Benjamim Videira Pires *

The first known description of the city of Guangzhou was written by a European, Fr. Melchior Nunes Barreto of the Society of Jesus, and bears the date 23rd of November 1555. The Jesuit was on his way to Japan in the company of Fernão Mendes Pinto. The document was written in Macao, as is clearly explained by the author of Peregrinação, in one of his letters written "[...] from Macao, 20th of November 1555. [...] Today I arrived at Langbaiao, which is the port we are [normally], to the East of Macao, [...] where I met Fr. Belchior, who has come here from Guangzhou [...]."1

It is possible that Fernão Mendes Pinto shared some information he had received from Vasco Calvo and other Portuguese navigators, in a brotherly fashion, with his religious Vice-Provincial. Barreto visited Guangzhou twice and "[...] on each visit he spent a month there, [...] to see if he could have three Portuguese (among them Mateus de Brito) released from captivity as well as another three Christians from that land [... and...] to offer a peita (bribe) of one thousand five hundred cruzados to the regedor (principal Administrator) to release them."2

Following is the famous description:

"China has thirteen Provinces or Kingdoms, each headed by a principal city, where the Government is located, and the whole Province is subject to it. Of all the major cities they say that Guangzhou is the smallest, and it is the opinion of all of who have gone there, 3that it has more population and people than Lisbon. It has good walls and houses and each street has a gate which is closed at night so that no robberies can take place between one street and another nor any other harmful incidents. 4 Most [of the streets] have triumphal archways, which seem to me to number more than one thousand, which governadores (Governors) have built when they have ended their three year governorship and they leave them in their memory with their wording recording the person and the era. And in the streets where there are such archways, there are tall shady trees, one at every door, arranged in order, so that the streets look like gardens.

The city is well supplied and in each street there is a butcher and many other things to eat. It is possible to sail practically right around the [city] walls on a wide arm of the stream that was dug as a moat.

Most of the roads leading to the city run through large fields with water channels that irrigate them all and everything that is produced in these fields is picked up by boats. These fields yield three crops a year because they are irrigated by these fresh water channels. The fruit, trees and animals and produce of the land is high. The whole appearance of men and women is respectable, they have laws for chastising adulterers. The roads are divided up in such a way that workshops of individual craftsmen are together, and no one may give his son a craft other than his own; none are idle without a mechanical craft, or working for the Government; even the blind, to avoid having to beg, grind in the mills. These people have the most unique system which I feel no other nation has better. Among them no one may be great or noble or receive unearned interest, donde não há lugar a se levantar com o reino, because all a man's kith and kin and children live each in their city, where they live in subjection and obey the city regedores (principal Administrators) who have control over them; and an Ambassador from Siam told us that the King had five-hundred giants to guard him and that he had seen them, and the Chins commonly say the same thing.

And this land is so full of plenty that here in this port of Guangzhou, were we are, there are thirty-odd-thousand quintals5 of pepper and one-hundred-thousand cruzados of silver, in a carrack that has just arrived from Japan. And all of this is spent in the work of a month as they allow fazendas (goods) from Guangzhou to be brought to this island of San Chan [Shangchuan]6 where trade is carried out with the Chins and where goods are traded to be sent to India and Portugal and to other parts; and they say that similar trading goes on every year.

The Chins say that this Province of Guangdong, which is the smallest of the thirteen in China, brings in a profit each year of four thousand picos7 of silver for the King, which is more than six thousand quintals, and this seems a lot, but the taxes on this are very high because each person, on reaching the age of eighteen, pays six vintens8 a year until the age of sixty, and every household the same; and of all the goods that come to this land, twenty-per-cent; and from some [goods] a half, but they say a profit can be made.

There are so many ships in these parts, both great and small, that it is a marvel, because in the work of a month or less, they fit out two hundred and eighty junks in this city and equip ten thousand men to go against the Japans, 9because [these] are such braves that they ply up and down the coast destroying the land. And many people and ships join them to go and fight, and [the Chinese] wish such harm to befall the Japans that they pay a fixed price for each of them killed.

And this is a people ruled with such great peace, both by the rulers and those who are ruled, that not a weapon is seen. This is a people who like eating and drinking. The system used in this land is such that, because they are highly corrupt, it seems to demand every three years new Governors, born in a different Province, to be installed. I am amazed at the calm with which this land is ruled. And they have what is called an anchachi, who is responsible for judging crime, and who is like the capitão (Captain-Major) of the city, and another is called the ponchachi, who is like the tesoureiro (Treasurer) or vedor-de-fazenda (Keeper of Finances), who collects all the Revenue of the Province, and another aitão, 10who governs the affairs of war, and yet another responsible for marine affairs, called the chaem, and they wear in their apparel the emblem of an eye and a hand, which is on all of them to ascertain that they fulfil their duties, and then, if they do not fulfil them well, they must endure sentences and punishments, which come approved from the court of the King. There is another whom they call tutão, who is like a Viceroy, above all others, and who has universal governorship of the whole Province, and he visits all of it. Each one of these [two] wears a cap as a divisa (emblem) which is given to them by the King and their apparel bear the armas (arms) of the same King which are lions [dragons] on a gold background, and when they wear these emblems, each for his own tasks, they are so venerated that it is a marvel to behold. And they represent such gravidade (pomp) and majesty that they can only be addressed by others kneeling and from afar. They have sumptuous houses given to them by the King and there are so many of these Governors that the Chins claim that in this Province of Guangzhou alone the King feeds a hundred thousand men who are in the service of justice and guardianship of the land.

Acting as judges of all, they can be addressed about anything either by speaking or in writing. There are doormen at the entrance, who give the name of each person and announce their requests. The weapons that the King's men bear that accompany them are canes a braça (brace) in length and a mão (hand) in width, split down the middle and roasted in the fire. All men, rich, poor, tall or short are whipped with these canes for the slightest of reasons and they are whipped on the back of the legs and every cane bearer whips five times with all the strength in him and this whipping is so cruel that those who suffer fifty lashes usually die or are crippled, because their bones are broken. And some whipping was done before me, but I think that if they bore this for the honour of Christ, they hurt more than the forty minus one given to St. Paul. 11

When the judgement is over the doors are closed and chapam (sealed) with pasted panels, and these are the same houses in which they [the judges] pousam (stay). When the go about, they are carried in chairs of state, with horses a destra (to the right), many King's men with their canes and others with cudgels and others with boards and bearing silk tassels on their backs, which indicate the estado (rank) of the Mandarin, and they proceed him by a great distance, two by two, letting out frightful shout to make way, and no-one can walk on the streets; and some [people] withdraw at home, others sweep the streets where they [Mandarins] will pass, and no voices are heard. These principal Administrators are so graves (pompous) that even the Portuguese when they go there [Guangzhou] to trade their goods speak to them from a distance and in the kneeling position.

This is the greatest difficulty in this land of China in their becoming Christians, because the common people seem unable to dare to adopt a new law without the permission of the principal Administrators, and the latter would not give permission without authorisation from the King.


Afterwards, the author elaborates on the hypothesis of the conversion of the Chinese Empire, which Fernão Mendes Pinto, more positive and with less faith, absolutely refuses to believe.

This is the first Western description of the Chinese land and the way of being of its people, written from Macao, precisely four hundred and thirty-three years ago.

[...]. 12

Tranlated from the Portuguese by: Manuela Ribeiro


1 CATZ, Rebbeca, Cartas de Fernão Mendes Pinto e outros, 7 vols., Lisboa, Presença, 1983, vol. 1, pp. 60-65, 137.

2 Ibidem., p.71.

3 As well as Fernão Mendes Pinto, Estevão de Goes went with Melchior Nunes Barreto.

4 In order to protect to the maximum the city from outside assaults all streets entrances were also closed.

5 QUINTAL = Old Portuguese overseas measure of weight equivalent to four arrobas — a weight of twenty-five pounds (11.35 kg) or more. From the Arabic kintar.

6 Until the concession for free trade with China and the Portuguese were allowed to settle in Macao, in the assentamento between Leonel de Sousa and the Chinese aitão, signed, in Kuong-Hoi, in 1553, the annual Trade Fair was held on the Island of Sangchuan, where St. Francis Xavier died, on the 3rd of December 1553.

7 PICO = Old Chinese measure of weight equivalent to or one-hundred katties (62.50 kg) From the Malay-Javanese pikul.

8 VINTEM = Old Portuguese copper coin equivalent to twenty réis, and more recently to two centavos (cents).

9 The famous Wakos (dwarf and naked pirates) of the Ryukiu (Port.: Léquias; Jap.: Luozhou; Chin.: Liu-chiu or: Ryu-kyu) Islands, a group of West Pacific Islands extending between Kyushu, Japan and Taiwan (or Formosa). These Islands belong to Japan since 1895. Occupied by the United States of America in 1945 were returned to Japan in 1953 (North Islands) and 1972 (South Islands).

10 The terminology for Chinese Government officials, which is repeated in Peregrinação is correct, although the document makes some confusion with the titles.

Aitão (or Admiral) is a Government official in charge of maritime affairs.

Chaem is a generic name for a Government official.

Tutão is a Viceroy in charge of military and civil affairs. Chumbi is a Government official in charge of military affairs.

Fr. Melchior Nunes Barreto, Doctor in Law by the University of Coimbra, naturally worries with the administration of the justice. His authority must have influenced Fernão Mendes Pinto, rooting the conviction more deeply in his mind that the China of the Ming dynasty was the ideal society of the world — the thesis put forward in Peregrinação.

11 Epistle, 2nd letter to the Corinthians, chap. M, vs. 24-25 —However, The thirty-nine whip lashes of the Jews, were borne, however, by St. Paul five times and, besides this, he was also flogged three times with poles.

Fr. Melchior Nunes Barreto entered in one of these prisons in Guangzhou, as the mentioned letter says:

12 "Tem a China treze províncias ou reinos, cada uma com uma cidade principal por cabeça, por onde se governa, e toda a província lhe é sujeita. De todas estas cidades grandes, dizem que Cantão é a mais pequena, a qual, a parecer de todos os que ali fomos, tem mais população e gente que Lisboa. Esta é bem murada e de boas casas e cada rua tem uma porta que se fecha de noite, porque, de uma a outra, não vão furtar nem fazer outros malefícios. A maior parte delas [das ruas] têm arcos triunfais, os quais me parece que serão mais de mil, os quais fazem os governadores quando acabam seus três anos de governo e os deixam por memória sua com seus letreiros que dão fé do autor e da era, e nas ruas onde não há estes arcos, estão árvores mui grandes e frescas, a cada porta uma,postas por ordem, por sorte que as ruas parecem jardins. É cidade mui abastada e em cada rua há azougue e muitas outras coisas de comer. Navega-se quase todo ao redor dos muros, de um braço grande, de um rio que meteram na cava. A maior parte dos caminhos para a cidade é de campos mui grandes com regos de água, que os regam todos, e todo o serviço destes campos se recolhe em barcos e dá três novidades por ano, por ser regada a terra destes rios que digo de água doce. As frutas, árvores e animais, e serviço da terra é muito semelhante à Europa. O trajo todo dos homens e mulheres é honesto, têm leis para castigar os adúlteros. As ruas são repartidas de tal maneira que os oficiais de cada ofício estão juntos, e nenhum pode dar ofício a seu filho senão o mesmo seu; nenhum deixam ocioso sem ofício mecânico, ou de injustiça; ate os cegos, por não andarem pedindo, moem nas atafonas. Tem esta gente o mais singular engenho de mãos, que me parece que não há noutra nação de maior. Entre eles, não consentem que nenhum seja grande e nobre nem que tenha rendas de juro, donde não há lugar a se levantar com o reino, porque todos os seus parentes e filhos têm cada um em sua cidade, em tudo entregues à sujeição e obediência dos regedores da cidade com grandes vigias sobre si; e afirmou-nos um embaixador do Sião que tinha el-rei quinhentos gigantes de sua guarda e que ele os vira, e assim o dizem os Chins comummente.

É tão abundante esta terra que estão, neste porto [de Cantão] onde estamos, trinta e tantos mil quintais de pimenta e cem mil cruzados de prata, em uma nau que agora chegou do Japão. E tudo isto se gasta em obra de um mês, como dão licença que tragam as fazendas de Cantão para esta ilha de Sanchoão, donde se faz trato com os Chins e se vende a troco de fazenda que para a Índia e Portugal e outras partes vão; e semelhante a isto dizem que se faz todos os anos.

Afirmam os Chins que esta província de Cantão, que é a mais pequena de todas as treze da China, rende a el-rei cada ano quatro mil picos de prata, que são mais de seis mil quintais, e isto parece muito, mas os impostos que há nela são mui grandes, porque cada pessoa, como chega a dezoito anos, paga cada ano seis vinténs até à idade de sessenta, e cada casa outro tanto; e de todas as fazendas que à terra vêm, vinte por cento; e de algumas a metade, por onde será possível render o que dizem.

São tantos os navios nesta terra, grandes epequenos, que é maravilha, porque em obra de um mês e menos, aparelharam nesta cidade duzentos e oitenta juncos e dez mil homens para irem sobre os Japões, porque estes são tão valentes que lhe vão correr a costa e destruir a terra. E ajuntam-se muita gente e navios para irem a pelejar com eles, e os Chineses querem tamanho mal aos Japões que dão um preço certo por cada um deles que matam.

É esta gente regida com tão grande paz, assim nos que regem como nos que são regidos, que não se vê arma. É gente muito dada a comer e a beber. 0 regimento da terra é muito para ver, que é feito de maneira que, por serem muito viciosos, parece que requer cada três anos governadores novos, naturais de outra província. Eu me espanto do sossego com que regem a terra. E têm um que se chama anchaci que tem cargo de justiça do crime, que é como capitão da cidade, e outro ponchaci, que é como tesoureiro ou vedor-de-fazenda, que arrecada todas as rendas da província, e outro aitão, que rege as coisas da guerra, e pois do mar é outro que se chama chaem, que trazem no seu vestido, por divisa, um olho e uma mão, o qual é sobre todos estes, para ver se cumprem todos os seus ofícios, e depois, se eles os não cumprem bem, cumprem as sentenças ou castigo, que vêm confirmadas da corte de el-rei. Há outro que chama tutão, 8 que é como vizo-rei, maior que todos que tem governo universal de toda a província, correndo-a toda; cada um destes [dois] traz por divisa um barrete que lhes dá el-rei, e os vestidos com as armas do mesmo rei, douradas detrás, que são uns leões [dragões]; e, quando têm estas divisas cada um em seu cargo, são tão venerados que é maravilha. E é tanta a gravidade e a majestade que representam, que não lhe podem falar senão de joelhos e de longe. Têm casas sumptuosas que lhes dá el-rei, e são tantos estes governadores que afirma os Chins que só desta província de Cantão dá el-rei de comer a cem mil homens para serviço de justiça e guarda da terra.

"Estando em juízo, lhe podem falar somente em tudo o que quiserem e por escrito. Têm porteiros à porta; bradam em voz alta o nome de cada pessoa, dizendo o que quiserem. As armas que trazem os homens de el-rei que os acompanham são umas canas de uma braça em comprido [e] de uma mão em través, partidas pelo meio, tostadas no fogo. Todo o homem rico, pobre, alto, baixo, mandam açoitar com estas canas, cada vez que querem por coisa mui leves; e dão estes açoites nas curvas das pernas; e cada homem dos das canas dá cinco com quanta força tem e são tão cruéis açoites que ao que dão cinquenta comummente morre ou fica aleijado, porque até os ossos lhe quebram. E uns se deram perante mim, mas creio que se os levara pela honra de Cristo, doeram mais que os quarenta menos um de S. Paulo.

Tanto que acabam o juízo, fecham as portas e as chapam com uns papéis grudados, e são as mesmas casas em que eles [as autoridades] pousam. Quando vão fora, vão sentados em umas cadeiras de estado, com cavalos a destra, com muitos homens de el-rei com suas canas e outros de maças, outros com tábuas e com borlas de seda às costas, que dizem o estado do mandarim, vão adiante dele por grande espaço de dois em dois, dando brados espantosos que dêem lugar, e ninguém pode passar pelos [magistrados] hão-de passar, e não se ouve vez de ninguém. São tão graves estes regedores que até os portugueses que ali vão fazer suas fazendas, quando lhe falam, é de joelhos e de longe.

Esta é a maior dificuldade, nesta terra da China para se fazerem cristãos, que a gente comum parece não ousar a tomar nova lei sem licença de regedores, nem eles a darão sem licença de el-rei.


* BA in Portuguese Literature and Philosophy, University of Lisbon. Researcher in Portuguese History in the East and the Jesuit Missions in Asia. Author of numerous articles and publications on related topics. Member of the Portuguese Academy of History, Governor of the International Association of Historians on Asia, and other Institutions.

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