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The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), The Tribute System and the Arrival of Europeans

Matteo Ricci, Ming court, scientific subjects, Ming China, Chinese capital

The early Ming emperors worked hard to reestablish China's preeminence in East Asia. Ever since the Han dynasty, Chinese had viewed their emperor as properly everyone’s overlord, and the rulers of non-Chinese tribes, regions, and states as properly his vassals. Foreign rulers were expected to honor and observe the Chinese ritual calendar, to accept nominal appointments as members of the Chinese nobility or military establishment, and to send periodic tribute missions to the Chinese capital. All foreign envoys received valuable gifts in acknowledgement of the tribute they presented to the emperor, and they were permitted to buy and sell goods at official markets. In this way, copper coins, silk, tea, and porcelain flowed out of China, and horses, spices, and other goods flowed in. On balance, the combined tribute and trade activities were highly advantageous to foreigners—so much so that China limited the size and cargoes of foreign missions and prescribed long intervals between missions.

To preserve the government's monopoly on foreign contacts and keep the Chinese people from being contaminated by foreign customs that the Ming considered barbarian, the Ming rulers prohibited the Chinese from traveling abroad. They also prohibited unauthorized dealings between Chinese and foreigners. These prohibitions were unpopular and unenforceable, and from about the mid-15th century, the Chinese readily collaborated with foreign traders in widespread smuggling. By late Ming times, thousands of Chinese had relocated to various places in Southeast Asia and Japan to conduct trade.

Ming policies on foreign trade shaped the Chinese reception of Europeans, who first appeared in Ming China in 1514. The Portuguese had already established themselves in southern India and at the port city of Malacca (now Melaka) on the Malay Peninsula, where they learned of the huge profits that could be made in the trade between China and Southeast Asia. The Ming considered the Portuguese smugglers and pirates and did not welcome them in China. By 1557, however, the Portuguese had taken control of Macau, a small trading station on China’s coast. Soon, the Spanish also were trading illegally along the coast. Representatives of the Dutch East India Company, after unsuccessfully trying to capture Macau from the Portuguese, took control of coastal Taiwan in 1624 and began developing trade contacts on the mainland in nearby Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. In 1637 a squadron of five English ships shot its way into Canton and disposed of its cargoes there.

Christian missionaries followed the traders. Jesuits, members of a Roman Catholic religious order, showed respect for Chinese culture and overcame the foreigners’ reputation for lawlessness. The most eminent of the Jesuit missionaries was Matteo Ricci, who acquired a substantial knowledge of the Chinese language and of Confucian learning. During the latter part of the Ming dynasty, the Jesuits established communities in many cities of south and central China and built a church in Beijing under imperial patronage. Jesuits even served as astronomers in the Ming court. Some officials and members of the court became Jesuit converts or sympathizers, and European books on scientific subjects and Christian theology were published in Chinese.

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