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Opening to Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch

In late 14th century, the Ming emperor issued a ban on sea trade (haijin) to combat Yuan loyalists and Japanese pirates. Although a later Ming emperor developed a navy and a tributary system, China’s isolationist policies still continued after the time of the time of the great Chinese explorer Zheng He. The arrival of the Age of Exploration, however, would change all that. The first Europeans to arrive in China were the Portuguese and were soon followed by the Spaniards and the Dutch.  These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during this time period.

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Portuguese explorers and merchants soon established trading outposts in Goa and Malacca after reaching Asia in 1498. Although Portuguese trade in India and Malacca grew, China still held much allure for the traders. It was not until 1514, however, that explorer Jorge Álvares was able to set foot on an island off the coast of Guangdong. He was followed later that year by Rafael Perestrello who was able to reach the mainland. Nothing concrete came out of these visits as the Portuguese did not understand the Ming’s tribute system.

In 1517, King Manuel I sent Tomé Pires and Fernão Pires de Andrade as ambassadors to Zhengde emperor’s court. While waiting for the permission to proceed to the capital, Simão (Fernão’s brother) built a fort at Tuen Mun and prohibited foreign traders from conducting trade in the area. If this was not enough, Simão also hit a Ming official who tried to reprimand him. The embassy was also endangered when he bought (or kidnapped) Chinese children and sent them to India as slaves.

He and his companions then sailed further north and established a settlement in Ningbo where they terrorized the locals. From then on, Tomé Pires and Fernão Pires de Andrade’s embassy to China was doomed. Those who remained at Tuen Mun were driven out by the Ming navy. Pires and Andrade were taken as prisoners (along with many of their companions) after this misadventure. Most of the Portuguese prisoners died in China in the years that followed.

Friendly relations between China and Portugal resumed only during the reign of Jiajing Emperor (1521-1567). Portuguese ships were permitted to dock in Macau’s (Aomen) harbor in 1535, but their crew was not allowed to disembark and establish contact with the locals. In 1553, however, Ming officials finally allowed Portuguese traders to build a factory in Macau. In 1557, Jiajing Emperor allowed the Portuguese to lease Macau and establish a permanent settlement there in exchange for their assistance in suppressing the pirates which prowled the Pearl River Delta. The lessee paid 500 taels of silver yearly for the occupation of Macau. The Portuguese continued to occupy the area until sovereignty was transferred back to the People’s Republic of China in 1999.


In 1565, the Spanish explorer

Miguel Lopez de Legazpi was a Spanish navigator and explorer.

claimed the Philippines for Spain and started to establish settlements in several islands of the archipelago. After some years of establishing a foothold in the colony, he and the friar-navigator Andres de Urdaneta created the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade.

 Prohibitive regulations on trade with outsiders discouraged Chinese merchants from trading directly with Spanish merchants, so they used the port of Manila as an entrepot. Starting in 1571, galleons carrying tons of silver from the mines of New Spain and Peru left Acapulco and unloaded their cargo at the port of Manila. The tons of silver would then be shipped to China where they would be minted. Spanish merchants, meanwhile, would then purchase spices, Chinese silks, porcelains, and other luxury items in Manila and send them back to Acapulco. These goods would then be sold in Mexico, or transported overland and shipped to Spain where the items would then be sold.

In 1589, Wanli Emperor finally granted additional trade licenses for Chinese merchants and allowed them to continue the lucrative trade in Manila. This trade, however, would come to a halt during the last years of the Ming Dynasty. Between 1590 and 1600, Spain and China were already on the verge of a political and economic decline.

Indebted and with its supply of American silver already declining, the Spanish Crown was pressured to undertake economic reforms during the early 17th century. The efforts to revive a dying economy (including the debasement of coinage and tax reforms) failed. Spain’s economic problems also had a far-reaching effect on China when the amount of silver shipped to Manila also dwindled. The reduced supply of silver on the market also affected its silk trade with Spanish merchants.

Japan, another important supplier of silver to the Chinese market, also withdrew from trading with most of the European countries in the early 1600s. The shortage of the metal led to hoarding and a sudden spike in its value. Peasants were especially hard-pressed as they used copper coins for selling and buying but used silver taels to pay their taxes. Because of the shortage in taels of silver, China’s beleaguered peasants could only pay their taxes in grain. This eventually led to the Ming government’s bankruptcy.

Political uprisings followed the economic collapse of the Ming Dynasty and ushered in the rule of the Qing Dynasty. In 1647, the Qing authorities issued a renewed ban on sea trade and limited trade only in Macau.


Dutch merchants came in just as the Spanish and Portuguese domination on Asian-European trade was waning. Although Dutch ships had plied Asian waters since the early years of the Age of Exploration, it was only in 1601 that one of its ships was able to drop its anchor off the coast of Macau. Sailors disembarked from the ship and ventured on land, but they were soon seized by Portuguese authorities. The ship’s captain left the prisoners behind in Macau where most died in captivity.

This incident did little to discourage the Dutch government and merchants into venturing to China. In 1602, Dutch government granted a charter to a group of merchants allowing them to create a company that would break England’s domination in the European market. Thus the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) was created.

In 1604, the Dutch commander Wybrand van Warwijck was enticed by Chinese merchants in Pattani to establish trade relations with China with their help. Van Warwijck agreed and sailed to Macau with his middlemen, but a typhoon drove his ship to Penghu Islands (Pescadores) instead. He and his crew then decided to stay there while his middlemen negotiated with the authorities in the mainland. Instead of trade ships, a fleet of war junks arrived instead with the intent of driving the Dutch out of Penghu. Their arrival forced van Warwijck and his crew to seek refuge in Taiwan (Formosa). After finding Taiwan unsuitable for their ships, the sailors were forced to retreat to Pattani.

The Dutch tried once again to enter Macau in 1607, but they were driven off by the Portuguese. During the next ten years, they were confined to their strongholds in Java and Maluku Islands. During the early phases of the Thirty Years’ War against Spain, Dutch ships blockaded Chinese junks and harassed Spanish galleons in Manila. The Dutch navy also attacked Macau in 1622 but was unsuccessful in taking it.

By July 1622, Dutch sailors and merchants came back to Penghu and occupied the islands. After building forts and outposts on the islands, they then tried to strong-arm Chinese merchants in nearby Fujian province into trading with them. Merchants who refused to trade with them would be attacked and their towns destroyed by the Dutch. Captives were then taken to Penghu where they would remain as slaves or be shipped Batavia later on. They also issued passes to Chinese trade ships bound for Batavia but refused to issue the same passes for those bound for Manila which was held by Spain.

Starting in 1623 and amid negotiations, the Dutch and Chinese navy continued to clash around Penghu Islands. By the end of 1624, the Dutch decided to withdraw from Penghu and sailed to Taiwan to establish Fort Zeelandia. The Dutch maintained a presence in Taiwan until they driven out by the Ming resistance leader Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong) in 1662.


Picture by: Celestí Sadurní i Deop (1830-1896) – (16 April 1887). “Miguel López de Legaspi“. La Hormiga de Oro (16): 252. ISSN 2171-7591., Public Domain, Link

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Elliott, J.H., and J.B. Harrison. The New Cambridge Modern History: The Decline of Spain and the Thirty Years War 1609-48/59. Edited by J.P. Cooper. Vol. IV. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Peterson, Andrew C. The Spanish Empire: A Historical Encyclopedia. Edited by Tarver Denova Hollis Micheal and Emily Slape. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2016.

Roberts, J.A.G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Wills, John E., and J. L. Cranmer-Byng. China and Maritime Europe, 1500-1800: Trade, Settlement, Diplomacy, and Missions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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