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Asia, East

Asia, East

During the Renaissance, trade goods produced in East Asia, such as silk and spices, found a ready market in Europe. As a result, European merchants established bases in Asia and sought trading arrangements with local rulers. However, in some countries Europeans faced significant challenges in their attempts to form commercial relationships.


China and Malaysia. European merchants and missionaries visited East Asia throughout the 1200s and 1300s. Then in 1368 the rulers of the Ming dynasty in China cut off contacts with the West. China remained closed to Europeans until the early 1500s, when Portuguese merchants gained access to the port city of Malacca, in Malaysia.

The Portuguese planned to use Malacca as a base for journeys between India and China. When they arrived in the city, their commander asked the local sultan* for permission to engage in trade. However, Muslim merchants in the region viewed the Europeans as a threat and attacked the Portuguese expedition. After a ten-day battle in 1511, the Portuguese defeated the Muslims, driving them out of Malacca.

Portuguese merchants resumed trade with China around 1512. Five years later Portugal sent Tomé Pires to serve as its first ambassador to China. Pires established good relations with the Chinese. But as more ships began to arrive from Portugal, the Chinese became anxious. They arrested Pires and executed several Portuguese. In 1521 China expelled all Portuguese ships and issued a decree calling the traders "barbarian devils" and banning business dealings with them.

Despite this decree, the Portuguese did not completely stop trading with China. They continued to do business in secret until 1554, when they received permission to establish a base of operations on the South China coast. Their first port on St. John's Island was later transferred to Macao, a peninsula in the South China Sea. Macao became a Portuguese colony and remained so until December 1999.


The Spice Islands and Japan. Another focus of European interest in East Asia was the Spice Islands (Moluccas) in Indonesia. A source of valuable spices, the islands eventually attracted merchants from Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and England. A Spanish expedition reached the islands in 1521, hoping to challenge the Portuguese monopoly* on trade in East Asia. The Spanish also built a capital in Manila in the Philippine Islands and forts in Formosa (present-day Taiwan). The Spanish gradually established trading routes between Manila and Acapulco in Mexico.

In the 1540s the Portuguese gained a foothold in Japan. A fleet of Portuguese traders sailed off course in 1543 and landed on a Japanese island known as Tanegashima. For the next 50 years the Portuguese and Japanese engaged in a lively cultural and economic exchange. Japanese art and goods soon displayed Western decorative motifs*. In addition, Jesuit* missionaries arrived in Japan in 1549 and quickly converted more than 150,000 Japanese to Christianity.

This open relationship changed when the Spanish and Portuguese began to compete for Japan's trade, and the number of Europeans in the region increased. The Japanese rulers came to see Western culture and Christianity as a threat to their traditional values and civilization and grew hostile toward Europeans. In 1637 they expelled all Japanese Christians from the country. Two years later Japan also forced the remaining Portuguese to leave.

(See alsoExploration; Magellan, Ferdinand. )

* sultan

ruler of a Muslim state

* monopoly

exclusive right to engage in a particular type of business

* motif

theme or subject

* Jesuit

belonging to a Roman Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius Loyola and approved in 1540

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