Story of China - R. Van Bergen

The European Explorers in China

The Portuguese were among the first European explorers to arrive in China. The Arabs, who had, until the sixteenth century, been in possession of the trade, were peaceable merchants, with whom the government was friendly. The first explorers, of whatever nation, were essentially pirates, and it was from them that the Chinese formed an estimate of the European character. A Chinese author gives the following description of the arrival of the first white strangers:

"During the reign of Ching-ti (thing-tee) (1506), foreigners from the west, called Fah-lan-ki (fah-lahn-kee, Franks), who said they had tribute, abruptly entered the Bogue (entrance of the West River), and by their exceedingly loud guns, shook the place far and near. This was reported at court, and an order was given to drive them away at once, and to stop trading with them. At this time also the Dutch came to Macao (mah-cow) in two or three large ships. Their clothes and their hair were red; their bodies were tall; they had blue eyes, sunk deep in their head. Their feet were one cubit and two-tenths long; and they frightened the people by their strange appearance."

The Portuguese sent four ambassadors to the Emperor of China, but not one of these was received. The conduct of most of the early Europeans was such as to draw upon them the dislike of the orderly and well-behaved Chinese. One instance will prove enough:

Among the first Portuguese to reach China was Hernandez Mendez Pinto. His ships had been plundered by pirates, and the crew made its way to Ningpo, where a number of Portuguese had formed a settlement. They were received here with "great affection and Christian charity" by their fellow-countrymen, and were told that China was in a very unsettled condition, so that there was not much danger in plundering and burning any city. That was good news for them. And when Pinto and his men heard that somewhere to the northeast there was an island containing seventeen golden tombs of former Chinese kings, besides many idols of the same metal, they determined to find that island. They cruised around for a long time, and at last came to an island where they did find some tombs, not of gold, but of gilt copper. They broke open the graves, and found there a quantity of silver, which they carried aboard their boat. After they left the island, a storm overtook them and they were shipwrecked near the coast. Pinto and thirteen others escaped by swimming; the other sailors were drowned.

The people on the coast were kind-hearted, gave them rice to eat, and pointed out the way to a pagoda (pah-godah) and temple where people in misfortune were always assisted. When they arrived at the temple they were asked who they were and where they came from. They replied that they were poor fishermen from Siam; that their boat had been wrecked, and they were castaways. The priests kept them for several days, although very poor themselves. They then left and visited another temple, where they were equally well received. Thus they tramped through that province for about two months, taking care not to enter into any large city, for fear of being recognized as Portuguese. This shows that they were aware that the people had good reason to hate them.

At last they grew more careless, and entered the town of Tai pol (tie pol). As they went begging from door to door, a judge noticed them. They were arrested, and cast into prison, where they were put in chains. Here one of them died. After twenty-six days, they were taken to a boat, together with about twenty Chinese prisoners, and brought to Nanking. Pinto, who, at least, tells the truth in his story, describes this city as very large and populous. Here they were taken before a very severe judge, who ordered them to be flogged on the bare back. As a result of this punishment two of them died. Some kind-hearted Buddhist visited the prison, dressed their sores, and begged the judge to send them to the Supreme Court at Peking. The request was granted, and soon Pinto and his men were carried to the capital by way of the Grand Canal.

They were surprised at the beauty and strength of this waterway, and at the number and elegance of the bridges, pagodas, tombs, arches, and fountains. Pinto also describes the quiet manner of the Chinese, and their evident order and industry. In this manner they arrived at Peking, where they were put into another prison. Soon after they were taken to the Supreme Court; where they were pardoned and set free.

They spent two months at Peking, where they found many charitable people. They were then sent to Kinsai (kin-sie), and taken into the service of the governor, as members of his bodyguard. Here they were treated with great kindness, until one day they began quarreling among themselves, and some blood was shed. The Chinese object to fighting, which they consider a great breach of good manners, so the Portuguese were again thrown into prison, and each received another flogging. After eight weeks of imprisonment they were released, but taken as slaves, and the governor told them that if they ever fought again they would be flogged to death.

Grand Canal with boats


They now had a very hard time of it. They received no pay for their work, not even food, but had to beg for it. Luckily, one of them, named Gaspar, had a good voice and could play the guitar. When this became known, wealthy Chinese, upon giving a dinner to their friends, would send for him, and pay him liberally for the amusement he afforded. Whatever Gaspar earned in this manner was equally divided. At last the Manchu Tartars captured Kinsai, and the Portuguese were released.

In about the middle of the sixteenth century the Portuguese were permitted to erect sheds at Macao to protect their merchandise from the weather. Gradually they began to build houses, and bring their families. This was against the laws of the empire, and to show that the Chinese would not permit Europeans to enter China, they built a wall across the narrow isthmus which connects the tiny peninsula of Macao with the mainland. A Chinese officer was appointed by the Emperor to watch the behavior of the Portuguese and report if he saw anything amiss.

In the year 1570 two Spanish priests came to China from Manila. Their appearance attracted so much attention that people would climb on poles and even upon the housetops to catch a glimpse of them. They were very kindly treated. When they expressed a wish to go out, they were provided with sedan chairs, and were permitted to travel through the country; but they were closely watched, and unable to secure any information.

At last the Chinese thought that these strangers had seen enough of their country. So they told them, politely but firmly, that it was about time to go home. They were escorted to Canton, where a ship was in readiness to take them back to Manila.

The first Catholic missionary who succeeded in obtaining a foothold in China was Matteo Ricci (mat-tay-oh rick-chee), who arrived at Canton in 1581, dressed as a Buddhist priest. He was an able and highly educated man, possessing a firm will, zealous but prudent. He devoted much time to studying the language, and in 1601 moved to Peking, where he arrived dressed as a literary gentleman. His manners and language made him many friends, and he gained much influence over the officials of the capital. Several of his associates arrived in China and followed the example of Ricci, so that, when they began to preach, they made a number of converts. Ricci translated Euclid's Geometry into Chinese.

Other Jesuit missionaries began to arrive, and the government grew suspicious. In 1617 an edict was issued ordering them to leave Peking and to return to Europe by way of Canton. Some of them obeyed, but most of them did not. These men must have studied and worked very hard, for in the year 1636, only thirty-five years after Ricci had arrived at Peking, they had printed in Chinese 470 books, some on religion, but most of them on natural philosophy and mathematics.

Ricci died in 1610, at the age of eighty. Soon after a German Jesuit, named Schaal, came to Peking. His learning placed him at the head of the missions, and Schaal became one of the most famous men in the Empire. At this time the ancestors of the present Emperor, the Manchu, began to make war upon the Ming family, who occupied the throne, and the missions suffered severely, although the converts numbered several hundred thousand.

The Ming was dethroned, and the Manchu became Emperor (1644). Schaal soon grew to be a great favorite. He was appointed president of the Kin Tien Kien (kin teen keen), or Board of Astronomy, and was made a mandarin of the first class. He also built two churches at Peking, and at his request other missionaries were allowed to come.

Among the native converts was a man named Siu (see-oo), and his daughter, who had received the name of Candida. Both worked hard for the missions, and did much good. It was owing to Candida that thirty-nine churches were established in the provinces; she founded a hospital for deserted children, and an institution for the blind. She and her father were so much respected by the people that in some parts of China they are still worshiped as gods.

The quarrels among the different religious orders attracted the attention of the government, and in 1665 an edict was published whereby the missionaries were banished. Schaal died the following year, at the age of seventy-eight. When, ten years later, the Emperor Kang hi (kahng hee) succeeded to the throne, the Jesuits were once more taken into favor.

They used their time well, and, if it had not been for the quarrels among the religious orders, China might have been a Catholic country. In the beginning of the eighteenth century, there were in the two Kiang provinces no less than one hundred churches, and at least a hundred thousand converts. In 1708 the Jesuits were charged by the Emperor to make a survey of the Empire.

But the disputes among the orders once more attracted the attention of the government, and the Emperor was persuaded that the new religion would destroy his authority. He issued a decree in 1718, in which he ordered all missionaries to leave the country except such as promised to obey his laws. Those who remained were kept at Peking, while the persecution of the native Christians commenced in the provinces.

Chinese Christian Congregation


The successor of Kang hi, the Emperor Yung-ching (yoong-ching), issued an order in 1724 by which it was forbidden to preach the Tien Chu Kiau (teen choo keeow) or religion of the Lord of Heaven, as the Christian faith has been called by the Chinese. All missionaries whose services as teachers of sciences were not needed at Peking were ordered to leave the country. A great many did not obey, but hid themselves for a time, in the hope that they would be allowed to continue their teaching once more.

Emperor Kien-lung (keen-loong), who ascended the throne in 1736, was strongly opposed to the missionaries. Persecution recommenced, and in 1747 extended over all the provinces. Gradually this persecution increased, and no more missionaries were permitted to enter the country. Those who defied the laws were compelled to conceal themselves; but the Catholic religion was never wholly destroyed in China.