Dutch Futurists

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  


  1. Interesting. I would never have known about the lack of chariot. Did they have them in China?? Maybe it was another pilfered engraving?
    [by the way: it’s German not Dutch].
    The english caption (itself probably machine translated) reads: “[49] [Mandocorosama’s Maid of Honor, carry’d in little two-Wheel’d Chariots.] p. 190.”.

  2. The Japanese didn’t used wheeled carts? What are you talking about?!? It took me about 2 minutes to locate images produced around 1600 of wheeled carts transporting nobles. The artist didn’t just make this up, it is a representation of contemporary events.


    I recall seeing much earlier emakimono depictions of wheeled carts pulled by men, but alas my notes and books from that seminar are in storage and inaccessible.

  3. I did leave out the Imperial exception, it’s true. Wheeled vehicles were restricted to court nobility from the Heian period on: a few thousand people in the Tokugawa period had the right to use ox-drawn carts (not people-powered); the rest of the population did not, nor were goods transported that way. It’s extremely unlikely that the Dutch ever saw them, or saw representations of them.

  4. It is likely true that the Dutch never saw wheeled carts, but then, it is likely that those etchings were produced from written accounts, which was typical of the time. However, I distinctly recall seeing earlier emakimono depicting two wheeled palanquin drawn by human power. IIRC they were being pulled away from a castle during a fire in a battle scene, a depiction of an actual event (possibly during the Onin wars). I could even draw the cart from memory as my professor went on at some length about how the wheels were drawn as ovals rather than circles, in a distinctly non-western perspective technique. But alas, it seems my professor drew from rather obscure sources as I’ve been unable to locate images without consulting my notes.

  5. peacay: Chinese did use wheeled vehicles: Chariots from the bronze/iron ages, and some carts. Perhaps the most common wheeled vehicles were the wheelbarrows, which the Chinese often used for human transport, and were sometimes fixed with sails. Given that, it’s possible that these images are Chinese in origin: the push-style vehicles here are much more wheelbarrow-like than anything else. That push-style thing was bugging me, actually, and I hadn’t thought it through entirely. “Mandocoro” suggests that they think they’re depicting a woman somehow attached to the Shogunal government.

    Charles Eicher: Again, you’re talking about the oxcarts of the nobility — a very small group — being pulled by people because it’s an emergency and there’s no time to get the oxen (which are powerful, but slow, beasts anyway). The Heiji Monogatari Scroll shows oxcarts (they all seem to have oxen attached) with those oval wheels you remember. I just don’t find it credible that the Dutch would be aware of the oxcart tradition, especially not as early as this.

  6. In the background we also se another cart, this one apparently goods, and also being pushed rather than pulled – this lends more credence to the wheelbarrow iddea (there’s a very nice full-size model in the Shanghai City History Museum underneath Pearl Oreint Tower [and you get to skip the queues!] which looks frankly silly by modern standards.

    I can make out ‘Taicosama’ and ‘Miaco’ in the text, but I am puzzled by ‘Quabakondono.’ Who is that? ‘Dairen’ presumably dos not refer to that Chinese city.

  7. I don’t know about wheeled vehicles, but it is certain that there were wheeled carts in Japan in the 17th century. If you read Japanese, try to do some research on sha-shaku (車借) in the medieval Japan. Sha-shaku were shipping agents who used wheeled carts. Shipping agents who used horses were called ba-shaku (馬借). Ba-shaku and sha-shaku are almost invariably mentioned in any decent history textbooks published in Japan, since the uprising of shipping agents in 1426 were a harbinger of the Shocho Uprising (正長の土一揆) in 1428.

    Sha-shaku was established as a job by the 8th cenutry, as it is mentioned in one of the wooden tablets that were excavated from the remains of the residence of Nagaya-no-Ou (長屋王; 684?-729).

    Later in the Edo period, there were railed roads consisted of stones that were used for wheeled carts. They were demolished after the Meiji Restoration, but remains of stone rails are preserved in several places in Japan. This page has a photo of stone rails preserved in the Otsu City.

  8. Also to the point, there were still plenty of Europeans tooling around in sedan chairs and litters at the time these drawings were made. Palanquins wouldn’t seem strange at all, except in the details. The Pope’s sedia gestatoria, an elaborate sedan chair/throne, was still in use until the 1960’s.

  9. Wheeled carts can be seen in many illustrations published or drawn in the Edo period.

    Kidai Shoran (煕代勝覧):

    Edo Meisho Zue (江戸名所図会):

    Edo Meisho Hyakkei (江戸名所百景) by Hiroshige:

  10. Japan borrowed a lot of cultural and technical ideas from China. It probably preserved Tang Dynasty traditions which was totally destroyed in China. Therefore, I won’t be surprised at all if Japan got all the Chinese transportation implements in Tang Dynasty. Wheeled vehicle for people and goods transportation were certainly used in China during the Tang Dynasty. Actually, records shown that Huangdi, the first tribal warlord recognized by other warlords as the leader of warlords used horse draw carriages in his battles to defeat anyone not submitting to his rule – notably those “wild” men from the south. And that’s at least a thousand years before Tang Dynasty.

  11. Concerning the text – it talks about the “state wagon” of the taikosama, which, as the text further explains, is traditionally drawn by two oxen. This clearly refutes the theory that the German (not Dutch) speaking author was not aware of this tradition. The text on this page makes not mention of human powered vehicles, nor of ones being pushed from behind; one may presume that the illustrator heard aboud the use of palanquins and conflated this with the wheeled vehicle described.

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