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Martín de Rada’s Imprint

Martín de Rada, a Spanish missionary in the Philippines, became one of the first Spaniards to visit China, after stopping in Mexico.

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Born in Pamplona, Spain, Rada traveled to New Spain (Mexico) to practice his religious profession as a member of the Order of Saint Augustine.

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Assigned to an Otomi community in Mexico, this gifted linguist wrote instructional sermons and a book in Otomi language.

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Rada's skills with languages and his expertise in geometry and astrology were quickly recognized by important figures in Mexico. Rada was selected, together with other five Augustinian members, for the Andrés de Urdaneta-Miguel Lopez de Legazpi expedition to Asia in 1564.

The expedition arrived in Cebu on
April 27th, 1565
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In the Philippines, Martín de Rada not only preached and helped indigenous people, but also acquired and conducted research from multiple geospatial territories around the archipelago.

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In a letter addressed to New Spain’s viceroyalty (1572), Rada mentioned that he obtained significant information from a Chinese mercenary, with some sort of authority named Canco. According to the letter, Canco lived at Rada’s house for almost six months. No more information is offered regarding Canco’s reason to stay at Rada’s house. However, there is proof that Canco provided a significant amount of information about China.

This information is groundbreaking as Rada proves to be the first Augustinian on record to conduct interracial interrogations with the Chinese in Manila.

"Tienen las casas de cal y canto y de ladrillo, las ciudades muradas y de silleria y segun la relacion de un chino principal, llamado Canco, que tuve yo en nuestra casa de çubú casi medio año será el Reyno de la China el mayor del mundo porque ocupa desde la costa que corre hacia el nor nordeste 700 leguas y tiene de travesia desde la costa hasta los fines della cuatro o cinco meses de camino y alla confina con la gran tartaria y tiene una muralla bravisima que divide sus terrenos de los de los tartaros".

“They have houses made of lime and stone and brick, masonry walled cities, and according to the narrative of a principal Chinese man, named Canco, who I had in my house in Cebu for almost half a year, the Kingdom of China will be the largest in the world because it occupies 700 leguas from the coast to the northeast and it runs from the cost to the end of it, with a walking distance of four or five months, and it borders the Gran Tartaria and it has a very strong wall that divides its lands from the Tartaros.”


Unknown and incomprehensible Chinese information was (de)coded and translated into Spanish by Rada. The information obtained from Canco in 1572 was transcribed into a Spanish narrative and shared with important political and educated figures in Mexico and Spain.

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From the early arrival in Cebu in 1565, Rada began writing books of a scientific nature, along with the process of mapping the Asian territory. In another letter addressed to Father Alonso de Veracruz dated June 3, 1576, Rada mentioned a list of documents created during the time he had been in the archipelago:

"[Y]o escrevi un libro de recta hydrographie ratione y avia escripto gran parte de geometria practica en romançe, por parescerme que no ha salido desta materia en romançe cosa de vez y una distinta en siete libros y despues pensava escrevir otros siete de cosmographia y astronomia y los años passados escrevi de astrologia judiciaria del qual libro me ha quedado el borrador"

“I wrote a book on recta hydrographie ratione and a large part on geometria practica in Castilian, because it seems to me that this matter has not came out in Castilian, which is incredible, and a different one in seven books and then I thought of writing another seven on cosmography and astronomy and in the past years I wrote a book about judicial astrology, whose draft I have left.”


Rada took the position of transmitter-receiver among the first transoceanic knowledge centers and political institutions of the time. Rada also became a key cultural actor at the imperial level as important figures solicited his information and delegated responsibility to him. Felipe II himself commissioned the project to record and map the Asian territory. Felipe II’s imperial requests involved the creation of documents capable of transmitting knowledge of other territories, empires, and warlords.

Rada as a  transoceanic cultural agent

Rada compiled all kinds of material consisting of scientific research, cartographic narratives, and other documents that found their way into his archive, including all the books and documents obtained from his visit to China in 1575.


Rada arrived back in Manila from his visit to China with a collection of multiple books and documentes. Miguel de Loarca points out in his Relación (1575) a list of no more than forty different titles that the mendicant bought:

"[Los libros] que nosotros avemos comprado impresos i visto allende de muchos cantares y farsas y otras historias que no quisimos comprar, son description de el Reyno de China, los tributos que tiene el rey, y quanto tributanles y quanta gente de guarnicion ay en cada pueblo y provincia. Sus derroteros para la mar para sus navegaciones, la historia de lo que sienten del principio del mundo, las historias de sus Dioses, la de todos sus reyes de China i sus succesos, sus leyes por donde se goviernan, libros de medicinas, de los movimientos de los cielos, de las estrellas y de sus effectos, libros de todas las tierras de lo que tienen noticia y de las cosas de ellas ansi animales como peces, las historias de sus Sanctos o por mejor dezir de sus Idolos, [etc.]".

“[The books] that we have bought in print and seen besides of those about chant and farces and other stories that we did not want to buy are about the description of the Kingdom of China; the tributes that the king has; and how much they taxed; and how many garrison people in each town and province has. Their maps to the sea for their navigations; the history of what they think about the beginning of the world; the stories of their gods, and all of their kings in China and their successes; their laws by which they are governed; books of medicine; books about the movements of the heavens, the stars, and their effects; books about the lands they have news and their things, animals, and fish; stories of their saints or better said of their idols, [etc].”

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This collection of books permitted Rada to have access to a series of data that was impossible to find outside of China. There is an entire epistemological extension to all possible disciplines, from the geographical, ethnographic, demographic, to the economic, cultural, and humanistic framework. Rada became possibly the first Spaniard to use entirely Chinese documents to write about China­, even before the Jesuit and well-known scientist Matteo Ricci

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Rada’s documents facilitated the spread of the most recent information about China at the end of the sixteenth century and throughout the transoceanic Spanish centers.


Rada’s archive was a main source—if not the primary source—for reproducing books and documents about China. His Relación of 1575, for example, was a significant source for Juan González de Mendoza’s Historia del Gran Reino de la China published in Rome in 1585, which became the most popular work in Europe about China

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Rada’s archive was of vital importance since it became the basis of knowledge about China in Spanish sources. The reception and production of documents, reports, chronicles, maps, and other official reports depended, to some degree, on Rada’s new findings.

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