Throughout the existence of Sino-European relations, trade has played a great role because it connected these two completely different regions. The Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) was the ruling dynasty or empire that was established by Kublai Khan, who was the leader of the Mongolian Borjigin clan (Boundless). He promoted progressive policies that contributed to the flourishing trade and prosperity. Furthermore, Mongolians revived the Silk Road and managed to establish peace on their extensive trade routes that led to the Pax Mongolica. This is a historiographical term that was modeled after the original phrase Pax Romana and it defined the stabilizing effect of the Mongol Empire conquests on the economic, cultural and social life of the vast Eurasian territory’s inhabitants that the Mongols conquered in the 13th-14th centuries (Boundless). In general, the Mongol Empire managed to destroy a significant number of toll gates and stopped the corruption of the Silk Road, which helped to transform it in a safer, easier, and more convenient route that it was before. Consequently, the emperors welcomed the West travelers and even appointed some of them to high positions. A situation when Kublai Khan gave Marco Polo a great welcome and appointed him to a high court post can serve as a bright example. Moreover, the emperor provided a special VIP passport that was called the golden tablet, which helped its holders to receive guides, horses, and food throughout the dominion of Khan (Boundless). Therefore, the holders could travel freely and they managed to conduct trade between the East and the West directly in the Mongol Empire.
It is critical to notice that Marco Polo played a great role during this period. He witnessed the Yuan Empire establishment and described all the events to the inhabitants of the West. Marco Polo was a well-known traveler both in the West and in the East, and through his trade, he helped to connect these two worlds and describe them to each other. He served for seventeen years as a Kublai’s court official, and his perspective and point of view helped to develop and shape the Europeans’ perception of China for centuries.
The main point is that, through trade, the culture, commodities, and technologies were spread across China and the West. On the Silk Road, there were caravans with silk, paper, and Chinese spices, including cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg from the Spice Islands. They traveled to the West using the transcontinental trade routes (Boundless). In this way, eastern diets were introduced to Europeans. At the same time, the gunpowder was also provided by China to Europe. In turn, European traders brought linen, horses, fine cloth, silver, and other goods to China. The increasing commerce and trade helped the respective societies and nations to increase their exposure to new markets and goods. It resulted in an increase in the GDP of every society or nation that was engaged in the trade system (Boundless). Apart from goods, there was an exchange of ideas, information, and techniques as they were spread lucidly across the Eurasian territory for the first time. For instance, John of Montecorvino, who was Peking archbishop, managed to found the Roman Catholic mission in China and India and translate the New Testament into the Mongolian language (Boundless).
Moreover, long-distant trade helped to bring new business methods from the Far East to Europe. For example, the insurance, deposit banking, and exchange bills were introduced to Europe during that period. In particular, exchange bills made the long distance traveling significantly easier because travelers were not burdened by the metal coins’ weight. Therefore, it is possible to notice that trade during the time of the Yuan dynasty played a great role because it managed not only to connect China and Europe from the economic perspective but helped to improve Sino-European relationships through shaping images of each other.
Furthermore, trade played an important role in Ming dynasty (1368-1644). However, it was quite a difficult period for trade because the Hongwu Emperor allowed foreign merchants to visit Beijing and Nanjing capitals but enacted strict maritime trade legal prohibitions for Chinese traders who wished to travel abroad. Nonetheless, within some time, the situation was improved and trade was no longer forbidden. Finally, in 1578, it became fully liberalized. In the 16th century, China started to trade with the Portuguese (Gregory 30). In 1516, Rafael Perestrello, who was a Christopher Columbus’ cousin, arrived in Guangzhou. Despite some difficulties, in 1557, the Portuguese persuaded the Ming court to agree to the treaty that turned Macau into a Portuguese legal trading port (Gregory 32). Moreover, strong trade relations were established with the Spanish by sending many trade ships to the Philippines to sell them Chinese goods in exchange for silver from the Spanish New World colonies. Through trade with these countries, Catholic missionaries started to enter China in an attempt to bring Christian worldview and faith from Europe (Gregory 36). The most known person was Matteo Ricci, who arrived in China in 1582 and gained an audience with the emperor. Other Jesuits who came to China were gaining knowledge about astronomy.
Trade played the same significant role in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), though not the positive one because it was a wartime. There was a conflict with the Russians because of Amur River Basin territory. Moreover, in contrast to Europe that was becoming stronger, the Qing dynasty weakened due to constant battles. This period can be described by Opium Wars that harmed Sino-European relations. These wars started when the Qing dynasty became opposite to Britain by deciding not to turn to diplomacy; instead, it began the war that actually turned into a series of wars (Gregory 76). They weakened China even more and, in the end, it became similar to other English colonies. As a result, Christianity and European traditions were spreading fast across the Chinese territory.
At that time, Britain exported opium grown in India and gained profits in exchange for tea, silk, and porcelain that were in great demand in the West. This was a good way for Britain to deal with chronic trade imbalance because, previously, it had to pay for Chinese goods in gold or silver. The main opium trade was conducted by the East India Company, but it could not sell opium openly due to the Chinese ban aimed at country traders who were private traders with the license provided by the company to take goods from India to China (Gregory 76). Thus, country traders sold opium to Chinese smugglers and the silver and gold gained from these sales were turned over to the East India Company (Gregory 77). It resulted in great problems with opium addiction, and the efforts of the Qing dynasty to restrict opium led to two armed conflicts between the West and China that were named Opium Wars. The first Opium War was fought in 1839-1842 and it halted Chinese attempts to stop the opium trade, while the second War that was fought in 1856-1860 forced the Chinese government to legalize the trade (Gregory 80). However, by 1917, the trade was completely stopped. Due to its weak position, China experienced a flow of Europeans, including not only missionaries but also diplomats, scientists, and artisans. Therefore, it is possible to see that the Qing dynasty was famous for opium trade that led to conflicts. However, at the same time, it helped to provide the strong cultural and religious exchange between the Europeans and Chinese. Moreover, it helped the Sino-European relationship to become even stronger (Gregory 116). Therefore, trade played a role of a connector of Chinese and European cultures and religions from the Yuan times to the Opium Wars period.
Through their cultural accommodation policy, the Jesuits became well-known mediators who functioned as a human conduit through which European technology and science were spread to China. Particularly, Jesuit missionaries did not only introduce western learning to China but also advocated Chinese culture to European consumers and vice versa. Due to these dual roles, Jesuits were important in the critical cross-cultural exchange between one end of Eurasia and the other. Therefore, Chinese thought became a popular theme in the 18th century. For some Christian thinkers, the Chinese philosophical tradition became the strongest antidote to Christianity (Parker 217). The accent on community collective welfare, political benevolence, family honor, and manual respect became the example of a rational approach to the religion that could supplant Christianity (Parker 217). Moreover, due to the Jesuit mediators, Chinese elite and wealthy Europeans were constructing images of each other.
One of the most known Jesuits was Matteo Ricci who managed to introduce Western visual arts, astronomy, mathematics and science to the Chinese imperial court and to engage in critical philosophical and intercultural dialog with Chinese scholars, particularly Confucians. Ricci started the accommodation policy that was aimed to adapt to the Chinese religious beliefs (Yuanjian 27). Thus, he was adapting to the educated classes with prevailing Confucianism, while Ruggieri, who was also a Jesuit priest, was adapting to the common people where Taoist and Buddhist predominated (Yuanjian 27).
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Furthermore, Jesuits were famous cultural mediators in the Sino-European relations because they were telling the Chinese about Europe and Europeans about China. Simply, they were introducing these two cultures to each other by presenting religions, cultural patterns, and different achievements of these two regions. For example, Jesuits presented Western mathematics and science to Chinese people. In 1627, they even introduced the book to share the Western mechanical knowledge with the Chinese. Such impact worked in both directions because the Jesuits attempted to translate Western astronomical and mathematical works into Chinese, which aroused the Chinese scholars’ interest (Yuanjian 26). Then they published some books in Chinese about Western hydraulics and astronomy and introduced the Chinese calendar with the Western calculation techniques used. Ricci decided to turn to the Western science, including astronomy, to convey the religious message in a more attractive and clear way. In this situation, the Chinese were in a vulnerable position because they perceived the human social order as an essential part of natural cosmic order. Therefore, astronomy and calendrical science were highly crucial in China, and all events, including the judicial and political decisions, funerals, festivals, harvesting, planting, depended on the calendar. Thus, Ricci managed to adapt the Georgian system to the lunar year, and its translation into Chinese was done to enable Chinese converts to calculate the dates of Sundays and feast-days (Yuanjian 26). Ricci’s work included laying a foundation for the use of the European calculation method from 1669 onwards, which highlights the social orientation of Chinese linguistic mastery and scientific ingenuity to the local and Western benefits (Yuanjian 26). Moreover, Jesuits brought new ways and styles of the building of churches from the Western architectural perspective. After that, several new churches were established.
Ricci realized that Chinese scholars were focused on Confucian beliefs and were against Western thoughts and religion. Therefore, he wanted to tie Confucian to Christian concepts and present Christianity image as a consistent or even perfected Confucianism form. To reach the success, Ricci looked for a conceptual and linguistic analogue of Christian doctrines in the Confucian texts. He insisted that that early Confucianism beliefs had an idea of the personal creator god; however, it was corrupted due to later beliefs but can still be found in Christian beliefs. It is possible to say that the Jesuits manipulated religious doctrines because the Christian position on monogamy was strict, and it was highly complicated for the Chinese cultural elite to realize and accept it. Most court members and mandarin class considered the proposal to leave concubines as a strong barrier to the dialog, and Jesuits decided not to insist (Waley-Cohen 70). Furthermore, scholars were seriously against the Christ resurrection and crucifixion doctrines because the notion that human beings, who were God’s incarnation, would subject themselves to extreme physical violence contravened the social distinctions they took for granted. This punishment was associated with lower classes. Therefore, Ricci and other Jesuits put less emphasis on resurrection and crucifixion in the instructions provided to prospective Christian converts. Furthermore, the accommodation strategy of Ricci included liturgy that was conducted in the Chinese dress and language. The most controversial aspect was Ricci’s readiness to incorporate the ancestor’s veneration tradition into Christian worship (Waley-Cohen 71). The main question was if these rituals were representing superstitions or idolatry, which could undermine Christian beliefs. However, despite all these difficulties, Jesuits managed to handle numerous barriers while introducing Western religion and beliefs to Chinese people.
Jesuits’ activities in China raised a great number of issues because they wanted to baptize the emperor and turn China into the Catholic country. The hope was that Catholicism would be established if not as the only official religion, but at least as one of them. Jesuits were trying to displace the mandarin elite as Chinese emperor’s moral advisors or revise scholars’ understanding of their religion issues (Waley-Cohen 71). Jesuits believed that they could give better advice to the emperor based on some gaps between human happiness and truth. Thus, the main point is that, through religion, the Jesuits became cultural mediators because they not only introduced but also implemented many Christian ideas and beliefs in Chinese religion and culture. Through such attitude, they managed to explain the main Western issues from the attractive perspective and, consequently, to handle many barriers.
On the other hand, Jesuits presented many Chinese innovations to Europeans. In particular, one of the great contributions was the spread of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages across Europe due to Ricci’s skills and linguistic talent. Moreover, Jesuit missionaries also translated a great number of Chinese texts into Latin and other European languages, thus managing to introduce Chinese religion and culture to the West (Yuanjian 27). Despite the fact that missionaries left in 1723, their short presence in China and Western learning standards’ promotion were the beginning of long and difficult Sino-European relationships that were shaped through communication attempts and learning desires that were satisfied by Jesuits (Yuanjian 27). Therefore, both China and Europe formed some position and image of religion and culture of each other. Through the Jesuits’ translations, Europeans started to understand Chinese culture and religion better, and many people found Confucianism beliefs highly attractive.
Overall, it is critical to notice that both historical events such as an introduction of Europe to China and China to Europe have a significant meaning. Moreover, they are both highly crucial because Jesuits provided China with many European scientific and technology innovations, as well as spread European religion and knowledge. At the same time, Europe also borrowed a great number of important innovations and knowledge from the Chinese society. Therefore, it is difficult to conclude what event had more historical meaning. However, it is critical to mention that the European impact on China was stronger in comparison with the Chinese influence. The Jesuits came to China with the main aim to implement Christian religion and they gained a success in many aspects. Thus, China was greatly impacted by the Jesuits, which, of course, seriously influenced Sino-European relations, in general.