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The European Discovery of China

Explore Chinese history through the eyes of Western travellers, discoverers and missionaries, with this free online course.

11,632 enrolled on this course

A city street showing silk shop and a book shop
  • Duration

    8 weeks
  • Weekly study

    6 hours

This free online course focuses on when and how the West first approached China. We will explore the influence that the discovery of China exerted on late medieval and early modern European minds.

Explore Chinese history through the eyes of Westerners

The backdrop of the course is the history of China. We will begin by looking at China’s place in the world and connections to the West via the Silk Road, before examining the changes brought about by the Song dynasty, the rise of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, and finally the Ming dynasty.

We’ll analyse this period of Chinese history through the eyes of travellers, discoverers and missionaries who wrote about China from the 13th to the 17th century. These will include Marco Polo - not the first European to discover China, but the first to chronicle his time there in detail - and later Portuguese settlers, such as Galeote Pereira.

We’ll also take advantage of Chinese and European illustrated sources, like scrolls, paintings and maps, to give a more accurate picture of how China really was at each time.

Understand how Europe constructed the image of China

Through these sources, we’ll see how Europeans constructed a highly positive image of China that would persist until the 18th century.

What these Western travellers saw, what they didn’t see, what they choose not to tell and what they invented - that’s the story that we will unravel in this course.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Hi, this is a course about The European Discovery of China. . We’ll talk about the huge changes that China experienced between the 13th and 17th centuries, and find out which aspects of Chinese culture impacted most on late medieval and early modern Europeans.

Skip to 0 minutes and 40 seconds My name is Dolors Folch and I’ve been teaching Chinese History at Pompeu Fabra University, in Barcelona, for the last 25 years. During the lectures we’ll draw on the vivid written accounts

Skip to 0 minutes and 52 seconds of the first European travelers to China: Marco Polo, the Iberian travelers, the Jesuits and the first diplomatic missions sent to China.

Skip to 1 minute and 12 seconds We’ll take advantage of fascinating illustrated sources, like maps, scrolls, and paintings, both Chinese and European, to track the changing image of the world that evolved during these centuries. And we’ll discover the objects, like silks and ceramics, that unveiled to the Europeans the existence of an incredible land of staggering wealth and unheard-of political organization.

Skip to 1 minute and 50 seconds By the end of the 16th century, the world was already becoming global. But why did the Europeans visit the East, while the Chinese didn’t visit the West? What made China so attractive to merchants, missionaries, and soldiers? Why did these visitors so wholeheartedly admire Chinese cities and Chinese bureaucracy? Why and how did Europeans construct the highly positive image of China that would persist until the 18th century? What influence did the Chinese model have on the early modern European world? And, last but not least, what was the real impact of this early European presence on the Chinese world?

Skip to 2 minutes and 45 seconds What these Western travelers saw, what they didn’t see, and what they decided to suppress, that’s the story that we’re going to unravel in this course.

Skip to 3 minutes and 19 seconds I’m delighted to share this fascinating topic with you. It has inspired my research for many years and I hope it will inspire you too. I’m sure we’ll have a great time together.

What topics will you cover?

  • The Chinese World
  • Song cities and Mongol conquest
  • Marcos Polo’s China
  • The China that Europeans discovered: the Ming dynasty
  • China in the spotlight
  • The Friar’s missions and Mendoza’s book
  • Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Mission
  • The 17th Century

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Identify the interconnection of different historical processes
  • Explore the interaction of textual, artistic and cartographic sources
  • Investigate the bias of European perception of the other
  • Summarise the early Modern Chinese society
  • Describe and discuss the European reports about China up to the 17th century

Who is the course for?

This course is aimed at anyone with an interest in Chinese, European or world history. No previous knowledge or experience of the subject is required

Who will you learn with?

Dolors Folch Fornesa has been professor of China history in the Pompeu Fabra University for the last twenty five years.
Personal website

Lecturer in the Arts and Humanities Department at Open University of Catalonia. In 2003 she designed the UOC’s East Asian Studies Program, which she directed between 2003 and 2009.

Who developed the course?

Pompeu Fabra University Barcelona

Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) is a public, international and research-intensive university in Barcelona. In just 25 years, it has earned a place for itself among the best universities in Europe.

Learning on FutureLearn

Your learning, your rules

  • Courses are split into weeks, activities, and steps to help you keep track of your learning
  • Learn through a mix of bite-sized videos, long- and short-form articles, audio, and practical activities
  • Stay motivated by using the Progress page to keep track of your step completion and assessment scores

Join a global classroom

  • Experience the power of social learning, and get inspired by an international network of learners
  • Share ideas with your peers and course educators on every step of the course
  • Join the conversation by reading, @ing, liking, bookmarking, and replying to comments from others

Map your progress

  • As you work through the course, use notifications and the Progress page to guide your learning
  • Whenever you’re ready, mark each step as complete, you’re in control
  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

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