China's presence in Brazil

Image_Stela Maris Grespan


The secular trajectory of the Chinese presence in Brazil shows that, despite the differences that exist, there is an infinity of paths of cooperation and friendship to follow, to the benefit of Brazil

“Everything fits on the globe”, says the narrator of Orienteering, short story by João Guimarães Rosa published in Tutameia. The expression was also an explanation for a somewhat extraordinary fact: the presence of a Chinese -“lived, come, gone” – in the hinterland of Minas Gerais. Rosa's tale has as its backdrop precisely the shock and estrangement between the two worlds, which are already very distant and different. But the dissimilarities hide, at first glance, the proximities, ties and influences that exist.

On August 15th, the 120th anniversary of Chinese immigration to Brazil was celebrated. This is the date of entry into the port of Rio de Janeiro of the ship Malange, in 1900, coming from Lisbon with Chinese immigrants in its crew. The date is significant to mark a position of friendship and cooperation in a context in which actors of the Brazilian federal government strive in the opposite direction. However, this is only an official milestone. Long before the XNUMXth century, even when few or no Chinese would be found here, there was its mark on the art and daily life of the inhabitants of Brazil.

Rugendas, when he traveled across the country accompanying the Langsdorff expedition in the 1820s, drew Chinese people working on a tea plantation in Rio de Janeiro alongside black slaves. How many different perspectives and cultures intersect in the same scene? What was going through the minds of these worlds looking at each other for the first time? The European, the African slave and the Asian crossed their gazes and stories in a land far away from where they were born.

The engraving hides the extreme violence that marked daily work, certainly also for those Chinese. We do not know if their representation in typical and well-made clothes in contrast with the naked torso of black slaves was a reality or an interpretation in an image completed only in 1835, more than 10 years after the scene that caught Rugendas' attention. In any case, in that context where “Brazil” did not yet exist, the presence of Chinese working alongside slaves, from which most of the contemporary country’s population originates, shows a longer history of contacts and estrangement.

There are still very few studies dealing with this topic. Which is not surprising, since even the memory and influence of native and enslaved peoples only recently gained more space in the university, which has not yet spilled over into public education in general, despite efforts and legislation in this regard. Therefore, it is not surprising that studies on the presence of China in Brazil are rare.

An exception is the work of professor José Roberto Teixeira Leite, published by Unicamp in the 1990s. China in Brazil - Chinese Influences, Marks, Echoes and Survivals in Brazilian Society and Art, remains current and, above all, necessary. In it, the Chinese presence in Brazilian colonial art, especially sacred art, and in the daily life of the population are presented and mapped. Echoes of the ancient silk route: ships from China arrived in Salvador, then the capital of the colony, loaded with porcelain, fans and, of course, silk.

In addition to the products themselves, influences also came. In several cities in nine states of the country, such as Bahia, Minas Gerais and São Paulo, the so-called "Chinese" (or Chinoiserie), introduced between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. They are marks in sacred art, in architecture, which reflect the influence of the East in, for example, faces of saints and dragons carved in temples. The church of Nossa Sonhara do Rosário, in Embu das Artes, close to São Paulo, among others, has Chinese charms.

There was also evidence of this presence in everyday life, such as the habit of flying kites, setting off fireworks (already known in colonial Brazil), wearing ornate and colorful silk clothes and even rich men sporting exaggeratedly long fingernails, to show that they did not need do manual work, just like the mandarins in China. In other words, the marks of contact with China have been present among us since the founding moments.

Therefore, estrangement is not exclusively due to disparities between peoples. Brazil is formed by the integration of differences, even if violently. As Leopoldo Zea wrote, if there is an identity for us, it is precisely that of having all identities together, in a constant process of transculturation[I]. The estrangement is due more to an option taken by the imperial state, still in the XNUMXth century, to present itself as “European”, denying all the other identities that converged in Brazil and in its multiplicity.

The character of Rosa's tale, mentioned at the beginning, is described as the representative of an ancient civilization. He was ethical, wise, observant, polite, hardworking: “wise as salt in a salt shaker, well inclined. He sprinkled the manners with more soul, without haste, with speed. Did he know how to think out of band? Inwe liked it. The Chinese have another way of having a face".

Cooked for Dr. Dayrell, engineer with an English name. Rosa does not make this point explicit, but there were many English engineers who came to Brazil to work in the construction of railroads (the British Empire exercised its power over Brazil and, in an even more cruel and direct way, over China). The character was called Yao Tsing-Lao and, here, he ended up being Joaquim, Sêo Quim. Diligent, he managed to buy land and become a rancher.

His world is shaken when he falls in love with a sertaneja, Rita Rola, the opposite of Quim's personality: ugly, without manners, talks a lot (would she be Rosa's more critical view of all of us?). Precisely for this reason, their marriage sounds strange to the story's narrator... a Chinese man and a country woman. In the end, the union fell apart and Quim left, leaving everything to his wife.

He left, despite his wife's refusal to accept him, a cultural heritage that Lita only assumed after his departure. As an essay by professor Walnice Galvão points out, it was not Quim who became sertanized, but the sertão who “oriented” himself, to explore the semantic richness of the word chosen by Rosa for the title. Quim left to Rita, who gradually became Lola Lita (as the Chinese “syllabified” her name), a “grain of yeast”, a “fine compass”, an orientation, therefore. The couple had no children, but the contact improved the hinterland.[ii].

Today, when the resurrected image of a “yellow peril” is explored a lot, Rosa’s story and the secular trajectory of the Chinese presence in Brazil show that, despite the differences that exist, there are an infinity of paths of cooperation and friendship to follow, in benefit of Brazil. Contrary to the narrow view of right-wing fundamentalism in power, “everything fits on the globe”.

*Alexandre G. de B. Figueiredo He holds a PhD from the Graduate Program in Latin American Integration (PROLAM-USP).


[I]Zea, Leopold. El PensamientoLatinamericano.


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