19 Kasım 2013 Salı

Quotation: Princeton University A World History of The World, China and Europe: Cautious Friends or Intimate Enemies?

This week we were tasked with discussing the nuances of trade between Chinese and European merchants during the 16th century. More specifically, we want know to know what worked, and why. What did the Europeans want from the Chinese that they couldn't acquire elsewhere? Why was there a motive for trade between two very different and very distant peoples?

Out actual forum question was as follows: Having read all the documents, what do you see as the possibilities for trade between China and Europe in the 16th century? What are some possible tensions in the interaction between the two regions?

Our documents, if you don't have access to them, were journal accounts from Matthew Ricci. We'll refer to and explain them more below. We also occasionally reference the textbook or external sources. Citations are at the end of the post.

So, without further ado, lets jump into it!

Tension and Fear

Chinese authorities were very concerned about interaction between their merchants and the external world. Ming China had flourished economically due to internal trade. The construction of the Grand Canal had furthered domestic trade, particularly the movement of food and riches from the Yangzi region to the capital of Beijing. Further, the nature of Ming government was centralized and comprehensive. (Worlds 449) Rural governments were subsidiary to larger regime structures in Beijing and other large population centers. Trade was booming, but within China's domestic frontiers. For the Ming, protecting the dynasty was of the utmost importance. China's newfound prosperity and stability, following the chaotic years of Mongol rule and the Yuan Dynasty, needed to be preserved. (Worlds 437)

But why did this effect the Ming's interactions with Europe? Well, the Ming were concerned that foreign influence would disrupt their domestic system. They had a good thing going for them. They didn't want other powers ruining it. Certainly, the Ming were willing to trade -- they'd been doing so for centuries across Western Asia. The difference with Europe was that Western powers posed a unique threat to Ming stability.

What kind of threat did foreigners pose? Ming officials found that European presence in China coincided with a rise of greed, civil disobedience, and ambition. (Worlds 478) The Portuguese in particularly were also known for being pirates. Really nasty Pirates. When Vasco De Gama landed in Calicut in 1502, he boarded all the ships in its harbor and cut of the nose and ears of all the sailors. Tales of his acts in the Indian Ocean reached China long before he eventually arrived in Macao. (Worlds 456)

The Europeans had stronger warships. They also had more refined weaponry such as cannon and muskets (while the Chinese had salt peter, it was utilized primarily in non-military functions like fireworks displays). Explorers like De Gama had demonstrated that Europeans could resort to violence and piracy. One Chinese official noted that “The [foreigners] are most cruel and crafty… Some years ago they came to Canton, and the noise of their cannon shook the earth.” (Worlds 479) From the perspective of the Ming, who were still working to centralize the empire, the Europeans were the last thing they wanted deal with (for a while, at least).

So, how did the Ming push back? For starters, they didn't let the Portuguese assert supremacy. Upon arriving in China, De Gama and his crew were taken hostage and their ship was sunk. In later years, those Portuguese that traded in China were quarantined to the edge of the country in ports and coastal towns. Europeans living in the interior of the country were forbidden from leaving. The relationship between European and Chinese traders was inherently limited by the tense interactions between their respective governments.

Because the Chinese were so cautious, any trade that could occur with Europe needed to be distinctly beneficial. Only then would foreign influence be worth it, as we'll see in the next section.

Spheres of Trade:


Matthew Ricci, the founder of the first Christian mission to China, noted in his journal that “...practically everything which is grown in Europe is likewise found in China.” (Ricci 11) He went on to describe the bounty that China had to offer foreign traders. The country had spices, rice, bamboo, tea, porcelain, silk - the list goes on of Chinese commodities and natural resources that were ample for trade.

The Europeans wanted all of them. They had an appetite for foreign goods and the wealth associated with them. The Dutch founded the East India Company in 1602 for the sole purpose of monopolizing the region's lucrative spice trade. (Worlds 502) Phillip II of Spain had a personal collection of over 2000 pieces of porcelain ceramic. Silk was a luxury of the British and French aristocracy. The heavy demand for these goods made prices so high that Chinese merchants quickly became known as 'porcelain-headed extortioners.' (Walcha 95)

The Chinese had the high ground. They didn't need anything from the Europeans, at least at the outset of contact. As Ricci noted, “Everything the people need for their well-being and sustenance, whether it be for food or clothing or even delicacies and superfluities, is abundantly produced within the borders of the kingdom and not imported from foreign climates.” (Ricci 10) Indeed, the Ming's self- sufficiency was partly the cause of adverse tensions with Europe in the first place. The Emperor feared that resources necessary for the prosperity of his dynasty would be extracted from China as ruthlessly as they had been in India and Africa.

The Chinese did, however, need one thing from Europe: silver. Centralization reforms in the Ming Dynasty demanded a standardized currency. The Single Whip Law and other reforms were part of a dramatic overhaul of the Chinese tax and land system. The Ming needed more than the small supply of silver that they traditionally acquired from Japan. (Worlds 449)

While the Portuguese were the first of nations to begin trading silver with China, Spain was the most prosperous. Starting in Manilla, the Spanish used their near-monopoly to trade for Chinese luxuries. Gradually, Europe and China grew closer. Permanent trade circuits for tea and silk burgeoned. Foreigners began to penetrate the thick veil that the Ming had placed over China. Despite such gains, the Chinese remained autonomous and prevented Europeans from gaining much traction in the region. Compared to other parts of Asia and Africa, their relations with Europe were relatively small. (Worlds 479)

What Could Have Been?

There was a lot of potential for trade between China and Europe. Matthew Ricci said it right when he noted that “It is a matter of common knowledge… that the Chinese are a most industrious people… they are endowed by nature with a talent for trading.” (Ricci 19) Good relations never manifested because of prejudice on the part of both parties. The Chinese feared European intrusion and the Europeans saw the Chinese as arrogant and selfish. Their relations, from day one, were hostile and securitized. Exchanges were fraught with silver, luxuries, and other exotic goods, but they were limited.

One wonders what might have been if the two nations hadn't gotten off to such a bad start. Might Chinese medicine, religion, and culture would have spread to Europe much faster if foreigners hadn't been purposefully separated from local inhabitants? Would Christianity have taken a greater hold in China if missions had been more numerous and less regulated? Ultimately, we'll never know, as the events described above are what unfolded after that fateful first contact with Portuguese sailors at Macao. It's too bad, really.

After all, China truly is a bountiful place.


Works Cited
1. Ricci, Matthew. China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci: 1583 - 1610 (class 2. text).
3. Walcha, Otto. Meissen porcelain. Ed. Helmut Reibig. GP Putnam's Sons, 1981.
Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: Volume II (class text).

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