Monday, August 15, 2005

First Official Contact Between China and the West

Two months ago, I had written about the first contact between Britain and China, in the form of Captain Weddell's visit to China, preserved for posterity by Peter Mundy. That was certainly an important moment, as it was the first time that the English-speaking and the Chinese-speaking worlds were brought together; that relationship continues to be one of the most important, perhaps the most important in the 21st century.

But for those of you who read that blog entry, it was obviously not the first contact between East and West, as Weddell's voyage had stopped at Macau, a city that had already been Portuguese for 80 years. So we would like to cast light on the first official meetings between the Portuguese and the Chinese. While the Portuguese individually were not the first Europeans to go to China (Marco Polo and others come to mind), they were the first to arrive not merely as private citizens but as representatives of the Estado da India, the extensive Portuguese network of fortresses and trading towns that stretched from Guinea to Goa to Malacca, brought about thanks to the initiative of Afonso da Albuquerque.

The first contact came with a merchant named Jorge Alvares, who had chartered a junk for a voyage near Canton. While he did not succeed in reaching Canton, he did get to explore the Southern Chinese coastline. Intrigued, the Viceroy of the Estado da India despatched a kinsman of Columbus, Rafael Perestrello, to try to secure an official audience in Canton and establish trading relations with China. Perestrello chartered a Malay junk for the purpose. He was admitted to Canton, but Imperial China, for most of its history, has never considered diplomatic relations with other countries as a relationship of equals. Rather, it has been envisaged as a tributary relationship; the fact that the letter from the Viceroy addressed the Emperor in egalitarian terms, and the fact that is was not even the King of Portugal but just a deputy that addressed the Son of Heaven, rendered his embassy quite worthless.

In the meantime, the King, Dom Manuel I, was fascinated by the discovery of this vast Kingdom of China, both for its potential as a trading partner, and as a vast power that was not Muslim. So it was that he dispatched an official mission, directly from the King, that would impress upon the Chinese the Portuguese desire to open contact with them. The bearer of this missive was a man, already proven as an able soldier and explorer, named Fernao Pires de Andrade. The King had already demonstrated his curiosity about the Chinese in a letter he had sent to a Portuguese planning on exploring the country:
You shall ask after the Chijns, and from what part they come, and from how far, and at what times they come to Malacca, or to the places at which they trade, and the merchandise that they bring, and how many of their ships come each year, and regarding the form and type of their ships, and if they return in the same year, and if they have arms or artillery, and what clothes they wear, and if they are men of large build, and all other information concerning them, and if they are Christians or heathens, or if their country is a great one, and if they have more than one king amongst them, and if any Moors live amongst them or any other people that are not of their law or faith; and if they adore, and what customs they observe, and towards what part does their country extend, and with whom do they confine.
Whew! Unfortunately for Dom Manuel, this curiosity was not reciprocated. However, Fernao Pires de Andrade was able to go to Canton; he reached the city on August 15th, 1517, exactly 488 years ago this day. His Embassy recognized, and a Portuguese priest, Tome Pires, was left behind to formally present himself to the Emperor. He also conducted a successful sale of goods before leaving, although he was not permitted at that time to buy products from the Chinese. The killing of one villager in Tuen Mun (today part of Hong Kong's Western New Territories) was glossed over. Pires was kept waiting though, for permission to visit Beijing.

There was little glossing over of the visit of Fernao Pires de Andrade's younger brother Simao de Andrade, however. He arrived the following year in 1518, got into violent altercations with Chinese merchants and apparently roughed up a Chinese official. Even worse, when some kidnappers had brought children for sale to Simao as slaves, he thought nothing of buying them - this became a major scandal in the annals of Chinese history. Pires' Embassy did not benefit from this episode, and it was not until 1519 that he was approved for a visit to Beijing. This was a description of Chinese women that Tome Pires had written in his spare time:
The women resemble Castilian women. They wear pleated skirts, with waistbands, and jackets that are longer than in our country. Their long hair is beautifully coiled up on top of their heads, with many golden pins holding it in place. Those who have precious stones scatter them around their hair and place golden jewels on the crown of their heads, in their ears and on their necks. They coat their cheeks in white lead and then put make-up on top, so well that the women of Seville cannot surpass them. They drink like women from a cold country. They wear pointed shoes of silk and brocade. All of them carry fans in their hands. They are as white as we are. Some of them have small eyes, and others big ones, while their noses are as they should be.
His presence in Beijing, though was not tolerated, and he was soon sent back to Canton to await further developments. Ultimately, he got to meet the Emperor when the latter was on tour in Nanjing. The meeting with the Chang De Emperor went very well; the Emperor, who was apparently an easy-going person, asked Pires about his country, played games with him and inspected all his presents and said he looked forward to receiving all of them formally in Beijing. Unfortunately, soon after the Emperor's return, he died.

Soon after, the xenophobic element within the Ming dynasty court got control, and Pires was thrown in prison, where he died along with some other Portuguese that had the misfortune of coming on another trading mission in 1521, and had the temerity to misbehave. So ended, for the time being, the first episode of diplomatic relations between China and the West. Portuguese traders thirty years later though, would have much better luck in establishing a base in Macau, after their guns and seen off a large flotilla of pirates; the mandarins in Canton allowed them this base apparently in gratitude for rendering this service.

1 comment:

Dave and Stefan said...

Glad you enjoy it. I agree that the history of non-Western countries is also very important, but as my company's business in primarily in the telling of stories about the history and built heritage of cities like Hong Kong and Macau, the history of contact between East and West is naturally very important.

But I think given that the Portuguese, for all the seamier sides of their empire (slavery, forced conversions, Inquisition, dealings with cannibals, etc.) were the first to create a truly global economic network that encompassed regions from Brazil to Japan.

Also, as historian Malyn Newitt argues in his new book, A History of Portuguese Expansion, 1400-1668: "At a more abstract, but none the less important, level, Portuguese expansion led directly to the creation of a new international world order and to the beginnings of international and maritime law as it is known today. The European idea of international law grew out of the pretensions of the papacy in the middle ages, and the Papal Bulls granted to Portugal in the fifteenth century allocated rights and jurisdictions over newly discovered lands and also over populations...It was not only the law of the sea which developed out of Portuguese expansion but a whole new international order of diplomacy and interstate relations in which European diplomats in European capitals would routinely adjudicate on matters concerning the peoples of Africa, America and Asia and claim sovereign authority over them. From the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, nearly every European treaty included clauses which ordered the affrairs of non-European peoples - almost always without their consent. No more explicit example of the globalisation of political power can be imagined."