The Eagle and the Dragon (“L'Aigle et le Dragon”), by Serge Gruzinski
Public debate

1 min

The Eagle and the Dragon (“L'Aigle et le Dragon”), by Serge Gruzinski

The Eagle and the Dragon is an essay about the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the Portuguese attempt to conquer China in the sixteenth century. Not much separates the success of one from the failure of the other...

© Fayard

A Latin American historian

A director of research at the CNRS and a Latin American specialist, Serge Gruzinski also teaches at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. His work focuses in particular on the mechanism of Spanish colonisation in Latin America: at the root blended populations, colonisation was the first step towards today's globalisation.


After The Mestizo Mind ("La Pensée métisse") in 1999, Serge Gruzinski published The Eagle and the Dragon in 2012 and The Machine to Turn Back Time (“La Machine à remonter le temps”) in 2017.


Conquering new worlds


The Eagle and the Dragon: Globalisation and the European Dreams of Conquest in China and America in the 16th Century draws a parallel between the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the simultaneous Portuguese attempt to conquer China in the 1520s. While Hernan Cortés managed to create New Spain in 1522, the Portuguese conquest ordered by King Manuel and led by Tomé Pires failed in China and ended with the execution of the imprisoned Portuguese in 1523.


What were the differences between the two events? How did the Spanish succeed where the Portuguese failed? Serge Gruzinski attempts to answer these many questions in his book, the title of which refers to the symbols of the two countries targeted by the Europeans.


Two conquests, juxtaposed

It was the simultaneous nature of the two conquests which gave Serge Gruzinski the idea of placing them side-by-side. However, there are major differences: one took place in America, the other in Asia; the first was a private initiative by Hernan Cortés, while the second was spurred on by a mandate from King Manuel. The Spaniards set off in an almost improvised manner, while the Portuguese prepared at length, drawing up a conquest strategy based on firearms and the use of terror, and putting the pharmacist Tomé Pirés in charge of the mission. Pirés was the author of Suma Oriental, the first European description of South Asia.


In the end, the successful conquest was not the one that was best-prepared. It is this discrepancy that the historian is interested in analysing, highlighting on the one hand China's combativeness and military power, and on the other hand Hernan Cortés' capacity for manipulation, through which he managed to gain the trust of some of the Aztec people.


A step toward globalisation

In The Eagle and the Dragon Serge Gruzinski analyses the consequences of this first step towards globalisation. The conquests were not just power-grabbs by the European powers, but also resulted in the creation of hybrid territories where peoples and cultures have mixed. The world order was thus shaken up for the first time with, among other events, the destruction of the Aztec and Mayan civilisations.


The Eagle and the Dragon was translated into English for the publisher Polity Press in 2014, into German for Campus Verlag in 2014 and into Portuguese for the Brazilian publisher Companhia das Letras in 2015.

The Institut français and the project

The Eagle and the Dragon (“L'Aigle et le Dragon”) has been translated into German and Portuguese with the support of the Institut français.


Through its translation support programmes, the Institut français participates in the dissemination of French language humanities worldwide. 


Learn more about the publication assistance programmes