As early as 1513, Jorge de Albuquerque, a Portuguese commanding officer in Malaca, sent his subordinate Jorge Alvares to sail to China on a ship loaded with pepper from Sumatra.
After sailing many miles across the sea, Jorge Alvares and his crew dropped anchor in Tamao, an island located at the mouth of the Pearl River. This was to be the first time the Portuguese ever to set foot in the territory known as China, the mythical "Middle Kingdom."
Some letters from Italian merchants at that time recorded the first trade between the Chinese and Portuguese, claiming they "were not authorized to land as locals said that by allowing foreigners to enter their houses, they were violating social customs."
Even still, Jorge Alvares sold all the goods to local businessmen at a fair price.
Two years later, a commercial fleet under the command of Rafael Perestrelo began an expedition from Goa in India, with the hope of further trade with the people on the Pearl River.
The fleet profited greatly from this expedition and earnings were at a record high, with most of their commodities being made in the Southeast Asia countries.
Very few Chinese people knew who they were trading with and where this country was and how exactly to name the Portuguese. Instead they just called the foreigners Da Xi Yang Guo Ren (people from the Atlantic Ocean countries).
Rafael Perestrelo was even once quoted as saying, "being a very good and honest people, the Chinese hope to make friends with the Portuguese."
Since then, the two countries began an exchange in culture and trade that would span for nearly 500 years.
Many rare and precious items, such as official documents, books, maps, silk, porcelain and paintings were preserved for future generations in the museums and libraries of both nations.
For example, a woodcut by Ferdinand Verbiest in 1673 clearly depicts the Astronomical Observatory in Beijing. This was an important place for scientists from the two countries, as it gave them a chance to exchange research and findings in this field.
Thanks to the help of the Oriental Foundation, the Society of Tourism and Entertainment in Macao and the Institution of Camoes, dozens of the rare artifacts and pictures are now on display at the Millennium Art Museum.
The exhibition is divided into four parts, including "The discovery of the Middle Kingdom: Language and Country," "The Construction of Friendship: Trade and Diplomatic Mission," "The Scientific Knowledge: Exchanging History" and "Portuguese Books and Reading Materials in Todays' China."
"The exhibition not only allows people to look back at a distinguished time in our history, it is also an important reference for the future," said Simonetta Luz Afonso, president of the Institution of Camoes.
About a dozen organizations including the Institution of Camoes, the National Library in Lisbon and the Academy of Science in Lisbon, worked together to provide all the items for the exhibition.
The display "Portugal's discovery in China" ends on February 17.
(China Daily February 3, 2005)