Portugal first leased land in Macao around the middle of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644); shortly afterwards, Western merchants began arriving to trade. Along with the merchants, a considerable number of Catholic missionaries also arrived. Macao did not become a colony of Portugal until 1887 when the Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Peking was signed. A combination of corruption, incompetence, and excessive concessions made by Beijing in the late Qing dynasty (1644–1911) allowed Portugal to gradually gain control of the island. The treaty officially transferred Macao to Portugal. Following the Carnation Revolution in the 1970s, the newly formed Portuguese government recognized Macao as a Chinese territory. Formal diplomatic ties between China and Portugal were established and in late 1999, Macao was returned to Chinese sovereignty. Over the past four hundred years, the region has seen the relations between the two countries grow and develop.
Macao is a melting pot of Chinese and Portuguese culture. For several centuries, Portuguese and Chinese people lived in Macao in an atmosphere of mutual respect. This cultural relationship between China and Portugal first led to the founding in Macao of St. Paul’s College by the Society of Jesus, which became the Catholic Church’s communication center in Asia. The Portuguese introduced Western movable type printing to the Far East. Macao’s historical background and location have led to mutual influence and assimilation of Chinese and Portuguese culture. More importantly, there have been four hundred years of intermarriage between Chinese and the Portuguese. These two cultural exchanges have formed the distinct character of Macao culture. Macao has many old Chinese and Western cultural relics. Most of the buildings that combine Eastern and Western architectural style have integrated Chinese and Portuguese elements.
Marriage between Chinese and Portuguese first contributed to the formation of local Portuguese ethnic groups in Macao. Chinese-Portuguese intermarriage can be traced back several centuries resulting in mixed-race groups. In addition, during this extended period of interaction, cultural integration between Portuguese and Macao local Chinese culture took place, resulting in a new culture that was an amalgam of both cultures. First, the descendants of these marriages are bilingual in both Chinese and Portuguese—they are specifically proficient in Portuguese. Second, they are at home in both Portuguese and Chinese culture. Many local Portuguese identify with Portuguese culture and consider themselves as Portuguese. Historically, based on the role of Portugal in Macao, local-born Portuguese have enjoyed certain advantages.
From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, as Western missionaries traveled back and forth between China and the West, European intellectuals developed a strong interest in Chinese philosophy and culture, resulting in the “Chinese culture fever” that exerted an important influence on the Enlightenment. Concomitant to their great nautical discoveries, the Portuguese provided convenient transport and material support for Western missionaries who traveled to the East. Two bases, Goa and Macao, provided key human and material resources for Jesuit missionaries who went to China. Portuguese missionaries contributed greatly to cultural exchange between China and the West. In addition to numerous translations of Ruist (a.k.a. Confucian) classics, the missionaries also introduced the Chinese governmental and civil examination systems to the West. The Chinese examination system was even deemed an advanced selection system.
Furthermore, the Portuguese merchant fleet was the first to land in China, and it was the first to trade porcelain in large quantities with China. The Portuguese purchased blue-and-white porcelain from mainland China, loaded the cargo in Macao, and then transported it to Europe. This trade was responsible for the introduction of blue-and-white porcelain into the continent. The Chinese porcelain also exerted a strong pull on Portuguese artisans who began making their own blue-and-white porcelain. Not only was their work done to a very high standard, for some, it is synonymous with Portuguese art.