Thursday, June 30, 2005

An Early Italian View of China, and Rhubarb

There were several Italians that were known to have been in Macau soon after the city's founding. Most of them were Jesuits. The most famous was Matteo Ricci, the masterful linguist that brought Christianity to the Ming Court and to the literati of Peking. Until the advent of Michael Jordan, he apparently was the most famous Westerner in China, and had been for some centuries. There was Alessandro Valignano, part of the inner circle of Jesuits and the mastermind of the Mission to Japan. In my mind, he'll forever be remembered as the victim of Macau's 16th century mail service - a letter he sent to the Pope from Macau took 16 years to arrive in Rome, by which time a couple of Popes had died in office. And of course, one must mention Carlo Spinola, who most believe was the architect responsible for the famous facade of the Mater Dei church, all that remains today of the College of St. Paul. He was inspired by the Gesu facade in Rome when he designed it. Spinola was later martyred in Japan in 1623, part of the savage attempts to repress the Christian religion there.

But for today's historic fact of the day, we shall cast our eye upon a layman, plain-speaking Italian who, unlike these others, was not a Jesuit, but evidently a trader of some kind that had been to most of the Portuguese ports of Asia. His name was Marco D'Avalo, writing in 1638 (just a year after the Weddell expedition I mentioned yesterday). He has some sharp words for the 'profit motive' element of Chinese culture, which Hong Kong and increasingly Macau exhibit in all its glory:

"Moreover this city of
Maccauw contains some fine Chinese shops, as likewise a large number of Chinese who peddle clothes and silken stuffs from house to house. Whenever these Chinese hear that a stranger has arrived from overseas bringing silver with him, they go to his lodgings daily in order to try to sell their wares, and in such crowds and with such zeal that they have to be driven out of the house by main force, being a most greedy and covetous nation where silver and money is concerned. For the reasons outlined above, I believe that Maccauw or Maccaus may justly be considered as the best, strongest, and most profitable of the Portuguese possessions in the Indies, - I having visted the majority of them. The trade driven there, consists in gold, according to touch; refined silver; raw white silk; countless manufactured goods; gold lacquers; pearls; rubies; musk; quicksilver; zinc; very fine china-ware; china-root; Rhubarb."

Those Chinese offended by his characterization of their culture as greedy and covetous can take comfort in this last word: Rhubarb. Now, while it is a mild oath today in Antipodean countries such as Australia or New Zealand, it was a highly prized commodity in 18th century Europe (particularly Britain given its indigestible cuisine of that era) for one reason - it cured constipation. And where did one get rhubarb? It was hard to grow in Europe, but it was easily harvested in China. No doubt he had some need of the good Rhubarb himself, since it was the only word that he capitalized in his long list of commodities!

For those needing practical directions on the use of rhubarb, visit this site. Dr. James Duke recommends the following remedy:

“Rhubarb has strong laxative action so it is best to use it with other juices. Here’s how you can use this herb. Blend together three stalks of rhubarb, without leaves, 1 cup of fresh apple juice, and one quart of peeled lemons and one tablespoon of honey or maple syrup. This tart drink will help you with your constipation. Drink one glass three times a day.”

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