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Book review: Trade and tribute

Michael Keevak’s fifth book examines the differences in how Chinese and Westerners perceived ‘embassies,’ or attempts to establish reciprocal trade, centuries before the ‘humiliation’ of China by Western powers

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

EMBASSIES TO CHINA: Diplomacy and Cultural Encounters before the Opium Wars, by Michael Keevak

Several years ago I contacted 13 academics asking them what they thought the poet W.B. Yeats meant by the phrase “gong-tormented sea” in his poem Byzantium. Of the 12 answers I received, the most illuminating was from Michael Keevak, a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at National Taiwan University. He pointed me to a work about the books in Yeats’ private library that paid special attention to the poet’s annotations. One of these books was about Istanbul, the modern name for Byzantium, and gongs were indeed mentioned there.

Keevak has already published four books, and the new Embassies to China is his fifth. He began with Sexual Shakespeare (2001), then in 2004 produced The Pretended Asian, about a European who claimed to come from Taiwan. Next came The History of a Stele (2008), followed by Becoming Yellow (2011). Embassies to China is, however, undoubtedly the most wide-ranging and probing of the five.

The various friars bearing letters from popes or the king of France are described first. Then came the Portuguese, marking their landfalls with padroes, or inscribed pillars. Their success in gaining Macao wasn’t, however, followed up very extensively, even though the Dutch, who Keevak describes next, routinely blamed them for muddying their waters (only to be expected, of course, from what the Protestant Dutch viewed as perfidious Catholics). Be that as it may, the Dutch, who arrived in 1655, were rebuffed by an imperial edict ordering them to leave immediately and return every eight years to offer tribute.

This Dutch suspicion of the Portuguese as Catholics was reinforced by the long-standing presence in the imperial court of Jesuits — astronomers, engineers, mathematicians and doctors. Prominent among these in Keevak’s narrative is the German-born astronomer Adam Schall (1592-1666), known in Chinese as Tang Ruowang (湯若望), who maintained a huge influence extending even into the reign of the youthful Kangxi Emperor (reigned 1661-1722).

Publication Notes

EMBASSIES TO CHINA: Diplomacy and Cultural Encounters before the Opium Wars

By Michael Keevak

Palgrave Macmillan

164 pages

Hardback: Asia


A question of perception

Given that little of Keevak’s material is new, what marks it out as of interest? The answer, I think, lies in his emphasis on perceptions. Chinese and Westerners, he tells us, viewed the world of what today we would call diplomacy very differently. The Westerners, however they cloaked their missions in religious or other terms, essentially wanted trade, and the huge profits that could come from trade with China dazzled them over many centuries. The Chinese, by contrast, saw themselves as at the center of the world, and largely self-sufficient, and were only prepared to entertain foreign emissaries as bearers of tribute. It’s true that the merchants of, for instance, Canton in the south saw matters rather differently, but even they had to couch their mercantile interests in the tribute-bearing language of the north, and of the court.

The one exception in imperial eyes was Russia, which at one point was allowed yearly caravans, the establishment of a Russian orthodox church in Beijing, and even a kind of consulate. Why was this? The reason appears to be that the Chinese were concerned about the turbulent territories beyond their northern border, and thought the Russians could help in maintaining stability there. No nation further west could offer that. One archival source even called the Russian tsar Peter the Great the Chinese emperor’s “neighbor and friend of equal rank,” an appellation previously unheard-of in imperial correspondence. The 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk was not only penned in Latin but signed in a city outside Chinese territory, and sworn to by the imperial representative in the name of the Christian God.

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