When European Christian missionaries first came to Ming China, they made very little progress in converting the Chinese, in large part due to their limited training in Chinese language and culture. When he arrived in China in 1583, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) encouraged his followers to immerse themselves in the language and to become conversant with the rich traditions of Chinese literature. He also came to be respected by, and especially helpful to, the emperor, as he offered his expertise in the sciences and mathematics to the imperial court. With a European Jesuit (Adam Schall von Bell) as the official court astronomer to Kangxi, there were reports that the Emperor himself considered converting to Catholicism. Nevertheless, not every encounter between Chinese and Europeans went so smoothly, as the following anecdote from Ricci’s diary reveals.
Matthew Ricci, China in the Sixteenth Century, trans. Louis Gallagher (New York: Random House, 1953), 161–– 165.
The reign of Qianlong (r. 1736–1795) marked both the high point and the beginning of the decline of the Qing dynasty. Several European nations, driven by their desire to corner the market on the lucrative Chinese trade, sent representatives to Qianlong’s court. In 1793, Great Britain dispatched Lord Macartney, its first envoy to China, to obtain safe and favorable trade relations for his country. In response, Qianlong composed a letter to King George III (r. 1760–1820) detailing his objections and conditions, which Macartney conveyed back to Britain. The terms of this letter underscore Qianlong’s subtle understanding of global economic conditions and the maintenance of a balance between the interests of various nations.
E. Backhouse and J. O. Bland, Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), 322–331.
This one-act puppet play is one of the first fictionalized (though only thinly disguised) treatments of a famous event that occurred in Tokugawa Japan in 1701–1703. The historical incident began with a knife attack by the daimyo (feudal lord) Asano Naganori on an imperial official named Kira Yoshinaka. Whatever the justice of the provocation, Asano had committed a serious breach in conduct and was forced to pay the most severe penalty. Even though Kira had suffered only a minor wound to his face, Asano was commanded to commit seppuku, ritual suicide. When he did so, his 47 samurai vassals were left leaderless (rōnin), but they swore to avenge Asano’s memory by killing Kira.
In January 1703, the 47 rōnin entered Kira’s home, chasing him and killing several of his retainers and wounding others, including Kira’s grandson. When they finally trapped and overcame Kira, the rōnin cut off his head and brought it to their master’s grave. However, they then decided to turn themselves in to the authorities and commit seppuku themselves, true to their code until the bitter end. In order to elude the censors, Chikamatsu altered the names, condensed some of the main details, and offered a judge that was more sympathetic to the rōnin cause. The essential story would reemerge repeatedly in popular culture (both Japanese and non-Japanese) down to the present day.
Jacqueline Miller, “A Chronicle of Great Peace Played Out on a Chessboard: Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s Goban Taiheiki,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 46 (1986): 221–267, 263–267.
Between 1405 and 1433, a series of naval expeditions were sent out by Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, under the command of the remarkable Zheng He (1371–1435). The largest of Zheng’s ships were over 400 feet long and were thus more than four times the length of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria. His voyages took Zheng to the coasts of southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, Arabia, and East Africa. In 2010, marine archaeologists attempted to find remains of one of Zheng’s ships off the coast of Kenya, near Malindi, a site Zheng visited in 1418. This photograph shows a model of one of Zheng’s ships, compared with a model of the Santa Maria. The model is displayed in a shopping mall in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Kangxi was the second Manchu emperor of China. Whereas his father had had to oversee the elimination of the last Ming claimants to the throne and their supporters, Kangxi had to devote his early energies to consolidating his power. Much power and autonomy had been retained by three noble generals, who had led the conquest of southern China. As part of consolidating his rule, Kangxi mastered and then devoted himself with great discipline to the required observances of the “son of Heaven,” which were deemed necessary for China to enjoy harmony and prosperity. His extraordinarily long and active reign (1661–1722) gave him time to grow and mature as a ruler and a man, but it also placed a heavy obligation on him. By the end of his life, suffering from ill health and deeply saddened by the betrayal of his favorite son, Kangxi was subject to fits of melancholy and fatigue.
Jonathan D. Spence, Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-His. Alfred A. Knopf (1974): 30–59, 143–51. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc
In the seventeenth century, the Manchus crossed the Great Wall, captured Beijing, and founded a new regime, the Qing, or “pure,” dynasty. Some Ming loyalists fled to the island of Formosa (Taiwan), off the Chinese coast, where they expelled the Dutch. The Europeans had established a trading base on the island, and the document below demonstrates the negotiated surrender of this fort to Koxinga.
William Campbell, Formosa under the Dutch (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1903), 455–456.