Spanish mentalities of the Chinese in the late sixteenth century – Dissertation Summary

This is a blog post by Howard Leung, a year 3 student, on his dissertation topic: An analysis of Spanish mentalities of the Chinese in the late sixteenth-century.

Juan González de Mendoza, Il Gran Regno della China, first edition, Florence, 1589.

Juan González de Mendoza, Il Gran Regno della China, first edition, Florence, 1589.

This dissertation attempts to analyse two accounts of the first Spanish diplomatic mission to China between June – October in 1575. By exploring the themes of ‘greatness’, ‘glory’ and ‘God’ in a systematic manner, some of the key motivations behind the mission itself have been revealed in these documents. This is also one of the first historical approaches to dealing with these primary sources; previous critics have tended to analyse these sources as literary texts, often hypothesising where evidence is scarce. So far there has tended to be a heavy focus on Spanish texts, though mainly because they are the most accessible.

These accounts had an indirect but profound effect upon future commentators of the Chinese kingdom, the most famous being Juan González de Mendoza’s book The Great and Mighty Kingdom of China, published in 1585 (online translations can be found at Mendoza never visited China himself, so relied heavily upon these eye-witness accounts to write his own publication. It quickly became one of the most widely read publications by the turn of the seventeenth century in Europe, dramatically determining Spanish, but also European, mentalities of the Chinese.

In the first chapter, ‘greatness’ is exemplified through Chinese infrastructure and its people. In exploring this theme we discover that it demonstrated not only the vast wealth but the skill that the working Chinese had, at which both authors expressed astonishment in varying degrees.

The chapter ‘Glory’ analyses the fact that the party experienced very little of it, due to the intransigence of the Chinese and the mission being out of Spanish control. This was exacerbated by the two Chinese officials who accompanied the party; they were reported to have lied to further their position in the Chinese court, which put the party under house arrest. In contrast, many of the opinions which had a tone of superiority were directed towards Chinese customs and their peaceful nature. Lastly in this chapter, the Chinese became the subject of Hispanicization. The ‘white’ Chinese were seen as the most intelligent and the victorious, and the indios (the Chinese working class) were the subservient.

Finally, by exploring religion under the term ‘God’ we find that proselytising in China did not progress because of the ideological clash between the deep seated beliefs of Confucianism and Christianity. This results in a somewhat veiled exasperation in one of the accounts; this opinion is later used almost word-for-word by Mendoza. However, during the mission many different facets of culture such as courtesies and literature were exchanged, paving the way for more interaction between the Spanish and Chinese.

This essay concludes that the themes of ‘greatness’, ‘glory’ and ‘God’ reveal a very different outcome for the Spanish when encountering the Chinese in comparison to previous encounters with foreigners in the sixteenth century. Furthermore, more studies need to be conducted regarding Hispanic-Asian encounters, especially obtaining and incorporating sources of a Chinese perspective, in order to achieve a balanced argument concerning this emerging topic of interest.

Written by Howard Leung – edited by Jessica Fallon