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  • Spencer Low

Asian influence on Portuguese culture (Part II)

My last post on Asian influences on Portuguese food sparked off lots of comments, showing how viscerally important food culture can be to many people. One sceptical reader wrote that he believes there are precious few traces of Portugal's 500 year engagement with Asia in the country nowadays, almost as though those who left for faraway shores never really brought anything back to Portugal (other than copious amounts of spices and other trade items).

A blue-white porcelain "gomil" (壶瓶) from c.1520 featuring an armillary sphere, a symbol of King Manuel I. The ancient Greeks and Chinese independently invented the armillary sphere more than 2000 years ago.

One thing that Portuguese adventurers did bring back to Portugal and the rest of Europe was Chinese porcelain, which was prized for its strength, translucence and pure white colour. As it was expensive it quickly became a status symbol throughout Europe and the word "china" even a synonym for porcelain in English (joined also by the word "chinaware"). A popular style then was the blue-and-white porcelain known as 青花 (qīnghuā meaning 'blue flowers') in Chinese. Along with the popularity of Dutch delftware, the blue-and-white aesthetic ended up influencing Portuguese azulejos.

From a linguistic perspective, Portuguese words entered many Asian languages such as Malay/Indonesian, Thai, etc. However, the Portuguese and Chinese vocabularies didn't cross-pollinate much, possibly because they're such different languages. Other than botanical terms such as chá (tea, from 茶) and lichia (lychee, from 荔枝) that the Portuguese picked up, it is believed that the word lorcha (meaning a kind of light vessel used on the coast of China, having the hull built on a European model and the rigging like that of a Chinese junk) is a corruption of the Chinese word 龙船 (lóngchuán, meaning dragon boat).


The lexical exchange between Portuguese and Hindi/Sanskrit went a bit further, including two words that describe China: the name of the country itself (चीन cīna in Sanskrit, through the Persian use of the term), and mandarim, meaning Mandarin Chinese as the standardized form of the language today. Here are earlier posts specifically about this:

Other Portuguese words that trace back to Hindi/Sanskrit roots were in fact acquired from the British: e.g. pijama and champô (or xampu in Brazil).


To round things up, the Malay/Indonesian language acquired many words from the Portuguese after Malacca was seized by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1511. In the other direction, there are also words in Portuguese that came from the Malay language (beyond the names of Southeast Asian trees and fruits):

  • amouco: a servile person, from Malay amok (also absorbed into the English language with a different meaning)

  • bule: teapot, from Malay buli

  • cacatua: cockatoo, from Malay kakatuwa

  • chávena: teacup, from Malay cawan, itself from Chinese 茶碗 cháwǎn

  • gongo: gong, from Malay gong

  • junco: junk (a Chinese ship), from Malay jong

  • lancha: a small and fast boat or motorboat, from Malay lancaran

  • pires: saucer, from Malay piring

If you know of more Portuguese words that come from an Asian language, do let me know!

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