Much of the following has been excerpted from John M Jackson's web-site.
The establishment of the native, conservative Míng Dynasty in 1368 closed China to the West. With Muslims controlling the lands and seas dividing them, Europe and China would be isolated from one another for the next 150 years. During the Mongol hegemony, Europe had become increasingly dependent upon the spices of East Asia — spices that were useful in improving the taste of winter-stored meats. After the Míng's establishment, the European demand for spice proved a windfall for the traders of western Asia, who sated the European spice demand at an enormous profit for themselves. Just as it had with the ancient silk trade, Europe's isolation from China made it dependent upon middlemen for eastern goods. And just as the earlier silk monopoly had spurred Roman exploration, so too did the spice monopoly incite Europeans to seek alternative routes to Asia.
The search for new eastern routes was not a co-operative one; the late fifteenth century found the major European powers competing to capture Asia's lucrative spice trade. In this struggle to reach the East by ocean, perhaps no other nation was better prepared than Portugal. Bounded on the east by Spain, the Portuguese had early established a strong economic link to the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal's long coastline fostered the development of strong maritime trade and nautical superiority. Meticulous cartography and skilful shipbuilding lent the Portuguese added advantages in maritime exploration.
Not only were the Portuguese more prepared for exploration than most other powers, they were perhaps more motivated as well. Long-standing conflicts with Islam made the Portuguese drive to the East a religious crusade as much as an economic one.
As the Portuguese searched for a way to circumnavigate Africa and reach the East, they sought to spread the domain of Christendom. They were sanctioned in their efforts by a Papal Bull of 1455 which granted them carte blanche to "subdue and to convert pagans (even if untainted by Muslim influence) who may be encountered in the regions lying between Morocco and the Indies". With papal authority, the Portuguese conquered those peoples they encountered. As the "discoverers" of new lands, they felt no remorse for the atrocities they visited on natives. On the contrary, the Portuguese regarded these new lands as theirs to enjoy and exploit as they wished. Furthermore, considering themselves the vassals of God, they justified themselves in whatever they did to the 'heathens' of Asia.
The Portuguese juggernaut continued rapidly south along the African coast, then round the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean by 1495. The Portuguese raped, pillaged and plundered with a philosophy that equated trade with piracy and piety with conquest. Ever victorious against weaker powers, the Portuguese may have felt they were divinely blessed. It was only when the Westerners entered China that their invasion was countered by a power that —at that time— could match their own.
While the strength of Portugal was based largely upon the recent scientific advances of Europe's explosive Renaissance, China's own technological achievements had been acquired through centuries of steady technological development. Even as Europe was making monumental leaps forward, however, Chinese culture had become somewhat static. The empire's technological acumen was perhaps dulled by complacency and a conservative dynasty, apprehensive of threats to its rule. Still, China remained the East's dominant power.
Although the Chinese were perhaps no less ethnocentric than the Europeans, their arrogance manifested itself much differently. Since the earliest of times, the Chinese had regarded all other peoples as Yí (夷), or "barbarians". Though they were able to distinguish differences among other cultures, the Chinese placed these cultures together at the bottom of a social hierarchy that left room for only themselves at the top (see p25 of The Celestial Empire). China had been, in fact, the most developed Asian culture for centuries. Through long-standing tradition, the lesser nations of Asia acknowledged China's dominance by dispatching gifts via tribute missions to the Chinese court. These missions did little to inflate dynastic coffers; as a show of their largesse, the Chinese reciprocated with gifts to their tributaries that were even more valuable than those received. Rather, these tributes were important in reinforcing the image of China as a benevolent paternal figure to other nations.
The Chinese hierarchical ideal did not go unchallenged, however. The Japanese and Mongols, for example, were little inclined to concede Chinese superiority. Yet there were enough countries seeking trade and intercourse with China who paid their respects as tributaries to lend credence to the ideal. Though it recognised the military strength of other nations, China never relinquished its self-perception as the Central Kingdom — the home of true civilisation. Through years of contact with their militant neighbours, the Chinese had learned to appease them —to "manage the barbarians"— and still gratify their own conceit. The arrival of the unfamiliar, imposing Portuguese in Asia would eventually present a new challenge to China's position in the cultural hierarchy.
Chinese merchants first encountered the Portuguese at Malacca in 1511. In the 16 years since the Portuguese had first entered the Indian Ocean, they had effectively ousted the Arabs and replaced them as the intermediary between Europe and Central Asia. Not complacent with their prior successes, the Portuguese continued looking for opportunities to expand their new Asian empire. In 1509, the Portuguese sailed east to Malacca seeking spices and information about the Chinese, of whom they had heard reports since first landing in India in 1498. As the gateway between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Malacca was an important trading centre. Though Míng China had largely withdrawn from maritime trade, its merchants still sailed to Malacca. The Sultanate of Malacca had been, in fact, one of the many Chinese tributaries since the mid-15th century.
At Malacca, the Portuguese —under Lopes de Sequeira— found an entrenched Arab mercantile presence. Jealously clinging to their last stronghold in the Far East, the Arabs persuaded the Malaccan sultan to attack the newly arrived Portuguese. Sequeira escaped, but not before many of his men were captured or killed.
While the Portuguese returned to India and considered their defeat, the Sultan of Malacca became involved in a petty war with a rival kingdom. In 1511, the sultan apparently forgot his place in the Chinese empire. He requisitioned the junks and crews of visiting Chinese merchants to transport his troops in battle.
Meanwhile, Afonso de Albuquerque —the newly appointed governor of India— had arrived at Malacca with a new fleet of 18 Portuguese ships and began negotiations for trade concessions and the return of Portuguese prisoners. When these negotiations collapsed, Albuquerque prepared to lay siege to the city. As he did so, the Chinese merchants —indignant at Malaccan presumptuousness— offered their assistance to Albuquerque. The Chinese were much impressed when Albuquerque declined, expressing concern for the merchants' safety. Actually, the Portuguese were probably more interested in insuring that they would be the sole beneficiaries of victory's spoils.
So ended the first Sino-Portuguese contact. The Chinese merchants returned home and reported Portugal's military strength and apparent friendly intentions toward the empire. They also reported the insubordinate actions of the Malaccan sultan. The Portuguese, meanwhile, had conquered Malacca and immediately set about administering their new possession. Albuquerque left a protective force in Malacca and returned to India, dispatching reports to Portugal's King Manuel I and awaiting further instructions regarding the Chinese.
Perhaps impatient with official channels, Portuguese merchants were undertaking their own voyages to China by 1514. Though sanctioned by Jorge de Albuquerque, the new captain-major (governor) of Malacca, these initial missions had no official status. Rather, they were private efforts to assess the feasibility of developing trade relations with the Chinese.
The first of these "merchant embassies" was headed by Jorge Álvares, who landed at the Chinese island of Túnmén (屯門, now part of Hong Kong) in 1514. Here, Álvares erected a stone monument bearing the Portuguese coat-of-arms and engaged in trade. Álvares' stay on Túnmén was a commercial success. He not only witnessed the abundant riches of China, but also sold his own goods at great profit. Álvares soon observed that there was as great an economic potential in transporting south Asian spices to China as in sending them on to Europe.
In a letter written in 1515, the Italian explorer Andrea Corsali described Álvares' voyage. The Italian traveller granted high praise to the Chinese. "They are a people of great skill," he wrote, "and on a par with ourselves." Even here, though, the idea of European superiority is apparent. Though Corsali acknowledged that the wealth and skill of the Chinese matched Europeans', he described the Chinese as being "of an uglier aspect, with little bits of eyes." The Chinese were also, in Corsali's estimation, "pagans".
Even before first-hand descriptions of China's wealth reached Europe, the Portuguese were preparing for an official diplomatic mission. On 7 April 1515, Fernão Pires de Andrade sailed from Lisbon bound for India. There, he would assemble a flotilla and sail for China via Malacca. After several misadventures, de Andrade left Malacca in June 1517. Accompanying him was Tomé Pires, a royal apothecary who was fated to serve as the Portuguese ambassador to Běijīng.
Upon arriving in the Bay of Canton in August 1517, de Andrade applied to the commander of coast guards at Nántóu for permission to proceed to Canton. After a delay of some days, the commander granted his permission (overstepping his authority in doing so), and de Andrade sailed up the Pearl River to Canton.
At Canton, de Andrade committed the first of many Western blunders; he ordered his ships to hoist their flags and fire a cannon salute. The Chinese were outraged by what they considered an open display of aggression in a port of trade. Though they were ostensibly pacified when de Andrade explained that these actions were intended as displays of respect, the Chinese long remembered the breach of conduct.
Despite his early faux pas, de Andrade seems to have conducted himself well and regained Chinese good-will. Appeased by de Andrade's apologetic manner, the Chinese allowed him to engage in trade and to land his embassy. Illnesses among his crew and threats of piracy to the force he had left at Túnmén forced de Andrade to shorten his visit, however. The Portuguese commander returned with his squadron to Malacca, but not before offering remuneration to any Chinese who held claims against the foreigners.
The Portuguese embassy, under Pires, remained in Canton, where they were schooled in Chinese protocol. The local Bureau of Trading Junks superintendent, finding no precedent for relations with the Portuguese, prepared a report for the throne and awaited permission to send the embassy to Běijīng.
While Pires awaited word from Běijīng, another Portuguese flotilla arrived at Túnmén in August 1519. Led by Simão de Andrade, a brother of Fernão, this second mission rapidly destroyed any good-will that the earlier mission had established. Through arrogance and avarice, Simão de Andrade reinforced the Chinese perception of the Portuguese as merely another horde of barbarians. Under de Andrade, the Portuguese erected fortresses on Túnmén and assumed control of the island's commerce. Encountering no opposition, they settled in and practised the methods that had already earned the Portuguese so much wealth and hatred elsewhere in Asia. They refused to pay customs duties, beat a Chinese customs official, and generally ignored Chinese authority. Moreover, the Portuguese incited local brigands to attack villages on the mainland and took captives to export as slaves. Soon, rumours radiated out from Canton about these new barbarians, and the Portuguese reputation for savagery knew no bounds. Tales of the Portuguese being cannibals of kidnapped Chinese children —however unlikely— illustrated the view that the Chinese had of their new visitors. Considering the many real atrocities committed by the Portuguese, it is not surprising that the Chinese could believe them capable of this one as well.
Meanwhile, Pires and his companions lingered in Canton, awaiting permission to journey to Běijīng for an interview with the Wǔzōng Emperor. Finally, in 1520, permission was granted; the Canton officials had been bribed not to inform the court of Simão de Andrade's misdeeds. On 23 January, Pires left for Běijīng with his entourage, gifts for the emperor, and a letter from King Manuel I.
Peres' mission proved a total failure. When opened at Běijīng, the original letter from Manuel I to the Wǔzōng Emperor differed greatly from the translation prepared by Chinese interpreters. Though the interpreters claimed the translation had been altered to reflect Chinese customs of address, the court believed it an act of duplicity; they also found Manuel I's letter to be arrogant and presumptuous. After all, the court considered Pires a tribute-bearer, not the representative of an equal nation.
Unfortunately for Pires —and East-West relations— his arrival at Běijīng also closely coincided with belated news from Canton of de Andrade's activities. Accompanying this blow to Pires' credibility was an envoy from the Malaccan sultan, eager to remind the court that Portugal had seized Malacca —a Chinese tributary— just nine years earlier. Surprisingly, even after the many charges had been levelled against the Portuguese, Emperor Wǔzōng defended them. "These people do not know our customs," he said; "gradually, they will learn them".
Two high court officials, however, were less forgiving. They reiterated the aggressions of the Portuguese: the seizure of Malacca and the conduct of Simão de Andrade. Neither did they forget Fernão de Andrade's firing of cannon at Canton in 1515. In recounting the Portuguese offences, the officials assailed the presence of foreigners in China as a threat to the empire's well-being, and argued for the expulsion of all foreigners from China. Due in large part to the influence of these two court officials, Pires and the other Portuguese were declared spies and ordered to be escorted back to Canton. They arrived there in August 1521 and were to be detained while the Chinese considered their fate. As events unfolded on the coast, the embassy's fate was sealed; they would languish and die in Canton prisons.
First Battle of Túnmén
As Pires returned to Canton, orders came from Běijīng that all trade was to cease and all foreigners be expelled. A new Portuguese merchant fleet had just arrived at Canton, however, and refused to depart. It was perhaps inevitable that armed conflict would erupt; their patience taxed beyond endurance, the Chinese attacked. Though reinforced and possessing superior artillery, the small Portuguese fleet was greatly outnumbered. After a long stand-off and a final fierce battle, the remaining Portuguese force escaped and returned to Malacca.
Second Battle of Túnmén
Apparently unaware of the situation's gravity, the Portuguese sent another fleet, commanded by Martim Afonso de Mello, to Túnmén in July 1522. Not long after their arrival there, another naval battle ensued, and the Portuguese were again repelled. The Chinese likely congratulated themselves for their victory over the European barbarians. The empire had been purged of its threat from foreigners, and China could again bask in the glow of its own self-aggrandisement.
China's economy had become too dependent on trade to remain economically isolated for long, however. By 1530, Canton was again opened to trade — though not to the Portuguese. Instead, the Portuguese spent the next few decades trading covertly off the Chinese coast while currying the Míng Dynasty's favour. Eventually, they were permitted to return to trade in China. In 1557, the Chinese allowed them to establish a trading post on Macau [澳門 Àomén], south of Canton. Acting as trade intermediaries between a feuding Japan and China, the Portuguese developed a lucrative trade at Macau that would last many years. Though China still considered the Portuguese barbaric, the trade the foreigners brought the empire earned them a grudging toleration. China managed these new barbarians by officially ignoring them and maintaining a strictly commercial relationship.