With the demise of Matteo Ricci, the responsibility of introducing China to Europe passed on to Alvaro Semedo. Born in Portugal in 1585, Semedo joined the Jesuit Order in 1602. From his arrival in China in 1613 to his death in 1658, Semedo spent some 45 years engaged in missionary work there. He had travelled extensively throughout the southern and northern provinces, eventually mastering the Confucian classic texts, a feat that few foreigners in China at the time were able to equal. Adopting Ricci's policy of accommodation, Semedo sought to spread Catholicism in China by making full use of the indigenous Confucian culture. In 1625, Semedo travelled to Xi'an where he was able to personally peruse and later introduce to the West the recently discovered Nestorian Stele.
In 1636, the Chinese Jesuit Order dispatched Semedo to Rome. Semedo was tasked with the recruitment of new Jesuit missionaries to China, procurement of funding for the mission, and most significantly, the publication of books on China. Semedo left Macao in 1637, arriving in Goa in 1637, and finally reaching Lisbon in 1640. During the long journey Semedo was able to pen the first draft of a personal account of conditions in China, later published under the title Imperio de la China. At the time Semedo embarked on his journey back to Europe, the invasion of the Manchu was in full swing, and Semedo was able to carry back valuable information on the political turmoil engulfing China at the time. Since Semedo's Imperio de la China was based not only on available western books on China but also on his own empirical knowledge, the book was soon recognized as the primary source on China for Europeans.
Semedo's book was published in tabloid size totalling 362 pages, and was divided into two sections. The first section, comprising approximately two thirds of the total length of the book, was composed of 31 chapters. It is devoted to introducing a variety of facets of Chinese history and culture, such as its geography, customs, language, education, literature, science, state recruitment examination system for high level officials, military weapons, form of government, prison system, court system, etc. The second section, presented in 13 chapters, delineates the history of the Jesuit mission in China, since it humble beginnings under Xavier. Semedo's underlying stance regarding Chinese history and culture deviates little from that of Ricci before him. He openly challenges the hitherto binary view of Chinese culture as being antithetical to that of Europe, and argues that rather than being savage, it boasted a cultural refinement that rivaled any nation in Europe. Semedo reports on the opulent life of the affluent, living in comfortable mansions and enjoying the amenities of civilization. Semedo does add that due to chronic overpopulation, the majority of the people lived in poverty. In terms of scientific capability, although lacking the systematic mind of Aristotle, Plato, and other Western philosophers, the Chinese exhibited a high degree of expertise in government and policy. One must keep in mind that Semedo's seemingly excessive adoration of China was due to a large measure to the fact that Imperio de la China was published to solicit further support from the Vatican and other European states.
In Semedo's Imperio de la China, reference to Korea is limited to four topics: the Imjin Japanese Invasion of Korea, Chinese civil strife during the transitionary period between the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty, Korea's paying of tribute to China, and the introduction of ginseng. Semedo recalls his encounter with Joãn Rodrigues, who was leading a contingent of mercenaries from Macao to help the Ming forces repel the invading Manchu forces. Rodrigues confided in Semedo that he had travelled to numerous major cities throughout China on a number of occasions and was in the process of examining Chinese historical documents. Rodrigues was a long resident of Japan, having served as Toyotomi Hideyoshi's translator, and was also the author of História da Igreja do Japã o. Rodrigues was one of the few westerns of the time to possess first hand knowledge of the Imjin War and also of the Chinese political turmoil of the transitionary period between the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty. In 1631, Rodrigues made a failed attempt to enter the Korean Peninsula, aided by Chung Du-won, who was in China as a special envoy from the Korean court.
Semedo's account of the Imjin War is basically a repeat of Ricci's earlier account. Semedo reports on the war situation in the Korean Peninsula, China's subsequent adoption of an isolation policy, and the Jesuit‘s position on the war. The Japanese forces "swarmed across the Korean Peninsula toward the Chinese mainland"; however, "In 1596(Semedo mis-records the year of the war's end to be 1596 rather than 1598), it was the Chinese forces, not the Korean forces, that had succeeded in repelling the Japanese." Semedo makes much of Japanese losses, emphasizing Chinese role while downplaying Korea's military feats. Semedo goes on to report that he reached Nanjing with the assistance of the Chinese general, a veteran of the Imjin War, only to find the Chinese engulfed by war fervor and antagonism toward all foreigners. Like Ricci, Semedo is genuinely concerned about the adverse effects of the Imjin war on missionary efforts in China. Even when the Jesuit missionaries arrived in Beijing, the mood of national crisis was such that they were unable to procure an audience with the Chinese Emperor. On this backdrop, it is understandable that Semedo's Imperio de la China would have little positive to say about Korea. In Semedo's eyes, Korea was an insignificant military power, plagued by self defeatism. It was a quintessential satellite state that lacked an orignal culture, as well as a sense of national identity.
Korea's image as a peripheral political presence is further enforced in Semedo's observations on Korea's toadyish diplomatic maneuvers. Semedo relates that when Manchu demanded that Korea now pay tribute to them, as they had to the Chinese Ming Dynasty in the past, Korea initially stubbornly clang to its past allegiance to Ming China. It is interesting to note that Semedo seemed to have some working knowledge of nuts and bolts of the tributary trade system. For example, Semedo explains that the Muslim states send a tributary mission to China every three to five years; however, the mission is in fact comprised of profit motivated merchants, without the knowledge or mandate of the Muslim royal court. In one instance, Semedo reports, the envoy from Saracen tendered to the Chinese emperor a tribute amounting to seven thousand crowns in their home nation, receiving in response a royal gift worth fifty thousand crowns. Although Semedo does not make direct reference to Korea's tributary relationship with China, he was astute enough to understand how China was inter-locked with neighboring states through the tributary system, and how the merchants were reaping monetary gains from this relationship. This level of insight notwithstanding, Semedo nevertheless parrots the other Jesuit missionaries in China in seeing Korea and others in the region as little more than satellites of China, lacking economical and cultural independence.
Semedo was one of the first westerns to talk about ginseng. He believes in the excellent medicinal properties of ginseng and reports that it was such a sought after commodity among the Chinese that it was worth twice its weight in silver. However, in naming the Liaotung (Yodong) Peninsula as the primary region of ginseng production, it seemed that Semedo was not privy to the fact that most of the ginseng consumed in China at the time were actually produced in Korea.
Semedo's original manuscript was in Portuguese, and while he was traveling in Lison and Madrid in 1642, he got it published in Portuguese under the title Relagao. At the time, however, books published in Portuguese enjoyed a rather limited readership, and consequently Portuguese historian Manuel de Faria I Sousa translated the book into Spanish and published it as Imperio de la China in 1642. The Italian edition and the French edition soon followed respectively in 1643 and 1645. The English edition was published in London in 1655. This English edition is notable in that it was combined into a single volume with the English edition of Martino Martini's Bellum Tartaricum. This combined edition was particularly well received by the English speaking readership. Although it is unclear who translated Semedo's work into English, the illustrations and maps of China newly included in this edition were for the most part taken from Samuel Purchas' 1625 London edition. The London publishers marketed the book as promoting trade and knowledge of foreign countries.
Like Matteo Ricci and Nicolas Trigault's De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu, Semedo's Imperio de la China was also translated into numerous languages. Be it as it may, Semedo's book was not as well disseminated. One of the primary reasons for this is that Europeans at the time were hungry for the latest news of China, and Martino Martini's Bellum Tartaricum, which made direct references to the downfall of the Ming Dynasty, soon followed in the tracks of De Christiana expeditione, to eventually become a steady bestseller in the 1650s and the 1660s. Despite this, the contributions of Semedo's book in providing Europeans with news on China and Korea in the 17th century cannot be overlooked. Leading thinkers of the time such as Athanasius Kircher and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz cite passages from Semedo's book, and representative English writers of the time such as John Webb (1611-72), Thomas Brown (1662–1704), William Temple (1628-99), and Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) are known to have formulated their conception of China through this book.