East-West relations in 1517


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Taking a short break from the noise and speculation of today’s global geo-politics, it’s interesting to go back in time to the early 16th century and read about the arrival of the Portuguese in southern China in 1517 which, according to many historians, is the first example of organised western engagement in the east.

According to The Atlantic, “the Portuguese were dazzled by what they found in Guangzhou. Its incredible wealth far surpassed anything back home. One contemporary Portuguese account records their wonderment at a lavish ceremony to welcome a governor returning to the city. “The ramparts were covered in silken banners, while on the towers reared flagstaffs from which also hung silken flags, so huge that they could be used as sails,” it reads. “Such is the wealth of that country, such is its vast supply of silk, that they squander gold leaf and silk on these flags where we use cheap colors and coarse linen cloth.”

In words which resonate today, The Atlantic goes on to say “The Portuguese brought from Europe very different notions of trade and diplomacy than the Chinese had encountered before. More than that, though, the Portuguese were carrying on their wooden caravels an entirely unfamiliar culture from those the Chinese had previously met. Unlike the usual barbarians, who tended to adopt, at least in part, Chinese cultural practices, or participate in the rules and norms of the Chinese world order, the Portuguese and the Europeans who followed them to Asia thought their own civilization was superior. A clash was coming between peoples who each believed their civilization to be better than all others. The Chinese were simply unaccustomed to and unprepared for this sort of challenge from outsiders”.

Is anything really that different today, 500 years later?

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