The Chinese compound

Blogpost 006: The Chinese compound, Tôjin yashiki

The Chinese compound, Tôjin yashiki

Due to the prominent depiction of Deshima and the Dutch flags on the folding screen, it is easy to overlook the Chinese presence in Nagasaki. 

Due to the prominent depiction of Deshima and the Dutch flags on the folding screen, it is easy to overlook the Chinese presence in Nagasaki. Yet the Chinese traded on a much larger scale than the Dutch. Surely, the Dutch had an important impact in the city of Nagasaki, and on Japan as a whole. In terms of economy and culture, however, the contact with China was more extensive. The Chinese compound, with regulations similar to those on Deshima, is often a bit hidden in the corner of many of the depictions that we have of Nagasaki.* In the folding screen by Kawahara Keiga, the Chinese compound is depicted on the far left panel. One panel to the right of that shows the separate, artificial island for the warehouses for Chinese goods. In this blog post, we will point the spotlight toward those two panels and shine some light on the Chinese compound.

China and Japan during the Tokugawa-era (1600 - 1868) 

As discussed in blog 004, Japan maintained contact with China, Korea, the Netherlands and the Ryukyu kingdom (the present-day Okinawa islands in the south of Japan) during the Tokugawa era. But of these four countries, the Tokugawa-government only maintained official diplomatic relations with Korea, while the Ryukyu kingdom was a vassal of both China and Japan simultaneously. Similar to the Dutch situation in Japan, contact with China primarily occurred through traders. There were no official diplomatic ties between China and Japan during these times.  

An important reason for the absence of official relations was the Chinese Empire’s expectation that Japan would engage in a tributary relation. This was a common practice among East-Asian countries, where government envoys would pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in exchange of recognition of their rule. In practice this meant that countries acknowledged the emperor of China as the predominant power in (Eastern) Asia. Yet, having an imperial house itself, Japan was not eager to submit to a tributary relation with China and declined official relations. 

Chinese bibliotheek
‘Image of the library in the Chinese compound’ (Colour woodcut, published by Yamatoya in Nagasaki, c. 1850, RV-5824-9)  


The Chinese compound 

While Dutch traders were confined to Deshima as early as 1641, Chinese traders initially still enjoyed the freedom of movement in Nagasaki. But when international trade was transferred to Nagasaki in 1639, this also started to leave a mark on the city. All Chinese trade now occurred in Nagasaki, and Chinese traders had to move there too. Where there had only been a few scores of Chinese residing in Nagasaki before 1639, this number rose to more than two thousand within a few decades. This increase meant that Nagasaki had become the most international town in the whole of Japan in just a relatively short time. Chinese influences started to spread throughout the city and there were large quantities of imported Chinese literature, art, and other cultural objects on the market. However, this increase of Chinese residents also caused problems to the Tokugawa-officials in town. For these officials it was almost impossible to keep proper oversight of the large amount of imported goods because Chinese traders lived all over Nagasaki.   

The trade between China and Japan was of a much larger scale than the trade between the Netherlands and Japan. While up to four Dutch ships travelled to Japan in a year, dozens of Chinese vessels entered the port of Nagasaki within the same time span. At the turn of the eighteenth-century, numbers rose to even more than a hundred Chinese vessels in a year, primarily to purchase copper and various sea foods. The Chinese traders sold mostly silks, sugar and Chinese medicines to the Japanese. Due to the lack of oversight on the Chinese trade smuggling was rampant in and around Nagasaki. 

In an effort to put a halt to these smuggling activities, the Tokugawa government decided to construct the Chinese compound Tôjin yashiki (literally ‘Residence of the Chinese’) in 1689 and force all Chinese traders to settle there. Similar to the Dutch traders in Nagasaki, the Chinese traders were now also confined to a gated community. The area designated to the Chinese was much larger than its Dutch counterpart though, and included temples, market stalls and a bath house. This was quite necessary for the large number of residents, compared to only a few dozen Dutchmen and their enslaved servants on Deshima. The Chinese compound was in use until the 1850s, when Japan was forced to open more ports to foreign trade. Subsequently, the site was completely dismantled in 1868. Today, four shrines and only some remaining structures are reminiscent of the walled compound that existed for almost two centuries in Nagasaki. Efforts are being made, however, to conserve and restore (parts of) the shrines, and mark this historic area within Nagasaki. Additionally, the artificial warehouse island Shinchi (‘New land’) is now home to the ‘China town’ of Nagasaki. Although it has since been encapsulated by the rest of the city, its square outlines are still clearly distinguishable. Instead of warehouses, you will find many Chinese shops and restaurants serving uniquely local Chinese-Japanese dishes, highlighting the enduring impact of China on Nagasaki. 

Chinese schrijn
The Chinese shrine Tenkôdô in Nagasaki, dedicated to the goddess Mazu, protector of seafarers (Photo D. Kok, 2019). 

[*] This text is based on our own research and on M.B. Jansen (1992), China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard University Press) and G.C. Gunn, ‘The Chinese of Nagasaki and their Social and Commercial Activities’, in: G.C. Gun, World Trade Systems of the East and West (Leiden 2013) pp. 168-193.

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Curator East Asia Daan Kok and Research Associate RCMC/Japan Davey Verhoeven write about the restoration and the results of their research of the folding screen every month. Those blog posts can be found on this overview page