Foreign Devils - Part Two: Western Europeans

The first Europeans in Imperial China were missionaries in the 13th century, followed by merchants. They were not exactly welcomed (Marco Polo under the Yuán being the obvious exception — but then the Yuán did favour foreigners over native Chinese). There are many tales of Portuguese travellers in China who were gaoled or kept in custody for quite a long time before being allowed to go on with their business; some of them were expelled when the officials they met deemed them too uncouth to remain.

Despite these problems, trade went on: Chinese silk, tea, and porcelain were too much in demand in Western Europe, and Western European merchants were determined to take any necessary risks to ply their trade.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Canton [廣州 Guǎngzhōu] by sea in 1514, establishing a monopoly on the external trade out of its harbour by 1517. They were later expelled from their settlements in Canton, but instead granted use of Macau [澳門 Àomén] as a trade base with the city in 1557. They would keep a near monopoly on foreign trade in the region until the arrival of the Dutch in the early 17th century.

In 1757, the Qīng government restricted Western European trade to the port of Canton only. The British were the ones who tried most forcefully to lift this limitation. In 1792-93, they sent an embassy to China to try and establish a permanent British presence in Běijīng and open up trade relations. However, Lord Amherst refused to kowtow to the Emperor of China and was thus expelled from Běijīng. The rebuff was justified as follows:

The Celestial Empire, ruling all within the four seas, simply concentrates on carrying out the affairs of Government properly... We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures, therefore O King, as regards to your request to send someone to remain at the capital, which it is not in harmony with the regulations of the Celestial Empire — we also feel very much that it is of no advantage to your country.

Another area of heavy Chinese-European interaction was the island of Formosa [臺灣 Táiwān]. In the 17th century, it was colonised by the Dutch in the south, and by the Spanish in the north. The Spaniards were driven out by the Dutch in 1642. In 1662, Koxinga (Zhèng Chénggōng), a loyalist of the Míng Dynasty, which had lost control of mainland China in 1644, defeated the Dutch, ending 38 years of European colonial rule on Táiwān. Zhèng Chénggōng established a base of operations on the island, but his forces were later defeated by the Qīng in 1683.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a new element put its weight into the complex balance of European-Chinese relationships: opium. The Dutch were probably the first to have traded it with China through Formosa in the 17th century. In 1729, its trade was forbidden by the Emperor of China. This restriction was ignored by and large. This trade became so important that it negatively tilted the Chinese trade balance with Western European countries and the US. In 1838, the Emperor of China demanded the trade be stopped. The British refused, and a small incident in 1839 brought upon Imperial China the Opium Wars, which themselves resulted in the Unequal Treaties. The Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaties deserve their own post, but it suffices to say that the former brought about great destruction and the downfall of the Qīng dynasty, and that the latter imprinted a sense of revenge upon the Westerners that can still be very strongly felt today...

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