Teochew through the eyes of its visitors: A Spanish Jesuit shipwrecked in Teochew (Part 2)

In 1625 a Spanish Jesuit Father sailing from Manila to Macau ended up in Teochew after his galleon was shipwrecked off its coast. Adriano de las Cortes was subsequently detained and spent a year in the prefecture. Upon his return to the Philippines, he wrote a manuscript that recollected his misfortune and captivity, as well as many things he observed of the strange world he found himself in.

This is Part 2 of our article “Teochew through the eyes of its visitors: A Spanish Jesuit shipwrecked in Teochew”. Part 1 can be read from here.


Well-built and tall, of white complexion, cheerful and good-looking. Cortes was largely complimentary of the physical appearance of the Teochew people, adding that they had black, slanted and small eyes, and noses snub and short, such that there was a good gap between the upper lip and the tip of the nose. The men wore beards as a reflection of stature, but it troubled them after they compared themselves to the Europeans and realised nature’s endowment to them on the chin was no more than a few hairs. The men also used pliers to remove all hair from the rest of their bodies.

Image 10: Saintly men seen around Teochew. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.

Jokingly, Cortes reported that the Teochews thought the European nose was ugly and thus whenever they wanted to paint an ugly man, they represented him with a nose like theirs. What a world of difference from these days with cosmetic surgeons selling us the “high nose” as something desirable!

What Cortes wrote about the character of the Teochew people, as he perceived, makes a far less pleasant read: “They are extremely subtle, cunning and deceitful, and they show neither friendship, fidelity, nor compassion to foreigners and, moreover, show very little of it among themselves”.

There is no doubt that Cortes’ negative opinions were formed from the moment he and his fellow shipwreck survivors were seized on the beach at Zenghai and treated violently with a thousand or so locals watching on indifferently. It also scarred him that the mandarin in Zenghai subsequently had the foreigners paraded through town with nooses around their necks and soldiers in front of them carrying little red flags proclaiming them as "thieves and corsairs" who fought the Chinese and, grotesquely, poles with the heads of their companions that were severed. It later became apparent that the mandarin was eager to falsely represent the foreigners as pirates because he wanted to conceal his embezzlement of a cargo of silver from their marooned galleon. If there was any consolation, it was that the provincial authorities in Guangzhou ordered the arrest of this mandarin after they found out about his deceit.

Image 11: Two men pleading with the mandarin. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.


Cortes reserved his greatest disdain for the men in the Ming militia, who “do not behave like soldiers regardless of how much they practised and exhibited a total lack of military lustre”. He mocked how their “skirmishes and drills seem more laughable than warlike” and disclosed that the prisoners frequently went to observe them just to “have a good laugh”. However, Cortes’ disrespect for the Chinese army was not stemmed from their lack of finesse, but the fact that they beat the lesser ranks with the cane.

Image 12: The soldiers and their weapons. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.


The first time Cortes saw the use of this instrument of punishment was in Pongziu when the mandarin ordered a man to be flogged for the “crime” of accidentally breaking a door. He knew about other types of torture, punishments and penalties inflicted in the prisons. However, the use of what he called "a softener of wills and a finisher of lawsuits" seemed to be the most common. For Cortes was able to describe in detail the manners in which canning was delivered, the parts of the body that it hit, the cuts and bleeding they caused, as well as how a bribe to the executioner could save a person some pain. These led him to muse how easy it was for a king in China to rule his subjects and control his dominion by merely brandishing a cane.

The emperors of Ming of course had many more tools in their armoury to preserve their autocracy. In the name of building a nation based on Confucian hierarchical order, the self-proclaimed sons of heaven instituted a network of control systems to ensure the submission and obedience of the millions of people under them. For a man of commoner background, he was already determined from the day of his birth by a hereditary occupation system to be a peasant, soldier, artisan or salt worker in his adult life. A household register kept the records of his identity and family, and a travel passport made sure that he did not move beyond the radius of his place of domicile without the knowledge of the authorities. Should he display any sign of disorderliness or refuse to pay his tax and contribute his labour to the state, relatives and neighbours in the same household clusters under the baojia 保甲 (communal self-defence) and lijia 理甲(rural self-administration) systems would be obliged to report him. The whole of Ming China was a giant virtual prison.

Image 13: Offenders wearing the cangue. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.


It must have been surreal for the Spaniard to find schools set up in nearly every corner of this land of tyranny. “There is no small village of twenty or forty houses that does not have its school, or a town or even a street with several schools”, he wrote. “Almost at every step, we will chance upon one and we hear the children following the lesson in unison”. These schools were typically run by a single teacher with 12 to 15 boys under his wings.

According to Cortes, the students were taught first of all to read and write Mandarin, which was the literary language of China in which works of all kinds were written. It was so-called because it was used in the communications of officials. Secondly, the students studied the letters and the art of rhetoric in speaking well and knowing how to carry out lengthy discourses on particular subjects. They also indulged in verses and poems, philosophy, some mathematics as well as astrology. The majority of students were content to learn to read. However, the gifted and intelligent, the sons of important Chinese and Mandarins, continued to study more difficult subjects. They did so either at home with private masters or by entering colleges, where the learning of the arts would enable them to attain offices and dignities and to become mandarins.

Cortes did not explicitly state so, but he must have admired the proliferation of schools in Teochew as enlightenment ahead of time. He connected the trend with another phenomenon he observed in Teoyor, and later other Chinese cities, which was the local populations having large numbers of children under the age of 12. He further deduced that the high level of fertility was due to the permissibility of men to take as many wives and concubines to ensure the fathering of heirs, until the limits of their means and desire. Or at least that was how things were meant to be.

Our people's pain and the shame

Tragically, Cortes saw a distressing and widespread practice of women throwing babies into the rivers as soon as they are born, even if they were healthy and well-constituted. Those who carried out the deeds did so in full view of everyone, without any kind of fear or prudence, suggesting that they had at least the implicit consent of their families. They were usually mothers of other children, who feared they were unable to raise another one due to poverty. But Cortes was told that honourable and fairly wealthy families also committed infanticide, out of fear that they might one day have problems providing for all their children  and be forced to sell them to others as slaves. More often than not the babies killed were female. This was because the Confucian statutes forbade women from engaging in economic activities outside the household and girls were therefore regarded as burdens to the family.

Image 14: The women in Teochew. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.


If having enough food on the table was a concern even for well-to-do families, why were the families willing to send their sons to schools? The short answer is that any form of achievement in the Chinese civil service examinations offered a man and his descendants a ticket to break free from the hereditary occupation and all the other chains that he had otherwise no means of escape unless he chose to be a bandit or pirate.

A person who passed the entry-level civil service examinations at the county or prefecture could earn the title of xiucai 秀才, which came with official benefits such as monthly allowances of rice, exemption from statute labour and limited immunity against corporal punishments. The rewards were more tremendous should he be able to progress further at the provincial examinations to become a juren 舉人 and at the imperial examinations to become a jinshi 進士. Both of these promised gentry status and an imperial office that came with social, political and economic privileges and could allow the lowly to permanently lift the position and fortunes of his family, if not the entire clan, and the already advantaged to perpetuate his family’s elite status.

Image 15: Men having dinner. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.


Confucian philosophy has its roots in the teachings of Confucius in the Chinese Spring and Autumn historical period (770-481 BCE). Coinciding with its revitalisation during the late Tang and Song periods. many members of the Confucian literati came to the originally animist and Buddhist Teochew region to establish schools, promote its literary culture and initiate a range of socio-economic reforms, such as ending debt-slavery and the building of irrigation. While they were able to make headways, a common grouse of the scholar-officials sent to govern the Teochew people recorded in the 13th century Sanyang Zhi 三陽志 was how the fairer sex here did not dress in conformity with the “civilised” standards of the Chinese Central Plains, roam the streets at will, eat on the same table with men, and get married without matchmakers. This tells us that male chauvinism was not part of original Teochew values and culture.

Just like the Confucian officials from Song, Cortes was an outsider to Teochew and a teacher of morals, and he saw manifestations of evil that the locals had perhaps become blind or numb to. However, the differences were Confucianism was now sponsored by the Ming imperial court and the preeminent ideological system, but the society was stripped of its humanity, soul and compassion. And while many boys and young men were groomed to be well-versed in the Confucian tenets, the objective was for them to join the oppressors, rather than to free the oppressed. It might probably not surprise Cortes if he was told Ming China would collapse less than twenty years after his departure.

Image 16: The mandarin and his entourage. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.


Cortes' Illustrations

Aside from his written insights, Cortes’ manuscript contained a second part, which in his words “renders in paintings and diagrams the most remarkable things described in the first part, cross-referenced with its chapters enlarged with novel matters and descriptions pertaining to each painting".

These ink drawings were made by a Chinese in Manila under Cortes’ instructions. As the Chinese traditionally painted only beautiful things—portraits, landscapes, and flowers and birds—the artworks captured rare snapshots of sights in the world our Teochew forebears once lived that we could not otherwise see.

Some of these illustrations are displayed throughout our articles. More are shown below:

Image 17: The mandarin on his horse. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.
Image 18: A man on the sedan chair. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.

Image 19: Saintly men. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.

Image 20: Artisans at work. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.

Image 21: Hunting for musk. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.

Image 22: Clothing and accessories. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.

Image 23: Clothing and accessories. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.

Image 24: Clothing and accessories. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.
Image 25: Clothing and accessories. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.
Image 26: Clothing and accessories. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.
Image 27: Clothing and accessories. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.
Image 28: Clothing and accessories. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.
 Image 29: Clothing and accessories. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.
Image 30: Clothing and accessories. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.
Image 31: Clothing and accessories. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.
Image 32: Clothing and accessories. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.
 Image 33: Clothing and accessories. Illustration by Adriano de las Cortes.


Cortes died shortly after he completed his manuscript in May 1629. As such, the work was not known to the world until it was published in Spanish by Beatriz Moncó Rebollo under the title Viaje de la China (“Journey to China”) in 1991. A French translation by Pascale Girard, Le voyage en Chine, appeared ten years later. At the moment, there is no English or Chinese version of this fascinating work. Perhaps there is a Teochew out there who can do us the favour.



  • 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

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