Portuguese Reach China Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The arrival of the Portuguese in China heralded the beginning of European influence in East Asia, although for the first three centuries that influence had minimal impact on China.

Summary of Event

The Portuguese, from the western extreme of Europe, became the first Europeans to sail around the Cape of Good Hope when Vasco da Gama sailed around it in 1497 (Bartolomeu Dias had only reached it in 1487-1488). They quickly established themselves as the dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean and later the Far East, displacing Arab, Indian, and Chinese merchants. By 1510, the Portuguese had solidified their control of Goa on the coast of India and were moving on to Sri Lanka and pushing into the Far East. In 1511, they took control of the strategic island of Melaka from the Arabs, in the straits between the peninsula of Malay and the island of Sumatra. Exploration and colonization;Portugal of Asia Pires, Tomé Ricci, Matteo Valignano, Alessandro Xu Guangqi Pires, Tomé Valignano, Alessandro Ricci, Matteo Xu Guangqi

In 1514, the first contact between the Portuguese and China China;Portuguese and occurred when a commercial expedition from Melaka reached China. Local Chinese officials forbade the Portuguese from selling their wares on shore, but Chinese merchants with vessels bought the goods ship side, making this early commercial contact very successful for the Portuguese. China’s Ming officials, however, were angered by the unauthorized and unwelcome commerce with these new “ocean devils,” as they called the Portuguese. The Portuguese built a fort on Lintin island, at the delta of the Zhu Jiang, or Pearl, River (also called the Canton and sometimes called the West or Xi River), 70 miles (113 kilometers) from the city of Guangzhou (Canton, also called Yangcheng), further enraging Ming officials.

The Portuguese sensed that their greatest success depended on the cooperation of the Ming Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);Portuguese and government, and with this goal in mind, Tomé Pires in 1517 led the first official mission to China. At first the mission went well, with the city of Guangzhou welcoming Pires and allowing the establishment of a trading post. However, Ming officials were not disposed to allow the post to remain, and Chinese troops destroyed it. Pires was imprisoned and died in Jiangsu around 1540. However, the commercial success of the post led to a new post being established almost immediately afterward.

The entrance of the Portuguese into China was a slow process fraught with mutual misunderstanding. The Chinese saw the Portuguese as “sea barbarians,” at first little different from other “barbarian” peoples outside the Chinese empire. However, the Portuguese quickly established themselves as different, winning a grudging respect for their naval skills and military might. Nevertheless, the Chinese still considered them to be barbarians; official Chinese histories mention that the Portuguese ate Chinese children, a product of the confusion that occurred when Portuguese bought children for use as slaves.

Although China tried to keep the Portuguese out, Western naval superiority prevented the Chinese from dislodging them. In 1557, the Portuguese were permitted to settle on Macao at the Zhu Jiang delta in return for an annual payment. In Macao, Macao;Portugal and situated on a spit of land separated by a wall, the Portuguese exercised some of the trappings of sovereignty, although formal annexation did not occur until 1887. The Portuguese settlement in Macao allowed the Chinese to limit contact between Westerners and Chinese and gave the Portuguese a secure base for further commercial and missionary penetration.

The Portuguese never involved themselves directly in the control of land for the purpose of extraction. Instead, those places they did control, such as Melaka and Macao, were strategically situated ports that allowed them to dominate sea lanes. The Portuguese were predominantly traders, not colonizers, planters, or manufacturers. They showed no inclination to dominate territory beyond these ports and their immediate environs. They had little to offer in exchange for the spices and other goods much desired in Europe, and so they established themselves as the major shippers of goods between various Asian nations. Profits from this trade allowed the Portuguese to purchase spices and other goods for shipment to Europe at even greater profit. Trade;Portugal with China

Still, trade was not the only reason for Portuguese interest in the Far East. The Portuguese also used Macao as a base to penetrate other areas of the Far East for missionary work. From Macao, Alessandro Valignano undertook three trips to Japan Japan;Christianity and (1579-1582, 1590-1592, and 1598-1603), where he urged his fellow Jesuits to adapt to Japanese culture and to learn their language. The prospect of new converts to Christianity inspired Portuguese involvement in the largest prize of all, China. The most successful of the early Europeans in China, Matteo Ricci, was a product of Valignano’s training center on Macao.

Ricci was an Italian Jesuit Jesuits thoroughly educated in theology, the humanities, and science. He reached Macao in 1582 and began almost immediately to immerse himself in learning the dominant spoken Chinese language, what would be called “Mandarin” by the Portuguese. He also diligently studied written Chinese. After a year in Macao, he was allowed to enter China proper. Missions;Jesuits in China There he helped found four Christian missions. Part of his success as a missionary stemmed from his ability to adapt his Western Christianity to Chinese sensibilities. Some of this adaption was superficial, as when he adopted the dress and manners of a Confucian scholar. Also, his curly beard fit the Chinese image of a wise man. However, his knowledge of science and geography, and more important, his skill at presenting his knowledge to the Chinese, earned for him a respect few foreigners would ever attain in China. In 1601, he was granted permission to reside in Beijing, with a stipend from the imperial court. His knowledge of astronomy was perhaps most appreciated by his Chinese hosts, but his skills at mathematics, physics, and cartography also brought him great advantage. He produced a map of the known world for the Chinese, diplomatically placing China at the center, which greatly increased the Chinese understanding of the world beyond the Far East.

Despite Ricci’s great learning in the sciences, his real talent was theological, as shown when he adapted Christianity to Chinese Confucian ideals. He downplayed many of the tenets of the Christian religion, such as the nature of God, the Crucifixion, and the spiritual equality of humans before God. Instead he presented Christianity as more of an ethical system quite compatible with Confucianism. Some Chinese scholars did convert. The most important of the early converts was Xu Guangqi, who translated into Chinese many European works on mathematics, astronomy, hydraulics, and geography, thereby making much European learning available to the Chinese for the first time. The later rejection of much of Ricci’s theology, after a great controversy within the Catholic Church during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, caused tension with the emperors of the Qing Dynasty and created much confusion in official China as to the nature of Christianity.


Although the Portuguese soon lost their dominant position in the Far East to the Dutch and later the British, their pioneering work had lasting results. European influence in the East Asia would continue until it was replaced by European domination in the late nineteenth century, which in turn lasted until after World War II. Portuguese efforts to convert the Chinese to Christianity proved less successful, as Confucianism, Buddhism, and ancestor worship proved resistant to the teachings of Christian missionaries, and the Chinese government’s official opposition further limited Christian inroads.

In other ways, Portuguese influence continued. Despite the relative decline of Portugal as a world power after the fifteenth century, Portugal kept many of its territorial possessions—not only Macao and East Timor in the Indonesian archipelago but also many small colonies in South Asia and Africa, which would provide convenient stops and later coaling stations for centuries. Although few Portuguese came to settle the kingdom’s possessions, merchants and soldiers had a long tradition of intermarrying with local women, creating a population of Catholic, Portuguese-speaking Portuguese subjects of mostly Far East extraction.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boxer, C. R. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825. New York: Knopf, 1969. A solid introduction to the Portuguese commercial empire, from its inception to its stagnation and later eclipse by other European empires.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Criveller, Gianni. Preaching Christ in Late Ming China: Jesuits’ Presentation of Christ from Matteo Ricci to Giulio Aleni. Taipei: Taipei Ricci Institute, 1997. A history of early Christian missionary work in China, with emphasis on the missionaries’ success in presenting some of the moral aspects of Christianity and a mixed reaction to other aspects of Christianity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kim, Sangkeun. Strange Names of God: The Missionary Translation of the Divine Name and the Chinese Response to Matteo Ricci’s “Shangi” in Late Ming China, 1583-1644. New York: Peter Lang, 2004. Explores the difficulty of translating the Western concept of an all-powerful, all-knowing monotheistic god into something understandable by and agreeable to the Chinese.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moran J. F. The Japanese and the Jesuits: Alessandro Valignano in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Routledge, 1993. Shows the relative success of Valignano in Japan, based on some values of the Japanese nobility and clergy that they shared with the Jesuits. However, other, incompatible values limited that success.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan D. The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. New York: Viking, 1984. A comparative history with emphasis on the problems of presenting Christianity to a Confucian society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Subrahmanyan, S. The Portuguese Empire in Asia. London: Oxford University Press, 1993. Focuses on the establishment of the Portuguese trade empire.

1481-1482: Founding of Elmina

c. 1485: Portuguese Establish a Foothold in Africa

1491-1545: Christianity Is Established in the Kingdom of Kongo

Jan., 1498: Portuguese Reach the Swahili Coast

1500-1530’s: Portugal Begins to Colonize Brazil

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

1511-c. 1515: Melaka Falls to the Portuguese

Autumn, 1543: Europeans Begin Trade with Japan

1552: Struggle for the Strait of Hormuz

1580-1581: Spain Annexes Portugal

1583-1610: Matteo Ricci Travels to Beijing

Categories: History Content