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DU HALDE, Jean Baptiste.

A Description of the Empire of China and Chinese-Tartary, Together with the Kingdoms of Korea, and Tibet:

Containing the Geography and History (Natural as well as Civil) of those Countries. With Notes Geographical, Historical and Critical and Other Improvements, Particularly in the Maps

London: T. Gardner for Edward Cave, 1738-41 Stock Code: 143967
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"The most complete and best description of China in the world" - Voltaire

Second and most complete English edition of Du Halde's encyclopaedic survey, "the first definitive European work on the Chinese empire" (Hill) and a cornerstone of any collection of books on China. It was first published in French in 1735; the first English edition published the following year contained just 19 plates and 4 maps.

Du Halde (1674-1743) was a Jesuit former confessor to the duc d'Orléans, and compiled his book from the accounts, published and unpublished, prepared by 27 Jesuit missionaries during their travels. This exhaustive work not only provided valuable information on Chinese political institutions, education, language, medicine, science, customs and artefacts - importantly it is one of the earliest European sources on Chinese ceramics - but also marked the first appearance of 43 maps by Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville, internationally recognised as "the finest cartographer of his time" (Moreland & Bannister). Drawn from recent surveys commissioned by the Emperor Kang-hi from the Jesuits, these maps represented an immense improvement on existing knowledge and are considered by Tooley to be "the principal cartographic authority on China during the 18th century". For certain remote parts of northern China, Mongolia and Tibet, this work was the only adequate reference until the technological revolution in surveying in the 20th century. The work also contains the first separate map of Korea, together with a previously unpublished account of that country by Jean-Baptiste Régis (d. 1738).

The work also has considerable interest in terms of the early exploration of America. Du Halde was the first to publish the eponymous Vitus Bering's account of his 1728 traverse of the Strait, "Account of Travels of Capt. Beering into Siberia", together with the equally important "Map of Capt. Beering's Travels from Tobolskoy to Kamchatka", which is based on Bering's manuscript map, and contains the first representation of any part of Alaska, St. Lawrence Island. These manuscripts had come to Du Hale via a circuitous route. Bering, a Dane who had risen in the ranks of the Russian navy, was sponsored on his expedition by Peter the Great, and when he finally returned to St. Petersburg in 1730, five years after Peter's death, his account was sent as a gift to the King of Poland, who in turn "gave them to Du Halde with permission to do with them 'as he saw fit'" (Hill).

Du Halde was uniquely well placed to write such a study. For over thirty years he was the editor of Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, the correspondence of Jesuit missionaries world-wide, and without leaving Paris he succeeded in synthesising this highly influential representation of China. Numa Broc has described it as "more than a compilation, the Description is a totality on China, a kind of encyclopaedia plus qu'un ouvrage composé, la Description est une somme sur la Chine, une sorte d'Encyclopédie". Du Halde's China was timely in that it offered the philosophers of the Enlightenment a yearned for vision of an "enlightened despotism", the work consequently being quoted more than twenty times in the great Encyclopédie, and described by Voltaire as "the most complete and best description of China in the world".

The translator was Richard Brookes (f. 1721-1763), a "physician and author and industrious compiler" who "has left scant evidence of his life, except numerous compilations and translations on medicine, surgery, natural history, and geography He was at one time a rural practitioner in Surrey, and at some time before 1762 he travelled in both America and Africa" (ODNB). His principle translations are the present work and The Natural History of Chocolate (1724) from the French of the enigmatic D. de Quélus. The publisher was the enterprising Edward Cave, a friend to and employer of the young Samuel Johnson. Publication of Du Halde's work was an uncharacteristic venture, being "a lavish serial publication which met with serious book trade opposition and indifference from the public. A departure from Cave's usual practice of low-cost, low-risk publishing for a mass audience, this work nevertheless was a pioneering work in geography, challenged Europeans' complacency about their advancement, and established the orthographic conventions by which Chinese has been represented in English until very recently" (ODNB).

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2 volumes, folio (402 x 248 mm). Contemporary speckled calf, spines with six raised bands framed by paired gilt fillets, tawny labels, sides with border of single gilt fillets and dog-tooth roll, blind foliate edge roll, red edges.


64 maps, plans, and plates (42 of them folding), including the large "General Map" as frontispiece to vol. I, illustrations in the text.


Each volume sometime neatly repaired at head, joints partially cracked but sound, corners a little worn, general light abrasions and old markings, marginal worming to a few gatherings at the beginning of vol. I, scattered foxing and pale browning. A very good set, clean and crisp.


Cordier, Sinica I 50; Cox I, p. 355; Getty, China on Paper, 8 (first French); Hill 498 (third English); Howes D-546; Lada-Mocarski, Books on Alaska, 2; Lust 15; Moreland & Bannister, Antique Maps; De Backer & Sommervogel IV 37; Tooley, Maps and Mapmakers


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