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“THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE & POPULAR BOOK
ON MING CHINA TO APPEAR IN EUROPE” – LACH

“ONE OF THE OUTSTANDING BEST-SELLERS OF THE 16TH CENTURY”
– BOXER

GONZALEZ DE MENDOZA, Juan. Dell’ historia della China. Venice, Andrea Muschio, 1586.

8vo [15.4 x 10.0 cm], (15) ff., (1) f. integral blank, 462 pp., (1) f. integral blank, (20) ff., woodcut headpieces, tailpieces and initials. Bound in mottled calf, rebacked retaining original spine, marbled end papers, red sprinkled edges. Minor rubbing to binding, somewhat tightly bound, bookplate of Bernard Hanotiau inside upper cover. Occasional very minor marginal staining, minor to moderate browning in a few quires, a few contemporary marginal annotations.

$3,500

Rare first Venetian edition (appearing in the same year that the first Italian-language edition was published in Rome) of the Spanish Augustinian Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza’s (1545-1618) groundbreaking treatise on China, a work considered “the most comprehensive and popular book on Ming China to appear in Europe” (Lach, I.ii, p. 330). “One of the outstanding ‘best-sellers’ of the sixteenth century … It is probably no exaggeration to say that Mendoza’s book had been read by the majority of well-educated Europeans at the beginning of the seventeenth-century. Its influence was naturally enormous, and it is not surprising to find that men like Francis Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh derived their notions of China and the Chinese primarily, if not exclusively, from this work. Even travellers who, like Jan Huighen van Linschoten, had themselves been in Asia, relied mainly on Mendoza’s Historia for their accounts of China …” (Boxer, xvii).

Mendoza led a mission to China in 1580 on behalf of King Phillip II of Spain. The embassy disembarked at Vera Cruz, Mexico, in the summer of 1581, but, because of political instability in the Philippines, the party sailed no further. Mendoza returned to Spain in 1583 and proceeded to Rome, where Gregory XIII commissioned him to write, in the words of a contemporary reader, “a history of things that are known about the kingdom of China” (Lach, I.ii, p. 473). Originally composed in Spanish, Mendoza’s treatise was first published in Rome in 1585, and soon became widely translated and reprinted.

The first part of the Historia describes the geographical borders, natural produce, religious beliefs and ceremonies, political structures, education, and maritime activities in China. A section on language contains, according to Brunet, the first published examples of Chinese characters in a western book. The second part covers the approach to China from the Philippines, giving an account of missionary activities (in 1577, 1579 and 1581) on the mainland and the islands. The final section treats the voyage of Martin Ignacio (c. 1550-1606) from Spain to China via the Canary Islands, Santo Domingo, Jamaica, Mexico, the Ladrones and the Philippines.

Gonzalez de Mendoza later served as Bishop of Lipari (1593), Chiapas (1607) and Popayán (1608), but was his Historia, not his ecclesiastical achievements, that secured his fame. “Mendoza’s book reaches the very essentials of the life of Old China, and its publication may be taken to mark the date from which an adequate knowledge of China and its institutions was available for the learned world of Europe” (Hudson, p. 242). “Mendoza’s clarity, his penetrating insights, and his lively style must also have contributed to its popularity. In fact, the authority of Mendoza’s book was so great that it became the point of departure and the basis of comparison for all subsequent European works on China written before the eighteenth century” (Lach I.ii. p. 744).


* Cordier, Sinica 10-11; Löwendahl 21; Palau 105504; Sabin 47828; Western Travellers in China 9; G. F. Hudson, Europe and China, p. 242; D. F. Lach, Asia and the Making of Europe; C. R. Boxer, South China in the Sixteenth Century.

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