Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Writing on Behalf of a Christian Empire: Gifts, Dissimulation, and Politics in the Letters of Philip II of Spain to Wanli of China

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Writing on Behalf of a Christian Empire: Gifts, Dissimulation, and Politics in the Letters of Philip II of Spain to Wanli of China

Article excerpt

It is no secret that China has long captured the Western imagination. In the Middle Ages, Préster lohn, Marco Polo, and lohn Mandeville were reputed to be the first Europeans to foray into the legendary Cathay. In the sixteenth century, China became a most attractive destination for many Iberian missionaries and adventurers. Both Francisco Xavier and Juan de Zumárraga were keen to enter China. In a moment of crisis, a dedicated cleric in the Americas such as Bartolomé de las Casas also considered leaving New Spain for Asia. In 1572, in order to enter the land of the Chinese, fray Agustín de Alburquerque tried without success to offer himself as a slave to the Chinese merchants in Manila (San Agustín 368; Grijalva 320-21). Philip II of Spain likewise was possessed by this enthusiasm. Consistent with his imperial vision, the Spanish monarch attempted to gain control over the Asian world by pursuing diplomatic ties with the Celestial Empire.1 On two different occasions (in 1580 and 1581) he tried to establish direct communication with Wanli, the emperor of the Ming dynasty.

The political and historical circumstances in which Philip II decided to send his embassies, and the significance and function of his letters to the king of China, are the themes of this essay. This article focuses on the ways in which the Spanish monarch uses the art of dissimulation as effective statecraft in pursuit of political, commercial, and evangelical interests in China. It argues that the Prudent King's application of the dissimulation principle to a deferential tone follows the recommendations of Pedro de Ribadeneyra's treatise on Christian kingship. Beneath the deferential rhetoric, one can recognize the same sort of Christian superiority and political ambition that are evident in earlier documents, mainly Charles V's letter in 1543 and the Requerimiento. Interweaving pragmatic prudence with Christian superiority, the Prudent King's letters represent the epitome of the prevailing ambivalence that defines a large body of European writings on China during the early modern period.


The Prudent King enacted his Asia agenda as early as 1564, when he first appointed Miguel López de Legazpi to discover a successful "tornaviaje" across the Pacific Ocean (from Manila to Acapulco) and to found a Spanish settlement in the Philippines ("Instrucción que se dio por el presidente y oydores de la Real Audiencia de Méjico a Miguel López de Legazpi" 170). Like many Spaniards of his time, Philip II believed that the Pacific archipelago would conveniently serve as a springboard to the great kingdom of China (Morga 217-19; Grijalva 295 ).2 In fact, shortly after Legazpi's occupation of Manila, Philip put forward a China mission that soon became the center of heated discussions among Spaniards inquiring into the best way to enter China (Boxer, "Portuguese and Spanish Projects" 133). 3 The first official encounter between the Spaniards and the Chinese nevertheless did not occur until 1574, when the Chinese pirate Limahon and his crew attacked Manila.

Spanish soldiers had successfully besieged the Chinese invaders at the mouth of the Agno River in Lingayen when Admiral Wan Kao (also known as Homocon by the Spaniards) arrived at Manila in pursuit of the pirates. Philippine governor Guido de Lavezares promised the Chinese captain to hand over the pirate chief when captured.4 In recognition of this friendly gesture of cooperation from the Spaniards, Wan Kao resolved to return to China and suggested that some clerics and soldiers accompany him on his return journey. In agreement, Lavezares dispatched two Augustinian emissaries, Martin de Rada and lerónimo Marín, on behalf of Philip II of Spain to the governor of Fukien.5 The embassy was successfully concluded in 1576, when the representatives returned to Manila with an escort of Chinese soldiers and gifts.6

Encouraged by the news, Philip decided to take the matter in hand. In 1580, he dispatched a trio of Augustinian friars, luán González de Mendoza, Jerónimo Marín, and Francisco de Ortega, to the king of China, along with a letter and many gifts ("Consulta del Consejo de Indias sobre noticias de China"). …

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