by Liu Fang, Zindziwe Janse
AMSTERDAM, Aug. 23 (Xinhua) -- Dutch historian Leonard Blusse has won this year's "Special Book Award of China", which honors foreign translators, writers and publishers for their significant achievements in making China better known to the outside world.
The professor emeritus at Leiden University is a prolific writer on the early modern history of Southeast and East Asia, history of overseas Chinese and global history.
Thanks to his digging into the archives of the Dutch East Indian Company (generally abbreviated as "VOC" in Dutch) for dozens of years, more information about the Asian societies and their interactions with other peoples in the 17th and 18th centuries has come to light.
"The history of the Chinese people has for a long time largely been imagined in terms of the gradual territorial expansion of the Han people from the bend of the Yellow River towards the subtropical plains of the South, the steppes in the West, and the high mountains of Tibet," said Blusse.
"Yet, in my point of view, the forgotten heroes of China's history are the sailors, fishermen, traders, miners and other entrepreneurs from China's southeastern coastal provinces who, over the past centuries, went overseas and have sought to build up new livelihoods outside the orbit of the former Chinese imperial government," he added.
In his 1986 work "Strange Company", Blusse focused on the mestizo wives of the Dutch and of the Chinese community in the Dutch colonial city of Batavia, the center of the VOC trading network in Asia.
"I like to dig out data that give us a fuller understanding of -- but also may challenge -- the accepted versions of history," he said.
"I saw one peculiar common feature in these two groups each in their own way made it possible for the personnel of the VOC to succeed in their occupation and life," Blusse said in an interview with Xinhua.
Another of his major publication, "Bitter Bonds" (2002), tells the story of a colonial divorce drama in the 17th century.
Cornelia van Nijenroode, daughter of a Dutch trade station manager in Japan and his Japanese concubine, had become a successful and wealthy merchant, but through an unhappy marriage she lost the right to manage her own property and business to her spouse, who wished to control her finances, which caused a severe conflict.
"What I like to do is dig up or construct enlightening narratives from archival data to throw new light on larger issues that have been misinterpreted or misunderstood by other historians. This life story of Cornelia van Nijenroode, for instance, was written to explain what the legal position of (mestizo) women really was in colonial society through describing a series of law suits and administrative decisions," explained Blusse.
On the overseas Chinese, the professor initiated grand scale projects leading to comprehensive works such as "A History of Sino-Dutch Relations" (1989), "The Chinese of Batavia and Sino-Dutch trade" (1997), "The Chinese Community of Batavia at the End of the Eighteenth Century" (2002) and "Visible Cities: Canton, Nagasaki and Batavia and the Coming of the Americans" (2008).
Together with scholars from Xiamen University, the Dutch scholar also produced 13 volumes of "Gong An Bu," which draw from the minutes of the board meetings of the Chinese Council in Java in the 17th and 18th centuries.
At the same time, he is particularly interested in micro-research projects based on the life stories of individuals. In 2000, he published the biography of Anny Tan, a Chinese woman who was born in Java, studied in the Netherlands, lived through the Japanese invasion in Indonesia and returned to China in the 1960s.
Blusse met Anny Tan and her family in Xiamen in 1980. Fascinated by her life, Blusse interviewed her and corresponded with her for years. When writing the biography, he told the story from the first-person perspective, presenting the 20th century through the eyes of a Chinese woman in the former Dutch East Indies.
"Even if these intrepid Chinese migrants overseas have become devoted and loyal subjects of the countries of their choice, they continue to serve as exemplary global citizens. In my opinion, they have laid the groundwork on which contemporary China seeks to reclaim its important position on a global scale. Much can be learned from their life stories," said Blusse.
Earlier this year, he wrote an article about the first Chinese who came to the Netherlands, a man called En Pu.
"En Pu came to Vlissingen and Middelburg and stayed in Zeeland (a province in the south of the Netherlands) for one year. Later on he became the advisor to the VOC on how they should approach China. When in Middelburg, he made a picture of himself and added a Chinese text to it. Until you start to read it aloud in Fujianese (a Chinese dialect of En Pu's home region), you will not see that he said things sounding like the Dutch words for January, Flushing and Friday," said the professor.
In the past two years, Blusse has been doing work related to the massacre of the Chinese population of Batavia in 1740.
"What can explain this sudden outrage? Certainly not the conventional story of suppressed masses that rise against oppressive colonial rulers. By bringing all the different factors (social, economic, personal, political) together, I hope to come up with a new explanation for this terrible massacre," he stated.
The 70-year-old scholar, also a devotee of maritime activities, currently suffers from an injury inflicted by sailing, which prevents him from going to Beijing to accept the prize himself.
Scholar as well as professor, Blusse said his "most useful contribution" lies in the training of young Asian scholars.
"Between 2001 and 2011, my colleagues at the Leiden University History department and I trained some 90 students from all over Asia towards an MA in History, and some 30 towards a PhD. Almost all of these young Asian historians have returned to teaching positions in Asia, and continue to collaborate with each other, creating new intra-Asian connections between Asian universities," said Blusse.
This teaching project came to his mind just before the VOC commemorated its 400th anniversary in 2002.
When asked to write booklets about Dutch relations with Asian countries, Blusse decided "those books should be written by people from those countries" and he made the necessary entrepreneurial arrangements with the Dutch authorities to get scholarships for young Asian scholars, and to enable them to use the VOC archives.
During its peak, the Dutch East India Company had more than 30 bases in Asia. Nowadays, about 1.5 km of VOC archives is preserved in National Archives in the Netherlands. A large part of the accountancy material was destroyed at the beginning of the 19th century, but the most important part, namely the reportage from Asia to Europe and the other way around, has been preserved.
There is even more material in Jakarta, but a large part consists of notarial archives and the archives have suffered a lot from the tropical climate. The complete archive of the VOC office at Deshima in Japan was transferred to The Hague at the end of the 19th century. Other smaller collections have been preserved in Sri Lanka and India.
"In his delightful book 'Europe and the people without history,' U.S. author Eric Wolfe showed how it is possible and necessary to call attention to the history of peoples who may not have recorded their own histories and/or ended up as losers in the 'generally accepted popular version' of the official historical narrative. I myself have been surprised by how nowadays almost forgotten individuals/tribes/peoples often have acted as important actors in the past," said Blusse.
"The VOC archive can be studied from the point of view of the history of the company or of Dutch overseas expansion, as most Dutch historians have done. But, when reading against the grain, one may learn an awful lot of interesting information about Asian societies themselves," said Blusse.
"Given the fact that Asian archives yield very little economic data, combining those VOC materials with Asian data yields very surprising results. There is still so much to do."
"I still want to write two or three books if possible. But I think it is also our task to teach the young people. You could decide to make yourself known to the world as a famous writer then you must have all the qualities to do so and you have to be egoistic. But you could also decide that you are a professor and you have to help the others -- this is what those professors in Asia were doing for me, and it is exactly what I am doing for my students now," said the professor.