The British got off to the slowest start in trading with China because of their refusal to kowtow to the emperor. This gesture of kneeling before the emperor and touching the forehead to the ground, was submitted to, by the Dutch and Portuguese. The British, however, proudly refused, and paid the price by not being able to enjoy the trading privileges enjoyed by their European rivals.

Chinese is not written with an alphabet but with characters (also called ideograms). In their earlier forms they were pictures of things or ideas, but they are now highly developed. Because they convey things or ideas, they are not alphabetic and can be pronounced differently by different (Chinese) people — sounding like different languages. Eighty percent of Chinese speak Mandarin but there are a number of other dialects, as different as Portuguese is from French.

Several systems have been devised for English pronunciation but in 1979 the Chinese government announced it would exclusively use a new system called Pinyin. This is why this section on the “Chinese” sometimes has two ways of expressing the same name. For example, Cheng Ho became Zheng He and Canton became Guangzhou.

Chinese words that have crept into the English language include “china” (for porcelain/pottery), “kowtow” — an elaborate bow to the Chinese emperor, “tea” and “typhoon.”

As trade increased, Chinese and European sailors developed a simplified common language known as “Pidgin.” Some of these words have found themselves as part of English. Examples are “chopsticks,” “junk,” “chow,” “pidgin” (meaning business) and “soy.” Chinese who came to North America as laborers developed distinctive Chinese-American food (dishes) like “chop suey,” “chow mein.” Since World War II “gung ho,” “Kung fu” and “Tai chi” have been added.

The Chinese people long considered themselves the center of the world and the Ming emperors were the “Sons of Heaven.” By definition they were the supreme rulers and superiors of all other people on earth. It was natural to the Chinese that foreigners should pay tribute to China, which in turn showed little interest in them.

One of the first unifying civilizations was the Chou empire — about 1000 BCE. Still it had to contend with constantly quarreling regions. The Ch’in in the Western hill region eventually dominated the whole country and from them China derived its name.

Silk - First discovered by the Chinese about 2640 BCE the process was kept secret for 3000 years. Silk is made from a silkworm — a caterpillar that spins a protective cocoon around itself,while it changes into a moth. The filament is extruded through a narrow exit tube in the silkworm’s head, and can stretch continuously for 13,000 ft. (4000 meters). If left to complete its life cycle, the insect will secrete a brown liquid enzyme that softens the cocoon so that the moth can push its way out. The moths mate within three days, then lay their eggs and die. Stealing the secret from China took centuries. According to legend, a CE 300 Japanese mission was the first, then India learned when a Chinese princess was given in marriage to an Indian prince. She concealed silkworm eggs in her headdress. Two Christian monks did something similar in CE 552 when they hid the eggs in hollow canes. Today, silk is largely replaced by synthetic fibers.

Taiwan - This island, 100 miles off the mainland of China, was named Formosa (Beautiful Island) by the Portuguese. From 1895 to 1945 it was occupied by Japan. Japan’s defeat in World War II and subsequent departure from Taiwan, gave Chiang Kai Shek’s fleeing forces a haven in which to recover from their defeat at the hands of the Communists under Mao Zedong. It was meant to be a temporary resting place from which Nationalist forces could re-conquer the mainland. This never happened but instead, with US backing, Taiwan’s twenty million populace has developed a vibrant high-tech economy with a per capita income twenty times that of the mainland. It is not recognized by China which never forgave Chiang Kai Shek for “stealing” most of the country’s treasures. The Taiwanese answer that this art would have been destroyed by the communists with their loathing for the “old ways.”

Apart from silk, printing, paper, the compass and gunpowder, China also gave us fireworks, chess, kites, umbrellas and porcelain.

Medicine - In 1026 Wang Weiyi designed two bronze statuettes showing all the acupuncture needle points on the body. The Statuettes are still used to teach medical students today. Li Shizhen (1518-1593) compiled a book of herbs and lists of 11,000 remedies.

The Great Wall of China is the largest engineering and building project ever carried out by humans. It stretches 1500 miles and was started about 200 BCE. Its unsuccessful purpose was to stop marauding tribes from the North from invading China. It was repaired and extended many times over a period of 2000 years. The Great wall is said to be the only man-made structure on earth that is visible from the moon.

Portuguese sailors first arrived in Macao (a tiny peninsula next to Hong Kong) in 1513. It became a Portuguese colony in 1557 and was only returned to China in 1999.