Asia in Focus

European travel diplomacy and colonialism in the Far East

Since May 28, 2021

In their illustrated travel reports of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European Jesuit missionaries, merchants, and envoys describe China as a land of peace, wealth, and freedom of religion. Against the backdrop of the Inquisition and wars of religion, for the philosophers of the Enlightenment China embodied the ideal state, without church and nobility and with a bureaucracy based on achievement instead of pedigree, consisting of educated people of all ranks.

In the sixteenth century, Portuguese merchant ships first reached Japan. In addition to firearms they carried Christian missionaries, who encouraged their followers to destroy temples and shrines. Soon the Tokugawa shogunate expelled the Portuguese and Spaniards to prevent the arming of rebellious feudal lords. From then on any trade with Europeans was restricted to the Dutch, who did not pursue any religious objectives. They were allowed to set up a trading-post on the artificial island of Dejima off Nagasaki.

With this exhibition, the Museum of East Asian Art presents its precious collection of European travel reports of the seventeenth to the nineteenth century from the bequest of Hans-Wilhelm Siegel (1903-1997). Included, for example, is the first edition of Athanasius Kircher‘s China Illustrata (Amsterdam, 1667), with the famous portrait of Cologne Jesuit missionary Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666) wearing the robe of a Chinese court mandarin. The collection also includes reports on Japan, such as The Description of Japan by physician Engelbert Kaempfer, which today is regarded as a pioneering scholarly work.

In the age of colonialism the European perspective on East Asia changed. China amassed a huge trade surplus through its trade in porcelain, tea, and silk, and the Qing emperors refused diplomatic contacts. They saw no need to trade for European goods. England in turn decided to acquire sought-after Chinese goods in exchange for opium, a policy that culminated in the Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856), in which China’s military inferiority was revealed. The "unequal treaties" forced China to lease territories to the Europeans for free trade, meaning that it lost sovereignty over its foreign trade. In 1911 the empire collapsed. The American fleet of Commodore M. C. Perry had forced Japan to open its ports in 1854. The reforms of the Meiji period, and the subsequent rapid economic development, led to Japan becoming an imperialist colonial power itself in the early twentieth century.

Alongside travel reports the exhibition presents ceramics, glass, paintings, and textiles from China and Japan. The objects from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries illustrate the inspiring artistic exchange and creative dialogue between Europe and the Far East. Later woodblock prints, historical photographs, and souvenir art of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries betray an artistic stagnation and at the same time illustrate the frequent racism of the Western colonial powers. A diplomatic document of 1908 with sophisticated embroidery and an imperial seal is one of the highlights of the exhibition. The Chinese emperor accredits an envoy to travel to Germany to study the concept of constitutional monarchy. However, due to an assassination in Beijing the mission never took place.

The exhibition sheds light on more than 500 years of exchange between Europe and the Far East. Under the influence of colonialism the earlier European view of China and Japan, with its appreciation and understanding of mutual intellectual and artistic exchange, has almost been forgotten.

Thanks to

Fördererkreis des Museums für Ostasiatische Kunst Köln

Orientstiftung zur Förderung der Ostasiatischen Kunst


Fotos: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, Marion Mennicken


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Opening times

Tuesday to Sunday
11am – 5pm
Every first Thursday in the month
11am – 10pm 

Closed Mondays; open on All Saints' Day

Museum is closed on December 24th, Christmas Day (25 Dec), New Year's Eve (31 Dec) and New Year's Day (1 Jan). Museum is opend on Easter Monday and Whit Monday.

Admission prices

€ 5.50 / reduced € 4

KölnTag on the first Thursday of the month (except public holidays): free admission to the Museum for all Cologne residents.

How to get here

Public transport: Tram routes 1 and 7 and bus route 142, alight at ‘Universitätsstrasse’
There is a car park at the museum


The museum is barrier-free. Disabled toilet available.


Museum für
Ostasiatische Kunst Köln
Universitätsstrasse 100
D 50674 Köln
Ticket office +49.221.221-28617
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