China's Growing Sea Trade with Europe 1517-1800

by James Graham

The traditional Chinese world order utilised the tribute system to place China at the centre of the civilised world. In exchange for recognising China's superiority, other states were granted permission to trade with China. It was this China centric world order in 1517 that European ships sailed into. The Chinese perceived each European country as just another nation drawn to China in the way Siam, Japan and others were. The European maritime powers however saw the tribute system as a means to an end not an end in and of itself. After initial attempts to use the system to gain competitive advantage over their rivals, the Europeans played only a nominal role within it.

The Chinese worldview between 1517 and 1800 resulted from a diplomatic tradition that over a long period had defined a set of values, expectations and habits. This tradition was largely an outgrowth of the administration of China itself. Every group in contact with China was entitled to a place in the Chinese world order. The lack of curiosity in neo-Confucian culture and the prevailing idea that foreigners were not worth much attention severely limited how large a part foreigners could play. The main concern of China was to maintain its superiority and in periods of military weakness its security. The classical Chinese tradition was to utilise both militant and pacifist approaches to control non-Chinese groups. The pacifist extended trading opportunities in return for peaceful cooperation and the military option was always available should the pacifist approach prove ineffective. The Chinese world order was however only unified at the Chinese end with many groups seeing the benefits of accepting it worth the implication of superiority. Along with other Confucian ideals China's worldview did become accepted in differing degrees in Vietnam, Siam and Central Asia. The Chinese world order presented an ideal of how the world should be, not how they necessarily were

The tribute system was the centrepiece of the Chinese world order. The giving of gifts and the ritual of a foreign prince or his envoy kowtowing in front of the Chinese Emperor were part of a hierarchy that placed the Emperor at the centre of the civilised world. This was seen as foreign acceptance of the superior status of the Chinese Emperor and thus of China itself. China's rulers viewed trade as subordinate to tribute and on many occasions sacrificed economic substance to preserve political form. Tribute missions were presented with valuable gifts that showcased China's economic and cultural supremacy and were allowed to conduct limited trade in Peking. Combined this made tribute missions a profitable activity in and of themselves. Even more important was the trading advantages that could be gained from being enrolled as a tribute-paying nation. The rewards the system offered and the imbalance in power encouraged foreigners to accept the inferior status demanded by the tribute system. Trade with China was always relatively more important to the foreigners than it was to the Chinese rulers who prided themselves on their nation's self-sufficiency. The tribute system was the means by which foreigners were subordinated into China's world order.

Portugal the most adventurous of the European sea faring nations reached China first in 1517. The Portuguese first instinct was to make contact with China's rulers and a mission to Peking by Tome Pires was undertaken in 1520-21. While the Portuguese viewed this as a friendly meeting between the representatives of two equal rulers, the Chinese viewed it within their own diplomatic tradition. They thus recorded the Portuguese as having paid tribute. The Portuguese however were refused the right to offer further tribute to the Ming. From the mid 1550s and probably earlier, local Chinese officials allowed the Portuguese to settle in Macao and use it as an outpost from which they could trade with China. Using Macao, the Portuguese acted as intermediaries trading Chinese goods for spices and other Asian goods, selling portions of all in Europe.

The Portuguese in Macao were regularly cut off from the rest of their Asian empire causing them to become increasingly like the Chinese traders they were constantly in contact with. The Portuguese rarely paid tribute, sending missions only in 1670, 1678, 1727 and 1753 after their initial mission. The 1670 and 1678 missions were undertaken at a time of desperation after the Qing's policy of clearing the coast of China was strangling Macao. Their role as intermediaries in inter Asian trade especially the Sino-Japanese trade rather than as the collection point for transhipment of goods initially intended to Europe displays how Asianised the Portuguese in Macao became. The Chinese regime considered Macao Chinese territory and intermarriage and the increasing decentralisation and corruption of the Portuguese empire confused the situation further. The sheer size of Chinese trade also ensured the Portuguese were never more than bit players in China's foreign trade. Reliant as the Portuguese were on continued good relations with China to continue trading they were very much the weaker member in the relationship. Their acceptance of this situation allowed them to assume a profitable but subordinated position in the Chinese world order.

The Dutch despite making regular tribute missions and even providing military support had great difficulty in establishing a satisfactory trading relationship with the Qing. The Dutch conquered Taiwan in the 1620s with the aim of creating a base for trade with China. The consolidation of the Manchu rule saw the Dutch send tribute missions to China in 1656, 1663 (not formally accepted), 1667 and 1686 in the hope of gaining trading concessions. Dutch requests included permission to trade every year, a fortified trading post in the Amoy-Quemoy area and a joint military attack on Taiwan after its fall to Ming loyalists. Successful joint military operations were undertaken against Quemoy but disagreements between the two allies decreased their desire for future cooperation. Meagre results from tribute missions and disappointing profits from trade led to a decline in Dutch interest in trading directly with China. After a period of frequent contact the Dutch did not send a single ship to China between 1690 and 1729. Chinese junks continued to trade with Batavia providing the Dutch with an alternative source for Chinese goods.

China's Growing Sea Trade with Europe 1517-1800

Growth & Standstill in China's Economy 1368-1800 (Part 2)
Chinese History Bibliography