“An Object of Seduction: Chinese Silk in the Early Modern Transpacific Trade, 1500–1700” by Xiolin Duan

Textile with crowned double headed eagles, second half 16th century, Chinese, Macao, for Iberian market (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Textile with crowned double headed eagles, second half 16th century, Chinese, Macao, for Iberian market (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Whether the Manila Galleon—the crossings between Manila and Acapulco that began three-quarters of the way through the 16th century—really ushered what has since come to be called “globalization” remains a matter of some debate, but one which depends more on what is considered globalization rather than the global significance of this trade itself.

While the broader macro-economic and political effects of the Manila Galleon have been (relatively) widely written about, discussions of the effects on individual industries and society are less accessible. Xiolin Duan’s An Object of Seduction: Chinese Silk in the Early Modern Transpacific Trade, 1500–1700 dives into what was perhaps the most important of the various Asian manufacturers in global markets. Silk, furthermore,

 

was not just subject to globalization but was also an active agent, forming aesthetics and shaping lives.

 

An Object of Seduction: Chinese Silk in the Early Modern Transpacific Trade, 1500–1700 , Xiaolin Duan (Lexington Books, February 2022)
An Object of Seduction: Chinese Silk in the Early Modern Transpacific Trade, 1500–1700 , Xiaolin Duan (Lexington Books, February 2022)

The first Chinese silk—712 bales of it—reached Mexico in 1573 one of the very earliest ships. Mexico, as it turned out, already had a thriving silk industry introduced from Spain:

 

… there seemed to be little room for foreign textiles. However, only 30 years, the Spanish Crown issued a ban against all Chinese silk out of the fear of competition.

 

No one seemed to pay much attention.

 

The Crown reissued bans several times in the seventeenth century: in 1602, 1604, 1609, 1620, 1634, 1636, and again in 1706.

 

The lack of central control in both New Spain and China, despite the authorities’ best efforts, is a recurring theme of Duan’s study.

 

China and Spain shared concerns about widespread smuggling as discrepancies emerged between trade bans on paper and practices in reality. Such concerns, however, came out for different reasons: while the Chinese government worried about the border security along the coastline, the Spanish Crown cared more about their revenue income from colonies.

 

The overseas demand for silk drove not just growth of the industry in China, but specifically, “expanded private production”, which in turn drove the development of a “a free labor market for artisans” and increased labor mobility, while Mexico emerged as a significant economic player in its own right:

 

Connections in the global market challenged the state’s authority, foreshadowing the collapse in effectiveness of these empires’ authority over the local societies.

 

There were micro-economic and industrial consequences as well:

 

The foreign market also promoted innovations in silk production. In the sixteenth century, the people of Zhangzhou started to specialize in weaving velvet for the export market. Gazetteers during the Wanli reign recorded that velvet originally came from foreign countries but later circulated widely within the domestic market … Some Chinese weavers even created “Spanish” fabrics with European patterns.

 

Meanwhile, in Mexico

 

imitations of Chinese products fostered technological improvements and further refinements of domestic goods. The hybridizations of Chinese and European styles enriched the fashion trends in New Spain.

A Spanish naval officer reported a profit margin of 400 percent for shipping Chinese silk from Manila to New Spain.

The profits on both sides of the trade were enormous. Duan quotes Chinese official He Qiaoyuan in 1630:

 

When our Chinese subjects journey to trade in the West Ocean, they trade the goods we produce for the goods of others. But when engaging in trade in Luzon, they have designs solely on silver coins …. A hundred jin of Huzhou silk yarn worth 100 taels can be sold at a price of 200 to 300 taels there …

 

while

 

in 1638, a Spanish naval officer reported a profit margin of 400 percent for shipping Chinese silk from Manila to New Spain.

 

Duan provides interesting details as to how the trade was in fact managed. In addition to widely exceeding caps and quotas,

 

The trade usually ran on credit. Ambitious Spaniards dealt with Chinese merchants a year in advance, arranging to meet the smaller Chinese boats off the shores of Luzon. They would purchase the commodities at wholesale prices. Merchants in Mexico City rushed to complete their deals before the galleon arrived in Mexico. Goods were usually sold out before the ship had even come into dock. This credit-based trading system continued through the nineteenth century …

“Foreignness” was as desirable in China as in the West.

Duan goes on to discuss silk’s role in the development of fashion

 

The circulation of silk was fundamental in enhancing cosmopolitan consumer knowledge. Discourse and discussion about silk expanded beyond the realm of technological and commercial records, and encompassed the values of the time, the identity of individuals, and the collective consciousness of the globe.

 

“Foreignness”, as it turns out, was as desirable in China where Western-derived velvet and “Japanese brocade” (woduan, which Duan says also probably also had Western origins) became popular, as it was in the markets of Spanish America:

 

the style introduced by Asian craftsmen was widely welcomed, and the passion likely came from the fact that these styles and textiles were different and unique, and represented a distant culture… It was from this consumption and following the globally circulated fashion that people in Mexico perceived their position in place and time.

 

Duan goes so far as to claim that

 

the purchase of Asian silk could also be regarded as a collective manifestation of the desire for a greater independence from Spanish control …

 

while in China,

 

burgeoning global links contributed to the ineffectiveness of state administration of local economic development.

 

And, as always, the past isn’t even past:

 

Legacies of the early modern silk trade between China and New Spain continue to influence these regions today. In present-day Mexico, the Oaxaca region is still a place of silk production. The producers there face fierce competition from producers in China for the U.S. apparel market.Meanwhile, the battle between imported and indigenous silk continues to be a challenge for the Mexican silk industry.

 

Despite the somewhat sexy title, An Object of Seduction is an academic book targeting an academic audience. Duan however writes well, and has a knack for finding quotable primary sources to add color to the narrative. This might be not the first book to turn for those interested in the formative period of the global economy, but Duan fills in much detail that previously harder to find.

Part of Duan’s aim is to take aim at “Eurocentric” narratives:

 

In discussing early modern global development, one myth is the “Rise of the West,” or how parts of Europe came to dominate the world. Social critics, historians, and economists tried to point to something within Europe’s culture or genetics which accounted for its exceptionalism, a process leading to the Eurocentric narrative. In macro-economic models, globalization creates a world system with Europe at its center; in political integration models, European states or empires provide the standard against which other policies are measured. In both cases, European patterns of development become a universal example. Such a Eurocentric perspective, however, distorts the histories of past centuries and the complexities of global events.

 

This is perhaps less necessary now than it may have been even in the recent past. Nevertheless, globalization means just that and a lot of it had little directly to do with Europe.


Peter Gordon is the editor of the Asian Review of Books and co-author of The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815.