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History of Macau and Its Role in Chinese Culture Essay Example

Macau is a special administrative region in the People’s Republic of China, which means that it falls within Beijing’s sovereignty, but at the same time has some legal preferences typical for an autonomy. It is situated on the Macau Peninsula, which in its turn is nestled on the western shore of the Pearl River Delta where the Pearl River disembogues into the South China Sea. Curiously, Hong Kong, the second special administrative region of China, lies on the opposite shore of the Pearl River Delta only 35 miles away. Although Macau has the area of only 11.6 square miles (Cheng 1), it is also washed by the South China Sea and abuts Guangdong Province in the north. However, it has only about 340 yards of land border with Guangdong province (Cheng 1) and is not, therefore, generally considered to be a part of mainland China. Originally Macau was an island, but the tidal sandbar linking it with mainland China has gradually become an isthmus, thereby establishing a permanent overland connection between the two areas. With population estimated at 636,000 in 2014, which translates into about 57,000 people per square mile, Macau has the title of the most densely populated area on the globe. Because of its unique geographical situation and a generally clement climate, Macau has attracted attention of foreign powers throughout its history.

The present paper delves deep into the Macau’s history as early as the mid-16th century and briefly accounts main watersheds up to the present time, focusing on Macau’s culture, economy, and politics. The bottom line is that Macau’s history replete with such negative aspects as foreign subjugation and such positive ones as decolonization is rich in landmark events that have shaped its present form.

Culture of Macau in Historical Context

It is necessary to note at the outset that Macau’s culture is a unique product of centuries-long interaction of the Portuguese and Chinese cultures. This interaction has been possible owing to largely inclusive ethnic, religious, political, and economic policies of the city’s founders. Established in 1557 by the Portuguese settlers as en entrepôt on route to the Far East, Macau initially had a Portuguese identity. However, starting from the late 16th century, other small groups of settlers like the British, Indians, and the Japanese arrived in Macau. For example, according to Puga, “the British presence in Macau stemmed from Elizabethan interest in Portuguese profit-making in the East Indies, and began with the arrival in 1635 of the first English vessel, the London, in Macau” (1). In a way, Macau became the gate to mainland China for European powers. As Puga put it, sailing to China meant “putting in at the port of Macau” and, therefore, these two “place-names became synonymous by a synechdochical process” (2).

Nonetheless, Portugal maintained the heaviest presence in Macau among European maritime powers. Although residents of the island (it was an island at the time) had a clear Portuguese identity, the blending of the Portuguese and Chinese cultures began from early on as the Portuguese authorities allowed Chinese immigration. Because of Macau’s rather cordial ties with imperial China, an exclusivist ethnic policy was never a figure of speech on the island. On the contrary, it had an inclusive citizenship policy. Still, it should be noted that the populace of Macau was historically loyal to Portugal up to the late 20th century. In stark contrast to Hong Kong, which was taken from China by force, Macau never had a political allegiance to China. However, to complete formalities, China signed a treaty in 1887, ceding Macau to China and thereby giving up its claims to the island (Hao 31).

Oftentimes, those Chinese nationals who arrived in Macau from mainland China fled from wanton violence, political and economic repressions, or other untoward circumstances leveled against them in mainland China. However, even though they were unsatisfied with some aspects of life in imperial China, they did not renounce their adherence to the ways and mores acceptable in China. Consequently, a distinguishable identity of Macanese-Chinese sprang into existence. These new arrivals never demanded inclusion into China, but they did not balk at it when such inclusion became close and imminent in the late 20th century. Similarly, it was not until the early 21st century that the Macanese-Chinese identity began to slowly fade away.

Generations of Portuguese settlers and Chinese immigrants and, to a lesser extent, other nationals had a great and sometimes salubrious and sometimes baleful impact on the flow of life in Macau. Because of this intermingling of cultures, the island-city became a veritable farrago of customs, religious traditions, political conventions, architecture styles, cuisine recipes, and other elements bestowed on Macau by its history. Architecture is the most flamboyant example of the intermingling of cultures in Macau. Although Macau was built by settlers from Portugal, the city’s architecture has always been redolent of the Mediterranean designs. At the same time, it is fair to say that these Mediterranean designs have always had an Oriental slant. According to Wei, shrines, temples, and carefully-manicured gardens that can be seen in today’s Macau bear a strong resemblance to those in Beijing or any other city in mainland China (207). In other words, China’s influence on the form of religious buildings is undeniable. Still, even these constructions have some evident features of the European architectural tradition. As a result, tourists visiting the city have over centuries thrilled to see an ensuing combination of architecture as demonstrated in its parks, churches, monuments, and forts. However, the demographic explosion combined with the construction of ugly projects, which do not dovetail into the Macau’s vernacular architecture, threaten to disfigure the city’s rather quaint image.

Religion is yet another edifying example of how the Portuguese and Chinese cultures intermingled in Macau. The Catholic Church was the dominant faith in Macau for a long time under the Portuguese rule of 1557-1999. Overmyer argues that Macau was a critical hub of “local religious activities when ‘feudalistic and superstitious practices’ were being eliminated on the mainland – that is, during the communist rule” (70). Indeed, the communists saw religions as something inimical to the well-being of the state and Chinese communists were no different. However, as the Portuguese reign was drawing to a close, the position of the Catholic Church began to decline swiftly and paled into comparative insignificance by the end of the 20th century. Curiously enough, despite the fact that Catholicism declined in Macau, other religions did not gain much new ground. Thus, a common thread from several censuses conducted over the 1990s shows that nearly two thirds of Macau’s residents do not follow any religion (Hao 123). The remaining 35% adhere to Buddhism, Catholicism, and Chinese folk religions (Hao 123). Towards the end of the 20th century, the share of Catholic parishioners dropped even further, while the share of people following Chinese folk worship grew (Hao 123).

Although the share of pious people in the Macau’s overall population is not great, people willingly observe some well-established historical traditions. Others, by contrast, have sunk into oblivion as the number of Chinese residents grows. For example, the number of interethnic marriages between the Chinese, Portuguese, and Macanese has declined as families tend to avoid intermingling. Inheritance, by contrast, is still most often decided by Portuguese laws tailored to the Macau’s context rather than by the Chinese customary law even though Portugal relinquished its sovereignty over the city more than a decade ago. Vestiges of the colonial Portuguese past still persist in literature, graphic arts, and performance arts. Other than that, however, the role of the Portuguese heritage in Macau’s culture is constantly dwindling. Indeed, in other forms of family and social life, including etiquette, child rearing, and education, Chinese customs dominate, particularly today when Chinese presence in the city increases.

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Because of the centuries-long mixing of a typical West European and typical East Asian cultures, Macau has acquired a bewildering array of festivals and holidays. Unlike centuries earlier, today’s festivals in Macau are more secular than religious. Among the most exuberant festivities in today’s Macau are the Lunar Chinese New Year, the Christian New Year, the Macau Grand Prix, Macau Arts festival, the Macau International Marathon, the dragon Boat festival, the International Fireworks Display Contest, and a variety of other celebrations (Leffman and Brown 33). Some of these holidays have Portuguese origins, whereas others are intrinsically Chinese. Some have become peculiar and cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. One thing is always stable, though: when Macau residents celebrate, they celebrate heartily as streets erupt in a carnival of colors.

Thus, Portugal’s cultural aggrandizement, which is a seemingly permanent feature in Macau’s life, ended in the mid-20th century as the share of Chinese nationals in the city’s overall population began to grow at an exponential pace. However, it is rather strange that Chinese did not acquire the status of the second official language in Macau until 1979. Other than that, as this chapter shows, Macau’s culture still remains a blend of the Portuguese and Chinese cultures and religions.

Economy of Macau in Historical Context

The reasons for establishing Macau as a trading bulwark in the immediate vicinity of China were purely economic. When the first Portuguese merchants disembarked from their ships in the estuary of the Pearl River in 1513 (Pletcher 291), their primary goal was to seek closer commercial relations with China. The idea of conquering the entire China or the Celestial Empire, if to use an anachronistic name, seemed unattainable or even ridiculous at the time. However, having found an unpopulated island near the coast of mainland China, the Portuguese entertained an idea of establishing a trading post in the area that would boost trade with the Far East in general and China in particular. According to Pletcher, “trade with China commenced in 1553” and the Chinese authorities were forced to recognize a permanent Portuguese commercial settlement (291). The rapid development of Macau reflected ever-growing volumes of trade between China and Europe as Macau became the “principal entrepôt for all international trade with China” (Pletcher 291). In the following centuries, Macau beckoned droves of international merchants because they were normally allowed into Chinese ports only during the trading season (Pletcher 291). As China refused to emerge from the self-imposed cocoon of international isolation, the island-city turned gradually into a critical outpost for the international merchant community.

By the mid-19th century, Hong Kong, a trading settlement established by the British and located across the Pearl River Delta, had outflanked Macau in terms of trading volumes, delivering a blow from which Macau would never recuperate. Within the next several years, most merchants moved, sold, or even abandoned their possessions at Macau and deserted to Hong Kong (Pletcher 291). Gradually, the role of Macau as a commercial post diminished and its Portuguese overlords settled on the path of diversifying the city’s economy. With revenues from trade gone and natural resources scant, the city had to find an imaginative solution to the problem. Services sector seemed to be the only feasible solution. Indeed, it could not develop industry and agriculture because the ever-increasing density of urban environment played havoc on forests, pastures, and arable lands. The only industry that yielded some dividends to the city’s economy was the clothing industry. Since the coup brought a new democratic government to power in Portugal in 1974, Macau enjoyed a greater degree of “administrative autonomy and economic independence” (Pletcher 291). Spearheaded by the Legislative Assembly, an elective body of the municipal government, Macau developed tertiary industries such as tourism, banking, financial services, gambling, and entertainment. Nevertheless, Macau’s economy “had been languishing” for the rest of the 20th century, but suddenly reached double-digit economic growth after “the transfer of sovereignty” to China (Zheng and Wan 75).

Ultimately, it was China that precipitated economic growth in Macau. The imperial China recognized Portuguese sovereignty over this ever-sprawling city from the days of its incipience and adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards it, seeing it as a nerve center of commercial and economic activity on the frontier of the Oriental and Occidental civilizations. Communists harbored revanchist sentiments towards Macau and viewed it as their undisputable territory, but did not have the temerity or, perhaps, diplomatic sinews to plead with Portugal for its return. Nevertheless, although Portugal established the city and developed its economy, it was China that made Macau flourish economically.

Politics of Macau in Historical Context

As mentioned earlier, Macau had two great ethnic groups: the Portuguese and the Chinese. Over time, a distinct identity of the Macanese, i.e. people of a mixed Portuguese and Chinese descent, flashed into existence. By the same token, throughout its history, Macau has received new arrivals from other countries as well. Thus, it has had small minorities of Indians, Filipinos, British, and Africans who have moved to the city either willingly or against their will. It has historically been seen as a sanctuary for downtrodden people, a safe haven for refugees fleeing war and political molestation, and an enclave in the midst of cruel neighbors. For example, Japanese atrocities against residents of Mainland China during World War II drove over 150,000 people, including the Chinese and Asia-based Europeans, to Macau, the neutrality of which was respected by Japan (Stone, Chen and Chow 308). Another influx of new arrivals occurred following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 when the fledgling communist government embarked on political oppressions against dissidents.

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Not only Japan, but also China even under communist rule respected Portugal’s sovereignty over Macau or, at least, were afraid to challenge it. It is not surprising then that China rarely interfered with the city’s internal affairs. When it did, all residents suffered, their ethnic background notwithstanding. For instance, when China’s Cultural Revolution spilled over into Macau in 1966, the city was harried by the Red Guards, resulting in fatalities on both sides (Stone, Chen and Chow 308). Judging by the highest standards, 1966 was one of the most tumultuous and uncertain years in Macau’s history. The Chinese agents provocateurs infiltrated the masses and began to instigate pro-communist demonstrations, but the movement was ultimately quelled. Other than that, the city has remained politically quiescent throughout its history. China, which recognized Portugal’s sovereignty over Macau, but never repudiated its ulterior motives of returning the territory at some point in the future, did not want to stagger stability in the city for fear of losing “foreign trade through the colony” (Stone, Chen and Chow 309). In other words, even though Chinese authorities had a strong desire to establish control over Macau, they hardly ever tried to subvert Portugal-oriented authorities of Macau, save for the 1966 pro-communist riots. One possible explanation for this is that the first initiatives to reverse Macau to Chinese sovereignty emanated from Portugal as early as in the 1960s (Pletcher 291). As the negotiations process, as protracted as it was, began, reversion of Macau to Chinese sovereignty was only a matter of time.

Until January 2000, Macau was ruled by a Lisbon-appointed governor and assisted by the Legislative Assembly. Whereas the institute of governorship had been present in Macau in its earliest years, its Legislative Assembly was founded only in 1976 (Stone, Chen and Chow 309). 16 members of the assembly were elected by the populace, while others were appointed by influential business interests. However, the political landscape of Macau began to change beyond recognition in 1987 when China and Portugal clinched a deal on the return of Macau to Chinese sovereignty in 1999. A new constitution for Macau promulgated by China in 1993 and enforced in 1999 has established the institute of chief executive, preserved the Legislative Assembly, introduced a variety of civic rights and liberties, but failed to expand democratic political rights. The constitution has granted Macau 50 years of relative political autonomy, including such privileges as free travel, dual citizenship, free rein in economic and social policies, independent elections, etc. (Pletcher 292). Only defense and foreign-policy matters have now become administered by the Beijing government.

In Macau, relations between the three largest ethnic groups have always been tense, but have never reached a flashpoint. Indeed, the Chinese have never demanded the city’s inclusion into China proper, but did not also remonstrate against it in 1999 when this became a reality. Although interethnic relations in China have been until recently largely hierarchical and based on colonial relationship, they have nevertheless remained harmonious and rather relaxed. Even today, when the Chinese make up the overwhelming majority of the city’s population, they do not seek to take revenge for the experiences of the colonial past because there is simply nothing what to revenge. The Portuguese have never harassed, exploited, or otherwise humiliated the Chinese or other populations. The same applies to the Chinese today. According to Pletcher, the political situation in Macau is stable “with orderly legislative elections” (292).

In conclusion, one may say that the centuries-long European presence in Macau was something of a “mixed blessing”, with some arguable drawbacks alongside some redeeming features. A minute analysis of the relevant literature shows that drawbacks of the Portuguese presence in Macau were few and insignificant. One possible negative effect of Portugal’s centuries-long cultural aggrandizement in Macau was disfigurement of architectural designs, which may seem strange or even bizarre to tourists and architecture aficionados. Linguistic slovenliness arising from the simultaneous use of Portuguese and Chinese is yet another evident, albeit not a very significant drawback. However, both these drawbacks are seen by many people as not too insidious and sometimes even not negative at all. Thousands of tourists from around the world still marvel at products of the centuries-long mixing of the Portuguese and Chinese cultures, as demonstrated in architecture, literature, and graphic arts. However, as Portugal maintains only “mediocre cultural presence after the handover”, (Mendes 83) the situation is destined to change in the future. Even so, the Portuguese heritage will never vanish completely.

Apropos definitely redeeming features of Portuguese presence in China, they are more numerous. For example, since Japan and China respected Portugal’s neutrality and considered it as a principal trading partner, they did not invade Macau, allowing it to metamorphose into a refuge for downtrodden people from nearby countries. For the same reason, it avoided the wartime devastation. Similarly, since Portugal gave “everyone born in Macau the right of a Portuguese passport”, they could live anywhere in the EU, unlike Hong Kong residents who were denied a similar right by Britain (Stone, Chen and Chow 309). Portugal has never ground down representatives of other nationalities living in Macau and even enhanced their political rights as it sought to cast off the last remnants of its imperial past in the mid-20th century. Adoption of Chinese suffrage in 1984 is but one example.

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