Globalist Perspective

China and Spain: Creating Global Culture (Part III)

How did early ocean trade routes contribute to cultural exchanges?

A Spanish silver coin.

Takeaways


  • The first post-Marco Polo European best seller about China was written as early as 1585 by a Spanish author.
  • Chinese companies are also discovering Spain as an attractive investment destination, particularly in the fast growing renewable energy market.
  • China and Spain are meeting again in the Americas. Any respectable Spanish think tank has plenty of articles about Chinese investment and interests in Latin America.
  • The Manila Galleon ended its career as the Hispanic world entered a period of fragmentation at the beginning of the 19th century.
  • From being the pioneers and movers of the modern world economy, China and the Hispanic world became prey to the masters of a new, industrial phase of globalization.

Globalization is not only about bread and butter (or silver). As the history of the Manila Galleon demonstrates, from its very inception it had also an important cultural dimension.

Most accounts of modern cultural exchanges between China and Europe start with a reference to the Italian, Spanish and French Jesuits in the Ming Court — Mateo Ricci prominent among them.

Allegedly, the first "reliable" news about Chinese civilization in Europe had to wait until the comparative studies of French encyclopedists and philosophers later in the XVIII century. Yet in reality, the first post-Marco Polo European best seller about China was written as early as 1585 by a Spanish author.

Juan González de Mendoza' s Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del Reino de la China became a pan-European hit with more than 38 editions in Spanish, Italian, French, German, Dutch and English before the end of the 16th century.

Mendoza was just but one among a number of Spaniards, many of them friars, that came into contact with China thanks to the connection made possible by the Manila Galleon.

The principal locus of that contact was Manila itself. A sizable Chinese community was established around the city Parián, a main market where Chinese products were exchanged for silver.

The conversion and care of the Chinese community in Manila — known as the sangleyes in Spanish chronicles — was entrusted to the Dominican friars by the Monarchy.

Though less reputed than another renowned Spanish order, the Jesuits, for their intellectual leanings, the Dominicans were nevertheless men of profound learning. They also had a penchant for foreign cultures. No wonder that in a few years many of them were second to none in their mastering of Oriental languages.

For instance, in 1703 a Dominican friar from Seville, Francisco Varo, published the first dated grammar book of Chinese in a European vernacular, the Arte de la Lengua Mandarina or "Grammar of the Mandarin Language."

It was not the only Spanish contribution to early Western Sinology. Even before Varo, his compatriots Juan Cobo and Juan Bautista de Morales had also written unedited Chinese grammars or bilingual dictionaries.

More importantly, Juan Cobo was the first translator of a Chinese book into a European language, the Beng Sim Po Cam, beautifully rendered in Spanish as the Espejo Claro del Claro Corazón or "The Luminous Mirror of the Luminous Heart" in 1592.

The translation was presented to King Philip III in 1595 with the following words: "The Chinese take to be their great and true wealth not gold, nor silver, nor silk, but books, wisdom, virtues and just government."

The first European work to be translated into Chinese, by Tomás Mayor in 1607, was "The Introduction to the Symbol of Faith," a Spanish encyclopedic work of natural theology written by Luis de Granada.

But books were not the only remarkable product of that cultural exchange. As many cargos rescued from the seas can testify, the cross fertilization of Spanish, Mexican, Filipino and Oriental styles made a lasting imprint in the realms of sacred and profane arts and crafts.

On a more popular note, the justly famous mantones de Manila or Manila shawls, proudly sported even today by Hispanic women of all ranks, combine Chinese and Spanish designs in the most beautiful and elegant manner.

Parallel paths

The Manila Galleon ended its career as the Hispanic world entered a period of fragmentation at the beginning of the 19th century.

The newly independent Latin American republics started a cycle of political instability and economic submission to the rising Anglo-American hegemony. Spain, as the former center, had a difficult time redefining itself from the head of a mighty Empire into a peripheral European nation-state.

For China, the 19th century was an even more calamitous era. The infamous opium wars and the subsequent treaties are remembered to this day as the worst symbol of national humiliation in the country's long history. China was forced by foreigners to open up its territory and markets in the most unfavorable terms.

Both China and the Hispanic world failed to adapt to a new era. From being the pioneers and movers of the modern world economy, they became prey to the masters of a new, industrial phase of globalization.

The loss of power immersed China and Spain into a long-lasting period of inner soul searching and turmoil. During the first half of the 20th century, both countries tried different models for organizing their respective polities.

On the economic front, the temptation to restrict their contacts with the outer world was also present in both countries. Autarkic politics were followed by Mao and Franco in the 1940s and 1950s with identical negative results, despite their obvious ideological differences,

A more pragmatic Franco soon realized that in order for his regime to survive, it was necessary to introduce changes in the system. Economic growth and rising material standards for the population became means to legitimizing his grip on power.

He ushered in a new generation of young and well-trained technocrats to look after the economy in the late 1950s. Stabilization, industrial capability, liberalization and foreign investment came together to create the Spanish economic miracle in the sixties.

So when Franco died in 1975 and Spain started its successful transition to democracy, the economic and social bases for political reform were already laid. Integration in the European communities (later the European Union) in 1985 provided the final impetus for Spain's further modernization.

In the case of China it took more time to follow a remarkably similar path in economic terms. Only when Mao passed away and Deng Xiaoping was in control of the country was the latter able to start his policy of Gaige Kaifang (Reform and Openness).

Making the right economic choices at home does not provide the only explanation for both countries' reversal of fortunes. Spain and China are also making the best out of their former connections with the global economy.

Albeit understandably shadowed by China's sheer numbers, the case of Spain is no less impressive. From its position as a relatively marginal actor, Spain has scaled up to the top ranks in the global economy.

According to World Bank statistics, Spain surpassed Canada as the 8th largest world economy in 2004. Starting in the early 1990s with a massive flow of investment in Latin America, Spain has positioned itself as the second largest investor in the region for the last fifteen years, only ranking behind the United States.

Spain became the sixth largest investor among OECD countries in the period from 1997 to 2006 (ahead of Germany, Italy, Canada or Norway). In 2007 it was the fourth largest foreign investor in the United States.

The large Hispanic minority in the United States is increasingly becoming the target of Spanish multinationals, media and cultural institutions.

Spanish multinationals, diversifying away from Latin America, surprised some of their European counterparts by moving to their turf. In the last five years, the British press has been hit by headlines about the Great Armada finally conquering the United Kingdom, as Spanish companies have acquired banks, telecoms, airports and utilities.

Belatedly, Spain is also rediscovering its former contacts with China. 2007 was the year of Spain in China. Master pieces from the Prado Museum in Madrid were exhibited in Beijing and Shanghai to a record number of visitors. The largest Cervantes Institute abroad (the equivalent of the British Council or the Goethe Institute) was inaugurated in Beijing the same year.

Telefónica (the world's third largest telecom company by customers) and BBVA (the second largest Spanish bank), are building up relevant stakes in their Chinese counterparts. Chinese companies are also discovering Spain as an attractive investment destination, particularly in the fast growing renewable energy market.

More strikingly, China and Spain are meeting again in the Americas. Open the website of any respectable Spanish think tank these days and you will see plenty of articles about Chinese investment and interests in Latin America.

In contrast to hype in the United States about Washington "losing" Latin America to an aggressive China, Spain views China's burgeoning presence there as an opportunity to set up a "triangular" relationship profitable to all sides — not unlike the Manila Galleon of old times.

Globalization: A garden with many paths

In one of his short stories, the Argentinean writer J.L. Borges compared history to a garden of forking and converging paths.

Not surprisingly, he attributed this metaphor to an imaginary Chinese historian. Among many other things, globalization is also a narrative. And like Borges' garden, it has many different converging and diverging paths.

Like the extraordinary saga of the Manila Galleon shows, globalization existed long before the Anglo-American's rise. While globalization will survive, the United States' temporary hegemony will be nothing but a chapter in history books. As in the past, others will take the leading seat.

And, who knows, maybe one day all the garden paths will converge towards a truly cosmopolitan globalization without victors and victims, leaders and followers. As Borges would have said, this is una elegante esperanza — an elegant hope.

Editor’s Note: Previous parts of this series can be found here: Part I and Part III.

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About Luis Francisco Martínez Montes

Luis Francisco Martínez Montes is a counselor to the Spanish Representation to the United Nations in New York.

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