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European Contact With the Aztec Empire and China

The history of European travels to the East as well as to new lands with a view to their further colonization contains a number of achievements initiated by individual explorers. These people significantly contributed to the development of the economy of the time. However, their activity did not necessarily lead to a positive outcome, and the projects often resulted in gruesome consequences for native populations. From this perspective, the conquest of the Aztec Empire and the catholic mission in China are valuable examples of the explorations that affected the progress of Europe and the regions under consideration. Therefore, the comparison of their similarities and differences will define the characteristics of successful initiatives and reveal the correspondence of explorers’ decisions to the principles of morality.

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Europeans and the Aztec Empire

The first example of European interventions in the life of indigenous peoples of the world is the travels of Spanish explorers to present-day Mexico. At that time, it was a collection of three city-states governed by a ruler (“Conquest of the Aztec Empire”). They were first discovered in 1428, but the actual conquest started only in the sixteenth century with the explorations of the Mexico Valley by Juan de Grijalva and his successor Hernán Cortés (“Conquest of the Aztec Empire”). Both conquistadors became known for their contributions to the creation of a new Spanish colony on the American continent.

Juan de Grijalva was the first person to make contact with the Aztecs. However, even these actions were suspicious to their ruler, Montezuma II, when Spanish explorers came to their capital city of Tenochtitlan in 1517 (“Conquest of the Aztec Empire”). The situation became more intense with the arrival of Hernán Cortés in 1519, who started making alliances with local people in order to overthrow the emperor and conquer the cities (Gunderman). In this way, he could rely not only on his 500 men but also on the support of Aztecs (Gunderman). Nevertheless, the main decisive factor was not connected to the number of people on his side but to the epidemic of smallpox that started shortly after the arrival of Europeans.

This situation was typical for the attempts of explorers to colonize new lands. In the case of Aztecs, it became critical since the population was tremendous, about sixteen million people (Gunderman). As a result, they lost forty percent of citizens a year, and this circumstance contributed to the success of the Spanish attacks in 1521 (Gunderman). In two years, Cortés was appointed as governor of New Spain by King Charles I (Szalay). In this way, the mighty Aztec Empire was wiped out by conquistadors.

Europeans and China

Another example of explorations of new lands by Europeans was connected to the Catholic mission in China initiated in the sixteenth century. It was initially started by Michele Ruggieri, who invited his comrade Matteo Ricci to join him in 1582 (Carter). However, the latter became more known for his attempts to convert the Chinese population to Catholicism. This missionary was born in Rome in 1552 and died in China in 1610 (Burger). During his work, he distinguished himself as an outstanding figure whose actions affected not only the religious field but also other aspects of life in the country.

The story of Matteo Ricci began with his study in India, Japan, and Macau. He was an accomplished man who traveled under the protection of the Portuguese government (Burger). In 1582, he arrived in China and devoted his life to the mission (Carter). Nevertheless, it was not entirely religious since the cultural and scientific exchange brought more significant results rather than his initial idea. This outcome was conditional upon the fact that Ricci’s goal was to use a peaceful approach and become “culturally Chinese” (Burger). In this way, he not only managed to make contact with local people but also expanded their knowledge.

The principal circumstance that affected his popularity in China was connected to the information that happened to be valuable for the country’s citizens. Since Ricci knew much about construction, languages, geography, astronomy, and mathematics, he demonstrated the faults of Chinese methods of calculation and other systems and improved them (Burger). However, his attempts to convert the emperor to Catholicism so that he could influence other people failed because the cultural and religious traditions of Chinese who believed they were superior to other countries were solid (Carter). Therefore, he was more famous for his contributions to science in China rather than to religion.

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Similarities of the Processes

The two examples of explorations, the conquest of the Aztec Empire and the Catholic mission of Matteo Ricci in China, represent the processes that have specific similarities. First, both projects were somehow connected to religious endeavors of their leaders. It is apparent in the case of Ricci, whose sole motivation was to convert Chinese to Catholicism (Hsia). As for the Spanish projects, they did not focus primarily on this aspect of the matter but also considered it essential. Thus, for example, Cortés displayed religious attitudes typical for European countries of the time, which were connected to their interest in converting indigenous peoples to Catholicism (Szalay). This fact allows concluding that the main similarity of these processes was the presence of religious motives in both of them.

Another circumstance that adds to the analogy between the intentions of Ricci and Cortés is the negative outcome of their activity. It is clear that there are certain benefits that were received by Spain and Portugal from these explorations, which include the colonization of new lands and the increase in influence accordingly. However, the drawbacks were significant, and they related to the epidemic of smallpox in the first case and the beginning of the slave trade in Macao in the second (Carter). From this perspective, the actions of Cortés and other conquistadors resulted in the loss of millions of lives of indigenous people, and the work of Ricci led to the suffering of slaves from African countries (Carter). Even though the latter’s impact was indirect, it still correlates with the influence of Spaniards on the population and adds negativity to both initiatives.

Differences Between the Processes

Along with the similarities between the Spanish conquistadors’ expedition to present-day Mexico and the Catholic mission in China, there are specific differences. They allow distinguishing them from the point of view of morality and success, which should be balanced in such endeavors. Hence, the first difference is the economic orientation of Spanish expeditions in contrast to the entirely peaceful intentions of Matteo Ricci in China. The former’s participants were primarily hungry for power and benefits (Szalay). They were mostly driven by the possibility to capture gold and precious metals (“Conquest of the Aztec Empire”). The latter, in turn, pursued only religious goals and did not need any benefits for himself.

Another circumstance distinguishing the two projects is the personality of their leaders, which was crucial in terms of motivating other people involved in projects. From this perspective, Matteo Ricci was a more inspiring person since he was described as a knowledgeable and accomplished man of extraordinary talents (Burger). In contrast to him, Cortés was seen as a smart and ambitious person seeking personal benefits rather than pursuing noble goals (Szalay). Thus, Ricci seemed to be a better leader than Cortés, and this circumstance resulted in less harm caused to the population and affected the perception of this mission as more moral than the Spanish expeditions.

The final difference between these processes is the attitude of explorers to the culture of peoples. Ricci became famous partially due to his attention to this element of communication and the attempts to understand it so that he could cooperate with the Chinese more efficiently (Mirus). This position allowed him to become admired by local people. Moreover, he was the first European who entered the Forbidden City in Beijing (Burger). As for Cortés, his neglect of culture and its significance for humanity made him a controversial historical figure who brought prosperity to Spain but destroyed valuable information about native people (Szalay). Therefore, the attitude towards the cultural aspect adds to the difference between Mexico’s colonization and the Catholic mission in China.


By and large, the expeditions of Spanish conquistadors and the religious pursuits of Matteo Ricci are apparent examples of initiatives that are different in nature and, therefore, in morality. They both allowed the European countries to benefit from the interventions in indigenous tribes and local people’s lives but brought adverse consequences to them. In the case of Ricci, they were somehow compensated by the knowledge he brought. As for the Aztec Empire, the results of expeditions were fatal for it.

Works Cited

Burger, John. “When East met West: Matteo Ricci and his Failed Attempt to Convert China.” Aleteia. 2017, Web.

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Carter, James. “Matteo Ricci and the Slave Trade that Connected Portugal with Macau.” SupChina. 2020, Web.

“Conquest of the Aztec Empire.” History Crunch. 2018, Web.

Gunderman, Richard. “How Smallpox Devastated the Aztecs – and Helped Spain Conquer an American Civilization 500 years ago.” The Conversation. 2019, Web.

Hsia, Ronnie Po-Chia. Matteo Ricci and the Catholic Mission to China, 1583–1610. Hackett Publishing Company, 2016.

Mirus, Jeff. “Catholic Drama: Matteo Ricci, China, and the Problem of Inculturation.” Catholic Culture. 2017, Web.

Szalay, Jessie. “Hernán Cortés: Conqueror of the Aztecs.” Live Science. 2017, Web.

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