Seeing the West through Chinese Eyes – China’s Marco Polo discovers the West on Portuguese ships

8 January 2016

“It is a sparsely settled island, with a large number of rich families. Maritime commerce is one of their chief occupations and, wherever there is a region in which profits could be reaped by trading, these people strive for them, with the result that their commercial vessels are to be seen on the seven seas.”

“It is a small island in the middle of the ocean. Water transportation in this country is done by means of boats, which have wheels on the side and a fire engine in the centre. When a strong fire is generated, the wheels are set in motion, thereby propelling the boat forward.”

Which are the two countries being described by a Chinese traveller at the end of the 18th century?  They are Britain and the United States.

They come from Chronicle of the Sea by Xie Qing-gao, one of the most remarkable Chinese books published in the 19th century.

It is an account of countries in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe which Xie, a sailor on Portuguese ships, visited at the end of the century.

After returning to China, he settled in Macao. He had lost his sight but was determined to leave a record of his travels before he died. So, in 1820, he persuaded a friend named Yang Bing-nan to write down what he said. The book was published at the end of the year. Xie died the next year, aged 56, at his home in Guangdong province.

The book created a sensation. In the early 19th century, China was a closed country; it was almost impossible for people to go abroad, while the entry of foreigners was tightly restricted.

Chinese believed their country was the centre of the world and able to produce everything they needed. In 1800, China’s GDP was the largest in the world, three times that of India in second place and seven times that of Japan, France, Germany and Britain. Why did it need to know the life and habits of the barbarians who lived in the far West? They had nothing to give China that it did not already have.

“Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce,” was the edict of Emperor Qian Long to British king George III in 1792.

When British envoy Lord George Macartney visited the Emperor in Beijing the next year, he declined to accept the many gifts the Lord had brought with him all the way round the world, saying he did not need them.

For members of China’s government and intelligentsia starved of information about the outside world, Xie’s book became an invaluable source.

It contained a wealth of information about foreign countries, including topics such as geography, products, buildings, clothes, manners, religion, language and customs – subjects about which China’s ruling elite and educated class knew nothing.

In the first four decades of the 19th century, before the British arrived and provoked the Opium War, it was one of the most important books in the Chinese language about the outside world.

Especially useful was the way Xie described the lives, customs and beliefs of people that were different to those at home – which was just what his countrymen wanted to know.

He was later called China’s Marco Polo. Jin Guo-ping, a Chinese scholar, has called him the “Chinese Fernão Mendes Pinto”, the 16th century Portuguese adventurer who wrote Peregrinação (Pilgrimage), the story of his adventures and explorations in the Far East.

Lin Ze-xu, the righteous mandarin who burnt 1,200 tonnes of opium in Guangzhou in 1839 – a main cause of the Opium War with Britain – recommended the book to the Emperor Dao Guang.

The first version in a Western language, in Portuguese, was published in Macao in 1840.

Leaving home, looking for adventure

Xie was born in what is now Meizhou city in Guangdong province in 1765.

At the age of 18, he left home to seek his fortune. He went to Macao and found a job as a sailor on a Portuguese vessel that was about to visit the different cities of the country’s vast empire that spanned the world.

It was the era before the steamship; vessels moved through their sails. So they travelled close to the coast where possible.

As he would later describe in his book, Xie’s ship went down the coast of Indochina, through the Straits of Malacca, up the coast of Myanmar to what is now Bangladesh.

Then it hugged the coast of India before reaching Goa, the first Portuguese settlement in Asia dating from 1510. The next stage was to cross the Indian Ocean and reach the east coast of Africa.

In his book, Xie describes Mauritius, Zanzibar, Mozambique, the Cape of Good Hope and Guinea Bissau. Then came another ocean crossing to Brazil, the pearl of the Portuguese empire. Finally, it was across the Atlantic to Lisbon, Vigo in Galicia in Spain and over the Bay of Biscayne to England.

For a Chinese who had never seen anything but the rice paddies, crowded villages and ancestral temples of Guangdong, this was an adventure that could not be imagined. He saw the wealth and diversity of the non-Chinese world and people of every colour, religion and customs. Few people in the world at that time had such an experience.

“Portuguese wear tight-fitting clothes”

The descriptions in Xie’s book are very vivid. He paid particular attention to the growth of the maritime countries – Portugal, Holland and England and their expansion overseas.  This was prescient because these were the countries which could and would threaten China’s sovereignty.

It seems probable that he spent most of his time abroad in these European countries; he writes less about Africa and South America.

He visited England at a time of intense rivalry with France. He observes: “Male inhabitants from the ages of 15 to 60 are conscripted into the service of the king as soldiers. Moreover, a large foreign mercenary army is maintained. Consequently, although the country is small, it has such a large military force that foreign nations are afraid of it.”

Of America, he writes: “It can be reached by sailing west for about ten days from England. Formerly, it was part of England but is now an independent country, although the customs and practices of the two countries remain alike. Minerals found in the country include gold, silver, copper, iron, lead and tin. Manufactured products include tin plate, glass, snuff, wine and woollen and cotton goods.”

He is impressed by the dress of the Portuguese: “The people are white in colour and are fond of cleanliness. The men usually wear trousers and short upper clothes, both very much tight fitting. Women also wear short and tight-fitting upper clothes, but instead of trousers they wear skirts, which are sometimes eight or nine folds deep. Among the poor, this is made of cotton and, among the rich, of silk. When rich women go out, they often wear a veil made of fine black silk. Both men and women wear leather shoes.”

Marriage and death

He was also a keen observer of the social mores of the countries he visits. This is his observation about errant ladies in Portugal: “Women who have illegal sex enter a temple (church) to seek repentance. They sit in a small box next to an open window and kneel down. Through the window, they talk to a monk (priest) who listens and advises them how to clear themselves of their crime. If the monk tells others about this, then he will be hanged.” This describes the practice of confession in the Catholic Church.

In what is now Bangladesh, he observes sea and river burial – something unimaginable at that time in south China, where people laid their loved ones to rest in the ground as close to them as they could.

“When the old people die, their grandsons and other relatives take them to the edge of the water, their eyes streaming with tears. They embrace the body and lick the hand that touched it as a sign of love. They throw the body into the water and return home as quickly as possible – the one who reaches there first is considered the most fortunate.”

He also records the marriage customs of the Kra peninsula in Malaysia. “The women are married from the age of 11 or 12 and begin to have babies at 13 or 14. Most husbands go to live in the house of their wives. This means that parents prefer to have daughters who will look after them at home in their old age. If the son-in-law leaves the home, he will only inherit half of the assets (of his in-laws).” This custom of treating men and women the same left a deep impact on Xie; he came from a culture that favoured boys over girls – and, in many regions, still does.

He gives detailed descriptions of the crops and manufactured products of the different countries as well as advanced technologies, which impressed him.

Return home

Then a terrible tragedy struck Xie – he lost his sight and was forced to give up his travels. He returned to China and settled in Macao in 1787, where he rented rooms from a Portuguese landlord in the Beco do Matapau and opened a grocery business. He remained there until his death.

Much about his life remains unclear. One is the length of time he spent abroad. According to most Chinese accounts, it was 14 years. But, in an essay on Xie published in 2013, Jin wrote that he settled in Macao at the age of 22 after four years at sea. “We cannot exclude the possibility that he went to sea again.”

Another question is how gifted was he in languages after all his travels, especially in Portuguese. According to Jin, he needed an interpreter to talk to the Portuguese in Macao after his return there.

Trilingual edition

A new book that is being prepared should help to clarify many of the mysteries. Jin is working with the Observatório da China in Lisbon and Wu Zhiliang, President of the Macao Foundation, to make a trilingual edition of Chronicle of the Seas, in Chinese, English and Portuguese.

This is no easy task because Xie wrote in colloquial language with references to places and situations that are not easy to identify today. He described foreign place names and objects in Chinese characters, using the sounds he heard; many were in Portuguese, from the men working with him on the ships.

Rui Lourido, director of the Observatório da China, said: “This text has a lot of information that needs to be confirmed and clarified. This is a long process and we do not have a timetable for its completion.” (Macao Magazine, by Mark O’Neill in Macao)