The Italian-Chinese trade imbalance, 1588 AD

Tuesday 9th April, 2024 - Bruce Sterling

*How is Italy supposed to compete with this overwhelming industrial might? The condition of Italy must be hopeless.

Giovanni Botero, “On the Magnificence of Cities”:

But let us now come to China. There is not in all the world a
kingdom (I speak of united and entire kingdoms) that is either
greater, or more populous, or more rich, or more abounding in all
good things, or that hath more ages lasted and endured than that
famous and renowned kingdom of China.


I should be too long if I should here declare all that might
be said of the greatness of the walks and galleries, of the
magnificent and stately buildings, of the beauty of the streets,
of the innumerable multitude of inhabitants, of the infinite
concourse of merchandise, of the inestimable number of ships and
vessels, some inlaid with ebony and some with ivory, and
chequered some with gold and some with silver, of the
incomparable riches that come in thither and are carried out
continually; to be short, of the delights and pleasures whereof
this city doth so exceedingly abound as it deserves to be called
proud Suntien. And yet the other two cites Panchin and Anchin are
never a whit less than this is.

But forasmuch as we have made mention of China, I think it
not amiss in this place to remember the greatness of some other
of her cities, according to the relations we receive in these
days. Canton, then (which is the most known, though not the
greatest) the Portuguese that have had much commerce thither
these many years confess it is greater than Lisbon, which yet is
the greatest city that is in Europe except Constantinople and
Paris. Sanchieo is said to be three times greater than Seville,
so that since Seville is six miles in compass Sanchieo must needs
be eighteen miles about. They also say Huchou exceeds them both
in greatness. Chinchew, although it be of the meaner sort, the
Fathers of the Order of St. Augustine who saw it do judge that
city to contain threescore and ten thousand houses.

These things I here deliver ought to be not thought by any
man to be incredible. For (besides that Marco Polo in his
relations affirmeth far greater things) these things I speak are
in these days approved to be most true by the intelligences we do
receive continually both of secular and religious persons, as
also by all the nation of the Portuguese. So as he that will deny
it shall show himself a fool. But for the satisfaction of the
reader I will not spare to search out the very reasons how it
comes to pass that China is so populous and full of such
admirable cities.

Let us then suppose that either by the goodness of the
heavens or by the secret influence of the stars to us unknown, or
for some other reasons else whatsoever they be, that part of the
world that is oriental unto us hath more virtue, I know not what,
in the producing of things than the West. Hereof it proceedeth
that a number of excellent things grow in these happy counties of
which others are utterly destitute and void, as cinnamon,
nutmegs, cloves, pepper, camphor, sandalwood, incense, aloes, the
Indian nuts, and such other like. Moreover the things that are
common unto both, to the East, I say, and the West, they are
generally much more perfect in the East than the West; as for
proof thereof, the pearls of the West in comparison of the East
are as it were lead to silver. And likewise the bezoar that is
brought from the Indies is a great deal better far than the
bezoar that comes from Peru.

Now China comes the nearest to the East of any part of the
world, and therefore doth she enjoy all those perfections that
are attributed to the East. And first the air (which of all
things importeth to the life of man so much as nothing more) is
very temperate; whereunto the nearness of the sea addeth a great
help, which embraceth, as it were, with arms cast abroad a great
part thereof, and looks it in the face with a cheerful aspect,
and with a thousand creeks and gulfs penetrateth far within the
very province.

Next, that the country is for the most part very plain and of
nature very apt to produce not only things necessary for the use
and sustenance of the life of man but also all sorts of dainty
thing for man’s delight and pleasure. The hills and mountains are
perpetually arrayed with trees of all sorts, some wild and some
fruitful; the plains manured, tilled and sown with rice, barley,
wheat, peas and beans; the gardens, besides our common sorts of
fruits, do yield most sweet melons, most delicate plums, most
excellent figs, pomecitrons and oranges of divers forms and
excellent taste.

They have also an herb out of which they press a delicate
juice which serves them for drink instead of wine. It also
preserves their health and frees them from all those evils that
the immoderate use of wine doth breed unto us.

(((This herbal beverage would be “tea.” Does any tea grow in Italy? Not a bit of it!)))

They also abound in cattle, in sheep, in fowl, in deer, in
wool, in rich skins, cotton, linen, and in infinite store of
silk. There are mines of gold and silver and of excellent iron.
There are most precious pearls. There is abundance of sugar,
honey, rhubarb, camphor, red lead, woad, musk and aloes, and the
porcelain earth is known nowhere but there.

More than this, the rivers and the waters of all sorts run
gallantly through all those counties with an unspeakable profit
and commodity for navigation and tillage. And the waters are as
plentiful of fish as the land is of fruits, for the rivers and
the seas yield thereof an infinite abundance.

Unto this so great a fertility and yield both of the land and
water there is joined an incredible culture of both these
elements. And that proceedeth out of two causes, whereof the one
dependeth upon the inestimable multitude of the inhabitants (for
it is thought that China doth contain more than threescore
millions of souls) and the other consisteth in the extreme
diligence and pains that is taken as well of private persons in
the tillage of their grounds and well husbanding their farms, as
also the magistrates that suffer not a man to lead an idle life
at home. So that there is not a little scrap of ground that is
not husbandly and very well manured.

Now for their mechanical arts, should I commit them here to
silence whenas there is not a country in the world where they do
more flourish both for variety and for excellence of skill and
workmanship? Which proceedeth also out of two causes, whereof the
one I have commended before, in that idleness is everywhere
forbidden there, and every man compelled to work; no man suffered
to be idle, no, not the blind nor the lame nor the maimed, if
they be not altogether impotent and weak. And the women also, by
a law of Wu-ti King of China, are bound to exercise their father’
s trades and arts, and how noble or great soever they be they
must at least attend their distaff and their needle. The other
cause is that the sons must of necessity follow their father’s
mysteries, so that hereupon it comes that artificers are infinite
and that children as well boys as girls, even in their infancy,
can skill to work, and that arts are brought unto most excellent
and high perfection.

They suffer not anything to go to loss. With the dung of the
bulls and oxen and other cattle they use to feed fish; and of the
bones of dogs and other beasts they make many and divers carved
and engraven works, as we do make of ivory. Of rags and clouts
they make paper; to be short, such is the plenty and variety of
the fruits of the earth and of man’s industry and labour, as they
have no need of foreign help to bring them anything. For they
give away a great quantity of their own to foreign countries. And
(to speak of no things else) the quantity of silk that is carried
out of China is almost not credible.

A thousand quintals of silk
are yearly carried thence for the Portuguese Indies; for the
Philippines they lade out fifteen ships. There are carried out to
Japan an inestimable sum, and unto Cathay as great a quantity as
you may guess by that we have before declared is yearly carried
thence to Cambaluc. And they sell their works and their labours
(by reason of the infinite store that is made) so cheap and at so
easy price as the merchants of Nova Hispania that trade unto the
Philippines to make their marts (unto which place the Chinese
themselves do traffic) do wonder at it much. By means whereof the
traffic with the Philippines falls out to be rather hurtful than
profitable unto the King of Spain. For the benefit of the
cheapness of things is it that makes the people of Mexico (who
heretofore have used to fetch their commodities from Spain) to
fetch them at the Philippines. But the King of Spain, for the
desire he hath to win unto familiarity and love, and by that
means to draw to our Christian faith and to the bosom of the
Catholic Church, those people that are wrapt in the horrible
darkness of idolaties, esteemeth not a whit of his loss, so he
may gain their souls to God.

By these things I have declared it appeareth plain that China
hath the means partly by the benefit of nature and partly by the
industry and art of man to sustain an infinite sight of people.
And that for that cause it is credible enough that it becometh so
populous a country as hath been said. And I affirm this much more
unto it, that it is necessary it should be so for two reasons:
the one, for that it is not lawful for the King of China to make
war to get new counties but only to defend his own, and thereupon
it must ensue that he enjoyeth in a manner a perpetual peace. And
what is there more to be desired or wished than peace? What thing
can be more profitable than peace? My other reason is, for that
it is not lawful for any of the Chinese to go out of their
Country without leave or licence of the magistrates, so that, the
number of persons continually increasing and abiding still at
home, it is of necessity that the number of people do become
inestimable, and of consequence the cities exceeding great, the
towns infinite and that China itself should rather, in a matter,
be but one body and but one city.

To say the truth, we Italians do flatter ourselves too much,
and do admire too partially those things that do concern
ourselves, especially when we will prefer Italy and her cities
beyond all the rest in the world. The and figure of Italy is long
and strait, divided withal in the midst with the Apennine Hills.
And the paucity and rareness of navigable rivers doth not bear it
that there can be very great and populous cities in it. I will
not spare to say that her rivers are but little brooks in
comparison of Ganges, Menam, Mekong and the rest, and that the
Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic Seas are but gullets in respect of
the ocean. And of consequence our trade and traffic is but poor
in respect of the marts and fairs of Canton, Malacca, Calicut,
Ormuz, Lisbon, Seville and other cities that bound upon the

Let us add to the aforesaid that the difference and enmity
between the Mohammedans and us depriveth us in a manner of the
commerce of Africa, and of the most part of the trade of the
Levant. Again, the chiefest parts of Italy, that is, the Kingdom
of Naples and the Dukedom of Milan are subject to the King of
Spain. The other states are mean, and mean also the chiefest of
their cities. But it is time we now return from whence we have
digressed long….