In the sixteenth century, with the discovery of America and the opening of the new sea route to the East, the long-time maritime barrier between China and Latin America was broken, and cultural exchange between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres began.
Tens of thousands of years ago, the ancestors of Native Americans traveled to the American continent from Asia. Did the ancient Chinese reach America before Christopher Columbus (1451–1506)? This has been heatedly debated for more than two centuries. The focus has been on three historical questions that might indicate the Chinese discovery of America: did the Chinese monk Huishen (nd) discover America? did the Yin people (of the Shang dynasty, ca. 1600–ca. 1100 BCE) voyage eastwards to America? and did Zheng He’s (1371–1433) fleet reach America?
Though there are various speculations about the earliest interactions between China and Latin America, the first historical relations originate from the Manila Galleon trade in the mid-sixteenth century. From then until the outbreak of the Latin American War of Independence in the nineteenth century, when Spain banned trade between Mexico and the East, the nearly three hundred years of Sino-Latin American exchange came to an end.
China and Latin America’s trade with one another brought together both sides of the Pacific Ocean—China’s silk and porcelain reached America in quantities as silver from the New World poured into China. The silver stimulated the development of traditional handicrafts, such as silk and textile manufacturing, tea production, as well as other handicrafts, and enhanced the commercial prosperity of China’s southeast coastal areas. Crops from the New World did well and thrived in China’s soil.
The introduction of New World crops played an important role in advancing China’s agricultural production and enriching the people’s material life. The foods that had an impact on Chinese dietary culture can be roughly divided into three groups—staples such as maize and sweet potatoes; vegetables and fruits including tomatoes, chili peppers, and peanuts; and addictive products such as tobacco.
After the nineteenth century, the main carrier of cultural exchange between China and Latin America ceased being objects and became people, and the bilateral interaction was transformed into a one-way flow—the trafficking of contract laborers from China. Under the banner of free trade, the burgeoning capitalistic countries press-ganged and trafficked so-called “contracted Chinese laborers” abroad without restraint. The Chinese laborers were enslaved and severely maltreated in Latin America. Their conditions forced them to revolt repeatedly and strongly appeal for protection and support from their homeland government. In 1874, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Qing dynasty announced a ban on the “coolie trade.” In order to ease the pressure of international public opinion as well as to continue bringing over Chinese laborers, Latin American countries such as Peru expressed a desire to establish diplomatic relations with China. It is in this context that a number of countries in Latin America began diplomatic relations with China at the end of the nineteenth century.
In 1875, China instituted diplomatic relations with Peru, and then did so successively with Brazil, Mexico, Panama, and other Latin American countries. Long after the establishment of Sino-Latin American relations, the main vehicle of communication between the two cultures was still confined to people. However, these people were no longer contracted Chinese laborers, but unbound and free men. Active in the city and the countryside, they gradually blended into Latin American society and made contributions to the economy and culture. According to official statistics, the number of Latin American Chinese reached 165,000 by the end of the 1960’s, and grew to more than 400,000 by the end of the 1990’s. With the rapid development of economic and trade relations between China and countries in Latin America, cultural exchange between the Eastern Pacific and the Western Pacific will create new prosperity.