual and cosmological world-scapes that differed radically from those of China, or to the fact that Columbus had Jerusalem in mind while seeking Asia—something that can only be explained by taking locally rooted identities seriously.Footnote 49 The contributors to our volume are sensitive to this reality, which rules out the option of merely universalising post-modernist categories and probes the terminologies and narratives usually employed in global history. On the one hand, cosmopolitanism has truly been a dimension of the encounters taking place across Asia, underscoring the poverty of reducing human interactions to power structures, or the generation of knowledge about social landscapes to univocally European “othering.” On the other hand, the global turn is not applicable seamlessly across chronologies and should not be a license to only focus on networks and convergences. Permanence(s) gave value to encounters and networks. And underneath the experiences of travellers and the intelligibility of cosmopolitan institutions, there remain local identities, value systems and audiences, which deserve attention if we want to decipher the origins and literary uniqueness of different texts.

The three concepts proposed in this volume—curiosity, identities, knowledge—are flexible enough to shed light on voyages taking place across different chronologies. They also allow our contributors to test the limits of continuities and delve into specific cultural backgrounds that distinguished travel writers, their anxieties, expectations, responses, and motives. Curiosity is intended here as a genuine, persistent interest towards unknown or partly known areas and societies of the Asian continent, expressed in deeds and words by travellers moving to Asia or within it. Other historians studying travel literature about Asia have already toyed with the idea of curiosity,Footnote 50 but they never placed it centre stage in their analysis, maybe to avoid charges of naiveté. Yet, taking curiosity seriously does not imply abandoning a rigorous study of travel accounts: to the contrary, it expands it by acknowledging the role played by emotions and by the expectation of encountering intelligible social institutions and human actions. Besides, genuine curiosity itself contributes to colour our understanding of self-interested and self-conscious authorship, because inquisitiveness—more than often half-baked political agendas—links the author’s frustrations and successes to the readership, assigning value to information about civilised polities and uncharted spaces.

Identity is a fundamental analytical concept to contextualise the experience of the traveller, both when he/she moves and when he/she writes. While it is certainly true that the experience of encounter can challenge and change the identity of the traveller, we should not overlook the multiform ways in which the identity of the traveller can draw unnoticed and apparently counterintuitive networks on a map of Asia—such as in the case of the spiritual networks drawn by the Japanese Otani expeditions and discussed in one of our chapters. Identity determines also the locally rooted value assigned to the intellectual images of spaces and ordering of geographies. For instance, as evidenced in the writings of Ma Huan (c. 1380–1460), by the Ming period Chinese intellectuals were developing a tradition of Sinocentric discourses that categorised Asian societies according to an increasingly self-confident imperial geography.Footnote 51 This tributary worldview was relatively recent, in the long history of Chinese civilization. As reconstructed by Mingming Wang, ethnocentric discourses had emerged during the Song-Yuan period, should be placed within a broader, more varied tradition of Occidentalism, and need to be contextualised in a changing geopolitical and economic landscape where travels to the “Western Ocean” had ceased to be primarily pilgrimages and had become profit- and tribute-seeking.Footnote 52

Finally, travel literature illuminates the modes and channels through which knowledge about Asian spaces, polities and peoples has been produced and disseminated in different contexts and centuries. To be sure, we shall not be blind to the role often played by knowledge in the construction and elaboration of hierarchies and political discourses for the original readership. However, it is also true that knowledge about the vast Asian landscapes across which different civilizations encountered each other could be produced to express human emotions, to crystallise memories, and then disseminated to quench genuine curiosity just as much as to claim an active role in a specific intellectual tradition. Aristotle famously noted that human beings enjoy seeing above all other senses, not merely with the intention to use the absorbed information, but also, simply, seeing for the sake of seeing.Footnote 53 The Italian readers of Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s sixteenth-century collection of travel accounts were the same crowds chasing and interrogating Giovanni da Empoli (1483–1517) upon his return from “the Indies:” they desired to complete the geographic knowledge of the ancients, by harmoniously integrating it with their generation’s voyages to Asia.Footnote 54 These are dimensions of knowledge that can be recovered only when we move away from narratives of naked power structures and instead take curiosity and identity seriously. This is not to say that our volume ignores writings produced in political and military contexts such as British imperialism and the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. On the contrary, we aim to offer to readers a more balanced and varied picture of continuities and changes in travel literature on Asia across the centuries.

5 Navigating the Constructions of Asia—The Contributions

The volume opens with two chapters on the history of travel, encounters, and travel writing in Asia during the Mongol period. Claire Taylor invites readers to appreciate the different experiences and emotions lived by two late medieval authors entering Asia from the West: the Franciscan missionary and envoy William of Rubruck and the pilgrim adventurer Ibn Battuta. Their narratives reflect the different circumstances of their voyages, and Taylor’s careful contextualization and nuanced comparison allows us to go beyond apparent divergences and to uncover how geopolitical situations could prompt the two authors to redefine the very notions of space, home, and other, thereby affecting the images of Asia created for Frankish Christian and north-African Islamic audiences. Joseph Benjamin Askew integrates this picture of mobilities across Eurasia during the so-called Pax Mongolica by questioning the extent to which this period favoured trade and by shedding light on the different motivations of an array of travel writers who journeyed across Asia during those centuries. The writers considered by Askew include not only Europeans like the merchant Francesco Balducci Pegolotti and the Franciscan friar Odoric of Pordenone, but also intra-Asian travellers like the Korean official Ch’oe Pu. The overall picture emerging from these opening chapters offers an invaluable introduction to Asia in the Mongol period. Islamic, European and intra-Asian travellers moved across Eurasia for different reasons and with different expectations, sharing at times similar mental attitudes, such as curiosity, but also eventually constructing a human geography profoundly influenced by their identities and by resilient cultural and religious frameworks.

The next two chapters in the volume explore the theme of curiosity in European writings about Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Matteo Salonia guides readers through the Asian sections of Antonio Pigafetta’s account of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition. It is a voyage across the Pacific Ocean and then through vivid descriptions of Asian ceremonies, including friendly banquets, funerary rites, courtly audiences, and sexual practices. Pigafetta is an inquisitive yet also empathetic observer who avoids judgements and captures his audience in a constant invitation to draw their own conclusions. His account is, crucially, also a text saturated with Christian chivalry. Compassion and locally rooted identity therefore coexist, and incidentally the periodization separating medieval and early modern mindsets is yet again found wanting. Georg Schindler’s chapter about European discussions on the dynastic transition between the Ming and the Qing dynasties continues this reflection on curiosity by exploring the responses of Catholic missionaries to political changes in China. Texts by Martini, Schall, and Navarrete are compared to reflect the different agendas and responses of these authors, but also to reflect on the pervasive curiosity about news from China in the European audience. Schindler demonstrates that European Catholic attitudes towards the East were very far from dismissive or uniformly colonial, as these important writers recognised the sophisticated civilization of the Chinese empire and even agreed that the conquering Manchu were not “barbarian.” Moreover, this chapter will be of interest to scholars interested in the opportunity to flesh out political theories and conceptualizations of legitimacy in the international stage from early modern travel literature and ethnography.

That simplistic Saidian narratives are completely confounded by a serious hermeneutical study and a respect for the often conflicting and not seldom self-critical thoughts of individual travel writers—even when one reaches the period of more intense European colonialism—is confirmed by the splendid analysis of Duncan McPherson’s writing, which is offered in Chapter 6. Here, Ruairidh J. Brown compellingly argues that even in a text that is punctuated by imperialist rhetoric and dichotomies, things are not as simple as they may at first appear. McPherson’s determination to spread what he triumphantly perceived as rational scientific knowledge leads him to label some Chinese traditions as “barbaric,” but also to denounce some British customs as reckless. Dichotomies do not correspond to East vs West, and they instead overlap throughout the text to show the lights of reason and the sufferings brought by passion and irrationality wherever they can be found. China is re-conceptualised according to Enlightenment ideas of progress, becoming a space where human reason struggles to emerge victorious, among Europeans and Asians alike. Such nuanced and fruitful approach to nineteenth-century sources is evident also in Christian Mueller’s chapter on German imperial dreams in the Far East. In the writings of Ferdinand von Richthofen we find a peculiar vision of industrial and commercial progress, where across Eurasia peoples at different civilizational stages would cooperate, and where China in particular is assigned an important role and independent agency. Richthofen’s curiosity, to be sure, is still guided by a clearly Eurocentric understanding of material development, but his images of the East do not correspond to crude racial stereotypes and are actually characterised by a genuine inquisitiveness and a desire to learn more about Asian peoples. This is noticeable especially about nations like Japan, on which Richthofen had very limited knowledge before reaching the East. Taken together, Brown’s and Mueller’s chapters demonstrate how, even during the period of most intense imperial expansion, European travel literature about Asia does not fit broad generalisations. If one trait emerges more clearly, it is the confidence in material progress and human reason applied to science and industry—something that is not perceived as entirely alien to Asian spaces and human geographies.

Continuing the discussion of intra-Asian travel sketched by Joseph Askew for the pre-modern period, Chapters 9 and 10 present two modern case studies. Stephen W. Kohl and Ronald S. Green investigate some of the Ōtani expeditions seeking Buddhist treasures and establishing non-political Tibetan-Japanese connections at the start of the twentieth century. Nagatomi Hirayama writes about Japanese imperialism in Manchuria in the 1930s. Besides expanding the scope of the volume to include a sustained reflection of intra-Asian travel literature, these topics also integrate each other. On the one hand, the Ōtani expeditions so captivatingly reconstructed by Kohl and Green were moved by a genuine interest in discovering archaeological remnants of Buddhism along the Silk Road and in developing spiritual networks and friendly relations between temples across Asian spaces and, significantly, around obstacles posed by political tensions and imperial rivalries. While on the other hand, the Japanese texts presented by Hirayama were part of a Japanese propaganda effort aiming to reimagine entire areas of the Asian continent to spatialize Japanese interests and stabilise a project of intra-Asian colonialism. Therefore, these chapters represent pivotal contributions to the discussion of a wide array of themes, including respectively informal exchange of knowledge through long-distance religious networks and the production of geographic and ethnographic “knowledge” at the service of an expanding, militarised state. Yet taken together they also offer a striking juxtaposition of two alternative geographies: a state-driven one easily seen on political maps of imperial Japan, and a religious one drawing lines of communication and fellowship underneath political borders as well as across time.

Chapter 10 focuses on a specific decade, the 1960s, to illustrate the surprisingly divergent agendas and guided curiosities with which different genres of Western literature approached Asian spaces. Salonia and Mueller do so inviting the reader to juxtapose political and tourism narratives from the 1960s—at times reaching back to travel experiences across China and Central Asia in the 1930s like the influential novel travelogues by André Malraux—with the reportages from China written by the Italian novelist Goffredo Parise. The final chapter by K. Cohen Tan continues the reflection on intra-Asian mobilities by exploring contemporary issues of identity and the inscription of power as they relate to space and migration in China. The importance of the contribution is to consider different forms of travel as mobilities and their influence on the re-articulation of space. This re-articulation of space and curiosity in a very guided and preconfigured way is also part of the rise of modern consumerism and tourism since the 1860s. European perspectives on Asia would highlight and even call for the curiosity of the travellers to correct the Baedekers and Thomas Cook handbooks since the early twentieth century. The claims to provide “independence of travel” to “open the eyes of the tourist to the possibilities of finding something different, something new” suggest a curiosity that is increasingly countered with the clear structure of hierarchically organised knowledge and sights that must be seen.Footnote 55 “To-day the Chinese people are as simple and primitive in their habits and customs as they have been for ages past” is a clear testimony to the shift of curiosity guided towards the consumption of the expected.Footnote 56 This, however, happens in intra-Asian travel reports as much as in Western travel reports on Asia and relates much more to the overarching structure of reading a modernisation concept of time as stages of progress into a differentiated Asian space.