When China Ruled the Seas
For nearly three decades in the early 15th century China was the most powerful force in the world. They had fine artisans who crafted the most beautiful, delicate porcelains and silks in the known world. They had the technologies of firepower, astronomy, and oceanic navigation. They had the belief that they were the center of the world, the Middle Kingdom, and that the Son of Heaven ruled them. But most importantly, they had the means to bring their influences and culture to the rest of the world: the treasure ships.These massive ocean-going junks, led by the eunuch Zheng He, launched China from a rich, expansive, yet introverted land, to the ruler of the Indian Ocean. Emissaries from as far away as Africa came to China to pay tribute to the Son of Heaven and acknowledge Chinas power. China was in a position to become the great colonizing nation of the world in a time when Europe was just awakening from the Dark Ages. In less than a century all of this was thrown away. Louise Levanthess book, When China Ruled the Seas, is an exploration of how and why China rose to this pinnacle of power through the fleet of treasure ships, and the reasons behind its sudden self-inflicted isolation from the rest of the world.
From the time of Confucius in the sixth century until the late thirteen hundreds, most Chinese emperors were governed by the Confucian guidelines. Texts upon texts were written on the proper ways to conduct oneself according to Confucian ideals, and schools were founded in Confuciuss teachings. Confucianists had an exceedingly conservative view of trade, especially trade with foreigners. They thought that foreign trade and contact with the outside world were linked to . . . all that was wasteful and extravagant in the empire. A desire for contact with the outside world meant that China itself needed something from abroad and was therefore not strong and self-sufficient. (180) This view was largely responsible for Chinas lack of involvement with the business of international trade. Until 1405, Chinas contact with outsiders was kept to a minimum; occasional emissaries from other countries came to pay tribute to the emperor, and border skirmishes with the Mongols were dealt with when necessary. On the whole, the Chinese shied away from all foreign involvement whenever they could.
When Zhu Di captured the dragon throne from his nephew in 1402, these Confucian policies were promptly thrown out. Just one year after he became Chinas emperor, Zhu Di began the construction of a massive fleet of trading ships, warships, and support vessels to reintroduce China to the rest of the world. The entirety of the Chinese empire was thrown into the task; everyone from silk-makers to loggers was required to meet production quotas to supply the fleet. In about three years Zhu Dis people produced these ships and the gifts to fill their hulls. Once Zheng He was named as the commander of the fleet, they were ready to sail.
The purpose of this treasure fleet and the expeditions it made isnt completely clear, although from evidence presented some fair assumptions can be made. The fleet was undoubtedly a diplomatic tool wielded by Zhu Di. It was also a way to jump-start trade between China and other nations of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Finally, the fleet served as a probe into the unknown; it was one of Confucianist Chinas few attempts at exploring that which was unknown to them.
The main function of the fleet was diplomatic in nature. Zhu Dis intention was probably to announce his ascension to the dragon throne to the rest of the world in the most splendid way imaginable: a huge fleet of enormous ships bearing gifts. As evidenced by not only the size and magnificence of the fleet, but also that of his other endeavors (the building of Beijing, the Baoen Temple Complex, the stone memorial for his fathers tomb), Zhu Di was a man who reinforced his legitimacy with size and splendor. The treasure ships were over 400 feet long and capable of carrying up to 3,000 tons of cargo. These were by far the largest ships ever seen by many of the people Zheng He visited. An important side effect of the enormity of the fleet was the intimidation it created. Zhu Di was quite interested in having the four corners of the Earth bow down to China as being the Middle Kingdom. Certainly the imposing size of this armada and the wealth it represented would have been enough to persuade a ruler that they should promptly begin a peaceful tributary trade with China. The hugeness of the fleet would also have persuaded neighboring nations such as Siam and Annam that Chinas wealth and military power would make them a fearsome enemy if a war was ever initiated. Finally, the ships had a domestic diplomatic duty as well. Zhu Di put much more faith in his eunuch advisors and officials than in the Confucian advisors, and wished his people to do the same. By sending out these voyages to foreign nations, Zhu Di was in effect thumbing his nose at long-upheld Confucian beliefs that foreigners and trade were bad as well as at the people who upheld those beliefs.
The second important reason for sending out the treasure fleet was trade. Zhu Di put his country to work harder than it had ever been before in order to produce mass quantities of the finest things China had to offer: porcelain, silk, oils, perfumes, court costumes, writing materials, books, and calendars. The treasure ships were filled up with this precious cargo, which was then either bartered in trading ports all over the Indian Ocean or was given to the rulers of foreign nations as tribute. The ships themselves were not necessarily profitable trading vessels; they were incredibly expensive to maintain and sail, and much of what they carried was given away to rulers. However, they made up for this in two ways. First, the tributary gifts were more often than not responded to with even more valuable gifts to the Emperor. Countless animals (elephants, parrots, peacocks, lions, and giraffes) were presented by emissaries, as well as gifts of rare hardwoods, aloes, incense, ivory, ebony, gems, pearls, diamonds, money, and pharmaceuticals. Most of this went into the imperial treasury, and was used to build Beijing and continue the wars in Annam. Second, the treasure fleet was responsible for reopening naval trading routes between far eastern Asia and Africa. Bands of pirates marauding the Malaccan Strait were cut back by Zheng He and the treasure fleet, thus making the route safe for the first time in years. Feuds between nations and city-states such at that between Malacca and Siam were put to rest by Chinese intervention. This also helped to clear up trade routes and ease tension for merchants. The treasure fleet was pivotal in resuming trade between China and the West.
Perhaps the least significant reason for the voyages by Zheng He and the treasure fleet is that of exploration. Although he had fairly effectively ignored most of the Confucian texts in dealing with trade and foreigners, there still did not seem to be much of an interest in exploration by Zhu Di. The Chinese believed that there were four corners of the earth, and that in any place beyond that which they knew lived only barbarians who could not be bothered with. Their curiosity in regards to exploration was greatest with Africa. This place was regarded as the El Dorado for the Chinese, a place of wonder and strangeness. This is where the qilin, a magical creature in Chinese beliefs, originated from. Africa was a wealthy place and its inhabitants were almost considered civilized by Zheng He, and therefore it was a place of great interest.
There were many consequences as a result of these voyages, both positive and negative. The most obvious consequence was that trade was re-established between China and the rest of the world. Also, China came to the height of its international power at this time; nearly every nation on the Indian Ocean was at least partially subservient to the emperor and paid him tribute. The Chinese people became somewhat dependent on foreign goods for their everyday lives, which resulted in illegal trade and piracy in the reigns of Zhu Dis successors. Pieces of China were left scattered all around its sphere of influence. Envoys and emissaries would abandon their official missions of state to take up residence in some exotic port city to try and make themselves a better life. Families were sent as tribute to Japan, and took root. Korean virgins were imported to China to be used as the emperors concubines, and more than likely left an impression of their own on China. The treasure ships were full of calendars, books, musical instruments, weights and measures that in some small measure spread Chinese culture to every port the fleet touched. (186) Various gifts from Zhu Di to foreign leaders also left their mark, such as the exquisite Ming porcelain and the fine woven silks that are still known today for their quality. In just seven voyages, this exceptional fleet of ships was able to exert influence on an entire hemisphere of people.
With as many good things that came from the journeys one would think that they would continue indefinitely. However, with the death of Zhu Di came a new emperor who was well studied in the ways of Confucianism. Within only nine months the emperor disbanded as much of the fleet as possible, and imposed harsh restrictions on foreign trade and maritime travel. Though the fleet made one last voyage, it was never given another true chance at greatness. Because of the huge amounts of money required to support the ships and the dwindling supply in the treasury, and because of the recent resurgence of Confucianism, and because of the loss of power of the eunuchs, the fleet was ultimately disbanded for good. The country turned inward, to the proper livelihood of agriculture, and ocean travel was completely banned.
Zheng Hes voyages were not very much like Columbuss in my opinion. They were both out to exert the control of their country on others, but that is where the likenesses end. Columbus sailed with a puny set of three functional ships, whereas Zheng He was in command of one of the greatest armadas of all history. Where Columbuss purposes were primarily exploration and trade along new, uncharted routes, the purpose of the treasure fleets was mostly diplomatic and it sailed along known trading routes. Columbus may have been looking for a bit of fame and money by discovering a new route to India, but what he ultimately ended up with was near immortality in the pages of American history. On the other hand, Zheng Hes mission was to reintroduce China to the rest of the Indian Ocean and make China the greatest power of all time, and all he ended up with was a thirty-year blip on the map of history.
The voyages of the treasure fleet did have an impact on history. That brief period of intense trade and travel between China and the rest of the Indian Ocean nations left marks on everyone. Cultures all throughout the Indian Ocean were slightly but perceptively changed because of the treasure fleet. However, it was not a hugely significant part of history. The time directly before and directly after the reign of Zhu Di and his fleet of treasure ships is nearly identical in terms of foreign policy and trade; the three decades of explosive expansion of China seemed to have come and gone without much notice.
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