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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.

The Chinese Age of Discovery lasted for 28 years (1405-1433), and consisted of seven voyages led by the Muslim eunuch named Zheng He. 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.

China began extending its power out to sea during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) when it invaded Japan and Java. Even before that it established a Maritime Silk Road that carried more goods than the overland Silk Road. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: To satisfy growing Chinese demand for special spices, medicinal herbs, and raw materials, Chinese merchants cooperated with Moslem and Indian traders to develop a rich network of trade that reached beyond island southeast Asia to the fringes of the Indian Ocean. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“Into the ports of eastern China came ginseng, lacquerware, celadon, gold and silver, horses and oxen from Korea and Japan. Into the ports of southern China came hardwoods and other tree products, ivory, rhinoceros horn, brilliant kingfisher feathers, ginger, sulfur and tin from Vietnam and Siam in mainland southeast Asia; cloves, nutmeg, batik fabrics, pearls, tree resins, and bird plumes from Sumatra, Java, and the Moluccas in island southeast Asia. Trade winds across the Indian Ocean brought ships carrying cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, and especially pepper from Calicut on the southwestern coast of India, gemstones from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), as well as woolens, carpets, and more precious stones from ports as far away as Hormuz on the Persian Gulf and Aden on the Red Sea. Agricultural products from north and east Africa also made their way to China, although little was known about those regions.

Song-era ship

“By the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, China had reached a peak of naval technology unsurpassed in the world. While using many technologies of Chinese invention, Chinese shipbuilders also combined technologies they borrowed and adapted from seafarers of the South China seas and the Indian Ocean. For centuries, China was the preeminent maritime power in the region, with advances in navigation, naval architecture, and propulsion. From the ninth century on, the Chinese had taken their magnetic compasses aboard ships to use for navigating (two centuries before Europe). In addition to compasses, Chinese could navigate by the stars when skies were clear, using printed manuals with star charts and compass bearings that had been available since the thirteenth century. Star charts had been produced from at least the eleventh century, reflecting China's concern with heavenly events (unmatched until the Renaissance in Europe).”

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project ; International Dunhuang Project ; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; “The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East’ by Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volumes 1 and 2 (London: John Murray, 1903) are part of the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Works by Marco Polo ; Marco Polo and his Travels ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci Books: on the Silk Road The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002); “Life along the Silk Road” by Whitfield, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith” by Susan Whitfield, with Ursula Sims-Williams, eds. (London: British Library, 2004); “The Camel and the Wheel” by Richard Bulliet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). “Marco Polo's Asia,” by Leonardo Olschki (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960). When China Ruled the Seas by Louise Levathes. Books on 18th and 19th Century European Explorers of Western China: The Question of Hu by Jonathan Spence and Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk. 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.

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.

Xu Fu's expedition for the elixer of immortality, said to have occurred around 200 BC

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.

Signs of Asian Trade Found in 1000-Year-Old Alaskan House

In April 2015, archaeologists working on a 1,000-year-old house at the Rising Whale site at Cape Espenberg, Alaska announced they had discovered several artifacts that were imported from East Asia. "When you're looking at the site from a little ways away, it looks like a bowhead [whale] coming to the surface," said Owen Mason, a research associate at the University of Colorado, who is part of a team excavating the site. [Source: Owen Jarus,, April 19, 2015 ||||]

Owen Jarus wrote in “The new discoveries, combined with other finds made over the past 100 years, suggest trade items and ideas were reaching Alaska from East Asian civilizations well before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean Sea in 1492 archaeologists said. “"We're seeing the interactions, indirect as they are, with these so-called 'high civilizations' of China, Korea or Yakutia," a region in Russia, Mason said.||||

Song-era junk

“The Rising Whale discoveries include two bronze artifacts, one of which may have originally been used as a buckle or fastener. It has a piece of leather on it thatradiocarbondates to around A.D. 600. The other bronze artifact may have been used as a whistle. Bronze-working had not been developed at this time in Alaska, so archaeologists think the artifacts would have been manufactured in China, Korea or Yakutia, and made their way to Alaska through trade routes. Also inside that house, researchers found the remains of obsidian artifacts, which have a chemical signature that indicates the obsidian is from the Anadyr River valley in Russia. ||||

“The recent discoveries at the Rising Whale site add to over a century of research that indicates trade routes connected the Bering Strait (including the Alaskan side) with the civilizations that flourished in East Asia before Columbus' time. In 1913, anthropologist Berthold Laufer published an analysis of texts and artifacts in the journal T'oung Pao in which he found that the Chinese had a great interest in obtaining ivory from narwhals and walruses, acquiring it from people who lived to the northeast of China. Some of the walrus ivory may have come from the Bering Strait, where the animals are found in abundance. ||||

“Additionally, a number of researchers have noted similarities in design between the plate armor worn by people in Alaska and that worn in China, Korea, Japan and eastern Mongolia. For instance, in the 1930s, Smithsonian Institution archaeologist Henry Collins undertook excavations at St. Lawrence Island, off the west coast of Alaska. In his book "The Archaeology of St. Lawrence Island" (Smithsonian, 1937), he wrote that plate armor started appearing on the island around 1,000 years ago. It consisted of overlapping plates made of ivory, bones and sometimes iron. Plate armor similar to this was developed in several areas of East Asia, including Manchuria (in China), eastern Mongolia and Japan, Collins wrote. The use of plate armor, he said, spread north from these areas, and was eventually introduced to Alaska from across the Bering Strait.” ||||

Genetic Evidence of Migrations Between Asia and America

Owen Jarus wrote in “Recent genetic research also sheds light on interactions between people from East Asia and the New World. Many scientists say that humans first arrived in the New World around 15,000 years ago by crossing a land bridge that had formed across the Bering Strait. This land bridge was flooded about 10,000 years ago. However, a recent genetic study suggests there were also movements of people from East Asia to the New World at a later date. [Source: Owen Jarus,, April 19, 2015 ||||]

“Those who lived at the Rising Whale site may be part of what scientists refer to as the "Birnirk" culture, a group of people who lived on both sides of the Bering Strait and used sophisticated skin boats and harpoons to hunt whales. The genetic study indicates that people from the Birnirk culture are the ancestors of a people called the "Thule," who spread out across the North American arctic as far as Greenland. The Thule, in turn, are ancestors of the modern-day Inuit. ||||

“The Bering Strait wasn't the only area where interactions between people from the Old World and New World occurred before Columbus' arrival. By 1,000 years ago, the Vikings had explored parts of Canada and had even established a short-lived settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Research also indicates that, around this time, the Polynesians had reached South America, bringing sweet potatoes back to Polynesia and possibly bringing chickens to South America.

“Many other hypotheses have been put forward suggesting that people reached the New World before Columbus. One idea that has received a lot of attention in popular media is that Chinese mariners sailed directly to the New World, although this idea lacks scholarly support.

Zheng He map

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.

Comprehensive Chart of the Myriad Lands upon the Foundation of the Earth

John J. Tkacik wrote in the Taipei Times: “Within the imperial chambers of the Wanli Emperor , sovereign of the Ming Dynasty from 1563 to 1620, could be found an encyclopedic work of cartographic craftsmanship unlike anything existing in Europe. “It was a multicolored world map mounted on a six-paneled folding screen, taller than a man and twice that in width, which transfixed the emperor with the revelation that his own empire, vast as it was, was nevertheless a minor portion of all under heaven. It was said that the emperor himself frequently studied it with intense curiosity and ordered 12 more full-size copies for the palace. [Source: John J. Tkacik, Taipei Times, June 27, 2016]

“The giant map was entitled Comprehensive Chart of the Myriad Lands upon the Foundation of the Earth and depicted a world 20 times more expansive than the emperor had ever imagined. It bore over 850 place names and minutely scripted legends for each kingdom, island and continent. It featured latitude and longitude lines identifying their locations on the spherical Earth.

“In the map quadrant encompassing what we now know as the South China Sea was the legend, “The Great Ming is renowned for the richness of its civilization. It comprises all between the 15th and 42nd parallels. The other tributary realms of the four seas are very numerous.” “During the late Ming, the northern borders of the empire stopped at the 42nd parallel along the Great Wall that protected China from northern tribes. In the south, the empire ended at the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, ) on the 15th parallel in the South China Sea, beyond which were the Ming vassal kingdoms of Southeast Asia.

“The map was the collaborative work between an Italian Jesuit missionary in Beijing, Matteo Ricci, and a famed Chinese geographer, Li Wocun . Li compiled the data points for Ming territories, while Ricci filled in the rest of the world and combined European and Chinese geographic knowledge for the first time in Chinese or in any language. While the Ricci-Li world maps were famous among Ming officials of the era, Ricci was hesitant to present one to the imperial court. He reported in his Commentary on China that “the [Jesuit] fathers had never given a copy of the map to the [emperor], nor proffered to do so, lest he, seeing China — which according to the Chinese included the greater part of the world — so small, should be offended, thinking that our people had shown it thus in contempt, such, indeed, being the belief of many Chinese men of letters, who made [com]plaint against us, saying that we enlarged our foreign kingdoms, but made China appear small.” “But such was not the case. Indeed, the emperor was “gratified with the sight of such a fine work, with so many kingdoms and their various strange customs.” Ricci writes that in fact the Emperor “was so pleased with it that he wanted to present a copy of it [on silk] to each of his sons, and other relatives residing in the palace, so that they could hang them up on the walls, by way of pleasant ornamental decoration.”

End of the Chinese Age of Discovery and the Great Withdrawal

“The Ming maritime expeditions stopped rather suddenly after 1433, the date of the last voyage. Historians have given as one of the reasons the great expense of large-scale expeditions at a time of preoccupation with northern defenses against the Mongols. Opposition at court also may have been a contributing factor, as conservative officials found the concept of expansion and commercial ventures alien to Chinese ideas of government. Pressure from the powerful Neo-Confucian bureaucracy led to a revival of strict agrarian-centered society. The stability of the Ming dynasty, which was without major disruptions of the population (then around 100 million), economy, arts, society, or politics, promoted a belief among the Chinese that they had achieved the most satisfactory civilization on earth and that nothing foreign was needed or welcome. [Source: The Library of Congress]

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: Early compass, Pandamerica; Giraffe, Dr. Robert Perrins; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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