Teochew through the eyes of its visitors: A Spanish Jesuit shipwrecked in Teochew (Part 1)

Three words that strike fear in every Teochew child: pah ka-ceng 拍尻倉!

Did you know that this was once also a punishment meted out to adults in China? A Jesuit Father learned this shuddering fact, and more, when a shipwreck made him an accidental visitor to the Teochew region 400 years ago.


Image 1: Cane beatings in Teochew during the Ming dynasty. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.


Adriano de las Cortes was born in Spain’s Aragon province in 1580. At the age of 25, he went to the Philippines to carry out religious work. In January 1625 Cortes sailed from Manila on a diplomatic mission to Macau. However, the galleon he was on was caught in a violent storm and it floundered off the coast of Teochew prefecture, near a place called Chingaiso.

Over 80 men survived the disaster. Amongst them were Portuguese, Spanish, Indians, Japanese and Moors. They were arrested onshore by 300 armed men who received them with hostility. Five unfortunate souls had their heads cut off and the captain of the ship lost a piece of his ear, even though Cortes pleaded that none of them did anything that caused offence. With ropes tied around their necks like a leash, the foreigners were dragged along like collared cattle to the Chingaiso town.

Image 2: Prisoners. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.

Following several days of interrogation by their captors and the local mandarin, the foreigners were made to walk on foot from town to town till they came to a well-populated city called Toyo. They were further questioned by mandarins of higher rank as their case stirred the interest of the officialdom. The weakest of the prisoners were later on put on two sampans and sent upriver to the region’s capital, Chauchiufu. The spectre of the death penalty hung over the heads of the prisoners after the mandarin from Chingaiso accused them of being pirates who robbed and did evil, killing people and hiding their silver in China. Fortunately, a Chinese interpreter who spoke Portuguese was found at Chauchiufu and this enabled the prisoners to tell their side of the story.

With their case unresolved, Cortes and 13 others were taken away to be confined at Panchiuso, a town of eight to ten thousand inhabitants. They remained in limbo for several months. Their guards gradually lost interest in watching over them. This enabled Cortes to visit a few surrounding settlements, including Aymanso, where a Japanese Jesuit was incarcerated, and Amptao, a town that served as the entrepôt and emporium of the whole Teochew prefecture.

Through the relentless negotiations of the Portuguese in Macau with officials of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), a boat arrived on Christmas day of 1625 to fetch Cortes and his companions to Guangzhou. This commenced a 23-day journey up north and down south through many important towns and mountain passes. Cortes’ 16-month ordeal finally ended when he left Macau for Manila at the end of April 1626.

The cities and towns Cortes visited

Shortly after the Ming dynasty was established in China in 1368, its founding Emperor Hongwu began remodelling the empire after an ideal Confucian society centred on autocracy, rigid social hierarchies and an agricultural economy.  A blanket ban on maritime activities also barred the Teochews and other southern Chinese from sailing to Southeast Asia as they had done for centuries during the preceding Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties. Yet the China trade remained lucrative. The prohibitions merely encouraged contraband trading, often done with the abetment of local mandarins, and drew Portuguese and Japanese adventurers and traders, and later the Spanish, Dutch and English, towards the Chinese coast.

During this period, the offshore island of Namoa frequently served as a rendezvous point for smugglers from Teochew and their foreign counterparts. However, it is not known that any outsider had dared to visit the Teochew mainland, much less explored its interiors. This makes invaluable, an account that Cortes wrote upon his return to Manila, which he titled “First part of the narrative written by Fr. Adriano de las Cortes of the Society of Jesus, concerning the voyage, shipwreck and captivity which he endured with others in Chaucheo, in the great kingdom of China, and all that he saw from the places where he stayed”.

It is an understatement to say Cortes did not have the best first impressions of Teochew and its people after his traumatic experience on the Chingaiso beach. He felt further humiliated when men, women and children flocked daily to the houses where the prisoners were detained and inspected them as if they were alien specimens. Some even tried to touch their hair, hands or feet, as the dark-skinned amongst them became objects of marvel after the natives realised they could not be made whiter by washing. It was little wonder that Cortes thought he was in “a region where villages are populated by very ignorant and barbaric Chinese”.

Cortes’ first meal in Teochew was “a small bowl of badly cooked rice, meat and a chunk of pickled parsnip”. When he asked for drinking water, he was served “hot water cooked with herbs”. His first sip of tea woke him to the fact that he had as much to discover about the strange world that fate had brought him to, as its people were curious about him. Subsequent events led him to realise Chingaiso was only a small place.

A Chinese researcher, Xu Zhihong, was able to match the names of the places Cortes reportedly visited with actual localities in Teochew. Chauchiufu was of course a transliteration of Chaozhoufu 潮州府in Mandarin and it refers to the historical Teochew prefectural city 潮州府城.

Chingaiso was Zenghai-so 靖海所 is Zenghai 靖海 (Jinghai in Mandarin), a town in Huilai county; Panchiuso is Pongziu 蓬州 (Pengzhou), a forerunner settlement of Swatow and now a neighbourhood in this city; and Aymanso is Haimeng 海門 (Haimen), a town in the former Teoyor 潮陽 (Chaoyang) county. The suffix “so” 所 (suo), refers to Qianhusuo 千户所, which was a Ming-era military unit of a thousand soldiers (1120 to be precise). This shows Chingaiso, Panchiuso and Aymanso were military settlements and explains the detention of prisoners in these three places.

Toyo was Teoyor’s administrative city. As for Amptao, notwithstanding Cortes’ rendition of its name, it is almost certainly Ampou 庵埠 (Anbu), a town within an hour and a half walk from Pongziu. Its designation as the location of the Teochew prefecture chief maritime customs office by the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in 1730 corroborates Cortes’ portrayal of it as an important hub of trade.


A Picture of Prosperity

The bigger settlements may also be identified by the landmarks that Cortes described. For instance, Cortes spoke of Teoyor as a walled city with 30,000 inhabitants protected by a moat with many boats and rafts made of reed and wood. It had a tall beautiful tower that “none of the churches in Manila could compare”, well-built houses, and a main street with “some triumphal arches here and there, built very beautifully in their grandeur with lovely stonework”. The city wall, many of the houses as well as the arches—these being more accurately memorial arches 牌坊, did not survive the 20th century. However, the tower, which is Bhungguang-tah (文光塔, literally “Brilliance of Literature Pagoda”), a Song-era structure that was rebuilt in 1635, remains and it stands over what’s left of the old moat.

Image 3: Bhungguang Tah 文光塔 and the Teoyor city moat. Source: Teochew Home News 《潮州鄉訊》 16 June 1956 issue.

Cortes travelled on a river to the Teochew Prefectural City, whose banks were entirely populated by hamlets and villages, some of which were surrounded by walls. This river was Hangkang 韓江 (Han River), the “mother river” of the Teochew region. As he approached the city, Cortes saw two beautiful stone and brick towers, which reminded him of the Torre Nueva de Zaragoza and the Micalet of Valencia in Spain.

Image 4: Torre Nueva de Zaragoza, built in 1504 and demolished in 1892, on the left (drawing by Gustave Doré in 1874) and the Micalet, also called Miguelete Tower of the Valencia Cathedral, completed in 1429, on the right (photo by Julio Ainaud in 1870).


One of these towers was Lengciu Bo-tah 龍湫寶塔 (Dragon Spring Pagoda), another building from the Song period, that was among the Teochew Prefectural City’s eight famous sights before its collapse during Qing. The other is its replica Honghuang-tah 鳳凰塔 (Phoenix Pagoda), which was completed in the 1580s. Like Bhungguang-tah, Honghuang-tah has seven storeys and an octagonal structure, which fits with Cortes’ recollection that the towers near the prefectural capital had eight beautiful galleries that went around them.

Cortes added that the towers contained the tombs of mandarins and Chinese characters engraved on them explained that the towers could help one ascend to heaven. The suggestion here of a mausoleum function is a matter of curiosity, but it syncs with records that Lengciu Bo-tah had stood in the middle of lush forests and Buddhist temples, as well as Bhungguang-tah’s reputation as a “thousand Buddha pagoda” 千佛塔.

Image 5: Postcard image of Honghuang Tah 鳳凰塔 dated circa 1910s. Source: Memories of Old Swatow.


Despite being a prisoner, Cortes was permitted the freedom to roam the prefectural city’s main street and explore its iconic Siangze-kie湘子橋 (Xiangzi Bridge). He described the main street as very wide and long, and lined with shops on both sides. The shops sold goods from all trades and things to eat, and there were taverns too. In front of them were awnings and small displays selling to passersby fruits, vegetables, seafood, fresh and dried fish, and on the tables, pork, beef or other meats. The life and vibrancy were given a sense of order by a row of 26 memorial arches on the street, “all with large and imposing stonework and strangely carved columns with marvellous architecture and tracery”, that formed “a complex assembly of features of unparalleled beauty which I had never seen before, non-existent in Europe and each one enough to bring honour to any city in Spain”.

This main street is today known as Taipeng-lou 太平路 (Taiping Road), or colloquially referred Baihuang-goi 牌坊街 (“Memorial Arches Street”). History tells us that the first of the memorial arches Cortes saw was built in 1517. A total of 90 more were added through the rest of Ming and Qing to honour those who were deemed to have achieved the highest standards of Confucian scholarship and morality. For a variety of reasons, these arches were demolished in the 1950s, although a total of 23 arches have been reconstructed since 2004.

Image 6: Photo of a row of arches on Baihuang-goi 牌坊街 dated before 1950.. Source: Historical Photos of Teochew 旧影潮州


Siangze-kie, in Cortes’ time, was a large stone bridge that had from side to side twenty very large arches connected in the middle by a row of boats. The design, he reckoned, was either for defensive purposes or to allow boats to pass from one side of the bridge to the other. The size and quality of the stones used for its construction left a deep impression on him, almost as much as how it was also a “beautiful and pleasant” street with two hundred shops on each side, offering cooked dishes, confectionary, fruits and other edibles, haberdashery and other goods of great value.

Image 7: Possibly the oldest photo of Siangze-kie 湘子橋, taken by John Thomson in 1869. It shows the shops on the bridge's narrowest parts overhanging partially above the Hangkang and interconnected by a roof, which were features mentioned by Cortes in 1625. Source: Through China with a Camera.


Cortes reported that Ampou was extremely populous and busy. Numerous wooden bridges spanned the many arms of various rivers that crisscrossed it and the waterways were always crowded with boats. In this town, the man from Spain saw beautiful houses, a few temples, many places of study and above all, a well-built wooden tower that he compared to the fortresses of Japan. This tower was probably Bhung-goh文閣 (the “Literary Court”), a three-storey pagoda erected in late Ming, possibly only a few years before Cortes’ time. Also named Kue-ce-lao 魁星樓, after the Chinese Deity of Examinations, it was a symbol of the ascendency of the Confucian literary culture, which differentiated it from the previously mentioned pagodas that were of Buddhist traditions.

Image 8: Bhung-goh 文閣, also called Kuece-lao 魁星樓 . Source: Teochew Home News 《潮州鄉訊》 1 February 1952 issue. This may be the only surviving image of the pagoda, which was torn down in 1968.


In his travels between places, Cortes noticed countless fields of wheat, barley, and rice. At the same time, there was extensive rearing of livestock (pigs and poultry) and fishing, and cultivation of fruits and vegetables, even though the people ate more fish than meat. He also learned about the local people’s appetite for dog meat, which they usually killed by clubbing as this made the meat more tasty and tender.

The scenes Cortes saw are consistent with the Teochew prefecture’s reputation during Ming as the rice bowl of Southeast China, which includes the Teochew prefecture’s hinterlands, Fujian, and sometimes the adjacent provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Evidently, an extensive proportion of Teochew’s cultivable land had now been “tamed” and put to agricultural use. However, this was not achieved without a price.

During the months that Cortes was kept at Pongziu, he received frequent news of locals being killed by tigers in the vicinity. Very likely the attacks were the result of relentless human encroachment into feline territory, just like how the beginning of large-scale agriculture activities had brought farmers in Teochew into conflict with elephants some 500 years before. Somewhat ironically, Cortes considered the tiger threat to be greater than the danger posed by crocodiles in the Philippines, not realising that crocodiles were the bane of Teochew people that they only managed to eliminate with the reclamation of swamps and wetlands for farming purposes. No wild crocodiles, elephants or tigers can be found today in Teochew.

Image 9: Tigers attacking people in Teochew. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.


According to Cortes, the Teochew prefectural city had no equal in grandeur or beauty in China, with perhaps the exception of Guangzhou, which was historically China’s biggest port city. His testimony affirmed the complete transformation of the Teochew region from a remote wilderness to a prosperous centre of affluence on the Chinese coast in over eight centuries since the disgraced Confucian Han Yu was banished here and initiated a slew of changes from improving water irrigation, liberating slaves, and opening schools to promote education.

Having said this, it is notable that the Jesuit Father noted with care how most of the people in Teochew lived most frugally. They found a use for everything, from bits of paper that they recycled to make coarser paper to shreds of fabric that were turned into the soles of their shoes and blankets and loose bristles of hair brushes and the hairs of animals that were recovered to make paint brushes. He also told of how people competed for the job of sweeping shop floors as this offered the opportunity of gathering specks of silver dust that might have fallen into crevices.

Evidently, wealth, and power, were concentrated in the hands of a few. The ills brought upon the society and its people by this imbalance did not escape Cortes.


Part 2 to be continued...



  • Cortes, A. de las. (2001). Le voyage en chine. (P. Girard, Ed.). Chandeigne.
  • Rebollo, B. M. (n.d.). The Jesuit Adriano de las Cortes and Chinese culture. 澳門特別行政區政府文化局 Instituto Cultural de Governo da R.A.E de Macau. http://www.icm.gov.mo/rc/viewer/20031/1215
  • Zhihong, X. (2022). A research about the Chinese terminology in Viaje de la China by Adriano de las Cortes. Sinología Hispánica. China Studies Review, 13(2), 101–126. https://doi.org/10.18002/sin.v13i2.7231

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