right The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English explored China and elsewhere in Asia in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Portuguese reached China in 1516, the Spanish in 1557, the Dutch in 1606, and the English in 1637. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) greatly restricted trade with the outside world. By the end of the 18th century, only one port, Guangzhou (Canton), was open to merchants from abroad. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “The Qing opposition to foreign trade, at first even more severe than that of the Ming, relaxed ultimately, and in 1834, Guangzhou was opened to limited overseas trade. Great Britain, dissatisfied with trade arrangements, provoked the Opium War (1839–42), obtained commercial concessions, and established extraterritoriality. Soon France, Germany, and Russia successfully put forward similar demands. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press ++]

Beginning at the end of the 18th century the influence of the Western powers, aimed at turning China into a colony, grew. Culturally this period was that of the gradual infiltration by European countries. At first China recognized that it was necessary to learn from the West and tolerated limited European presence. As time went on, the Western powers, wielding superior military technology, gained more economic and political privileges. Reformist Chinese officials argued for the adoption of Western technology to strengthen the dynasty and counter Western advances, but the Qing court played down both the Western threat and the benefits of Western technology. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale, 2008; “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The Qing regime, already weakened by internal problems, was further enfeebled by European intervention, the devastating Taiping Rebellion (1848–65), and Japan's military success in 1894–95. Great Britain and the United States promoted the Open Door Policy—that all nations enjoy equal access to China's trade; this was generally ignored by the foreign powers, and China was divided into separate zones of influence. Chinese resentment of foreigners grew, and the Boxer Uprising (1900), encouraged by Empress Cixi, was a last desperate effort to suppress foreign influence. ++

Website on the Ming Dynasty Ming Studies; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Ming Tombs Wikipedia Wikipedia : UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 Matteo Ricci Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia ; Books: "Cambridge History of China" multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); "Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor" by Ann Paludan.

Arrival of Europeans in China

The Portugese were the first Europeans to land in China. In 1513, about 20 years after the Portuguese arrived in India and Columbus sailed to the New World, the Portuguese explorer Jorge Alvares arrived in China. The Portuguese set up a trade monopoly in China in 1557 that operated through the strictly controlled colony of Macau. They also traded at the twice-yearly fairs in Canton. Since the Chinese were forbidden from trading with Japan, the Portuguese served as middlemen, trading pepper from Malacca, silks form China and silver from Japan.

British, Dutch and Spanish traders arrived in China after the Portuguese but most of their attempts to set up trading partnerships with Qing dynasty were met with rejection. In 1760 Canton was opened to foreign traders under the Canton system, which was controlled by a guild known as the Cohong.

Early European arrivals in China were fascinated by chopsticks, printing, the high numbers of people, the collection of night soil, and the songs of caged nightingales that "melt themselves into music." The discovery of large deposits of silver in the New World in the 16th century lead to waves of high inflation in Ming era China.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Significant contact between China and Europe began during the latter half of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). China officially began to trade with the Portuguese in 1557, and soon after, European Jesuits began to establish a presence in Macao and eventually entered China in the early 1580s. The Jesuits were curious about and generally respectful of Chinese culture and customs (including religious rites and Confucianism, in particular), and the imperial governments of the Ming and Qing generally regarded the presence of these Catholic missionaries favorably (though with some significant exceptions) and retained Jesuits as advisers at court. The Qing emperor Kangxi (b. 1654; reign, 1662-1722) even issued an imperial edict in 1692 supporting Chinese converts to Catholicism. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]

“Problems arose, however, when other Catholic orders began to enter China in the 1630s, and an internal controversy developed over whether the Jesuits, in the interest of winning converts, had gone too far in their attempts to make the Catholic faith more compatible with indigenous Chinese beliefs, especially on the question of the veneration of Confucius and the ancestors. The Jesuits insisted that these were civil rites and therefore acceptable practices for Chinese converts to Catholicism. Missionaries of the Dominican and Franciscan orders thought otherwise, and this disagreement (which later came to be known as the “Rites Controversy”) set off a fierce debate amongst European Catholics that would persist for nearly 100 years, from the 1640s to 1742, when Pope Benedict XIV reaffirmed an earlier (1715) decree by Pope Clement XI that sided with the Dominican-Franciscan position. Benedict XIV then declared that this matter was no longer open to debate, effectively closing the book on the issue. A leading intellectual of his time, Kang Youwei drafted for the Qing dynasty government a drastic program of reform, now known as the “One Hundred Days of Reform.”“

“The East India Company was founded in 1600. At this time, while the English were trying to establish themselves in India, the Chinese tried to gain increased influence in the south by wars in Annam, Burma, and Thailand (1594-1604). These wars were for China colonial wars, similar to the colonial fighting by the British in India. But there began to be defined already at that time in the south of Asia the outlines of the states as they exist at the present time.

In 1636, King Charles I authorized a small fleet of four ships, under the command of Captain John Weddell, to sail to China and establish trade relations. At Canton the expedition got into a firefight with a Chinese fort. Other battles occurred after that. The British blamed the failure in part on their inability to communicate. Later tea became an important trade item between China and England. The first tea arrived in London from China in 1652.

Chinese Exploration During the Ming Dynasty

The Chinese armies reconquered Annam, as northern Vietnam was then known, in Southeast Asia and kept back the Mongols, while the Chinese fleet sailed the China seas and the Indian Ocean, cruising as far as the east coast of Africa. The maritime Asian nations sent envoys with tribute for the Chinese emperor. Internally, the Grand Canal was expanded to its farthest limits and proved to be a stimulus to domestic trade."Source: The Library of Congress]

The Chinese Age of Discovery lasted for 28 years (1405-1433), and consisted of seven voyages led by the Muslim eunuch named Zheng He. Africa had things the Chinese wanted: ivory medicine, spices, exotic wood and exotic wildlife Beginning in the A.D. first century, when the Han Emperor Wang Mang was given a rhinoceros, the only gifts from the tributary states that really seemed to impress the Chinese emperor were animals. Zheng He brought back lions, orynxes, nilganias, zebras and ostriches from Africa, but the biggest commotion was caused when a giraffe was delivered as a tribute from a ruler in Bengal in 1414.

“The Ming maritime expeditions stopped rather suddenly after 1433, the date of the last voyage. Historians have given as one of the reasons the great expense of large-scale expeditions at a time of preoccupation with northern defenses against the Mongols. Opposition at court also may have been a contributing factor, as conservative officials found the concept of expansion and commercial ventures alien to Chinese ideas of government. Pressure from the powerful Neo-Confucian bureaucracy led to a revival of strict agrarian-centered society. The stability of the Ming dynasty, which was without major disruptions of the population (then around 100 million), economy, arts, society, or politics, promoted a belief among the Chinese that they had achieved the most satisfactory civilization on earth and that nothing foreign was needed or welcome.

Why Didn't the Chinese Discover Europe

Why was Ming China, the largest, richest, most powerful nation on earth, discovered by tiny Portugal not the other way around? Why did the Chinese not round the Cape of Good Hope and venture to Europe, when they easily could have?

Many scholars argue that the Chinese had no desire to explore or expand trade, and the West possessed nothing that the Chinese wanted. Plus Westerners were regarded as barbarians. When the Portuguese arrived on the southeast coast of China in 1513, a Hong Kong scholar told National Geographic, they were viewed as "just another bunch of pirates---people with beards, large eyes, long noses. No real threat."

A 17th century Chinese treatise on navigation proclaimed: "Coming into contact with barbarian peoples you have nothing more to fear than touching the left horn of a snail. The only things one should really be anxious about are the means of mastery of the waves of the sea---and, worst of all dangers, the minds of those avid for profit and greedy for gain."

Unlike the Portuguese and Spanish monarchs, who launched their voyages of discovery in hopes of converting heathens to Christianity, the Chinese had no ambition to convert the outside world to their religious beliefs. An illustration of their religious tolerance is an upright stone left in the town of Galle, Sri Lanka during the 1405 Zheng He expedition. It has inscriptions in three languages---Chinese, Tamil and Persian’that pays tribute to Lord Buddha, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and Allah and several Muslim saints.

Lack of Chinese Interest in European Products

Portuguese and Spanish monarchs also launched their voyages of discovery in hopes of making their country rich through the seizure of land and treasures and the establishment of lucrative trade routes to bring coveted items to Europe from the Orient.

The West needed products from the East much more than the East needed products from the West, which produced little for export other than woolen cloth and wine. In 1793 a Manchu emperor told a British diplomatic representative: "There is nothing we lack as your principal and others have themselves observed. We have never set much store on strange or indigenous objects, nor do we need any more of your country's manufactures." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

In Zheng He's time China and India together accounted for more than half of the world's gross national product. It is believed that if the Chinese were so inclined they could have controlled the spice trade and colonized places like Australia and New Zealand and even Africa and America.

The prevailing belief that anything non-Chinese was primitive held the Chinese back in terms of exploring and exploiting new worlds. Boorstin wrote, in China, "where tradition and customs ruled, the best qualities of life were viewed as products of Chinese tradition and customs. And the China-centric isolationist tradition kept the Chinese from encounters with remote and different peoples."

End of the Chinese Age of Discovery and the Great Withdrawal

Zheng He's expeditions were expensive and did not bring in any wealth. According to Boorstin the “The lopsided logic of the tributary system required China to pay out more than China received. Every new tributary state worsened the imbalance of Chinese trade. The accounts of history that cast Chinese public relations in this curious frame help explain why Chinese communication with the outside world was stultified for centuries to come." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

The Chinese expeditions and tributary system resulted in 1,000 percent inflation. Many Confucian scholar-bureaucrats regarded Zheng He's voyages a profligate waste, arguing the money could better spent at home on things like the construction of irrigation canals, roads and granaries to head off famine. The officials also argued that it was unnecessary to waste money abroad when China was already the "all-perfect Center of the Universe." Within the Imperial court there was a battle between the eunuchs and mandarins for political power. The mandarins prevailed and anything associated with eunuchs, including Zheng He, was curtailed.

China's brief age of discovery was followed by a period of history known as the Great Withdrawal. In the decades that followed Zheng He's last voyage in 1433 edicts were passed prohibiting Chinese from traveling abroad, and offenders were often punished with decapitation.

By 1474, the Imperial fleet has shrunk from 400 warships to 140 vessels; by 1500 it was a capital crime to build a junk with more than two masts; and by 1551 espionage was redefined to include voyages on the sea in a multi-masted vessels. Eventually the technology and expertise to build large ships and navigate them was lost .

Matteo Ricci

Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was the most famous of the Jesuit priests and the most influential European in China since Marco Polo. He is credited with bringing Christianity to China — although various forms of the religion had made their way to China before — and translated the Confucius’s Analects into Portuguese and developed the first methods for romanizing Chinese characters. He arrived in Macau in 1582; moved to Beijing in 1603; and spent 20 years with imperial court in Beijing. He wrote extensively about the things he observed and has been widely quoted by historians.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In 1601 the first European, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, succeeded in gaining access to the Chinese court, through the agency of a eunuch. He made some presents, and the Chinese regarded his visit as a mission from Europe bringing tribute. Ricci was therefore permitted to remain in Beijing. He was an astronomer and was able to demonstrate to his Chinese colleagues the latest achievements of European astronomy. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

In 1577 Ricci wrote: "of all the great nations, the Chinese have had the least commerce, indeed, one might say that they have had practically no contact whatever, with other nations, and consequently they are grossly ignorant of what the world in general is like...their universe was limited to their own fifteen provinces, and in the sea painted around it they had placed a few islands to which they gave the names of different kingdoms they had heard of.

"All of these islands put together would not be as large as the smallest of the Chinese provinces," Ricci wrote. "With such a limited knowledge, it is evident why they boasted of their kingdom as being the whole world, and why they call it Thienhia, meaning everything under the heavens. When they learned that China was only part of the great east, they considered such an idea, so unlike their own, to be something utterly impossible." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Ricci also mentioned that to the Chinese "the heavens are round but the earth is flat and square...They could not comprehend the demonstrations proving that the earth is a globe, made up of land and water and that a globe of its nature has neither beginning nor end...Because of their ignorance of the size of the earth and the exaggerated opinion they have of themselves, the Chinese are of the opinion that only China among the nations is deserving of admiration...They look upon all other people not only as barbarous but as unreasoning animals."

Book: Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence (Viking Press).

Matteo Ricci's Account of the Ming Court

Benjamin Lim of Reuters wrote: “ Ricci — known as Li Madou in Chinese — is remembered fondly as a unique bridge between East and West. He dressed as a Confucian scholar and spent the last nine years of his life in Beijing before dying in 1610. Fluent in spoken and written Chinese, Ricci introduced China to astronomy, mathematics and geography. He was the first person to draw a map of the world for the Chinese and to translate books on Western science, logic and philosophy into Chinese. His translations of Chinese classics into Latin and colourful accounts of his own work gave Europeans unprecedented insight into Chinese culture and society. He expressed open admiration for China's highly ordered society." [Source: Benjamin Lim, Reuters, August 20, 2010]

In 1577 Ricci wrote: "of all the great nations, the Chinese have had the least commerce, indeed, one might say that they have had practically no contact whatever, with other nations, and consequently they are grossly ignorant of what the world in general is like...their universe was limited to their own fifteen provinces, and in the sea painted around it they had placed a few islands to which they gave the names of different kingdoms they had heard of.

"All of these islands put together would not be as large as the smallest of the Chinese provinces," Ricci wrote. "With such a limited knowledge, it is evident why they boasted of their kingdom as being the whole world, and why they call it Thienhia, meaning everything under the heavens. When they learned that China was only part of the great east, they considered such an idea, so unlike their own, to be something utterly impossible." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Ricci also mentioned that to the Chinese "the heavens are round but the earth is flat and square...They could not comprehend the demonstrations proving that the earth is a globe, made up of land and water and that a globe of its nature has neither beginning nor end...Because of their ignorance of the size of the earth and the exaggerated opinion they have of themselves, the Chinese are of the opinion that only China among the nations is deserving of admiration...They look upon all other people not only as barbarous but as unreasoning animals."

Matteo Ricci spent a lot of time in the Ming court. He wrote: "Just as this people is grossly subject to superstition, so, too they have very little regard for the truth, acting always with great circumspection, and very cautious about trusting anyone. Subject to this same fear,the king of modern times abandoned the custom of going out in public. Even formerly, when they did leave the royal enclosure, they would never dare to do so without a thousand preliminary precautions.

"The kings... abandoned the custom of going out in public...When they did leave the royal enclosure, they would never dare to do so without a thousand preliminary precautions. On such occasions the whole court was placed under military guard. Secret servicemen were placed along the route over which the King was to travel and on all roads leading into it. He was not only hidden from view, but the public never knew in which of the palanquins of the cortege he was actually riding. One would think he was making a journey through enemy country rather than among multitudes of his own subjects."

Emperor's Approach in the Xuande period

European Telescopes and Clocks Introduced to China

The Ming emperors had little interest in the religion introduced to them by the European Jesuits, but they were fascinated by the European gadgets that were brought to them, namely large weight-driven- and small spring-driven clocks. When Father Ricci, after many tries, was finally granted an audience with the emperor in the late 16th century, the Chinese ruler didn't ask him about Christianity but rather asked him why the bells on his clock stopped ringing. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

The Emperor's Italian clock struck him "dumb with astonishment," wrote Ricci, because it was "a work the like of which had never been seen, nor heard, nor even imagined, in Chinese history." The clock, Ricci wrote, “was always kept before him, because he liked to look at it and to listen to it ringing the time." After the Emperor was exposed to European clocks Jesuits replaced the resident Muslim astrologers.

Ricci, perhaps more than any other European, was responsible for introducing Western science to China. After helping to fix the emperor's clock, he and a team of mathematicians, Jesuits fathers and eunuchs were "permitted to enter the presence of the King, to wind a small clock." The Jesuits earned an even higher place in the emperor's court when they correctly forecast the correct time and duration of a solar eclipse on June 21, 1629, which Chinese astronomers predicted would take place an hour before it actually did.

Among the other things introduced by Europeans were the equatorial armilla, celestial globe and altazimuth. When a telescope made with the help of Jesuit missionaries was presented to the Emperor in 1634, Confucian scholars worried about teh consequences of such a devise ended up in enemy hands. "If there should break out unexpectedly a military revolution," one scholar wrote, "one can look at it from a distance, the place of the enemy, the encampments, the men, the horses, whether armed more or less, and to know thus whether one is ready or not, whether it is fitting to attack or to defend oneself, and also whether it is fitting to discharge the cannon. Nothing is more useful than this instrument."

Demand for European Clocks in China

By the 16th century, Europeans had mastered the making of spring-driven clocks while the Chinese primarily produced more primitive weight driven clocks models well into the 19th century. The Chinese loved elaborate European clocks and many Europeans made fortunes trying to meet the demand. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

In the early 19th century John Barrow, the founder of the Royal Geographical Society wrote: One Dutch gentleman "took it into his head that cuckoo clocks might prove a saleable article in China, and accordingly brought in a large assortment, which more than answered his most sanguine expectations. But as these wooden machines were constructed for sale only, and not for use, the cuckoo clocks became all mute long before the second arrival of this gentleman with another cargo."

"His clocks," Barrow continued, "were not only unsalable, but the former purchasers threatened to return theirs upon his hands, which would have certainly been done, had not a thought entered his head, that not only pacified his former customers but procured him also other purchasers for his second cargo: he convinced them by undeniable authorities, that the cuckoo was a very odd kind of bird which sung only at certain seasons of the year, and assured them that whenever the proper time arrived, all the cuckoos they had purchased would once again "tune their melodious throats."

Early Jesuits, Christians and Missionaries in China

Death of St. Francis Xavier
Jesuit missionaries were among the first foreigners to arrive in China.Their advise was sought on scientific and astronomical matters Their knowledge about astronomy was particularly valued because the Emperor needed knowledge about the seasons and the movement of celestial objects to set the dates for important rituals. At first the Jesuits were not allowed to preach and later when they were they won few converts.

St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552)---the famous Spanish Jesuit missionary who devoted his life to spreading Christianity in Asia---died at the age of 46 on the island Sancian off Guandong province in China in present-day Macau during a proselytizing mission. After he died his body was packed in lime and shipped to Goa. His body was buried and later exhumed by Jesuits who cut off his right arm and sent it to the Pope as a gift. What remained of the body was placed in a gold and glass coffin in a Goa cathedral.

Known as the sainted Apostle of the Indies, St. Francis Xavier was the youngest son of a Basque aristocrat. When he was 28 he helped found the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). In 1542 he arrived in Goa and buried many dead Portuguese voyagers in India. He went to Japan in 1549 and helped Christianity advance very quickly there, especially in southern Japan. He also went to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

The Spanish Dominican Navarrette lived and worked in China from 1659 to 1664. He wrote: "It is God's special Providence that the Chinese don't know what is done in Christendom, for if they did there would be never a man among them but would spit in our faces."

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “ In 1613, after Ricci's death, the Jesuits and some Chinese whom they had converted were commissioned to reform the Chinese calendar. In the time of the Mongols, Arabs had been at work in Beijing as astronomers, and their influence had continued under the Ming until the Europeans came. By his astronomical labours Ricci won a place of honour in Chinese literature; he is the European most often mentioned. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The missionary work was less effective. The missionaries penetrated by the old trade routes from Canton and Macao into the province of Jiangxi and then into Nanking. Jiangxi and Nanking were their chief centres. They soon realized that missionary activity that began in the lower strata would have no success; it was necessary to work from above, beginning with the emperor, and then, they hoped, the whole country could be converted to Christianity. When later the emperors of the Ming dynasty were expelled and fugitives in South China, one of the pretenders to the throne was actually converted—but it was politically too late.

The missionaries had, moreover, mistaken ideas as to the nature of Chinese religion; we know today that a universal adoption of Christianity in China would have been impossible even if an emperor had personally adopted that foreign faith: there were emperors who had been interested in Buddhism or in Taoism, but that had been their private affair and had never prevented them, as heads of the state, from promoting the religious system which politically was the most expedient—that is to say, usually Confucianism. What we have said here in regard to the Christian mission at the Ming court is applicable also to the missionaries at the court of the first Manchu emperors, in the seventeenth century. Early in the eighteenth century missionary activity was prohibited—not for religious but for political reasons, and only under the pressure of the Capitulations in the nineteenth century were the missionaries enabled to resume their labours.

Matthew Ehret-Kump wrote in China Channel: “By 1704, Pope Clement IV issued a decree proclaiming that anyone in China wishing to practice Christianity had to entirely renounce the ancestral rites, causing the entire 150 year Jesuit mission to crumble to pieces. Soon, only a handful of the most valuable missionaries were permitted to stay in Beijing, while the rest of China was made off limits to them. [Source: Matthew Ehret-Kump China Channel, April 18, 2020]

Gottfried Leibniz: Inventor of Calculus and 17th Century China Expert

Matthew Ehret-Kump wrote in China Channel:“Many people would be surprised to discover that Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), a German polymath and logician best known for his discovery of Calculus, was one of the most important sinophiles of the 17th century, whose writings were instrumental in bringing the idea of Chinese culture and civilization to Europe. Leibniz recognized the value of Chinese culture after an extensive study of Confucian texts provided to him by Jesuit scientists in Beijing. Inspired by the moral and practical philosophy that kept this ancient civilization alive (while European societies suffered nearly constant warfare), he created a journal called Novissima Sinica (News from China) in 1697. The journal was followed by an organizing effort across Eurasia to bring about a vast dialogue of civilizations, driven by the pursuit of scientific discovery and economic development.[Source: Matthew Ehret-Kump China Channel, April 18, 2020]

“In the first issue of the Novissima Sinica, Leibniz wrote: “I consider it a singular plan of the fates that human cultivation and refinement should today be concentrated, as it were, in the two extremes of our continent, in Europe and in China, which adorns the Orient as Europe does the opposite edge of the Earth. Perhaps Supreme Providence has ordained such an arrangement, so that as the most cultivated and distant peoples stretch out their arms to each other, those in between may gradually be brought to a better way of life. I do not think it an accident that the Russians, whose vast realm connects Europe with China and who hold sway over the deep barbarian lands of the North by the shore of the frozen ocean, should be led to the emulation of our ways through the strenuous efforts of their present ruler [Peter I].

“Leibniz’s program of cross-continental dialogue had begun in earnest a generation earlier, with the Jesuit followers of Matteo Ricci in China. During the rites controversy, they had scared powerful factions in the Catholic Church who feared the idea that one could be both Confucian and Christian at the same time. As a scientist, astronomer, linguist and musician, Ricci believed that in pursuing scientific truth and creativity, all hearts are edified to a higher state of being – which reflected in Ricci’s mind the essence of Christianity. After the Qing dynasty came to power in 1644, the collaboration with Jesuit scholars continued and the Kangxi emperor, himself an astronomer and poet devoted to learning, gave the missionaries carte blanche to evangelize and teach across China – a feat never before accomplished. The Kangxi emperor even employed Western painters such as Giuseppe Castiglione to create new schools of painting, synthesizing eastern and western aesthetics, and the Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest headed the Beijing Observatory. Yet Leibniz’s enthusiasm for the Chinese was not shared, and regressive forces in the Catholic Church chose to make a scandal out of the rites which Confucians undertook to honor their ancestors, exclaiming that this was equivalent to worshiping pagan gods.

“In his Novissima Sinica, Leibniz defended the rites and sacrifices paid to ancestors and the Emperor, noting that these sacrifices and honors were merely spiritual modes of honoring the past and present in order to do good for the future. He also claimed that the Chinese had independently discovered theological concepts which were identical to those discovered independently in the Christian cultural matrix: Li (the principle/truth of Heaven) and Shangdi (or Xang ti in his spelling: God). He wrote:

“They sacrifice to this visible Heaven (or rather to its King) and revere in profound silence that Li which they do not name, because of the ignorance, or the vulgarity of the people, who would not understand the nature of the Li. What we call the light of reason in man, they call commandment and law of heaven. What we call the inner satisfaction of obeying justice and our fear of acting contrary to it, all this is called by the Chinese (and by us as well) inspirations sent by the Xang ti (that is, by the true God). To offend heaven is to act against reason, to ask pardon of heaven is to reform oneself and to make a sincere return in word and deed in submission one owes to this very law of reason. For me I find all this quite excellent, and quite in accord with natural theology.

Europeans Increase Their Presence in China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Following the 1742 degree of Benedict XIV the Qing government regarded Catholics, with the possible exception of some Jesuits who were already favored by the imperial court, with suspicion and strictly contained their activities. Meanwhile the Qing’s economic relationship with Europe did not abate, though here also the Qing made every effort to contain their encroachment. When opium entered the picture in the early 1800s, however, the situation deteriorated significantly for the Qing. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Great Britain had made several attempts to improve her trade relations with China, but the mission of 1793 had no success, and that of 1816 also failed. English merchants, like all foreign merchants, were only permitted to settle in a small area adjoining Canton and at Macao, and were only permitted to trade with a particular group of monopolists, known as the "Hong". The Hong had to pay taxes to the state, but they had a wonderful opportunity of enriching themselves. The Europeans were entirely at their mercy, for they were not allowed to travel inland, and they were not allowed to try to negotiate with other merchants, to secure lower prices by competition. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The Europeans concentrated especially on the purchase of silk and tea; but what could they import into China? The higher the price of the goods and the smaller the cargo space involved, the better were the chances of profit for the merchants. It proved, however, that European woollens or luxury goods could not be sold; the Chinese would probably have been glad to buy food, but transport was too expensive to permit profitable business. Thus a new article was soon discovered—opium, carried from India to China: the price was high and the cargo space involved was very small. The Chinese were familiar with opium, and bought it readily. Accordingly, from 1800 onwards opium became more and more the chief article of trade, especially for the English, who were able to bring it conveniently from India. Opium is harmful to the people; the opium trade resulted in certain groups of merchants being inordinately enriched; a great deal of Chinese money went abroad. The government became apprehensive and sent Lin Tsê-hsu as its commissioner to Canton. In 1839 he prohibited the opium trade and burned the chests of opium found in British possession. The British view was that to tolerate the Chinese action might mean the destruction of British trade in the Far East and that, on the other hand, it might be possible by active intervention to compel the Chinese to open other ports to European trade and to shake off the monopoly of the Canton merchants.

Creation of the Canton System in the 1760s

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The notion that the Chinese government feared foreign traders and did not want foreign traders on its shores is a major misconception. Although foreign trade was not a dominant source of revenue for the imperial household, it was taxed at a number of ports along the Chinese coast and was an important source of revenue for the central government. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Madeleine Zelin, Consultant ]

“It was not until the 1760s that China really began to limit foreign trade to the single port of Canton, and there is much speculation about why this happened. Some scholars have related this to Chinese awareness of the activities of the British East India Company in India in the 1750s, when Britain was effectively colonizing India, and the Chinese government's fear of similar foreign encroachment on its own soil.

“Other scholars see the creation of the single port of call for European ships at Canton as being a mutual decision, because, in fact, Canton was the only port that really could provide the kind of facilities that foreign traders needed. Canton had a sufficient number of merchants, sufficient capital to be able to bring goods from the interior in sufficient amounts to make it worthwhile for foreigners to come all the way from England to China. The trip from England to China during this time was indeed very long, and ships only came once a year. The merchants bought everything they could to fill up the ships and soon set sail again.”

See Separate Articles on the Opium Wars and Europeans in China in the 19th Century.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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