Image of the Silk Road- trade route from the west. (China was on the very end of the huge trading route, filled with luxuries)

China’s first exposure to the West was through well-intended missionaries whose mission was to spread Christianity there beginning in the early 16 century. Then came the explorers who knew of the West’s desire to trade with China after discovering the many exotic and titillating Chinese products. They saw and knew would be welcomed to anyone in the West and they could become rich.

In 1513, Jorge Alvares was believed to be the first European to land by ship in China, followed by Rafael Perestrello in 1516. Perestrello, a cousin of Christopher Columbus, led the first trade mission to Canton during the Ming Dynasty.  These early pioneers did not realize that spreading Christianity in China posed a threat to the Imperial system. The Chinese believed that the Emperor was anointed by the Heavens to rule the entire world. China not recognizing the rest of the world and considered itself the “Middle Kingdom” that is central to world civilization.  While Chinese merchants saw opportunities in trade, xenophobia began to develop within the Imperial Court. There was a sense of “fear of the unknown” that kept the Imperial Court from trying to understand and work with these newcomers. They looked different, wanted to “mess with” their management tool of controlling a large diverse population. So what did they do?  They tried to keep these foreigners at bay, limit their access but doing so in the typical Chinese “polite and scrupulous” manner, which are so misunderstood throughout the ages…even today.

Fast forward to the late 18 and 19 century. Everything came to a head when opium was used to trade for Chinese merchandise. China wanted nothing from the West except silver; so England (the largest world trader at the time) sold opium for Chinese silver, then use the same silver to purchase these coveted goods.  When China refused opium, war broke out, and the result was the two Opium Wars that forced China to open its doors. England, representing all of the West, openly bullied China into submission.  My historical novel, The Opium Lord’s Daughter depicts what happened during the First Opium War, telling both sides of the story that led to the military conflict. 

Imperial China had since gone downhill, much also attributing to its own corrupt Imperial system and gross mismanagement. Fast forward to today. After suffering immeasurable hardships, several revolutions, invasion by Japan, etc., China proclaimed these past one hundred years as “A Century of Shame.”  As a modern-day superpower, a latecomer compared to the U.S., one needs to understand the Chinese concept of “FACE” to understand the way they are responding to the West today.

More to come on this subject in my next blog…