Anne T. Gerritsen presented at the Seminar in Cultural History on Tuesday, March 29, 2016, from 6 to 7:30pm, at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. Her talk was entitled “’The best Rubarbe is that which is brought from China fresh and newe’: Rhubarb and the Imagination of China in European Visual Print Culture, 1500–1850.”

When the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) published his China Illustrata in Amsterdam in 1667, he included an illustration of the rhubarb plant. Inscribed with the words Rheubarbarum venum, the illustration featured a striking plant with large leaves and tall stalks in the middle, flanked by large dried rhubarb roots. In the background, we see several more plants dotting the hills and exotically dressed workers harvesting the roots and hanging them to dry. The small pagoda and tall palm trees help to emphasize both the size of the leaves and the sense of a distant land. Kircher had never been to China, but drew on the substantial body of images and texts about China that circulated throughout Europe. Scholars generally agree that during this time a repertoire of images of China emerged that was shared throughout Europe, and gradually took on the more fantastical forms we now know as chinoiserie. By focusing on the visual representations of a Chinese plant with specific medicinal qualities (rhubarb was praised for its laxative qualities) in Dutch, English, French, and German sources, Gerritsen hopes to reveal a more nuanced picture. Rhubarb certainly featured in the exoticized imagination of China, but its medicinal properties, economic value, and multiple entrance routes (including Russia) ensured its central place in more complex negotiations over the meaning of China.

Anne T. Gerritsen is Associate Professor of History at the University of Warwick, and holds the Kikkoman Chair for the Study of Asia-Europe Intercultural Dynamics with special attention to material culture, art, and human development at the University of Leiden (2013–18). Her background is in Chinese Studies, and her first book is on the sense of local belonging the local elites created by writing about temples and cults in Jiangxi Province in Middle Period China (twelfth to sixteenth centuries). She is currently completing a study on another place in Jiangxi Province: Jingdezhen, the foremost city of porcelain manufacture in the early modern world.