Baking during a pandemic can reduce stress and provide comfort

Jessica Corradini of Verona, Italy, has been baking bread -- mostly sourdough -- for a couple years.
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George Bush is only for now
The cast of Avenue Q performs at the 2004 Tony Awards. | Frank Micelotta/Getty Images How one song from Avenue Q kind of explains the tumult of the 21st century. One of my favorite show tunes is “For Now,” the concluding number of the terrifically entertaining Tony-winning musical Avenue Q, which ran on Broadway from 2003 to 2009, then ran off-Broadway from 2009 to 2019. The show posits a sort of Sesame Street for 20-somethings, set in a neighborhood populated with both puppets and humans who learn important lessons about entering adulthood. “For Now” sums up the musical’s ultimately sunny message: Nothing in life will last forever. You are going to be fine, no matter how terrible your current circumstances seem and no matter how much you might long to go back to college. How could you possibly not be fine? You’re young and, if you’re at the theater, presumably financially stable. Things are great! “For now, we’re healthy. For now, we’re employed. For now, we’re happy, if not overjoyed” goes one lyric. (The song brims with the bouncy sincerity that is the hallmark of multi-award-winning composer and lyricist Robert Lopez, who co-wrote Avenue Q’s music and lyrics with Jeff Marx.) The crescendo of “For Now” builds to a sequence where the company shouts various things that are only for now, like so: Sex!is only for nowYour hair!is only for nowGeorge Bush!is only for now Here’s a video that will give you a sense of what the number is like (though it’s not from a stage production): Avenue Q isn’t plotless, exactly, but it has about as much story as any given episode of Girls, if you were to replace most of the show’s characters with singing puppets. “For Now” works so well as a closer to Avenue Q because it’s a reminder that — as nearly the last lyric in the whole musical goes — “Life may be scary, but it’s only temporary.” When you’re in your 20s, right after college, it’s easy to dwell on things that feel like they might last forever, but none of them will. You’ll figure it out. You’ll have new problems, but those will only be for now as well. You’re going to keep going up and up and up. I still love this song as much as I did when I first heard it in 2007 (when the show’s terrific touring cast swung through Southern California). But it’s also a lie. A brief history of Avenue Q’s sociopolitical commentary Frank Micelotta/Getty Images Jeff Marx (left) and Robert Lopez, who wrote Avenue Q, accept the 2004 Tony Award for Best Original Score. When George W. Bush left office in early 2009, replaced by Barack Obama, the creators of Avenue Q held a contest to replace the exclamation of “George Bush!” in “For Now.” They called for fans of the show to contribute their own spins on the lyric, with options ranging from “recession” to “Prop 8” becoming contenders. In the end, the show’s producers ultimately decided that “George Bush” worked better than any possible replacements and decided to just stick with it. That decision wasn’t the end of the story. Over the years, many alternatives (“recession” and “Fox News,” among others) were swapped in for “George Bush” in “For Now,” and in the last years of the off-Broadway run, somewhat appropriately, “Donald Trump” replaced “George Bush” and provided an unexpected symmetry. Two Republican presidents, both assumed to be broadly disliked by the theater-going audience, both things that are only for now. (Here’s a really great timeline of Avenue Q lyric replacements.) “For Now” isn’t the most famous song in Avenue Q (though it should be). No, the most famous song in the show is either “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (“Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes/ doesn’t mean you go around committing hate crimes”) or “The Internet Is for Porn” (the title is really the most representative lyric). Both of these songs have become strangely passé since the musical launched. “The Internet Is for Porn” feels dated because, while the internet remains a wonderful repository of porn, the idea of the internet as either a wonderful new invention or a den of sex-soaked depravity feels extremely early 2000s. But “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is dated in a more interesting way. The song is all at once a chuckling eye roll at the notion of overstepping PC culture, an attempt to argue that microaggressions are no big deal (though the song would never call them microaggressions), and a satire of both of those views — one designed to make the audience complicit in its central assertion that we’re all a little bit racist. If you read the lyrics on Genius, you’ll see the annotations are filled with people arguing about the “true” interpretation of the song. Does “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” mean to tell us that we should stop caring about microaggressions and other racist statements and actions that don’t rise to the level of hate crimes? Or is it creating a rich and layered satire of anti-PC comedy by turning the idea that “everything’s a little bit racist” into a literal children’s song? Children’s songs almost always present overly simplistic morals, and many of the other songs in Avenue Q present overly simplistic morals, too. “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” might be doing just that. But whatever interpretation you choose, one thing is clear: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is part of the last gasp of a particularly pernicious cultural narrative from the 1990s: Caring about how you or others feel isn’t cool. What’s really cool is being above it all and not making a fuss. And for as much as I love Avenue Q — and I love Avenue Q — it can’t escape all of the ways in which it hides its big beating heart behind a faux edginess, meant to seem cool. Then again, when Avenue Q was written in the early 2000s, many other artists were over caring, too. A brief history of ironic bigotry as a comedy device, particularly as it pertains to South Park Comedy Central Eric Cartman exemplified many of South Park’s worst tendencies. The most famous example of “caring isn’t cool” comedy is probably the long-running Comedy Central series South Park, with debuted in 1997. At times throughout its 23 seasons (and counting), the show has produced genuinely brilliant satire; at others, it’s been a herald of our current age of entropy. The most charitable interpretation you can make of South Park is that series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are really great at presenting racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice ironically, to poke fun at society’s foibles. They put their most jokingly offensive statements in the mouth of Cartman, their most obviously awful character, then make sure to end each episode with a heavy-handed lesson that usually equates to some form of “Give people a break already!” — an idea elastic and formless enough to encompass both anti-racism and racism. Even under this most charitable interpretation, however, you have to grapple with the idea that even today, a lot of people take the ideas South Park has espoused across its run incredibly seriously, deciding that, sure, it’s cooler not to care about climate change or voting or systemic racism. Lots of people viewed Cartman’s racism and anti-Semitism not as an elaborate ironic goof but as something to emulate in order to win comedy points. The more that basic idea of boundary-pushing-as-bold-and-edgy-humor was repeated, the more the irony chipped off and revealed actual bigotry. To give credit to Parker and Stone, recent seasons of South Park haven’t exactly done an about-face on the show’s original approach, but they have seemed a little embarrassed with some prior episodes (particularly regarding climate change). Parker and Stone are still libertarian dung-flingers (which can be a lot of fun if you’re unlikely to end up covered in dung but can be exhausting if you are), but they seem a little more aware that their own point of view is ever so slightly myopic. But it wasn’t just Parker and Stone. Ironic bigotry was kind of a thing in the 1990s. The two South Park creators weren’t the heralds of this movement; they were just its biggest beneficiaries. Tons of comedians with some degree of cultural weight broke out in this world. And many of them remain significant cultural figures, even if they’ve completely changed their comedic voice in the years since. (Sarah Silverman is an obvious example of one figure who’s completed such a shift.) Parker and Stone are notable for being the two guys who still operate in that mode and are still largely popular. Outside of South Park, Parker and Stone’s most lasting cultural contribution might be the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, which opened in 2011 — somehow still less than 10 years ago! — to wild critical acclaim, lots of Tony Awards, and a general sense of Parker and Stone vaulting from potty-mouthed class clowns to part of the American mainstream. (They were already in that mainstream, I would argue, but having a hit show on Broadway still carries way more cultural clout than having one on Comedy Central for pointless, New York-media-centric reasons.) The Book of Mormon treats its Mormon characters lovingly. But when it comes to the Ugandans they’re meant to be missionaries to, well, let’s look to Helen Shaw’s apt description of the problem in an excellent essay at Vulture about how The Book of Mormon already feels like it’s from another time: The sequences in Uganda are grimly unfunny, especially as black actors are forced to sell jokes about curing AIDS by sodomizing babies. The romantic interest Nabulungi (Kim Exum) is the brightest girl in the village, and she thinks that “texting” means typing on a broken typewriter. That’s not a joke about poverty or disenfranchisement. That’s a joke about an African woman being an idiot. In 2011, some critics called the show out for its painful racism, but not many. The assumption was that the offended parties would be Mormons. What Shaw gets at here is something that many white Americans have gotten better at understanding in the long gap between 2011 and 2020: The media is too susceptible to prioritizing the emotions of white people and writing off people of color who have legitimate grievances with the status quo. The humanity of an imaginary white Mormon who will probably never see The Book of Mormon is easier for many white Americans to conceive of than the humanity of a black theatergoer sitting one row ahead of you and not laughing at the jokes about Ugandans. A white theatergoer might simply conclude that the person in the next row should just lighten up already! Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes! Believing that problems are only “for now” is inherently a position of privilege Getty Images Andrew Rannells performs “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon at the 2011 Tony Awards. If you look back at Avenue Q, you’ll find a kind of dry run for much of what The Book of Mormon later turned all the way up to 11. And the connection between the two shows isn’t just thematic. Parker and Stone brought in someone to help them craft The Book of Mormon into something Broadway-ready. And the person who helped them was Robert Lopez, the co-writer of Avenue Q. I don’t mean to suggest that Lopez is insincere. Far from it. His post-Book of Mormon career has been largely spent working with Disney, and if nothing else, Frozen’s “Let It Go” (which he co-wrote with his wife and writing partner Kristen Anderson-Lopez) is an ultra-sincere power ballad to belt out in the shower. Lopez is really good at what he does. He just spent a lot of time steeped in a cultural context that rewarded ironic detachment, working in a medium that too often removes any sense of culpability inherent in an audience that is whiter and richer than the average American population. My point is that a lyric like “George Bush is only for now” — a lyric in a song that taught me a lot about getting through rough patches — can only be swapped out for a lyric like “Donald Trump is only for now” if you are relatively sure that once either man leaves office, you will be fundamentally okay. Equating a president you don’t like with bad sex or bad hair is a position of extreme privilege. So is the idea that everything in life is only for now. It’s only “for now” if you have the expectation that America is a ladder that keeps going up and up and up. That’s true for me, but I’m white, and I have enough money. I have the luxury of believing my setbacks are only temporary. Yes, it’s worth understanding that every bad situation we get into indeed is only for now, and yes, it’s worth understanding that in the vast sweep of human history — or even just in the vast sweep of your own personal history — things will change. The end hasn’t come yet, so there’s no reason to expect it will come tomorrow. But when it comes to our own personal histories, “for now” is not always a guarantee. Assuaging people’s fears by saying that difficult moments are only temporary is all well and good if you’re trying to help people endure something truly dark and terrible, trying to help them imagine a light on the horizon even when it’s pitch black. It’s much harder to stomach if you’re treating bad things, horrible things, brutal things as unfortunate but survivable circumstances that happen largely to other people, as if they’re merely peripheral characters within your own story who should really just learn to take it easy. Can’t we all just get along? We can agree we’re all racist, right? A little bit? It is so easy to believe that everybody’s problems are like your own when you don’t face any real problems. It’s so easy to numb yourself to the horrors of the world because confronting them might require examining your own culpability. I love “For Now” so much, and it’s a song that found me when I needed it most. But it’s a song designed to placate people like me, to turn a haircut or a president or systemic racism into a boss in a video game. Where I live, just across the freeway from downtown Los Angeles, the whir of helicopters and blare of police sirens have been omnipresent sounds. The mayor instituted a curfew last weekend, and anyone caught in violation of it could be arrested. The city feels not like itself, breathing and alive, but like a brute-force attempt to impose some other, more sterile city over the one I love. A friend and I took a walk around downtown last Saturday. Storefronts were missing windows, the Shake Shack looked like it would be closed for a bit, and the words “Fuck cops” were spray-painted everywhere. Local news had sold me on untold devastation, but it mostly looked like shattered glass that will be easily replaced in time, a temporary setback to the gigantic wheels of gentrification. It is a failure of imagination to think that all problems are merely inconveniences. It is a failure of empathy to believe that all other people experience life like I do, as a series of steps and events carrying me toward some uncertain but hopeful future. It is a failure of understanding to assume that optimism is the natural offshoot of being an American, because the country has so, so many social issues and injustices with deep roots that will not be so easily torn out of the ground to build something better. But it’s worth trying to build that something all the same, and that will require some degree of getting really, truly invested in something bigger than yourself. The comedy of not caring worked for an era when academics earnestly declared that history was over, that capitalism had won. It doesn’t work as much in an era when life feels like being sucked into a bathtub drain. Is that the fault of Avenue Q or South Park or any other art of this ilk? No, of course not. Nothing can escape the cultural context in which it was created. But it is our fault if we choose the comforting lies of the past over the grimmer realities of the present. An early version of this article originally appeared in Emily VanDerWerff’s newsletter, Episodes. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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Joe Biden now has the delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Fort Madison, Iowa. | John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images He’ll officially become the party’s presidential nominee at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in August. After months of fierce campaigning — and a worldwide pandemic interrupting the normal primary schedule — former Vice President Joe Biden has officially earned enough delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination for president. Biden, who has been the presumptive Democratic nominee since Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out on April 8, earned the last few delegates he needed to reach the 1,991 threshold for nomination following primary races in seven states and the District of Columbia Tuesday. He now has 1,995 delegates with eight states and three US territories still left to vote. “It was an honor to compete alongside one of the most talented groups of candidates the Democratic party has ever fielded — and I am proud to say that we are going into this general election a united party,” Biden said in a statement Friday evening. The former vice president’s campaign got off to a slow start: He finished fourth in Iowa and left New Hampshire early, having finished near the bottom of the pack in that primary. His prospects turned around on the strength of a victory in the South Carolina primary, which kicked off successive wins across the South, giving him an insurmountable delegate advantage. But the coronavirus pandemic interrupted Biden’s campaign plans, postponing many primary races, and forcing the candidate to run virtual events out of his home in Wilmington, Delaware. Biden will officially be nominated at the Democratic National Convention, which was originally scheduled to be held in mid-July in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — however, the pandemic forced the party to reschedule for the week of August 17. He won’t be able to use general election funds until his nomination is made official at the convention. The Biden campaign, along with the Democratic National Committee, raised $60.5 million in April, the last month for which reported data is available. The fundraising haul brought them close to even with the Republican National Committee and President Donald Trump’s fundraising efforts for that month, although the Republicans have a massive ($255 million to Biden’s $97.5 million) cash-on-hand advantage. Despite that financial disadvantage, Biden has enjoyed a steady lead in general election polling. A recent NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll of 1062 US adults found, Biden leads Trump 50 percent to 43 percent, a 7 percentage point lead — which is outside the margin of error of 3.8 percentage points. The president’s approval rating has fallen as the twin crises of mass protests against police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the pandemic have deepened. Biden seemed to recognize the unsettling moment as he acknowledged reaching the delegate threshold Friday. “I’m once again asking every American who feels knocked down, counted out, and left behind, to join our campaign,” he said in the statement. “Because we aren’t just building the movement that will defeat Donald Trump, we are building the movement that will transform our nation.”
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When China Met the West
As China comes into greater conflict with the West, and the United States in particular, now is a good time to consider the long arc of this relationship. In the West, Chinese history is commonly framed as having begun with the first Opium War, giving the impression that European powers always had the upper hand. But from the first direct contact between East and West—the arrival of the Portuguese in south China in the early 16th century—the Chinese were dominant.In 1517, they appeared near the famed trading haven of Guangzhou, strange and unruly barbarians in wooden sailing ships. The language they spoke was an unintelligible mystery, their eight vessels puny by the standards of Zheng He’s treasure junks, and their ultimate origins a bit hazy. But like all other seaborne ruffians, they wanted to trade for the rich silks and the other wonders of China. The Chinese came to call them folangji, a generic term used at the time to refer to Europeans. More specifically, they were the Portuguese, and they were the first Europeans to sail all the way to China.This post was excerpted from Schuman’s upcoming book. The adventurous mariners from the kingdom of Portugal had burst into the Indian Ocean in 1498, when Vasco da Gama rounded the cape of Africa and found his way to the southwestern coast of India. It was an Earth-rattling moment. Until then, Western Europe had been on the fringes of a global economy driven primarily by exchanges among China, India, and the Islamic world. Portugal was on the fringe of that fringe. All that would change. The arrival of the Portuguese in Asia heralded the coming ascendancy of the “West”—Europe, and later, America.The Portuguese incursion was an equally crucial turning point in the Chinese history of the world. In fact, it would alter the course of China’s history more drastically than anything that came before, with the possible exception of the original Qin unification in 221 B.C. It was one of those rare moments in time when two historical narratives that had been meandering along quite separately suddenly came crashing into each other. They quickly became entangled, and would never again be unwound.[Read: How China is planning to win back the world]The Chinese couldn’t have known any of this in 1517. To them, the Portuguese seemed just like any other trade-hungry barbarians who had ventured to China by boat, horse, and camel over many centuries—whether Sogdian, Indian, Persian, or Japanese.The Portuguese brought from Europe very different notions of trade and diplomacy than the Chinese had encountered before. More than that, though, the Portuguese were carrying on their wooden caravels an entirely unfamiliar culture from those the Chinese had previously met. Unlike the usual barbarians, who tended to adopt, at least in part, Chinese cultural practices, or participate in the rules and norms of the Chinese world order, the Portuguese and the Europeans who followed them to Asia thought their own civilization was superior. A clash was coming between peoples who each believed their civilization to be better than all others. The Chinese were simply unaccustomed to and unprepared for this sort of challenge from outsiders.Foreign barbarians could defeat China militarily, and even overrun the empire, but, in Chinese eyes, the Mongols, Xiongnu, and other foreign pests never upset the Chinese self-perception of exceptionalism. Many of the supposed conquerors seemed more like the conquered. The Europeans, fully confident in the value of their own civilization, would present a wholly new threat to the Chinese world order.There were already signs of what was to come from the earliest days of the Portuguese presence in Asia. When da Gama and his successors sailed into the Indian Ocean, they entered a world of well-established, multicultural trading networks and practices that had existed for eons. In the past, new entrants had simply joined the fray—including the Chinese. Zheng He, for example, wished to impress the world with Chinese power but didn’t seek to dominate the region and its trade. Wherever the Portuguese made landfall in Asia, the Chinese had already been. In southern India, da Gama was told tales of light-skinned, bearded men who had visited the coast generations earlier—references to Zheng He’s fleets, which had sunk their anchors off the coast almost a century prior.The Portuguese, though, were bred amid the mercantilist brutality of Europe, where separation among trade, war, and power was barely perceptible. They intended not to simply participate in the trade between East and West, but to control it. And they used new, aggressive tactics and superior weaponry to impose their will. When they reached the flourishing entrepôt at Malacca in Southeast Asia, the Portuguese sought to conquer, which they did in 1511. The maritime states of South and East Asia had never seen anything quite like the Portuguese before. Bottled up by the paranoid Ming, the Chinese were not quite aware of who they were dealing with and what they were up to, either.[Read: The end of Hong Kong]In the early 16th century, the Portuguese were about as much of a threat to the great Ming empire as gnats to an elephant. And at first, the Portuguese did little to challenge the Chinese system of trade. They sought relations with China very much like the standard seaborne barbarians who had been floating to Guangzhou for centuries. The 1517 mission carried Tomé Pires, a former pharmacist appointed by the Portuguese king as the country’s first official envoy to the Ming court. The Portuguese intended to become a vassal state of the Ming Son of Heaven and participate in tribute and trade like other barbarians, to gain access to lucrative Chinese goods. Their goal, in other words, was to join the Chinese world, not subvert it.Things got off to a rocky start. The flotilla, under the command of Fernão Peres de Andrade, was denied access to Guangzhou by a local naval commander. The suspicious Ming were constricting foreign trade; Portugal was not a formal tributary state, and therefore was not recognized by the dynasty’s officials as having the right to trade. After a month of waiting, Andrade threatened to sail on anyway, and the nervous local commander relented. Once at Guangzhou, Andrade unwittingly alarmed the town’s fussy functionaries by firing his cannon in salute, a serious faux pas in Chinese protocol. The Ming authorities were no more amused by Portuguese boasting about deposing Malacca’s king, a longtime loyal Chinese vassal. Fortunately, the honest and diplomatic Andrade smoothed matters over, and soon the two parties were exchanging pleasantries.Left: Portuguese explorer Afonso de Albuquerque, who sent Andrade and Pires to Ming China in 1517. Right: Ming emperor Zhengde. (Leemage / Corbis via Getty ; Alamy)The Portuguese were dazzled by what they found in Guangzhou. Its incredible wealth far surpassed anything back home. One contemporary Portuguese account records their wonderment at a lavish ceremony to welcome a governor returning to the city. “The ramparts were covered in silken banners, while on the towers reared flagstaffs from which also hung silken flags, so huge that they could be used as sails,” it reads. “Such is the wealth of that country, such is its vast supply of silk, that they squander gold leaf and silk on these flags where we use cheap colors and coarse linen cloth.”Andrade had arrived at an auspicious moment, when the emperor, Zhengde, was less hostile to foreigners and international exchanges than most of his Ming predecessors. Chinese officials in Guangzhou agreed to accept Pires and his retinue, to await permission to visit the emperor. When Andrade departed in 1518, he left relations with China on a solid footing. “Andrade had arranged matters in the city of [Guangzhou] and the country of China so smoothly that, after he had left, commerce between Portuguese and Chinese was conducted in peace and safety, and men made great profits,” one Portuguese scribe recorded. Not for long.Portuguese bellicosity quickly undid Andrade’s good work. His brother, Simão de Andrade, arrived on the China coast from Malacca in 1519, but this Andrade was a significantly different personality—“pompous, arrogant and spendthrift” by one account. He almost instantly alienated his hosts by building a fort on a Chinese island, forbidding other foreigners from trading ahead of him, and then abusing a Ming official who tried to assert control over the situation. By far the worst affront Simão committed was purchasing Chinese children, probably as servants. The Chinese, however, thought the Portuguese roasted the children for dinner, a claim that even made its way into the official history of the Ming dynasty: The Portuguese went “so far as to seize the children for food.” One Portuguese writer lamented that “within a few days their wretched behavior earned them the reputation not of friends and allies but of vile pirates and enemies.”The reports of this atrocious behavior sent to Beijing doomed the already-troubled Pires mission. The Portuguese ambassador had made his way to the capital, where he awaited an audience with the emperor. The climate was somewhat hostile. Chinese officials sent memorials to the court condemning the Portuguese for their ill treatment of the king of Malacca and advocating that the emperor reject the Pires embassy. Making matters worse, Pires handed the court a letter from the Portuguese sovereign, King Manuel I, that the Chinese found impertinent. It was composed “in the manner he customarily adopted towards pagan princes,” according to a Portuguese description.The death of the emperor in 1521 signaled the end of the mission. Pires was hustled out of Beijing the next day and sent back to Guangzhou. There he was forced to write to King Manuel of the emperor’s demand that the Portuguese restore the sultan of Malacca to his rightful throne, and Pires was held hostage for compliance. He would never leave China. Sometimes kept in harsh conditions and fettered, he died there in 1524.[Read: How China sees the world]The situation got uglier still when a new flotilla of Portuguese came to trade shortly after the emperor’s death. When news of his demise trickled in to Guangzhou, local officials ordered the Portuguese and all other foreign traders to depart. But the ornery Portuguese, already conducting business, refused. The Chinese assembled a sizable fleet and attacked the outnumbered Portuguese, sinking one of their vessels and taking prisoners. On two other occasions, Portuguese trading ships and Chinese war junks came to blows. Then, in 1522, another Portuguese squadron showed up off the Chinese coast with a commission to forge peaceful relations with the Ming. They blithely sailed into a Chinese onslaught that sank two of their three ships. The unfortunate Portuguese captured in these engagements endured a horrible end. “Twenty-three individuals were each hacked to pieces, losing their heads, legs and arms,” one surviving eyewitness recounted. “Their genitals were stuffed in their mouths, and the trunk of each body was wrapped around the belly in two chunks.”The Portuguese were pushed to the shadows of the China trade. Barred from official exchange, they spent the next 30 years engaged in the illegal, but still vibrant, trade that evaded Ming control. Yet, eventually, they were brought in from the cold. The trade with Portugal proved too lucrative to ignore, and local Ming officials began to see the usefulness of these belligerent newcomers. In 1557, Ming mandarins in southern China allowed the Portuguese to settle in a trading colony on the peninsula of Macau, a short distance from Guangzhou. Within five years, a community of about 900 Portuguese had collected there, building two churches and some modest homes. As trade became more liberal, the colony flourished even more. To the Chinese, Macau became a truly foreign place, with strange architecture, stranger people, and unfamiliar religious processions. Some local Chinese saw the settlement in Macau as a bad omen; others complained that it was no longer part of China. One European noted in the 1580s that it was “the natural tendency of the Chinese to fear and to bear ill will towards foreigners.” They called the Portuguese “foreign devils.”Undated illustration depicting a view of Macau. (Bettmann / Getty)Odder than Macau itself, though, was that the colony existed at all. The settlement was clearly outside the usual rules of trade and diplomacy that governed the Chinese world. Portugal was not able to forge formal relations with the Ming court like other countries that traded with the empire. Macau survived because it profited local officials and merchants who possessed the authority and nerve to defy the central government. An official Ming history criticized one such independent-minded mandarin for “valuing the precious goods (of the Portuguese), pretending to forbid but secretly allowing the evil to continue to grow.”[Read: China’s bargain on global influence is paying off]From their inception, relations with the West ran by different rules. The Chinese, though, retained the upper hand. The Portuguese had some nifty military technology, most of all their highly effective cannon, which the Chinese duly noticed. But the handful of ships they were capable of deploying on the Chinese coast could not possibly challenge Ming supremacy. (In fact, the expert seafarers of Portugal learned a thing or two about shipbuilding from the Chinese, including the practice of waterproofing wooden hulls with a coating of bitumen.) And just in case these folangji got out of line, a wall and a gate were constructed across the narrow point of the Macau peninsula in 1573, and the Portuguese were forbidden to cross it. Significantly, little farmland was enclosed on the Macau side of the wall, which left the Portuguese dependent on the Chinese for food. The Ming could simply lock the gate and starve these barbarians into submission. Macau existed only at China’s pleasure.Other gnats from the far-off “Western Ocean” were swatted just as effortlessly. The Spanish, led by Miguel López de Legazpi, sailed across the Pacific from Spain’s empire in the New World and took control of Manila in what became the Philippines. Almost immediately—in 1573—the first shipment of Chinese goods was dispatched from Manila to Acapulco in New Spain (now Mexico). The Spanish, like the Portuguese, tried to forge formal trading relations with the Ming but got nowhere. Nevertheless, Manila became a major hub of the China trade, and bulging Chinese junks brought prized porcelain and other products that then got shipped on to Mexico via Spanish galleons. Next came the Dutch. The first Dutch vessel appeared off the coast of Macau in 1601.The Portuguese chased off the competition, but they were back soon enough—too soon, if you asked the Ming authorities.These hongmao, or “red hairs,” as the Chinese called them, earned a reputation even worse than the folangji. In 1622, the Dutch occupied islands off the Fujian coast, started constructing a fort, and dispatched an ultimatum to the Ming authorities: If they didn’t allow Chinese traders to conduct business with them, the Dutch would attack Chinese shipping and coastal towns. When they didn’t receive a satisfactory response, the Dutch plundered hamlets and burned Chinese junks around the city of Xiamen. That was too much for the Chinese, who assembled a naval squadron in early 1624 and attacked the Dutch position, eventually forcing them to evacuate.Unable to gain a foothold on the Chinese coast, the Dutch instead settled on the island of Taiwan, where they erected a stout fortress called Casteel Zeelandia. Chinese junks sailed to this Dutch outpost to trade. It wasn’t the kind of trading relations the Dutch preferred, but it was all they had. These new barbarians, despite their persistence, were pushed to the margins of the Chinese world.This post was excerpted from Schuman’s upcoming book, Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World.
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