Early compass By A.D. 1050, Chinese navigators were using the float compass. In 1070 the Chinese developed dry docks. In the 1100s, Chinese junks reached the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. In the 13th century Chinese ships regularly ventured to India and occasionally to East Africa. But ironically the first Chinese ship to round the Cape of Good Hope and arrive in Europe--160-foot-long, 750-ton teak junk that had journeyed to London from Hong Kong--didn't show up until 1848.
Africa had things the Chinese wanted: ivory medicine, spices, exotic wood and exotic wildlife Beginning in the A.D. first century, when the Han Emperor Wang Mang was given a rhinoceros, the only gifts from the tributary states that really seemed to impress the Chinese emperor were animals. Zheng He brought back lions, orynxes, nilganias, zebras and ostriches from Africa, but the biggest commotion was caused when a giraffe was delivered as a tribute from a ruler in Bengal in 1414.
The Chinese Age of Discovery lasted for 28 years (1405-1433), and consisted of seven voyages led by the Muslim eunuch named Zheng He.
Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese ExplorationWikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He’s Voyages international.ucla.edu ; Zheng He muslimheritage.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; Asia Recipe asiarecipe.com ; China Page chinapage.com ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu ; Matteo Ricci international.ucla.edu ; Book: When China Ruled the Seas by Louise Levathes.
Links in this Website: SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; MARITIME SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CARAVANS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CAMELS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD HISTORY AND EXPLORERS factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE EXPLORATION AND ZHENG HE factsanddetails.com ; EARLY EUROPEANS IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; SILK IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; YUAN (MONGOL) DYNASTY (1215-1368) MING DYNASTY (1368-1644) Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road History ess.uci.edu ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; History of Silk Road ess.uci.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com ; Travel Photos studyrussian.com ; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; Silk Road Society travelthesilkroad.org ; Silk Road Travelerssilk-road.com ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Camel Trains in the Desert chinavista.com ; China Page chinapage.org ; Ancient China Life Ancient China Life Books: The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002). Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.
Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Marco Polo Odyssesy nationalgeographic.com ; Footsteps of Marco Polo metmuseum.org ; Open Directory Project dmoz.org ; Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Internet Movie Database imdb.com ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Marco Polo in China easia.columbia.edu ;
Chinese Explorers Reach America?
Artifacts, unearthed on the Pacific shores of the North and South America suggest that Chinese navigators may have arrived in America centuries before Columbus, perhaps as early as the third century B.C.
It now seems quite plausible that Asian people arrived in the New World by boat between the 7th and 15th centuries. There are accounts of a Chinese monk who sailed to mysterious country in the 5th century that sounded a lot like Mexico. Around the same times Buddhist-style symbols began appearing in Mayan art. There are also claims of Asian jade found in Aztec tombs and Chinese ideograms found on pre-Columbian pottery.
Shang and America Connection?
Chinese Shang scholar Han Ping Chen believes that the founders of the Olmec civilization in Mexico—which emerged suddenly in 1,200 B.C. and influenced the Maya and Aztec civilizations—was influenced by the Shang dynasty. He bases his theory on the fact that Mesoamerican jade blades, called celts, have markings that are almost identical to Shang-era Chinese characters.
After examining six polished celts on a trip to the United States in 1996, Han exclaimed, "I can read this easily. Clearly, these are Chinese characters." He also asserted that achievements made by early New World civilization was made with help from the same people who introduced the Chinese characters. [Source: U.S. News and World Report]
Other similarities between Chinese and ancient Mesoamerican cultures include the resemblance of the Aztec board game atolli and the Asian game parcheesi; the custom of placing jade beads in the mouthes of the deceased; and the fact that important religious deities were inspired by tigers-jaguars and dragonlike creatures.
It is not impossible for an ancient vessel to have been blown off course across the Pacific to America. Ancient Chinese mariners were highly skilled. Some anthropologist believe they sailed to Indonesia and islands in the Pacific 2,000 years ago. It also quite possible that the ancient Mesoamerican cultures independently developed stuff that was similar to Chinese stuff.
Zheng He (also known as Chêng Ho, Cheng Ho, Zheng Ho, and the Three-Jewel Eunuch) is a Chinese navigator without a penis or a set of testicles whose achievements as an explorer rank with those of Columbus and Magellan but who has been largely forgotten because his travels had little impact on history. [Source: Frank Viviano, National Geographic, July 2005]
Zheng Ho (pronounced “jung huh”) embarked from China with a huge fleet of ships and journeyed as far west as Africa, through what the Chinese called the Western seas, in 1433, sixty years before Columbus sailed to America and Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa to get to Asia. Zheng also explored India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Arabia with about 75 times as many ships and men as Columbus took with him on his trans-Atlantic journey.
A stelae erected by Zheng He in Fujian in China reads: “We...have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, fully unfurled like clouds day and night, continue their course [as quickly as] a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.”
Zheng He was very tall and a man of incredible ambition. Some descriptions say he stood seven feet tall, possessed a waist that was five feet in circumference and had “a voice as loud as a huge bell." He was a devout Muslim and supposedly earned his nickname “Three Jewel Eunuch” for the gems he gave out as gifts. His lack of recognition as a great explorer is partly because the Chinese never went to any length to declare he was a great explorer.
Book: Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne by Louise Levathes.
Zheng He's Life
Eunuch boy Zheng He was born into a Central Asian Muslim family in Kunyang, a town in the landlocked Yunnan Province, several weeks away from the nearest port. He was given the name Ma He at birth. His father was a devout Muslim who did the hajj to Mecca and was a rural official when Yunnan was a Mongol Province. He was killed in the Ming Chinese invasion of Yunnan in 1382 that ousted the Mongols. Ma is the Chinese transcription for Mohammed.
Zheng was captured in the same Ming army invasion of Yunnan that left his father dead. The Ming General Fu Youde and his troops encountered the 10-year-old Zheng on a road and questioned him about the whereabouts of a Mongol leader. The boy said, “He jumped into a pond.” The general thought the boy was either cleverly concealing the truth or was quite brave. He took the boy prisoner.
In 1385, Zheng He was ritually castrated and trained as an imperial eunuch (See Eunuchs). Afterwards he was placed in the household of the 25-year-old Zhu Di, the forth son of the emperor and the Prince of Yan. Over the next 20 years Zheng He advanced in the court of Zhu Di as the prince advanced and became one of the princes most important aides. Zheng was a key strategist in the rebellion that allowed Zhu Di to overthrow his nephew, the Emperor, and become the Yongle Emperor.
Ma He was renamed Zheng He after distinguishing himself in the battle of Zhengluba, near Beijing, and given a 72-room mansion in the Ming capital of Nanjing. One of the first things the Emperor Yongle did after he seized power was sponsor Zheng He's voyages.
Zheng He's Expeditions
Sponsored by the Yongle Emperor to show the world the splendor of the Chinese empire, the seven expeditions led by Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 were by far the largest martime expeditions the world had ever seen, and would see for the next five centuries. Not until World War I did there appear anything comparable.
The largest expedition utilized a crew of 30,000 men and a fleet of 317 ships, including a 444-foot-long teak-wood treasury ship with nine masts, the largest wooden ship ever made; 370-foot, eight-masted “galloping horse ships,” the fastest boats in the fleet; 280-foot supply ships; 240-foot troop transports; 180-foot battle junks, a billet ship, patrol boats and 20 tankers to carry fresh water. The expedition was nothing less than a floating city that stretched across several kilometers of sea. By contrast to Columbus' expedition consisted for three ships with 90 men. The largest ship was 85 feet long. The largest ships in Vasco de Gama's fleet had four masts and were about 100 feet long.
The crew included sailors and mariners, seven grand eunuchs, hundreds of Ming officials, 180 physicians, geomacers, sail makers, blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, cooks, merchants, accountants, interpreters that spoke Arabic and other languages, astrologers that predicted the weather, astronomers that studied the stars, pharmacologists that collected plants, ship repair specialists, and even protocol specialist that were responsible for organizing official receptions. To guide the massive ships, Chinese navigators used compasses and elaborate navigational charts with detailed compass bearings.
During the seven expeditions the treasure ships carried more than a million tons of Chinese silk, ceramics and copper coins and traded them for tropical species, gemstones, fragrant woods, animals, textiles and minerals. Among the things that the Chinese coveted most were medicinal herbs, incense, pepper, tropical hardwoods, peanuts, opium, bird’s nests, African ivory and Arabian horses. The Chinese were not interested in Europe, which only had wool and wine to offer—things the Chinese could produce for themselves.
Zheng He's Ships
Early European explorers to China were amazed by how much larger the Chinese ships were than their counterparts in the West. The smallest vessels were five-masted combat ships that measured 180 by 68 feet. The largest were colossal multi-storied ships, 400 feet long, 170 feet across at the beam, with nine masts, a 50,000 square foot main deck and a displacement of 3,000 tons. All the ships of Columbus and de Gama would have fit on the deck of Zheng He’s largest ship.
For centuries, historians thought stories of enormous Chinese ships had to be exaggerations. In 1962, workers unearthed a 36-foot-long wooden steering post in a trench in the Yangtze River in Nanjing. The post was large enough to connect to a rudder that covered an astonishing 452 square feet, large enough to steer Zheng He’s 400-foot-long treasure ship.
The vessels In Zheng He's fleet contained watertight compartments that prevented water in one part of the hull from flooding the whole ship—an advancement first developed by the Chinese in the Han period that would not appear in European vessels for several hundred after Zheng He. The compartments were created from bulkheads, a series of upright partitions that divided the ship's hold and prevented the spread of leakage or fire.
Zheng He's Voyages
Sea travel between China and the West was dictated by seasonal wind and ocean currents, the most important of which was the monsoons which decided when ships could travel from east to west and visa versa. Wind and ocean currents along the east African coast determined how far south ships could travel and still make it back to Arabian ports in a single season.
The amateur historian Gavin Menzies wrote a book called 1421, in which he asserts that Zheng He discovered America 70 years before Columbus and then continued across the Pacific back to China. Menzies bases his claim on Asian jade found in Aztec tombs, Chinese ideograms found on pre-Columbian pottery and a purported rendering of San Francisco Bay on a map made in 1507, which Menzies claimed was made with the help of an Italian who had hitched a ride of Zheng He’s fleet. While Menzies’ book has sold well most historians reject his claims as frivolous at best.
The official records of Zheng He's voyages were destroyed after the death of Yongle Emperor. Most of what historian know about the voyages is based on three self- serving accounts by participants of the expeditions, the most notable of which is The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shore, an account by a Chinese Muslim named Ma Huan, who served as an interpreter on at least three of the voyages.
Zheng He's Seven Expeditions
All seven expeditions led by Zheng began and ended in Nanjing and stopped at Qui Nhon in Champa (Vietnam), Surabaya in Indonesia, Palembang and Semudera on Sumatra, Malacca in Malaysia, Galle in Sri Lanka and the Malabar Coast in India, the source of much of the world’s spices and the primary destination of all the voyages. There were side trips to present day Thailand, Bangladesh, eastern Malaysia, and the Maldives.
The first expedition (1405-1407) included 317 ships and 27,870 men. It visited Java, Sumatra, Ceylon and western India. Altogether the voyage from China to India covered 6,000 miles at an average speed of 50 miles a day. Malacca became a home port for the fleet in Southeast Asia, opening the way for the immigration of millions of Chinese to the region over the following centuries.
The second expedition (1407-1409) returned ambassadors from Sumatra, India and other places who traveled to China on the first voyage. This voyage solidified trade links between China and countries around the Indian Ocean. The third expedition (1409-1411) was involved in a land battle in Sri Lanka and presented generous gifts to Buddhist temples. On Dodra Head, the southernmost point in Sri Lanka, Zheng left behind a stelae that paid respect to Buddha, Siva and Allah in Chinese, Tamil and Persian.
The forth expedition (1413-1415) made it as far west as the Persian Gulf. It was the first Chinese ship to travel beyond India across the Arabian Sea. An estimated 18 states sent tributes and envoys to China. The fifth expedition (1417-1419) stopped on the Arabian Peninsula and reached Africa (Kenya) for the first time. The sultan in Aden offered zebras, lions and ostriches as gifts.
The far reaching sixth expedition (1421-22) reached Zanzibar off the East African coast. The seventh expedition (1431-1433) embraced 37,000 men and 316 ships and traded with the African Swahili coat kingdoms of Malidi and Pate and made a side trip to Mecca. Since Zheng was a representative of the Ming Emperor and could not bow before the symbolic throne of a foreign ruler he was unable to make the trip to Mecca himself. Zheng died on this expedition.
On his voyages to Africa, Zheng gave out gifts from the Chinese emperor, including gold, porcelain and silk. In return, he brought home ivory, myrrh, zebras and camels. But it was a giraffe that caused the biggest stir. The animal is known to have been a gift from the Sultan of Malindi, on Kenya's northern coast, but theories vary as to how exactly it got to China. One account suggests that the giraffe was taken from the ruler of Bengal— who himself had received it as a gift from the Sultan—and that it inspired Zheng to visit Kenya a few years later. [Source: Xan Rice, The Guardian July 25 2010]
Purpose of Zheng He's Voyages
The point of the expeditions remains a topic of scholarly debate. The historian Daniel Boorstin wrote. "The purpose of the vast, costly, and far ranging expeditions was not to collect treasure or trade or convert or conquer or gather scientific information. The voyages became an institution themselves, designed to display the splendor and power of the new Ming dynasty. And the voyages proved that ritualized and nonviolent techniques of persuasion could extract tribute from remote states. [Source: "The Discoverer" by Daniel Boorstin]
"While peoples of Asia would be struck by the Portuguese power to seize, the Chinese would impress by their power to give. They would unwittingly dramatize the Christian axiom to give was better than to receive. Instead of shoddy trinkets and childish gewgaws, they offered treasures of the finest quality. European expeditions to Asia revealed how desperately Europeans wanted the peculiar products of the east, but the prodigal gestures would show how content the Chinese were with what they already had." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Other possible reasons why the Chinese voyages took place include the desire of the new emperor to find his predecessor, who had escaped from China and was thought to be plotting revenge; the search for rare and unusual things; and ambitions to set up an overseas trade network.
Political Purpose of Zheng He's Voyages
States and leaders that recognized Ming supremacy and offered tribute were rewarded with diplomatic recognition, military protection and trading rights. By the end of Yongle’s reign, 30 foreign states had paid official visits to the Chinese Emperor and offered tribute. Most were brought to China in luxurious quarters in the treasure ships.
One of the primary purpose of the voyages was to pick up and drop off ambassadors, envoys and tributes. Relationships were established with Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms and sultanates from Java to Mecca.
"The Chinese would not establish their own permanent bases within the tributary states," Boorstin wrote," but instead hoped to make 'the whole world' into voluntary admirers of the one and only center of civilization. With this in mind the Chinese navy dared not loot the states that it visited. Zheng He would not seek slaves or gold or silver or spices. Nothing would suggest that the Chinese needed what other nations had."
Much has been made about the non-colonial nature of the voyages. But China has done it share of expansionism: a the time of the voyages China was expanding southward and westward into land that traditionally did not belong to the Han Chinese. Some kingdoms along Zheng’s routes were conquered and puppet rulers loyal to the Ming were installed.
Zheng He’s Adventures
In 1407, Zheng Ho’ ships encountered the notorious Cantonese pirate Chen Zuyo in the Strait of Malacca. Operating out of Sumatra, Chen used his fleet of armed junks to control the straits. Almost all ships that passed through were either raided or forced to pay tribute. When Zheng arrived he demanded the pirate’s surrender. Chen agreed while secretly planning a surprise attack. Zheng had been alerted to the details of his plan and was ready. In the fierce battle Chen was captured, 5,000 of his men were killed and his fleet was destroyed. Chen was publically executed in Nanjing. The Chinese informant who gave up Chen was made the ruler of Palembang.
In Sri Lanka, Zheng Ho traded with the rulers there and may have taken the sacred tooth of Buddha back to China. The fleet’s only major land battle was in Sri Lanka where Hindu Tamils in the north and two rival Buddhist kingdoms in the south were fighting one another.
Zheng was drawn into the fray in Sri Lanka when his shore party was attacked by the forces of a rebel Buddhist leader. Acting quickly, Zheng lured the rebel troops into a hopeless attack on the fleet, leaving their capital open to an easy assault. The rebel Buddhist leader was easily defeated in 1411. Freed from the conflict with his Buddhist rival, the Sinhalese king Parakramabahu was able to defeat the Hindus in the north and solidify his rule over all of Sri Lanka.
Discoveries on Zheng He’s Voyages
Ma Huan wrote about sampling jack fruit with “morsels of yellow flesh, as big as hen’s eggs and tasting like honey” in Vietnam; discovering the “ten different uses” of the coconut in India;and seeing cockatoos, mynahs and parrots—“all of which can imitate human speech”— in Java. In Java he noted that “little boys of three years to old men of hundred years” carried knives. “If a man touches their head with his hand, or if there is a misunderstanding about money at a sale, or a battle of words when they are crazy with drunkenness, they at once pull out their knives and stab [each other].”
Ma described that while on shore leave the sailors did what sailors traditionally do: “if a woman is very intimate with one of our men, wine and food are provided, and they drink and sit and sleep together.” In Thailand he described men who put tin and gold balls in their foreskins, which “when the man walks around about, makes a tinkling sound...This is a most curios thing.”
Ma also wrote about marriage and funeral customs, languages and dialects, religion beliefs, architecture, commercial practices, science and technology and plants and animals.
Shipwrecked Chinese in Africa
According to Kenyan lore, reportedly backed by recent DNA testing, a handful of survivors swum ashore. After killing a python that had been plaguing a village, they were allowed to stay and marry local women, creating a community of African-Chinese whose descendants still live in the area. “ [Ibid]
On the small Muslim East African island of Pate, just off the Kenyan coast, there are people that have lighter skin than most Africans and look, some say, like Chinese. New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof visited Pate. One village elder told him, "Many, many years ago, there was a ship from China that wrecked on the rocks off the coast near here...The Chinese were visitors, so we helped those Chinese men and gave them food and shelter.”
The elder told Kristof to checkout the village of Shanga on another part of the island. There Kristof met a man who looked Chinese. The man told him, "I am in the Famao clan. There are 50 or 100 of us. Legend has it that we are descended from Chinese...A Chinese ship came along and it hit rocks and wrecked. The sailors swam ashore to the village that we now call Shanga and they married the local women and that is why Famo look so different." Another person told Kristof the Africans gave the Chinese some giraffes (historical records show that Zheng He's expeditions did bring back the first giraffe to China).
The people on in Shanga bury their dead in Chinese-style "turtle shell graves,” beat their drums to Chinese not African rhythms, speak a dialect with Chinese words, and practice a form of basket weaving found in southern China but not in Kenya. Young people from the island who claim to have Chinese ancestry have been given full scholarships to study in Beijing.
In Siyu village, Chinese researchers conducted DNA tests on a Swahili family whose oral history and hints of Chinese facial features led them to believe they were descendants of Zheng's shipwrecked sailors. The tests reportedly showed evidence of Chinese ancestry and a 19-year-old woman called Mwamaka Shirafu was given a full scholarship to study traditional medicine in China, where she remains. “ [Ibid]
Quest for Zheng He’s Ship
In July 2010, a team of 11 Chinese archaeologists arrived in Kenya to begin searching for an ancient shipwreck and other evidence of commerce with China dating back to the early 15th century. The sunken ship is believed to have been part of Zheng He’s mighty armada. [Source: Xan Rice, The Guardian July 25 2010]
A likely shipwreck site has been identified near Lamu island, according to Idle Farah, director general of the National Museums of Kenya, which is working on the archaeology project with its Chinese equivalent and Peking University. ‘The voyages of the Portuguese and the Arabs to our coasts have long been documented,’ Farah told the Guardian. ‘Now, by examining this shipwreck, we hope to clarify with clear evidence the first contact between China and east Africa.” [Ibid]
The three-year, $3 million joint project forms part of a recent effort by the Chinese government to celebrate the achievements of Zheng. The project will center around the tourist towns of Lamu and Malindi and should shed light on a largely unknown part of both countries' histories. Herman Kiriama, Kenya's head of coastal archeology, said the joint archeological team has also tried to locate the Sultan of Malindi’s original village, which is though to be around Mambrui village, outside Malindi, where Ming porcelain has been discovered. Specialist maritime archeologists from China searched underwater for the ship and other clues. “ [Ibid]
Zheng He's Legacy
Zheng He's tomb Zheng He died during his last expedition and was buried at sea. He left no autobiography although two stone tablets were raised to record his achievements.
Zheng He's expeditions were ultimately renounced. Official records of his expeditions were burned in the 1470s because imperial bureaucrats considered them to be "deceitful exaggerations of bizarre things far removed from the testimony of people's eyes and ears." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Zheng He's expeditions led to a wave of Chinese emigration to Southeast Asia. In some places in Indonesia he is regarded as a deity and temples have been built to honor him.
The 600th anniversary of the launch of Zheng Ho’s first voyage was celebrated with much fanfare in China and around the world in 2005. A new $50 million museum dedicated to him opened in Nanjing. A major exhibition dedicated to him was staged in Beijing, where the government seems more interested in scoring political points on the peaceful, noncolonial nature of Zheng’s voyages than presenting historical facts. Also in 2005, a rear admiral in the People’s Liberation Army built a replica of one of Zheng’s boat and planned to retrace parts if Zheng’s voyages.
Why Didn't the Chinese Discover Europe
Why was Ming China, the largest, richest, most powerful nation on earth, discovered by tiny Portugal not the other way around? Why did the Chinese not round the Cape of Good Hope and venture to Europe, when they easily could have?
Many scholars argue that the Chinese had no desire to explore or expand trade, and the West possessed nothing that the Chinese wanted. Plus Westerners were regarded as barbarians. When the Portuguese arrived on the southeast coast of China in 1513, a Hong Kong scholar told National Geographic, they were viewed as "just another bunch of pirates—people with beards, large eyes, long noses. No real threat."
A 17th century Chinese treatise on navigation proclaimed: "Coming into contact with barbarian peoples you have nothing more to fear than touching the left horn of a snail. The only things one should really be anxious about are the means of mastery of the waves of the sea—and, worst of all dangers, the minds of those avid for profit and greedy for gain." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Unlike the Portuguese and Spanish monarchs, who launched their voyages of discovery in hopes of converting heathens to Christianity, the Chinese had no ambition to convert the outside world to their religious beliefs. An illustration of their religious tolerance is an upright stone left in the town of Galle, Sri Lanka during the 1405 Zheng He expedition. It has inscriptions in three languages—Chinese, Tamil and Persian—that pays tribute to Lord Buddha, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and Allah and several Muslim saints. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Trade and Why Didn't the Chinese Discover Europe
Portuguese and Spanish monarchs also launched their voyages of discovery in hopes of making their country rich through the seizure of land and treasures and the establishment of lucrative trade routes to bring coveted items to Europe from the Orient.
The West needed products from the East much more than the East needed products from the West, which produced little for export other than woolen cloth and wine. In 1793 a Manchu emperor told a British diplomatic representative: "There is nothing we lack as your principal and others have themselves observed. We have never set much store on strange or indigenous objects, nor do we need any more of your country's manufactures." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
In Zheng He's time China and India together accounted for more than half of the world's gross national product. It is believed that if the Chinese were so inclined they could have controlled the spice trade and colonized places like Australia and New Zealand and even Africa and America.
The prevailing belief that anything non-Chinese was primitive held the Chinese back in terms of exploring and exploiting new worlds. Boorstin wrote, in China, "where tradition and customs ruled, the best qualities of life were viewed as products of Chinese tradition and customs. And the China-centric isolationist tradition kept the Chinese from encounters with remote and different peoples."
Ming Emperor and the Giraffe
A big deal was made when a giraffe was delivered as a tribute from a ruler in Bengal in 1414. The Chinese believed the animal was a ch'i-lin (qilin) a Chinese unicorn with the "the body of a deer and the tail of an ox," which ate only herbs and harmed no living beings. Like the dragon, the ch'l-lin was said to be a being created by the surplus energy of the cosmos. Some historians believe that the emperor financed Zheng He's later expeditions with the understanding that he might be able to bring back equally interesting animals from Africa. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
In a lengthy paean the giraffe was compared with the Emperor's perfection:
Truly was produced a K'i-lin whose shape was high 15 feet
With the body of a deer and the tail of an ox, and a
fleshy boneless horn,
With luminous spots like a red cloud or a purple mist.
Its hoofs do not tread on living beings and in its wandering
it carefully selects its ground,
It walks in stately fashion and in its motion it observes a rhythm
It harmonious voice sounds like a bell or musical tube.
Gentle is this animal that in all antiquity has been since but once,
The manifestation of its divine spirit rises up to Heaven's abode.
End of the Chinese Age of Discovery and the Great Withdrawal
Zheng He’s expeditions were expensive and did not bring in any wealth. According to Boorstin the “The lopsided logic of the tributary system required China to pay out more than China received. Every new tributary state worsened the imbalance of Chinese trade. The accounts of history that cast Chinese public relations in this curious frame help explain why Chinese communication with the outside world was stultified for centuries to come.” [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
The Chinese expeditions and tributary system resulted in 1,000 percent inflation. Many Confucian scholar-bureaucrats regarded Zheng Ho’s voyages a profligate waste, arguing the money could better spent at home on things like the construction of irrigation canals, roads and granaries to head off famine. The officials also argued that it was unnecessary to waste money abroad when China was already the "all-perfect Center of the Universe." Within the Imperial court there was a battle between the eunuchs and mandarins for political power. The mandarins prevailed and anything associated with eunuchs, including Zheng He, was curtailed.
China's brief age of discovery was followed by a period of history known as the Great Withdrawal. In the decades that followed Zheng He's last voyage in 1433 edicts were passed prohibiting Chinese from traveling abroad, and offenders were often punished with decapitation.
By 1474, the Imperial fleet has shrunk from 400 warships to 140 vessels; by 1500 it was a capital crime to build a junk with more than two masts; and by 1551 espionage was redefined to include voyages on the sea in a multi-masted vessels. Eventually the technology and expertise to build large ships and navigate them was lost
Image Sources: 1) Early compass, Pandamerica; 2) Zheng He, wikipedia; 3) Eunuch boy, Brooklyn College; 4) Zheng ship, Ohio State University; 5) Zheng He expeditions, Dr. Robert Perrins, 1421; 6) Zheng He tomb. China Beautiful website ; 7) Giraffe, Dr. Robert Perrins, 1421;
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2010