井の中の蛙

1/19/2009

Dutch Futurists

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:10 pm

Alan Baumler pointed me to peacay’s recent post of Dutch images of 17th century Japan. Some of them are quite accurate — the images of samurai, in particular, are quite nice — and based on the observations of Dutch traders and scholars at the Deshima trading station in Nagasaki harbor. Some of the images are based on Indian or Chinese models (though the tradition of religious statuary shared between these cultures means that they’re not as terrible as you might think). Some are pretty bizarre, but that’s par for the course before the 19th century.

Then there’s the one that stopped me in my tracks:

17c Dutch Engraving of reverse rickshaw

You can find the original here, in the full context of the book. Someone who reads 17th century Dutch might be able to help me, because I’m quite curious about the text at this point. Without it, though, I can only speculate.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, mainly the fact that the jinrikisha wasn’t invented for another two hundred years. Also, Japanese did not use wheeled carts for transporting goods.1. Before that, Japanese traveled mostly by foot and by boat. Samurai travelled by horse, sometimes. Other elites — including samurai, nobles, village headmen, the wealthy — traveled by palanquin (aka litter). Even the transport of commercial goods was mostly by boat and by hand.

While there seems to be some dispute about the origins of the rickshaw, nobody has ever suggested that it developed in the 1600s! I suspect what we see here is a failure of imagination. Having seen images of palanquins and bearers, but unable to concieve of transport without wheels, the illustrator added the — to him entirely obvious and necessary — elements. In the process, he created a shocking anachronism, and if anyone had taken these images seriously, could have radically altered the history of transportation.

  1. Hal Bolitho called Japan’s abandonment of the wheel one of the great mysteries of Japanese history, along with the failure to adopt the chair and the survival of the Imperial institution []

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